Margaret Talbot on Her Movie-Star Father

Reading between the lines.
Nov. 2 2012 11:18 PM

“A Seeker After Beauty, Wherever It Might Be Found”

Margaret Talbot’s father acted in everything from 1930s studio pictures to Plan 9 From Outer Space.

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Illustration by Noah Van Sciver.

I had an odd experience while reading The Entertainer, Margaret Talbot’s wry, wonderful new book about her irrepressible actor father, Lyle, and American entertainment over the course of the 20th century. Every time I opened it, an accompanying soundtrack began to play in my head.

At first, it wasn’t much more than the howl of winds moving over turn-of-the-last-century Nebraska, but that soon gave way to carnival noises—fairway barkers, snippets of music coming from the depths of tents. Then it was the steady rhythm of trains carrying itinerant theater troupes through the dark Midwestern night. Later, whenever I picked it up, I kept overhearing the sounds of 1940s Hollywood royalty clinking glasses at cocktail parties, or the thwack of tennis balls on the courts at Hearst Castle as they let the old man win. I caught the fox trot beat from the Trocadero and the Cocoanut Grove. As I neared the end of the book, I strained to hear the noises of four children, first splashing in the pool, later arguing about the war in Vietnam, all the while listening to their finally settled father telling them stories of his long ago youth.

These, of course, are the sounds of a still-young America coming into its own. In The Entertainer they are also the sounds of Lyle Talbot coming into his own. His career as a performer, while it never quite reached stratospheric heights, dovetailed perfectly with every major shift in American entertainment before landing gently in a very happy family life that began long after he had given up hope it ever would. It’s a convergence that allows his daughter to thread his story—“the brightest fiber”—through a larger social and cultural history of the world in which he came of age, where it casts a lovely, personal glow over everything around it.

That Talbot is a writer gifted enough to evoke not just images but their attendant music through her words will come as no surprise to anyone who’s read her in The New Yorker or elsewhere. One of the things The Entertainer makes abundantly clear, though, is that she comes by her aesthetic sense naturally. Lyle, she writes, was “a seeker after beauty, wherever it might be found,” starting from his earliest days in small-town Nebraska. She is, too. From her childhood memories, her father’s scrapbooks, his stories, and her own research and interviews, Talbot has woven a tale as romantic and vivid as any film could hope to be, while still seeing every bit of it plain. She is as clear-eyed about her father as she is about history—no easy feat.

Open on Pittsburgh, 1902, where Lyle was born to a mother who died of typhoid when he was just a few months old. His maternal grandmother, a widow, took him away from his father and back to Nebraska, where she raised him in her boarding house. (With no room of his own as a child, he bed-hopped among the Bohemian girls his grandmother employed, which, according to Talbot, left him with a few sentences of Czech and a lifelong love of women.) To seal the deal, she changed his name to her married name, Talbot. Her maiden name, which Warner Bros. would seize on with glee decades later when Lyle was one of their contract players, was Hollywood. Talk about fate.

In the intervening years between life at the Talbot Hotel and life on set, there were carnival acts (the names of which rise up from the page like emissaries from a dusty, lively forgotten world: MacKnight, the Hypnotic Funmaker; Mock Sad Alli; Tootsie Galvin), followed by roles of all sorts with touring theater groups. These companies would soon “be overwhelmed, first by radio and movies, then by television,” Talbot writes, “but from the 1880s til the late 1920s, touring companies were what brought America its most reliable entertainment … its sense of make-believe.”

Luckily—and luck was a big part of Lyle Talbot’s life—just as repertory theater was dying out, Lyle was summoned by telegram to what was fast becoming the bright new epicenter of make-believe. A Hollywood agent trolling for film stars to fill out Tinseltown’s burgeoning ranks had seen him on the stage, noted, as one critic had it, that his “good looks are not wasted on the feminine portion of the audience,” and asked for a screen test. Too broke to pay his train fare to California, Lyle borrowed it from the agent and set out for the coast.

At Warner Bros., which signed him after that screen test, he suddenly found himself in boldface company. He was cast in pictures with Carole Lombard, with whom he also had one of many (many!) affairs; Bette Davis; Humphrey Bogart; Barbara Stanwyck (in Talbot’s marvelous words, a woman “who seemed to be built for quick escapes and tight corners”); James Cagney; Mae West; and countless other stars of the 1930s. They were all, it seems, utterly charmed by him, and he by them. As he recalled many years later about “Miss West”: “She’d say, in that voice, ‘Where are you gonna have lunch? I think I’ll have a hamburger,’ and she’d sound, you know, like Mae West.”

