BP
B. P. Schulberg

B. P. Schulberg

Percival Schulberg was born in Bridgeport, CT; he later added the first name "Benjamin" out of fear his name sounded silly to other boys. Although he had a stammer that made him somewhat self-conscious, Schulberg was ambitious and did not let it hinder him. Following his journalism studies at the City College of New York, Schulberg worked for a time as a reporter at the New York World and as a publicity agent for a small film distribution company called Rex Films. Edwin S. Porter, director of the seminal silent film "The Great Train Robbery" (1903), hired Schulberg to be a story editor at the more prominent Famous Players company. He enjoyed success with his new employer, but when an internal dispute occurred, Schulberg allied himself with the losing side and was terminated. Schulberg participated in the development plans for United Artists, a company that would benefit the motion picture stars, giving them more control and financial participation in the movies they headlined, but when U.A. ultimately went ahead, he found himself excluded. Undaunted, Schulberg founded Preferred Pictures in 1919, with now forgotten actress Katherine MacDonald as his star player.In 1922, he signed young Clara Bow to a contract and worked closely with the teenager to develop her glamorous and sexy new image. He also devised near-constant photo opportunities that kept her name and face in the news. The ploy worked and Bow's career quickly gained momentum. Nonetheless, by the fall of 1925, Preferred was deeply in the red and closed its doors. However, Schulberg had an ace up his sleeve: Miss Bow. With the popular young actress still under contract to him, Schulberg was invited by Adolph Zukor, his former boss at Famous Players, to rejoin him at Paramount. During Schulberg's time with the studio, it produced such notable films as "Old Ironsides" (1926),"Children of Divorce" (1927), "Underworld" (1927), "It" (1927), the epic masterpiece "Wings" (1927), and "The Last Command" (1928). Schulberg was promoted to head of production in 1928. "It" girl Bow was a major asset to the company and Schulberg kept her very busy, both in Paramount projects and on loan out to other studios, an arrangement that was far more beneficial to him than the increasingly overworked, naive actress. Her visibility, backed by Schulberg's continued publicity push, made the Brooklyn-born starlet into a major celebrity, the premiere movie flapper of the time. While in Germany, Schulberg was able to view an early version of "The Blue Angel" (1930) and quickly offered the lead actress, Marlene Dietrich, a Paramount contract. He also salvaged the career of that film's director, Josef Von Sternberg, during a period when he was considered all but unemployable in Hollywood. Future stars Gary Cooper, Frederic March and Claudette Colbert were also launched at Paramount during Schulberg's reign.The arrival of the talkies impacted the careers of a number of silent movie icons and Bow was no exception. Her decidedly Brooklyn accent limited the sort of roles she could play and her personal life was a shambles, a mix of emotional problems, unpaid taxes, battles with weight, and legal issues stemming from her alleged dalliances with married men. Her films were also no longer generating the stellar grosses the studio had become used to with her name above the title. By 1931, Bow had become a wearisome matter for Schulberg - who, along with countless others, allegedly had an affair with the actress - and Paramount, and the studio decided to let Bow out of her contract. Without the revenue his once lucrative client generated, Schulberg's days at Paramount were numbered and he was terminated after a few months. He also suffered his own personal setbacks, including excessive gambling, heavy drinking and a failed marriage. The latter came about when Schulberg began seeing actress Sylvia Sidney, who replaced Bow as his predominant but less successful leading lady. Making matters worse, Schulberg's liberal politics also did not endear him to the fiercely conservative executives that made up the Hollywood elite. Although he was no longer head of production, Schulberg remained associated with the studio, generating product independently through his own production company that Paramount would then distribute. He was later engaged in a similar capacity by Columbia Pictures (still a minor studio at that point) and oversaw Josef Von Sternberg's very good adaptation of "Crime and Punishment" (1935) for that firm.Schulberg's relationship with Columbia boss Harry Cohn was less than amicable, but he continued to alternate between the two studios for the next few years and finished his producing career with the women-in-prison melodrama, "City Without Men" (1943). In the years that followed, Schulberg tried to mount additional productions to no avail. In 1949, he took out an ad in the trade paper Variety to try and drum up interest in his services but, again, found no takers. Unfortunately, Schulberg's financial mismanagement had eradicated his finances and he died a poor man on February 25, 1957. He was posthumously awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1960 and the Schulberg Building on the Paramount lot was named after him. Schulberg had two sons, Budd and Stuart, who also worked in the industry in writing and producing capacities. Budd had the better known career and penned such outstanding films as "On the Waterfront" (1954), "The Harder They Fall" (1956) and "A Face in the Crowd" (1957). He gained a degree of infamy in 1941 with the release of his novel What Makes Sammy Run?, an expose of Hollywood that found no favor with studio power players and resulted in him being labelled as a Communist. Budd's autobiography, Moving Pictures: Memories of a Hollywood Prince, which included discussion of his father's career and how he financially supported him in the final years of his life, was published in 1981. By John Charles
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