Thursday, November 8, 2012
Book Review: The Entertainer By Margaret Talbot (Highly Recommended)
And the memoirs of the children of Hollywood stars are usually worse—distilling into either bitter hatchet jobs or worshipful love notes.
But I couldn't have been more wrong about this one. I was hooked on The Entertainer before I finished the preface and now rank it as one of the best Hollywood memoirs I've ever read.
Okay, that's three things.
Lyle Talbot got his first lesson in acting early. Raised by his maternal grandmother in a small Nebraska town shortly after the turn of the century, Talbot routinely got a beating if he didn't shed enough tears over a lock of his dead mother's hair—the mother who had died shortly after Lyle's birth. Bewildered by this remembrance of a woman he'd never known, Talbot soon learned to conjure up the appropriate response even if he didn't quite know why he needed to. But he learned his lesson well, figuring out how to please people and enjoying the positive attention he got when he did.
The two funniest anecdotes in the book make it clear it's a miracle Talbot made the transition to acting at all. Hired on as a bit actor in a traveling theater troupe, Talbot mistimed a staged punch in the very first scene of his very first performance and cold-cocked the star, leading to an early curtain. Only the intervention of the troupe manager's wife—she was sweet on the handsome boy—saved his job.
Fortunately, Zanuck was in a forgiving mood when he watched the tests the next day—or maybe it's that he had maverick director "Wild Bill" Wellman in tow—and Talbot got a contract.
Like most second tier players in those days, Talbot worked like a dog, making eleven movies in 1932, ten in 1933 and ten more in 1934.
The best of his films was probably Three on a Match, starring Bette Davis, Joan Blondell and Ann Dvorak. One of the fastest and most cynical films of the pre-Code era, Three on a Match packs episodes of drug addiction, adultery, prostitution, blackmail, kidnapping, child neglect, suicide and Bette Davis in her undies into 63 breakneck minutes. Talbot's role as a weak-willed hoodlum who lures a rich housewife into a life of sex, champagne and cocaine was a memorable one.
What woman wouldn't swoon!
He also had good parts in 20,000 Years in Sing Sing opposite Spencer Tracy, Ladies They Talk About (Stanwyck again), and Mary Stevens, M.D. with Kay Francis at the height of her career.
Yet despite a big build-up and favorable notices, Talbot never achieved the stardom the studio had mapped out for him.
And then he developed a fondness for alcohol—Hollywood was a small town with lots of distractions, and the actors liked to blow off steam in places like the Brown Derby and the Cocoanut Grove. A teetotaler by upbringing, Talbot discovered he enjoyed the buoyant feeling he got from a drink, and with what was likely a genetic predisposition to alcoholism, he started lapping it up and found he couldn't stop. His drinking never prevented him from working, but the tabloid tales of drunken buffoonery didn't help his standing with a studio already worried about the trajectory of his career.
He wound up as one of the legion of "oh, yeah, that guy" character actors who filled out cast lists in nearly two hundred movies, and later nearly three hundred episodes of series television.
In fact, Talbot acted steadily until his retirement in 1987, when he appeared in an episode of Newhart and the movie Amazon Women of the Moon. He died in 1996 at the age of 94. He won no awards, received no nominations, and as far as I know, doesn't even have a star on the sidewalk in the town he called home for decades.
So what makes this biography of a relatively-unknown journeyman so fascinating?
But more than that, Talbot is only half telling the story of her father. What she's really doing is telling the story of entertainment in America during the 20th century. Her father acted in practically every medium there was—stage, radio, movies, television—and witnessed (and participated in) the development of the concept of "mass media." In telling her father's story, she evokes the Hollywood of the 1930s, New York of the early '40s, television in the '50s and '60s, and perhaps most interesting, the life of the actor living out of a trunk, playing tiny towns all over the American midwest nearly a hundred years ago, a way of life that came to end, ironically, when talkies came in.
She also writes of Lyle as a prime example of what she argues was the transformation of American values from the 19th century's focus on "character" (how one might be perceived in the "eyes of God") to the 20th century's fascination with "personality" (how we sell an image of ourselves to others).
All in all, a terrific story. Highly recommended.