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He made nine movies in 1932 and another 12 in 1933, and often spent his days bicycling between lots with scripts for all the films he was in simultaneously in both the front and back baskets of his bike. In an interview, he described the circumstances of contract actors like himself: “We would work 14-, 15-hour days and then be called back the next morning. Saturday night they liked to work till midnight because you had Sunday off. The Catholic actors, Pat O’Brien and Bill Gargan and Spencer Tracy, would joke that they’d barely get home in time to make it to mass.” The pace was unsustainable. And so, in 1933, Lyle joined together with 20 of his fellow actors, a not-yet-famous Boris Karloff among them, to found the Screen Actors Guild. Though it wouldn’t be formally recognized for a few more years, by 1936 the actors’ union had more than 5,000 members and had changed life in Hollywood forever.

Meanwhile, Hollywood itself was busy transforming life in America. Though the Production Code, which went into effect in 1934, placed certain limits on what films could depict, it could do nothing to contain their influence. As going to the movies became less expensive (popcorn, considered too trashy for many years, made it to the movies around the same time Lyle did), and theaters transitioned from “palaces” to simpler affairs where all the seats were the same price, audiences across the country began to take their cues about how to look, behave, and even feel from the silver screen. “When Clark Gable took his shirt off in It Happened One Night and revealed—yowza—no undershirt,” Talbot notes, in one of the many meticulously researched then seamlessly deployed details that makes The Entertainer such a pleasure, “it caused a national sensation and a serious dip in undershirt sales.” Even divorce lost some of its stigma as fans followed the affairs and breakups of their favorite stars in gossip columns and newsletters published by fan clubs. (Joan Crawford was the honorary vice president of Lyle’s.)

“Lyle Talbot sat on the ringside with a new blonde,” one wag wrote in the late ’30s, “but I would say from the number of times he was called to the telephone that quite a few of the old blondes were trying to get in touch with him.” All of these tidbits, of course, were an indicator of something far greater than just the state of their subjects’ love lives. They were early evidence that the cult of personality, which now pervades not just entertainment but politics, business, and pretty much every other aspect of American life, was already in full force. Being a successful star was no longer a matter of simply acting. It was now a far more complex proposition that had as much, if not more, to do with what you wore and said and did off-screen as what you did on it. Actors were accountable not just to their studios but to their fans, who were no longer satisfied with the packaged bios and romances put out by publicity agents.

Author Margaret Talbot
Author Margaret Talbot

Photo by Nina Subin

In other words, the American public was learning nothing less than how to be “modern media consumers—to be charmed by movie stars but not overwhelmed by them, to live in the world of celebrity without either turning their back on it or becoming unstrung by the fact that they themselves were not celebrities.” Now, of course, we live in a time when the idea of someone accepting their own failure to be a celebrity seems quaint—the Bravo channel alone is testament to that—but Talbot’s excursion into the ways the world of movies has affected the American psyche sheds considerable light on the origins of the fame-hungry culture we live in today. In addition, it animates the final years of Lyle’s story, which might otherwise read like the rather worn plot of a Hollywood movie in which the handsome young actor never quite lives up to his early promise, nearly drinks himself to ruin, and is saved at the eleventh hour by the love of a good woman.

The other thing that saves this story is the sheer affection with which it’s told. Talbot is wise enough not to linger too long on the details of her family: the early death of her beloved mother, who was 26 years younger than her father and the only one who saw in him “the essential sweetness beneath the suavity, the hard drinking, and the playboy rep”; the stories of her brothers’ and sister’s lives and her own childhood. But she offers a clutch of evocative sketches that give a marvelous sense of a world that feels as long gone to us as her father’s childhood did to her—California in the 1950s and ’60s, before the glamour of Hollywood had tarnished and real small-town life was still possible close enough to commute to work on set.

Along the way (just after a pit stop at Ed Wood’s studios, where Lyle was briefly employed), we learn that the Talbot children grew up sheltered from the culture of Hollywood, albeit in Studio City, where their parents bought a modest house with the money from the sale of the Talbot Hotel back in Nebraska and then kept running with the salaries Lyle earned after his transition to television via movie serials (Superman and Batman and Robin among them). Even as a child, Talbot knew her peaceful life was touched by the delicious fantasy that is the stock-in-trade of any actor. She describes being trained very early on to answer the phone properly in case her father’s agent was calling. “Our job was to be ready, and to be ready was to be hopeful—no matter how long the hiatus between jobs, even if the part was small, for a small part could be a cameo, and a cameo could be classy.”

Lyle Talbot is best known to many through his role on Ozzie and Harriet. “We got to live our suburban idyll,” his daughter writes, “in large part because my father was enacting another one on TV.” He performed in more than 300 movies and TV shows before his death in 1996. But he never had even a starring role as dazzling as the one his youngest child, with history as her guide, has now written for him.

The Entertainer: Movies, Magic, and My Father's Twentieth Century

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Melanie Rehak is the author of Girl Sleuth: Nancy Drew and the Women Who Created Her and Eating for Beginners: An Education in the Pleasures of Food from Chefs, Farmers, and One Picky Kid. She covers food for Bookforum and is currently at work on a book about the uses of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” in the 21st century, to be published in 2013.

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