THE ENTERTAINER: Movies, Magic and My Father's Twentieth Century, by Margaret Talbot. Riverhead, 418 pp., $28.95.
In "The Entertainer: Movies, Magic and My Father's Twentieth Century," Margaret Talbot celebrates the seven-decade acting career of her father, Lyle Talbot. Haven't heard of him? He was almost famous in Hollywood in the 1930s, big on Broadway in the '40s, seen every week on TV in the '50s and '60s, and kept working into the '80s.
"My father was not a listener. He was a talker. A storyteller," Talbot writes. And the stories are irresistible, whether it's the time a drunk wandered onstage during a San Diego theater performance and Lyle ad-libbed through it, or the night Lyle almost started a fight with Clark Gable over Carole Lombard in Beverly Hills. They're the kinds of stories actors have always regaled each other with, and Talbot shares plenty of them.
But Talbot, a staff writer for The New Yorker, has also accomplished something unusual. There are many books about actors written by their children. This may be the only one that's as much a century-spanning cultural history as a charming, affectionate tribute.
Born in Pittsburgh in 1902 and raised in Brainard, Neb., by his grandmother, Lyle became a carnival barker at 17 and then a hypnotist's assistant, a magician and a repertory-theater matinee idol. Talbot's renderings of small-town life and the world of peripatetic troupers are as compelling as the big-city tales that follow.
In 1932, Lyle was down to his last $5 in Dallas when a telegram arrived from a Hollywood agent, inviting him to come out for a screen test. The tale of his tryout, conducted at Warner Bros., is a hilarious near-disaster. Yet soon he was shooting his first Hollywood picture, "Love Is a Racket," with director William "Wild Bill" Wellman.
"Lyle, like all the contract players at Warner Brothers, worked all the time," Talbot writes. "He made nine movies in 1932, twelve in 1933. He worked six days a week, often twelve hours a day, sometimes acting in two or three pictures at a time."
Talbot brings '30s Tinseltown to radiant life. She plumbs the four-year "pre-Code" period, in which the studios made zippy, racy movies before succumbing to self-censorship, and the Screen Actors Guild's success at breaking organized crime's grip on Hollywood. (In 1933, Lyle became one of the guild's founders.) During those years, Lyle shared the screen with everyone from Barbara Stanwyck to Spencer Tracy, Shirley Temple to Mae West. A Kansas City newspaper summed up Lyle's appeal nicely: He was "handsome as hell. And as likeable as a collie."
Still, he never achieved stardom. "He possessed neither the soaring ambition nor the bottomless desire to be loved by the crowd that propels many stars," Talbot writes. He did, however, have a national fan club, led by two wisecracking sisters in Malverne. The excerpts from the club's newsletter, The Talbot Tabloid, are a hoot.
After World War II, Lyle wound up in superhero serials and exploitation movies. He began drinking too much. In the '50s, a young acquaintance, Ed Wood, persuaded him to act in his low-budget movie "Glen or Glenda"; Talbot went on to act in Wood's equally infamous films "Jail Bait" and "Plan 9 From Outer Space." There's a great story about what happened the morning after Lyle let Wood sleep off a post-premiere bender at his home.
Lyle's fifth marriage, to Margaret Epple -- Talbot's mother -- lasted 40 years. Their raising four children coincided with Lyle's 10-year role as next-door neighbor Joe Randolph on "The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet." "In one five-year period," Talbot writes, "he'd gone from Ed Wood movies shot on the sly behind a brothel to a popular sitcom featuring 'America's Favorite Family' and sponsored by Quaker Oats."
After his wife died in 1989, a bereft Lyle accompanied his son Stephen to a screening at the Castro Theater in San Francisco of "Three on a Match," a 1932 crime drama that Lyle acted in along with Joan Blondell, Ann Dvorak, Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart. "You know," Lyle whispered to his son during the film, "I'm the only actor in this movie who's still alive." He died in 1996, at 94. This wonderful book extends his legacy.