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That Old Feeling: Sweet Smells

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JOHN SPRINGER/CORBIS

Sweet Smell of Success

Sidney Falco (Tony Curtis): "A press agent eats a columnist's dirt and is expected to call it manna.... A columnist can't do without usexcept our good and great friend J.J. forgets to mention that. You see, we furnish him with items."
J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster): "Yes, with your clients' names attached. That's the only reason the poor slobs pay you: to see their names in my column all over the world.... [Press agents also] dig up scandal about prominent people and shovel it thin among columnists who give them space."
— dialogue from the film "Sweet Smell of Success," 1957



Buck Zuckerman, a Wall Streeter married to the actress Ruth Taylor (she played Lorelei Lee in the 1928 film of "Gentlemen Prefer Blondes"), would go downtown to work each morning, peddle stocks until mid-afternoon, come home and take a nap — so he could be fresh for an evening's prowl of the city's top night spots; his son still has a 1937 album of photos from El Morocco. Phyllis Adams, a pert swank Manhattan deb, has her own memory book of nightclub propositions from elegant gents, including Errol Flynn. Brooklyn's Davie Lerner had never been inside any of these tony boites, but when stationed on Okinawa during the War he designed an officers' club that reproduced the zebra-striped banquettes of El Morocco; to men 9,000 miles from home, it symbolized American class.

In the 30s and 40s, when many Americans struggled to get enough to eat, they made the idle their idols. Avidly, avidly, they read newspaper columns about "cafe society" — rich folks "whose only occupation was to change clothes and go out," as Ralph Blumenthal writes in "Stork Club: America's Most Famous Nightspot and the Lost World of Cafe Society." Unlike a quarter of all adult Americans in the Depression, these madcap heiresses and showbiz Romeos had a job: to be seen being glamorous, by sitting in Manhattan night clubs that served as the fraternities of the leisure class, an Ellis Island for the elite. There the swells would sip martinis, intone the odd witticism or inanity and occasionally commit some headline indiscretion. It was all frightfully decadent, and frightfully innocent.

For a quarter century or so, Flynn and Hemingway, the Astors and the Windsors, Frank Sinatra and Joe DiMaggio checked in at the old speakeasies turned chic eateries, all within a few blocks of one another. The Stork Club, at 3 East 53rd Street, was the top spot — a 1945 movie was named for it, and the place could be seen in "All About Eve" and Hitchcock's "The Wrong Man" — but you could find plenty of notables inside El Morocco ("Elmo's," at 2nd Avenue and 54th Street) and The "21" Club (founded in 1921 at 21 West 52nd), with its wine cellar protected by a two-ton door, and (further west on 52nd) Toots Shor, the favorite of sportsmen and serious drinkers like Jackie Gleason. Naturally, America needed arbiters to decide which of these people with too much money and way too much free time were worth the reader's notice. That was the job of the gossip columnists: Ed Sullivan, Dorothy Kilgallen and, first and last, Walter Winchell.

Winchell, the ex-vaudevillian whose three-alarm radio voice exactly suited his brassy prose style, was by 1940 the highest-paid man in America. He made stars and broke them, announced when a celeb got married ("Lohengrinned") or separated ("splitsville" or "phffft"). He gave advice to F.D.R. and took favors from J. Edgar Hoover. At times Winchell was the news, as when Murder Inc. boss Louis Lepke surrendered to him and Hoover; at times the columnist withheld it, when someone like Clare Boothe Luce asked nicely. He created the new world of gossip, and ruled it from such perches of power as Table 50, the Royal Box, in the Cub Room at the Stork Club. Were Winchell and the other columnists there because the celebrities were, or vice versa? Probably both: it was a case of symbiotic parasitism.

Around Winchell buzzed a cordon of courtiers — the famous, the has-beens and wannabe's — and their representatives, the press agents, fighting to catch the columnist's attention and get an item (a joke, a movie deal, a simple "was glimpsed confabbing with...") in his daily mix of gossip. Like a duke's dresser in the court of the Sun King, a press agent sees his client at his worst and must present him at his best. The trick was to paint a heroic portrait, of a person with plenty to hide, and sell it to a columnist who'll sell it to the public. You'd plant or leak favorable items and try to suppress the scandalous ones. Publicity is the peddler's art, whose colors are rouge and noir, whose techniques are wheedling, pleading, trading and — if the press agent is Sidney Falco — lying, threatening and blackmailing.



