JANUARY 5, 2017
NOVELIST CLANCY SIGAL is a legendary figure for the now-fading New Left generation. His Going Away, an epic road journey of a young radical preparing to abandon the United States in 1956, and en route learning about the Russian invasion of Hungary, became a veritable teaching tool for a cerebral or merely novel-reading cadre of campus activists. And for good reason: he did not glamorize or demonize the Old Left, whose rank and file come off as disappointed but (except for the career-climbing academics he meets) determined to hold onto the struggles they know best: class struggle and anti-racism. He kept readers going with the sexy parts, but what made his novel different was its close attention to a crisis-ridden generation. Our own was to be crisis-ridden soon enough, in its own ways.
Black Sunset could rightly be considered as a nonfiction Going Away of the earlier 1950s, set before the novel. This time, Sigal is a young guy hanging out in Hollywood, trying to make a living and doing a little agitprop activity on the side. Clancy was a bright young lefty, engaged in several ways with the Hollywood Left then under heavy assault from the government and assorted red-hunters, all seeking indictments or bribes or both.
Sigal makes himself vulnerable by insisting that he kept in his wallet a short list of men and women who he would testify against, if he felt a need desperate enough. This sounds like something nobody would make up, although he would not have become who we know as Clancy Sigal if he had Given Names.
He is vulnerable in a raft of other ways, and the self-descriptions of the Benzedrine-popping, boozy days at work or play portray him as emotionally hungry in the extreme. Perhaps it is the absence of a father, a labor organizer who seems to have disappeared before Sigal’s teenhood, that throws this story into extreme turns and contrasts, or perhaps it is the proletarian-hipster mother who seems to toy with the idea of seducing her son (who plays along). But very likely it is also the shadow-play nature of his job, at a talent agency, as the Blacklist settles in. Sigal’s sense of humor and timing in these scenes makes us wonder if he might have become a successful screenwriter, had things gone just a bit differently.
The subtitle gives us “Sex” first, but I can’t help suspecting this may be a ploy by an agent or the publishers. Of sex, there is plenty, in the sense that he has a gorgeous girlfriend (shared, intermittently, with his best friend, who turns out to have been tossed out of the Navy for being gay, raising other unresolved questions); older women at the agency more than willing to bed him; and beyond that, the usual run of young beauties in this peculiar one-industry town. Still, these seem a distraction, for the most part, from the main story and its shadow.
The main story is of reactionary forces coming down hard, and although the shadow never quite makes itself evident, Sigal, like so many other intellectuals of the 1950s (and not only in Hollywood), has a deep feeling that he is too late for most of the exciting stuff. He missed the 1930s and the CIO, he missed the heroic antifascist years when the screenwriting Left wielded great influence in Hollywood along with big salaries for the most successful, and he even missed the catastrophic events like the 1945 studio strike, beaten back by Teamster thugs and private armies. His Hollywood lies in the aftermath, with everyone on the Left running scared, including those who sauntered toward the Committee with hats in hand. He runs into these latter characters regularly, in a barber shop or on the street, without even trying.
The one thing he did not miss was military action. The Agency highly values vets, and he values his service, too. He may have come in at the end of the war, for reasons of age, but he came in and that memory is inscribed upon his soul. In a way, he could have been the older vet who, blacklisted, is buried in his Army uniform, with due honors (I remember them, in old and sometimes threadbare outfits, at antiwar demonstrations of the 1960s through the 1980s). Men like Sean Penn’s father had fought fascism, and not with a typewriter, either. The experience of war seems to have made Sigal more existentialist than Jack Kerouac — thrown out of the Navy — or assorted Beats who came to a similar consciousness in the same America, in wholly different ways.
The beauty of Black Sunset, for most readers, will be found in the details, lovingly or painfully described, page after page. On one of those pages we meet Marjorie Main, the redoubtable tough-looking character actress best remembered for being Ma Kettle but with a stack of larger and smaller roles behind her. Or Boris Karloff, one of the first of the militant unionists in American film, badly reduced and desperate for cash by the early 1950s. Or Lou Costello, a former boxer who, with perfect timing, became Bud Abbott’s perpetual foil, but in private life vindictively sought to enforce the blacklist against all suspected Reds. Or Peter Lorre, a true Weimar German intellectual in a philistine America, also fallen upon hard times and also reliant upon self-drugging to drag himself along into degraded roles as movies themselves went down, down, down.
