The Entertainer: Movies, Magic, and My Father’s Twentieth Century, by Margaret Talbot. New York: Riverhead/Penguin Group, paperback, 2013, 432pp, $18.00.
Margaret Talbot must have known a straight-ahead biography or “a daughter’s loving recollection” would get her published at an obscure house with a readership of three. After all, her father, actor Lyle Talbot, hardly belongs to the pantheon of Cagney, Bogart, Cooper, and Grant. Wisely, The New Yorker staff writer took family letters, stories, and clippings and wove them into the larger tapestry of show business to create a singular book: The Entertainer: Movies, Magic, and My Father’s Twentieth Century from Riverhead (Penguin Group) Books.
The fact of Lyle’s minor fame makes this format possible. In Margaret’s smooth, elegant narrative, her father becomes the master of ceremonies of a tour through every major show business form of the last century, from stock companies to vaudeville, talkies, radio, Broadway, B pictures, Z pictures, and television. The Entertainer is a book that pleasingly rambles and sways, rather like a sailboat changing tack on a breezy day out near Catalina. The extended asides always come back to Lyle. Margaret writes of the ordinariness of early twentieth-century parental corporal punishment and horrendous accidents involving cars, fires, and unsound buildings before stricter regulations, but all serve as backdrops for her father’s Nebraska childhood and early theater work in Memphis. At every chapter, Margaret provides extended context for Lyle’s life on and off the stage.
Lyle secured a Warner Bros. contract in 1931 and was soon appearing in pulpy pre-Code fare such as Three on a Match, Havana Widows, and Ladies They Talk About. Margaret covers familiar ground, but it’s freshly told. There is the small-town nature of Depression-era Hollywood, the grueling work hours, dance marathons, star bio fabrications, summons to Hearst Castle, nights at the Cocoanut Grove, the reinvented names, makeovers, tight-knit studio cultures, house styles, and pre-Code raunch that, thanks to ample rediscovery, isn’t so shocking anymore. Though blessed with a handsome mug and comfortable screen presence, Lyle’s stardom eluded studio efforts. He lacked Gable’s he-manhood and so was fashioned as “a sophisticated yet boyish indoorsman, a collector of first editions.” Lyle’s union activism didn’t endear him to studio heads, either. Plum roles passed him by.
He rather enjoyed a run on Broadway in Separate Rooms with Glenda Farrell, an old friend from 1930s Warner Bros. After the war, he came back to a changed Hollywood. Strangers were running the place, and work was scarce. He made serial cheapies, becoming the screen’s first Lex Luthor in Atom Man vs. Superman. He played Commissioner Gordon in the 1949 no-budget Batman and Robin serial. As an older character actor, Lyle somewhat resembled the late lamented Karen Black, for whom work came first and all offers were accepted. As such, he holds the questionable honor of appearing in three Ed Wood productions: Plan 9 from Outer Space, Jail Bait, and Glen or Glenda. Margaret adds compassion to her writing about Wood, noting that his enthusiasm for making “art” and wearing women’s clothes were exceeded only by his vast ineptitude. In Glen or Glenda, Lyle contributes as much dignity as that quasi-pseudo-crypto-faux documentary could possibly hold. A 10-year stint as neighbor Joe Randolph on “the remarkably bland and corny” sitcom Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet secured financial as well as psychological well-being. Lyle simply loved the work.
Margaret does not shrink from her father’s humanity, his drinking, or his weakness for women. After countless affairs and three quick marriages, he married actress-singer Margaret Epple, and together they had four children. All became accomplished in their fields of documentary filmmaking, writing, and medicine. Despite a 26-year age difference, the Talbot-Epple marriage was a true love match and lasted to her death in 1989. When Lyle died in 1996, he had lived through all but five years of the twentieth century. How refreshing after a career of false starts just outside the limelight, and way too much drinking, that a strong, passionate marriage and a happy family should be Lyle Talbot’s late-life reward. And how fortunate that his youngest child so finely chronicled his life and the bigger story that surrounded it.