Swing­ing be­tween anec­dotes in 1950s Tin­sel­town

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Harry Wind­sor

Hol­ly­wood fa­mously loves sto­ries about it­self. Just check re­cent Os­car-win­ning movies The Shape of Water or Argo. Even the blacklist pe­riod, one of the least val­or­ous in film­mak­ing his­tory, has been re­framed as a tri­umphant nar­ra­tive in movies such as Good Night, and Good Luck and Trumbo.

More gim­let-eyed treat­ments gen­er­ally have ap­peared in book form. A cou­ple of years ago screen­writer Ed Brubaker re­leased The Fade Out, a series of comics in which the hero, a screen­writer with writer’s block, passes off as his own the work of his black­listed best friend. Now we have Black Sun­set: Hol­ly­wood Sex, Lies, Glam­our, Be­trayal & Rag­ing Egos, Clancy Si­gal’s mem­oir of be­ing a tal­ent agent work­ing for the Sam Jaffe Com­pany in the 1950s.

Si­gal died in July 2017, aged 90. This book, pub­lished not long be­fore his death, is a series of scat­ter­shot recol­lec­tions, loosely con­nected.

Si­gal re­peats him­self in a way that sug­gests the chap­ters were writ­ten with long in­ter­vals be­tween. Con­ver­sa­tions at­trib­uted to James Dean, Bar­bara Stan­wyck and oth­ers are “reimag­ined”, some­thing to which the au­thor read­ily owns up. This re­laxed ap­proach to fac­tual ac­cu­racy feels hon­est to the spirit of a book about Hol­ly­wood hus­tle.

Chicago-born to Jewish par­ents, Si­gal was a US Army sergeant in oc­cu­pied Ger­many af­ter World War II. He has said the high point was ab­scond­ing from his bar­racks and go­ing to the Nurem­berg tri­als with the in­ten­tion of killing Her­mann Go­er­ing. But mil­i­tary po­lice con­fis­cated his ri­fle.

He re­turned to the US nee­dled by that fail­ure, and the an­tiSemitism of the McCarthyites is one rea­son he was de­ter­mined to stick it to them. At­tend­ing the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia, Los Angeles as a war vet be­side bobby-sox-wear­ing Breck girls was, he writes, like step­ping into a Busby Berke­ley mu­si­cal. A re­cur­ring theme in this mem­oir is the de­gree to which Si­gal’s frame of ref­er­ence is the movies, even be­fore he joined the busi­ness.

Young Clancy aped James Cag­ney and Robert Mitchum’s phys­i­cal­ity and Clark Gable’s wise­crack­ing. He tells us not once but twice that his white stucco apart­ment com­plex was a dead ringer for Humphrey Bog­art’s in Ni­cholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place.

Bog­art’s jaded screen­writer in that film could stand in for any of the real-life ones that Si­gal rep­re­sented af­ter he lucked into a job at Jaffe’s agency on Sun­set Boule­vard. That gig fol­lowed brief ones as a reader at Harry Cohn’s Columbia and as a dock­yard labourer, both tor­pe­doed by the two FBI agents who fol­lowed him ev­ery­where. They’re af­fec­tion­ately nick­named Mutt and Jeff, af­ter the Bud Fisher strip about two dum­mies in suits. Si­gal w was un­der scru­tiny in part be­cause of his labour-or­gan­iser par­ents and in part be­cause he was a mem­ber of a rag­tag sub­ver­sive cell con­cerned with ir­ri­tat­ing the gov­ern­ment. He scat­ters leaflets over Hol­ly­wood by plane with his b best friend, Ray Ko­vacs, who dis­ap­pears only to be re­dis­cov­ered much later, a gigolo at one of Ge­orge Cukor’s pool par­ties.

The gos­sipy plea­sures of Black Sun­set are per­haps its chief virtue, w with anec­dotes like jun­gle vines, Si­gal leap­ing from one to an­other, with noth­ing in be­tween. Danc­ing with a drunken Louella Par­sons, he looks down to find that the feared gos­sip hound is uri­nat­ing on the floor. Those ac­com­pa­ny­ing them, in­clud­ing Jaffe, Bog­art and Lau­ren Ba­call, qui­etly move out of the line of fire, care­ful not to up­set the of­fend­ing party. Bog­art tells the kid to relax. “She does it all the time. Pisses on us.”

If that line sounds too movie-per­fect to be true, well, Si­gal be­came a nov­el­ist and screen­writer, and his time in the Hol­ly­wood salt mines was clearly his ap­pren­tice­ship. Toil­ing on be­half of John Fante and Nel­son Al­gren by day, he re­treats to his apart­ment at night to type up Ernest Hem­ing­way in the hope he’ll catch the bug.

His ide­al­ism co­ex­ists with a will­ing­ness to pres­sure mem­bers of his own sta­ble to par­tic­i­pate in de­grad­ing “clear­ance” cer­e­monies, as well as with a great Oedi­pal com­plex, about which the older Si­gal is breath­tak­ingly up­front. Ditto his rec­ol­lec­tion of a fel­low GI hav­ing sex with a 12-year-old Ger­man pros­ti­tute dur­ing the oc­cu­pa­tion as her broth­ers looked on from across the street.

The over­hang of the war is present on ev­ery page. Ex­iles such as Peter Lorre al­ter­nate be­tween Ger­man and Yid­dish and pine for the Repub­lic. Si­gal and his col­leagues as­sem­ble on the roof of their of­fice to watch a nu­clear test on the other side of the San Gabriel Moun­tains. Fol­low­ing the light­show — an ex­cla­ma­tion mark at the end of Si­gal’s own farewell party — the book jumps back in time to the war and his early days in Los Angeles.

That kind of struc­tural skit­tish­ness would be fine if there were ev­i­dence of an edi­tor, but there is too much rep­e­ti­tion and some bad mis­takes. The fa­mous ex­change from Dou­ble In­dem­nity be­tween Stan­wyck and Fred MacMur­ray (“I won­der if I know what you mean” / “I won­der if you won­der”) be­comes “I won­der if you know what I mean”.

Just barely stitch­ing it all to­gether is a sin­cere love for the pic­tures. To­wards the end Si­gal quits the busi­ness and moves to Lon­don, where he would shack up with Doris Less­ing. This is spurred by what he sees as the end of Hol­ly­wood’s golden age. The vul­gar moguls of old have been re­placed by some­thing worse: slick, col­lege-ed­u­cated huck­sters. Si­gal him­self is one of them, as he ad­mits — and a sac­ri­fice to the movie gods is re­quired. Re­porter. is a critic for The Hol­ly­wood

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