Irving Shulman

Active - 1949 - 1960  |   Born - Jun 21, 1913   |   Died - Mar 23, 1996   |   Genres - Drama, Crime

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Largely known for his books and scripts concerning troubled youths and juvenile delinquents, Irving Shulman was one of the more influential writers in Hollywood for most of the 1950s. Born in Brooklyn, NY, in 1913 -- a time and place that would have a profound influence on his career -- his Lithuanian Jewish immigrant parents pushed him and his siblings to rise above their lower-class surroundings by getting the best education possible. Shulman earned a B.A. from Ohio University and a master's degree from Columbia University before the onset of World War II derailed his plans, and he subsequently spent most of the war in Washington, D.C., working for the War Department's troop education program, where wrote for Army Talk.

It was during the mid-'40s that he wrote his first novel, The Amboy Dukes. A highly controversial book in its day, the story was set in the working- and lower-class sections of downtown Brooklyn that Shulman knew well, and dealt with a side of life that was seldom discussed amid the larger turmoil of the war: the dislocation of families and growth of juvenile delinquency that grew out of that period. Even more startling to readers, the book focused on teenagers who had come of age during the war without a strong parental presence to guide them -- role models either not there at all or, more often, working too hard at their jobs and not enough at being parents at home. Named for the gang to which the book's principal characters belonged, The Amboy Dukes depicted its members as capable of assault, rape, and murder. (Parts of the novel -- most notably a scene in which gang members fondle and grope a woman on a crowded subway -- were regarded as virtually pornographic at the time, and more than one teenager of the era had the book confiscated if he were caught with it in school.) Received well in literary circles, the novel nevertheless raised some troubling issues. The idea of urban street gangs was a revelation to many middle-class Americans, and though no one quarreled with the book's accuracy, the author was reportedly instructed to edit out most of its raw language, violence, astonishingly frank sexual scenes for the paperback edition. (Later editions restored the original content.)

Shulman wrote two follow-up books, Cry Tough (1949) and The Big Brokers (1951), which followed the surviving delinquents into their adult lives of crime. In the meantime, the author had moved to Hollywood, where, in 1948, he went to work at Warner Bros. In addition, the rights to The Amboy Dukes were sold to Universal, where producer Howard Christie and director Maxwell Shane turned it into City Across the River (1949), a movie which, while retaining some of the intensity and brutality of the original book, toned down or eliminated much of its most troubling depictions of violence. The film also gave Tony Curtis his first screen role and was sparked not only by his presence but also the performances of Peter Fernandez and Joshua Shelley as a pair of gang members linked together by a murder. Shulman's next book, The Square Trap, was devoted to the plight of poverty-stricken youth in the Mexican-American ghetto in Los Angeles. Even better received by the critics, who welcomed the presence of a certain amount of humor and lightness of tone in some passages, the novel was adapted into The Ring in 1952.

The following year, a series of events at Warner Bros. led Shulman to play a pivotal role in the career of James Dean. The studio had previously purchased the rights to a work of non-fiction by the author dealing with urban juvenile delinquency. Entitled Rebel Without A Cause, it was finally set to be made into a movie with director Nicholas Ray. But he had already done a film about urban delinquents at Columbia -- Knock on Any Door -- and, instead, wanted to make a movie about a newly recognized phenomenon of suburban delinquency. Rebel's script went through many hands -- including Stewart Stern, Leon Uris, and Shulman -- and, at that point, wasn't attracting a lot of attention, having only been intended as a modestly budgeted production. In the meantime, James Dean had come to Warner Bros. and completed East of Eden, which was testing so well with audiences he was immediately cast as Jett Rink in Giant. But then the studio got word that Elizabeth Taylor was pregnant, and production on Giant was delayed for seven months. So, eager to cash in on the young actor's popularity, Warner Bros. cast Dean in Rebel Without A Cause, and, thanks to his presence, the film was suddenly re-conceived as a major big-budget release to be shot in color and Cinemascope. For Shulman, the movie also yielded another book, Children of the Dark (1956). Among the very earliest novelizations of a screenplay, the work reflected Shulman's harsher and less-sanitized vision of the delinquency portrayed in the movie; it was also widely reviewed and treated seriously by critics, in contrast to the way novelizations later came to be viewed.

That same year, Shulman published Good Deeds Must Be Punished, a story about prejudice at a small West Virginia college. His other late-'50s projects included the story for the crime dramas Terror at Midnight (1957) and Baby Face Nelson (1958), and, in 1960, he wrote the novelization of West Side Story. Shulman's Cry Tough was filmed in 1959 by United Artists, but his influence began to wane with the coming of the 1960s and a generational shift in both audience taste and studio management. His last screenplay was for Albert Zugsmith's exploitation film College Confidential in 1960. But his older books (especially The Amboy Dukes) remained popular in reprints, and he turned to writing biographies during the '60s, most notably Harlow: An Intimate Biography (1964) and Valentino (1967).

In 1972, at the age of 59, Shulman finally earned the doctorate that he'd set out to get more than 30 years earlier. He died in 1995 after suffering from Alzheimer's disease for several years.

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