Veteran lefties on the scene insisted that by 1950 or so, the screenwriting talent had been scared off when not actually shut down, driven out of town, or facing subpoenas. The themes of Hollywood films, for a decade or more, would be bland and inoffensive, naturally with marked exceptions. Italian realism seized the day and some of the more interesting American stars as well, until matters eased. By that time, movies had changed once more and besides, many of the talented left-wing writers and directors had made careers abroad, suffered heart attacks or strokes, or found a place, usually under assumed names, in television work, some of it very good, indeed.
Perhaps, dear reader, this is the point in the review to mention that discovering the real writers of my favorite 1950s televisions shows — You Are There and The Adventures of Robin Hood — came as a joyous shock almost 40 years later. I happened to be interviewing some of them about their life and work. Abe Polonsky, known as “the Last Marxist of Hollywood,” worked on the first show, while Ring Lardner Jr. and Robert Lees worked on the second, along with their surviving collaborators and a host of others known directly or by reputation to Clancy in the 1950s. These writers had managed to hang on long enough to tell me and my fellow scholars their stories. Clancy was there, at close range, as they went down for the count or got themselves better, on the run from official and unofficial blacklisters. I came across these octogenerians thanks to the initial encouragement of Gerda Lerner, erstwhile Red and the widow of blacklisted film editor Carl Lerner; Gerda had reinvented herself as a creator of the field of women’s history, but kept the past close.
Sigal’s avuncular screenwriter comrade Paul Jarrico, who would produce Salt of the Earth, was the geezer I hung with in Santa Monica in 1996, and who died in an off-highway crash returning from his vindication at a Screen Writers Guild ceremony. Himself early on the blacklist, Jarrico had quietly urged Sigal to “name” him so that Sigal could be the front for Jarrico’s screenplays. That is how strange things were, as recorded in Black Sunset. Another example of that strangeness would be mobster Mickey Cohen, who, dying of cancer, asked blacklistee Joan LaCour Scott to be his (nonsexual) companion at dinner for the last months of his mobility. She and her husband Adrian Scott, blacklisted producer and member of the Hollywood Ten, had met Mickey at a house sale. Los Angeles, 1950s: Go figure.
The Hollywood Left itself was an extended if dysfunctional family, almost. Even the friendly witnesses, like William Alland, who personally drove Orson Welles from New York to Hollywood and served as the facing-away-from-the-camera narrator in Citizen Kane, also went on to produce a series of curiously leftish Creature Feature films that he described to me over instant coffee, in a broken-down trailer, in 1995. He had long since gone through all his money and was selling L.A. Times subscriptions over the phone, or trying to, and reminisced to me about his sumptuous life with wives, racehorses, and more, in a happier past. He was not a particularly nice guy, but neither was he so distant from the rest. According to Black Sunset, Alland wanted Clancy to give testimony and then join his operation as a sort of junior producer, obviously en route to bigger Hollywood things. Another path not taken.
My conclusion in reading Black Sunset is that you Had To Be There. Something remains ineffable, and perhaps should remain ineffable. Clancy does his best, which is plenty good. But that Hollywood, just beyond the Golden Age but full of wildly talented people unsuited for the diminished era that had come upon them, remains beyond our grasp. We don’t know what they might have done, in better circumstances. A Marxist savant who created the “school” for Left screenwriters in the early 1940s (and soon opposed the Central Committee, back in New York, on every point of insistent didacticism), told me in an interview that Communist-leaning screenwriters were wonderfully talented people who also had almost no idea what Marxism was all about, Abraham Polonsky excepted. This judgment stands, and vindicates its actors, in a way. They were sincere and sometimes greatly talented innocents who did their best until they ran out of time. Clancy Sigal brings the innocent and guilty back, once more, at close range, and proves himself the liveliest of literary nonagenarians in the process.