Sometimes it’s nice to read a book about a cheerful guy. Someone who saw life as a series of grand opportunities, say, and who carried a newspaper clipping that read, “Avoid rabid realists.”
He never went to college, but Lyle Talbot was smart enough to know good advice when he saw it. Talbot was a hard-working actor whose career spanned the whole of 20th- century popular entertainment from vaudeville to magic shows, Hollywood studios, Broadway plays, B-movies directed by Ed Wood, and on to the new world of TV and “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet.’’ As told by his youngest daughter, Margaret Talbot, a staff writer for The New Yorker, in her new book, “The Entertainer,’’ Lyle had a “Zelig-like” knack for making himself useful — and employable — in each new iteration of American show business.
Talbot (1902-96) was good-looking in a generic tall-and-manly way that allowed him to be cast in roles ranging from the suave “chiseler,” that stock character of 1930s gangster films (the best line of his career came in 1932’s “Love Is a Racket,” when he told a young lovely, “If I felt half as good as you look, I’d go out and kill myself while it lasted”) to cowboys, cops, philanderers, and even Lex Luthor.
Sure, he was adaptable — all actors have to be. But Talbot’s defining quality was something even more valuable: optimism. “In my life,” he reflected in later years, “just when I have been on the verge of giving up, a telegram arrived.” Somehow it always did.
Margaret Talbot has written an “idiosyncratic history” of American entertainment by following the trajectory of her father’s career. It’s a tender but clear-eyed portrait. Although she admires his acting, she’s straightforward about “why Lyle did not become a star.” Whether it was his lack of judgment in choosing roles (to be fair, as a contract player in the studio system, he often had little choice anyway) or the problem of charisma (according to her, “he didn’t have it”), Lyle Talbot achieved something remarkable enough: a lifelong career as a working actor.
Spotted by a talent scout in a Dallas theater in 1930, Lyle Talbot took a train to Hollywood (he had to borrow money for the fare) to try his luck in motion pictures. According to Margaret Talbot’s sources, in the mid-1930s the big studios auditioned thousands of hopefuls a year and offered screen tests to just 1 percent. Of that select group, just a few were signed to contracts. Lyle was one of them. He ended up working with many of Hollywood’s biggest stars, from Spencer Tracy in “20,000 Years in Sing Sing” to Bette Davis and Humphrey Bogart in “Three on a Match.”
Later in life, when Lyle told his son, “You have no idea what it was like to be young and beautiful in the thirties in Hollywood,” he didn’t have the dark-side-of-the-dream cynicism of “The Day of the Locust’’ in mind. Lyle’s Hollywood actually resembled the one portrayed in Photoplay: nights at the Trocadero; days playing tennis at Hearst Castle with Marion Davies. While Lyle did experience some hard times, including professional backlash when he helped organize the Screen Actors Guild, Margaret Talbot writes that even his “black moods” were more of a “dark gray.” “The Entertainer’’ reflects this.
Like Lyle, this book is substantial but never heavy, with a sense of humor and an appreciation for the things that make life fun. While it may be true that Lyle Talbot “led a resolutely unexamined life,” his daughter has written a story that gets to the heart of one of America’s luckier, happier sons.Buzzy Jackson, a historian and author, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.