COME BACK, LITTLE SIDNEY

J.J.: "Mr. Falco, let it be said at once, is a man of 40 faces, not onenone too pretty, and all deceptive. You see that grin? That's the, eh, that's the Charming Street Urchin face. It's part of his helpless act: he throws himself upon your mercy. He's got a half-dozen faces for the ladies. But the one I like, the really cute one [and here J.J.s voice grows flintier], is the quick, dependable chap. Nothing he won't do for you in a pinchso he says. Mr. Falco, whom I did not invite to sit at this table tonight, is a hungry press agent, and fully up to all the tricks of his very slimy trade. [He pulls out a cigarette and turns to his victim.] Match me, Sidney."
Sidney: "Not right this minute, J.J."
— from the film "Sweet Smell of Success"



Sidney Falco — what underworld poetry that name expresses! What an amalgam of Jewish brain and Italian muscle! What a collision of the scurrying nebbish (Sidney) and the soaring predator (falcon)! Sidney is the protagonist of "Sweet Smell of Success," originally a novelette by Ernest Lehman, published in 1950 in Cosmopolitan. Seven years later, the story, rewritten by playwright Clifford Odets, was made into a film directed by Alexander Mackendrick and starring Curtis as Sidney and Lancaster as the Winchellesque columnist J.J. Hunsecker — another fabulous name, for an Attila who sucks the honey out of his minions and spits it into print. Last week, transformed into a John Lithgow musical, "Sweet Smell" opened on Broadway, that tatty, irresistible tenderloin where, more than a half century ago, Lehman spawned J.J. and Sidney.

The original story and the Broadway show both have their fascinations, but they'd be of only minor interest if they didn't bookend the movie. I remember loving it as a kid; to me it was a taut, 96min. primer in the ways bright people talked, dressed and hurt each other. Yet the film was a flop at the box office (Winchell announced, with apparent pleasure, that it lost $2 million) and invisible at awards time (it was the only one of Lehman's 50s scripts that did not win a Writers Guild nomination). Since then, "Sweet Smell" has become a retro-classic. Its wonderfully ornate cynicism is cited in "Mad Max," "Diner," "Rain Man" and "Boogie Nights" and on "The Simpsons"; this week's A&E special "New York at the Movies" had Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee and Peter Bogdanovich reciting passages of dialogue from memory.

As could many another fan. Here are just a dozen favorites that I couldn't fit in elsewhere: "Watch me run a 50-yard dash with my legs cut off." ... "You're dead, son, get yourself buried." ... "I often wish I were deaf and wore a hearing aid — with a simple flick of the switch I could shut out the greedy murmur of little men." ... "I love this dirty town." ... "My right hand hasn't seen my left hand in 30 years." ... "Cat's in the bag and the bag's in the river." ... "He's got the morals of a guinea pig and the scruples of a gangster." ... "Here's mud in your column!" ... "Starting today, you can play marbles with his eyeballs." ... "This syrup you're giving out with, you pour over waffles, not J.J. Hunsecker." ... "I'd hate to take a bite out of you — you're a cookie full of arsenic." ... "Come back, Sidney, I want to chastise you."

Beyond the dialogue — so ripe you could squeeze it in a rival's face, like Cagney with a grapefruit — "Sweet Smell" is exemplary for being the very smartest, least preachy exposÚ on the wages of spin. The film tells us that this, dear ignorant America, is how your entertainment dreams are made: by bartering and bribery. These are the folks to whom you entrust the anointing of the famous: slimes. But slimes with style — for the watchworks of malevolence have their own precision, their own seductive movement. "Sweet Smell" is as much in love as in judgment of the moral squalor it depicts; it whispers invective in Sidney's ear as it pours poison in yours.

