Saturday, December 29, 2012

'The Entertainer' a book of an actor's role in 20th century entertainment

By Doug Gibson

Prior to this week, if one had asked me about the late character actor, Lyle Talbot, I'd have leaned on my knowledge of cult cinema to define him. I'd have cited his three Ed Wood films and his role in the Wood documentaries a generation ago. And I'd recall his appearances as "Lex Luthor" or "Commissioner Gordon," in cheap Superman and Batman serials. Or even his role as a narrator in the Ormond family's cheapo "Mesa of Lost Women."

It's up to Talbot's daughter, New Yorker journalist Margaret Talbot, to do justice to her dad. She has written "The Entertainer: Movies, Magic and My Father's Twentieth Century, " (Riverhead Books) (link),and absolutely brilliant tale that not only encapsulates Lyle Talbot's life, but provides the subject as a background, a Zelig, a symbol, of the history of 20th century mass market entertainment.

As his daughter relates, Talbot never became a star, but he had the privilege of earning his living solely as an actor for more than 70 years, which was his lifetime goal. Born in 1902 to a mother who died a few months later, Lyle was snatched up by his grandmother, Mary Talbot,  -- who kept his natural father away -- and ran a drummers' hotel outside a train station in Brainard, Neb. The very young Lyle never had his own bed, instead sleeping curled next to the Bohemian teenage servant girls, most of Czech origin, who were hired at the hotel to learn homemaking skills, primarily cooking, from Lyle's businesswoman grandma.

Although deprived of contact with his son early, Lyle's dad, Ellis Henderson, eventually met his son and came to have the greatest influence on his life. Ellis and Lyle's stepmother, Anna, became entertainers, traveling the region in circuses, carnivals, predecessors to today's reality TV freak shows, and small acting troupes. Son Lyle, no doubt having the genes from dad, became an entertainer as a teenager. He started at the absolute bottom, not entertaining, but cleaning up at the circuses and carnivals. But, as author Margaret Talbot notes, assumed correctly that he would eventually get a chance to be on stage.

The genesis for many of Margaret Talbot's recollections of dad's life and times derived from the many stories she heard from her father, whether at the dinner table, living room, etc. She's done a good job of research backing the stories as well as providing what must be, for her, priceless photos of her dad at long-gone locations such as the Savidge carnivals, Chase Lister company, with the magician Mock Sad Alli, ... a life of small touring troupes of actors, traveling the Midwest, hoping the gate take would provide enough for a small payday and funds to move on to the next small town with an "opera house."

Lyle gained enough stature in the 1920s to actually start his own acting company in the south; it failed thanks to the Depression. He did attract the eye of a Warner Brothers talent scout and was invited to take a screen test in Hollywood. So broke that he had to borrow money from his agent to fund the trip, Lyle, a good looking young man, beat the odds and earned a contract after the test.

Perhaps the best part of Margaret Talbot's book is her description of Hollywood in the early to mid 1930s and the life of a "movie star," or contract player for a studio. It was a tough, insular, clannish life, with 14-hour work days, contracts that favored the studios, studios that functioned as little worlds of their own, and studio bosses who arranged dates for their contract players and paid off the cops when a "star" got himself in a bit of legal trouble.

The Hollywood described in "The Entertainer" doesn't exist any more, but it must have seemed like a mythical magic kingdom to those far away and those, such as Lyle, who were successes there. It was far away from the Midwest and East, accessible by long train rides or motor trips. As recounted, Talbot had many affairs, often with the women that males dreamed about in movie houses. One of his more serious flings was with the hard-bitten, older silent star Estelle Taylor, who had earlier married, and dumped, heavyweight boxing champ Jack Dempsey.

What I got most from Margaret Talbot's book is a desire to immerse myself in what is described as "Forbidden Hollywood," the steady stream of racy, sexy, hard-bitten films that the studios churned out prior to he Hays Office morality crackdown in the mid-30s. Lyle starred in a bunch of them, including "Three On a Match," which is clearly one of his daughter's favorites. (I'll be searching Turner Classic Movies for this take of lust, adultery, regret.) In these films, Talbot starred with Glenda Farrell, Joan Blondell, Mae West, Loretta Young, Humphrey Bogart and even a very young John Wayne. The stories of Hollywood culture in that age were fascinating, with fan clubs that featured stories about the fans, and stars who were eager to be involved with their fans. In fact, these early fan clubs, described by the author as a type of early "Facebook" with most eager to talk about others rather than themselves, even offered advice and criticism on their stars' handling by the studio bosses.

Talbot's role as a founding member of the Screen Actors Guild, as well as his "friendships" with the occasional hood, his traveling by train across country to hype Warner Brothers, the occasional theater gig, and visits from his dad, stepmother and grandma to Hollywood are detailed. I must stress that daughter Margaret's tale strays often from biography, and offers detailed accounts of the entertainment culture of her dad's era.

Lyle Talbot starred in or was featured in hundreds of films; he was ubiquitous in the 1930s and a popular item in film fan magazines. But he never became a star, eventually settling into a role as an independent actor who would take almost any role offered. He had his fat times and his thin times, but he always lived comfortably. Margaret Talbot offers theories as to why her dad never made it to the level of a Bogart or a Grant. He was handsome but lacked that thing called screen presence, that made his face irresistible to audiences. He usually played weaker characters, such as feckless hoods or spurned lovers. There may have been political reasons. His efforts to unionize actors may have annoyed Warner Brothers.

Or maybe it was his problem with alcohol, a quiet but persistent flaw in his personal life for 25 years. He had his share of mishaps, as well as several ill-advised marriages. In the latter half of the 1940s, as Lyle battled middle age and perhaps fears of an alcoholic, solitary middle age, Talbot finally met the woman he would spend 40 years with, Margaret Epple, only 20 (26 years younger than Lyle) but more mature than her years thanks to a few years as breadwinner to a semi-dysfunctional family. Margaret provided what Lyle Talbot yearned for, a family, stability, a home. She also, through some tough love, cured him of his alcoholism problem.

To Talbot, entertaining was as natural as throwing a baseball with his sons. His daughter recalls his ease and lack of nerves behind the stage as the curtain opening drew nearer. Perhaps energized by his successful marriage, he passed through his "Ed Wood era" unscathed, making a smooth and profitable move to television, most notably as the neighbor on the Nelsons on "Ozzie and Harriet." Margaret Talbot provides some interesting tales of how television was greeted by critics, along with a amusing anecdote of a New York Times writer who predicted its failure because people would not take the time to stare at the TV screen. (To cult film fans: Margaret Talbot has little nice to say about her dad's association with Ed Wood. She recounts the oft-told anecdote of a drunken Ed wearing Lyle's wife Margaret's underclothes. She describes "Plan 9 From Outer Space" and "Jail Bait" as "unwatchable" but has kinder words for "Glen Or Glenda," noting its progressive and forward take on accepting sexual differences.)

I could write more about this marvelous book, my favorite non-fiction offering of 2012, but it's time to stop with the final word of advice that there's much to recommend in Talbot's life and times that is found in his daughter's affectionate re-telling.

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