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.

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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.)