"Sweet Smell" has to be seen as well as heard, and the place to do that right now is at Manhattan's Film Forum, where a splendid new 35mm print is unspooling through March 28. The big screen and clear print lets you see the pockmarks on J.J.'s skin (the harsh lighting that cinematographer James Wong Howe threw on Lancaster makes him look by turns reptilian and leprous), allows you to read the small print on the cover of a scandal magazine called Sensation (the lead story: "Sex in the City"). But the picture looks good in any size. Even the videocassette format provides a feral pleasure, as Howe's camera prowls the New York nighttown like an accomplice. Or a conscience. Or like Sidney, always on the make and on the move, ratlike, in the dark.



DEVILS GALORE

"A brother makes a rotten father and mother, especially if he also happens to be J.J. Hunsecker."
— Susie Hunsecker in Ernest Lehman's 1950 story



This was an inside job — a story that could have been written only by a press agent. In the early 40s, Lehman had ground out flackery for the noted press agent Irving Hoffman, who was close to Winchell. A-brim with fascination-repulsion for the Broadway milieu, Lehman wrote a long story about a columnist and a press agent. He sold it to Cosmopolitan. But before the issue hit the stands, Hoffman was leaked (what else?) the story and felt betrayed, not just for himself but what he saw as calumny toward the powerful columnist. To Lehman, the complaint must have been as good as a rave. He'd struck a nerve; he'd got it right; he'd pulled a Sidney.

The plot of Lehman's original story is duplicated in the film and elaborated on in the show. Goes like this:

For five days Sidney has been frozen out of J.J.'s column because he's been unable to deliver on a promise to break up a romance between J.J.'s adored young sister Susie and Steve Dallas, a promising young singer. Desperate to return to J.J.'s good graces, he has the inspiration to plant a smear of Dallas, as a dope-smoking Red, in a rival column. That little trick doesn't drive the lovers apart so, on J.J.'s orders, Sidney plants reefers on Dallas and has him arrested and assaulted by a corrupt cop named Harry Kello. Later that night Sidney is summoned to J.J.'s penthouse apartment but finds only Susie there. After he saves her from jumping to her death, she tears her clothes apart just as J.J. enters to find "evidence" that his sister was raped. Now the columnist has to avenge his little girl.

Irving Hoffman might not have been so peeved if Lehman hadn't borrowed the Steve Dallas subplot from an infamous episode in the lives of Winchell and his daughter Walda. (Walda Winchell — how's that for ego extension?) To judge from Neil Gabler's account in his excellent biography, "Winchell: Gossip, Power and the Culture of Celebrity," Bill Cahn was no apple-cheeked beacon of cool jazz and high ethics. He was a hustler who had done time for vagrancy and petty larceny, was busted for going AWOL during the War and was discharged after being diagnosed with severe hysteria.

Back in New York Cahn produced a Broadway comedy, "Devils Galore," with Winchell's daughter Walda in the cast. Later Cahn used Walda as angel bait at fund-raising parties. To support him, Walda ran through her parents' allowance and was forced to sell the mink coat they had given her. (In the movie Susie is usually seen wearing a mink coat J.J. gave her. "This coat is your brother," Dallas grumbles. "I've always hated this coat.") What can we say? Walda loved the lug, and Walter didn't; he thought Bill was pulling a Cahn job. According to Walda, Winchell once stormed into her apartment, brandished his pistol and threatened to kill her rather than let her marry Cahn. Walda went into a tizz, and her parents tried to have her institutionalized. The girl was heartbroken, maybe mind-bent, and Cahn disappeared.

But Walter wasn't finished. A few years later, Cahn was tried for tax evasion. "I'm 99% sure [that] John Edgar Hoover did it all for Walter," columnist Jack O'Brian told Gabler. "He went and dug into it and dug into it and dug into it." Cahn stood trial and was convicted. At the sentencing (he got 18 months), his attorney declared, "Mr. Cahn has unfortunately run into the ill-will of a well-known and perhaps notorious columnist and radio broadcaster." He might have said what Lehman writes of Dallas in the novelette: that Susie's boyfriend "made the mistake of crossing J.J. Hunsecker against the lights."

