Swinging between anecdotes in 1950s Tinseltown
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