Movies, Magic and My Father's Twentieth Century
Riverhead: 432 pp., $28.95
In "The Entertainer: Movies, Magic and My Father's Twentieth Century," New Yorker staff writer Margaret Talbot succeeds at what Hollywood failed to do for her father: She makes him a star.
Humphrey Bogart, Jack Warner and William Randolph Hearst are all bit players in this breezy history, which looks at American entertainment on the stage and screen specifically through the lens of the late, little-remembered — but apparently quite charming — Lyle Talbot.
Lyle was a contract player at Warner Bros. when the studio was churning out movies such as "Public Enemy" — cheap, gritty pictures, many of which became classics. He starred or costarred with the major leading ladies of the time — Barbara Stanwyck, Carole Lombard, Shirley Temple, Bette Davis — but always in their lesser projects.
Lyle arrived in Hollywood after sound pictures had taken hold, and he left in 1940, on the eve of World War II. Later, he would return to L.A. as a character actor, most recognizable to some as the next-door neighbor Joe Randolph on the family-friendly television show "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet." Fans of another stripe saw him portraying officialdom in Ed Wood's "Glen or Glenda," "Jail Bait" and "Plan 9 From Outer Space."
The book focuses not on these later years but on Talbot's early life, in which the Midwestern boy became a traveling performer who was almost 30 when he landed in California. Perhaps because she was the fourth, late child of Lyle's fourth, late marriage, Talbot brings the excitement of discovery to these years, a family archaeologist unearthing a lost world.
Lyle was born in 1902; his mother died shortly thereafter. Her strong-willed mother banished Lyle's father from his life and raised the boy in her Nebraska hotel, where he was nurtured by its chambermaids.
Talbot employs novelistic style in bringing this period to life. "At night, the boy crawled in with whichever of them would have him, snuggling down under their white comforters, listening to their soft snores and the words they muttered in Czech, smelling the faint whiff of onion and caraway on their curled fingers," she writes. "In the summer, the breeze from the open windows stirred the lace curtains and the tendrils of hair pasted against their necks."
She vividly imagines her way into her father's world, working from semi-reliable Hollywood biographies, original materials and his own meticulous scrapbooks. These provide the greatest window into his life as a stage performer, traveling in under-the radar farm town circuits.
As a teenager Lyle finally met his father, who had remarried and with his wife spent part of the year as a performer in a traveling carnival. For two seasons, Lyle joined them.
From helping hand to carnival barker to hypnotist's assistant to actor, Lyle made his way to headliner. Eventually he even had his own acting troupe, but thanks to the crash of 1929, it didn't last long.
"It was mostly the lark of it all that he remembered," she writes of her father's love of live entertainment that went town to town, before the era of nationally distributed radio, film and television made it obsolete. He saw his touring companies as "big, rumbustious families ... self-contained, close-knit, yet capable of conferring certain freedoms that the rest of society did not enjoy." Handsome young Lyle had no shortage of lady fans.
When an agent invited him to come to Hollywood for a screen test, Lyle was flat broke. He scored a contract, staying for nearly a decade and performing in as many as 18 films in a single year for Warner Bros. His nights out on the town with pretty actresses were chronicled by the gossip pages.
In her Hollywood history, Talbot's storytelling grip slips a little. She spends lots of energy explaining the Production Code, which Turner Classic Movies watchers know already. Although she tries to bring his work to life, the descriptions of her father's movies fall particularly flat. From this part of the book on, Talbot's focus occasionally seems shaky, her hold on what makes a detail important a bit too loose.
While Lyle seemed to be riding high, something happened. Talbot intimates that his efforts to help the Screen Actors Guild take hold — he was the last of its initial 21 members — could have alienated studio brass. Or it may have been his drinking, which she reveals was a problem that he overcame after marrying her mother. In any event, his contract with Warner Bros. was not renewed, and another one was not forthcoming.
This turn of events remains a mystery, however; Talbot simply follows her father's path to New York, where he went back to the stage. He landed a starring role in a play that received noxious reviews yet became a surprise hit and later joined the wartime military, setting up entertainments for troops at a California base.
When he got back to Hollywood, Lyle was no longer the kind of actor who was being groomed for stardom; he was, instead, a working middle-aged actor, and he took what jobs he could. He was television's first Lex Luthor and a regular on "The Lone Ranger." When he appeared on "Ozzie and Harriet," his son Stephen was a featured player on "Leave It to Beaver."
None of Lyle's children followed him into acting — Stephen is now an award-winning documentarian. Son David founded Salon.com. Daughter Cindy is a doctor, and Margaret has been on staff at the New Yorker for nearly a decade. Margaret credits their mother with creating a lively, loving family and enabling Lyle to take on the role of caring father.
Talbot has an insider's view of her father's life. She knows their Studio City house inside and out and all the family lore of her 20-year-old mother marrying the 46-year-old Lyle. But this closeness has its drawbacks; sometimes the author backs away from what a more objective biographer might investigate.
She writes that his third wife, Keven McClure, sued for divorce claiming Lyle "drank excessively, swore at her in public and struck her at home," but then adds she doesn't believe it, assuming it was a classic 1940s divorce charge. "None of his four children ever saw my father strike anybody, let alone my mother ... improbable as it seems to me, it's possible that at his lowest, he did slap McClure." While Talbot isn't striving for objectivity, this feels too much like a loving daughter carefully tending her father's legacy.
Some of the most interesting parts of Lyle's life — his falling out of the center of Hollywood into its oddball dregs, living in the then-seedy Hollywood Towers, then finding his way back to solid footing — don't get much attention. His last 50 years (he died in 1996 at age 94) are confined to the book's last 50 pages, as if it was the early years that were the most interesting.
Maybe Lyle himself saw it that way. Late in life, he told his son David, "You kids think you invented free love in the sixties. You have no idea what it was like to be young and beautiful in the thirties in Hollywood. Everyone was sleeping with everyone."
If nothing else, that's got to send Hollywood scurrying for the option. Even if this story has a few holes, Lyle Talbot had one humdinger of a life story.