Cahn served his time, then emigrated to Israel. He never again saw Walda; she never again spoke to her father. But the old hustler had wreaked his revenge, if only post-mortem. As Gabler writes: "Walter had ruined Cahn's life. Now, by inspiring Lehman's novella and Mackendrick's movie, Cahn had helped sully Walter Winchell's name forever."



BABY SIDNEY (1950)

"Broadway is one of those streets where it's light enough to read the morning papers in the miracle of the night before, and there's a trash can on every corner to remind you to do so. As I walked uptown, I kept seeing the trash cans on the corners. I kept seeing the newspapers in those trash cans and the Broadway columns in those newspapers and the lives that revolved around those columns. As I walked uptown, I kept seeing trash cans filled with people. And it didn't make me feel any better to know that I had filled more trash cans than any press agent in town." — from Ernest Lehman's story "Sweet Smell of Success"



The novelette, which was originally called "Tell Me About It Tomorrow," runs 60 pages as reprinted in a recent collection of Lehman's short fiction. It's good reading, from the title — itself a press agent's misrepresentation of a story drenched in sour stench — to the abrupt ending of Sidney's discovering Hunsecker at the door, seeing his furious face and crying, "J.J.! Jesus! Don't!" (Is he about to beat Sidney up or actually kill him? Is this tale, like "Sunset Blvd." of the same year, narrated by a corpse?)

From the beginning, Lehman saw many of the relationships as twisted marriages. J.J. wants to break up Susie's betrothal to Dallas, then take her on a sibling honeymoon cruise on the Queen Mary; J.J. and Sidney are a pair of schemers almost worthy of Shakespeare, as if Richard III (J.J.) were married to Lady Macbeth (Sidney, rubbing those hands to get the stain out, or spark fire). Lehman built a formicary of dark characters with weak dependents: Sidney with his secretary, J.J. with Susan, Susan with Dallas, the columnist Leo Bartha with his nagging wife, columnist Otis Elwell with a sexy cigarette girl. And he nicely establishes the final frame-up, where Susie shows she is her brother's sister. "The terrible thing about people like you," she tells Sidney, "is that decent people have to become like you in order to stop you — in order to survive." In other words, to stay pure they must do corrupt things. Of course, Susie could be lying; it's a family trait.

One scene from the book is played almost verbatim in the film. Sidney reads an advance copy of J.J.'s column, sees that he has praised Herbie Temple, an old vaudeville comic, and learns that J.J. ran the bit without a press agent's urging — simply because he thought the fella was funny. Sidney rushes over to tell the comic he can get him a mention in J.J.'s column, then makes a phony phone call, pretending to dictate to J.J. the exact item that will appear later in the day. The novelette has a twist not in the film: the comic's manager drops by J.J.'s table to speak warmly to an embarrassed Sidney; J.J. gets up and calls his editor, obviously to kill the item and deprive Sidney of a freebie. Discovering the paper had already gone to press, he returns and declares he has just phoned in an effusive item about Herbie Temple: "I am saying thanks, Sidney, for all you are about to do for me."

The 1950 Sidney has a kvetching mama, who calls him way too often, and a scrupulous kid brother Mike. In the movie, they are sensibly excised as being useless to our understanding of Sidney. This creature didn't come out of a womb but from under a rock. He has no lineage; he created himself, in the dark, dank, rank cave of his ambitions. The film is interested only in how he gets by in this "dog-eat-dog" world. ("Every dog will have his day," says the movie Sidney, who's full of animal metaphors.) At its black heart, "Sweet Smell" is about that honorable, horrible thing called work. Take Sidney's job: he's in sales. He sells people.

The movie script improves on the novelette in two basic ways: by what's added (the whipcrack pungency of Odets' dialogue) and what's missing. Sidney no longer has a souring affair with J.J.'s secretary. (The boy is all ego, not libido; he's too busy screwing his clients to waste time screwing a secretary.) Also gone are the interior monologues, and good riddance; Sidney has no soul to confide to us. But he has a handsome line of patter — a slick pitch (most likely a spitter) for shoddy merchandise. He stops you on the street, talks fast, and suddenly you're wearing a fake Rolex. You've been had, in the grimy mid-Manhattan theme park called Sidneyland.



Tomorrow: the movie and the musical