You’ll find an entry on Lyle Talbot (1902-1996) in some movie encyclopedias, but not in others. In the early 1930s, he was under contract to Warner Bros., often playing “weak-willed malefactors.” His co-stars included Barbara Stanwyck, Carole Lombard and Mae West, but he wasn’t charismatic enough to build a picture around, and the studio eventually let him go. He ended up making something like 150 movies, the vast majority of which are forgettable. The most enduring is probably “Three on a Match” (1932), in which he gets fifth or sixth billing.
Strictly speaking, then, Lyle Talbot doesn’t warrant a biography, or if he does, it ought to be written by a film scholar for an academic press. Yet here he is, the subject of a 400-page book by his daughter Margaret, a staff writer at the New Yorker.
Favoritism? Not exactly. Margaret Talbot grew up in thrall to her father’s storytelling, typically about his career, which stretched from carnivals and circuses to traveling theater troupes to Hollywood in the 1930s and television in the 1950s and even to acting for the touchingly inept, cross-dressing indie filmmaker Ed Wood. “The Entertainer” is not so much a life of Lyle as a showcase for his tales, which combine with Margaret’s research to form a charming and informative panorama of 20th-century American popular culture.
Lyle’s dad, Ed Henderson, was an actor, but the boy’s parents separated when he was an infant. He was raised in Nebraska by his grandmother, Mary Hollywood Talbot, whose last name he took. Lyle went into show business as a teenager, first as a carnival roustabout, then as an onstage assistant to a hypnotist, then as an actor in plays. He almost derailed his thespian career his first time on the boards, filling in for an actor indisposed by heavy drinking. Called upon to hit someone in a fight, Lyle demonstrated his ignorance of stagecraft by actually socking the guy and knocking him out cold.
Lyle recovered from that setback (as did the unconscious actor) and soon found steady work in touring companies, which, as his daughter points out, “from the 1880s till the late 1920s . . . were what brought America its most reliable entertainment, what sparked, season after season and however creaky the machinations onstage, its sense of make-believe. . . . In 1900, there were 350 companies touring continuously — most of them in tents, or ‘under canvas,’ as the slogan went, during the summer, and in . . . opera houses when the weather turned cold, and millions of people saw them.”
Lyle made the big jump from the boondocks to Hollywood after an agent sent him a telegram inviting him to come west for a screen test, which happened to be for Warner Bros. Cluelessly, Lyle chose a scene from a play that lampooned a thinly disguised version of Darryl Zanuck, the studio’s head of production. Instead of taking offense, though, Zanuck seems to have liked the young man’s chutzpah — a contract was tendered and accepted.
Margaret enlivens her chronicle of her father’s film career with digressions on such matters as the infamous Production Code, which reduced so many Hollywood movies to saccharine goop. Her movie sense fails her at one point, though, when she observes that some directors were “better working within the strictures of the Code than they were later without” and offers Alfred Hitchcock as her example. To the contrary, Hitchcock made many of his greatest movies — “Vertigo,” “North by Northwest,” Psycho” and “The Birds” — in the late ’50s and early ’60s, when the Code was in tatters.
And while I’m at it, Margaret gets a bit garrulous late in the book (and Lyle’s life). I’m thinking especially of a tedious seven-page disquisition on the meaning of the 1950s family sitcom, which rests on the flimsy justification that Lyle had a minor recurring role in “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.”
But in the main, “The Entertainer” does indeed entertain, with one of the liveliest sections coming toward the end, when Margaret covers her father’s misalliance with Ed Wood. Lyle agreed to work with Wood — whose “Plan 9 From Outer Space” is a leading candidate for worst movie ever made — because he needed the money, which Wood dutifully paid him at the end of each day’s shoot, in cash, the bills crumpled from having been stuffed in Wood’s pocket. All went reasonably well until Wood got drunk at the Talbots’, accepted an invitation to stay overnight and appeared at breakfast the next morning decked out in one of Mrs. Talbot’s nightgowns, with bra. Lyle, Margaret writes, “was furious, and ordered Wood out of his wife’s nightie and out of the apartment.”
Earlier this year in these pages, I gave a favorable review to “Season of the Witch,” a history of late-20th-century San Francisco by Margaret’s brother David. Though not well educated, their father was a great reader, and his scribbling offspring would have made the old trouper proud.
Movies, Magic, and My Father’s Twentieth Century
By Margaret Talbot
Riverhead. 418 pp. $28.95