Al Manheim, theater columnist for a New York newspaper, is fascinated by the relentless energy of copy boy Sammy Glick, who literally runs through the office to complete deliveries. As the two get to know each other better, Al discovers that Sammy plans to move up in the world with the same speed. Sammy’s approach to everyone is transactional. He has no more feeling for his admiring girlfriend, Rosalie Goldblum, than for anyone else he can use. Sammy swipes some of Al’s space in the daily paper for a radio column. Later he claims authorship of a radio script by talented but timid Julian Blumberg. Much to Al’s disbelief, Sammy sells the script to a film studio, quits his newspaper job and heads west. A few months later, Al himself gets the call from Hollywood. There the two men renew their odd relationship.
This play-by-play account of Sammy’s rise in the movie world is one of the most famous Hollywood novels.“Sammy Glick,” in fact, became a term for any young man ascending a career ladder quickly and unscrupulously. Schulberg, who grew up in Hollywood as the son of a powerful studio executive, may have known some real-life examples. But he seems less interested in depicting Sammy as an overly zealous careerist than in using him to highlight the exploitation of powerless screenwriters. Much is made of their low pay, job insecurity and struggles to unionize -- maybe too much to stir modern readers. Al Manheim, the narrator, has no sympathy for Sammy’s behavior, but he does believe in the power of the movies to do good. He eventually answers the title question to his own satisfaction. He remains puzzled, however, at the novel’s other crucial query: what makes Al care so much? Schulberg’s picture of the movie business, combining cynicism and idealism, has not become outdated. Despite its surprisingly romantic ending -- almost a Hollywood ending, one might say -- the book deserves the attention it continues to receive.