February 2014
Volume 34 No. 2

February 2014
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Granddaughter Reviews Her Aunt’s Book
About Hollywood Legend and Pioneer

By Caitlin Talbot

Margaret Talbot’s book The Entertainer: Movies, Magic and My Father’s Twentieth Century (Riverhead, 432 pages, $28.95) transports us to the early days of Hollywoodland. We become immersed in the provincial town covered in bougainvillea, adorned with Spanish bungalows that lined wide-open streets ready for the arrival of ambitious young actors, including my grandfather, Lyle Talbot. The author, my aunt Margaret, traces her father Lyle’s long career to reveal how Hollywood and the entertainment industry evolved from an early 20th century of circuses and traveling tent shows.

Before cinema enraptured the country, American entertainment was brought on wheels, from town to town, by barnstorming actors. Most of these entertainers, including my paternal grandpa Lyle, were honest-to-God humble working people looking to make their way through the Great Depression on a smile and a shoestring. By the time my grandfather made it to Hollywood (after years working in regional theater) he had hardly a penny in his pocket and a pending audition with Warner Brothers Studios.

The Los Angeles studios in the early part of the 20th century were much like Repertory Theater Companies: If you were hired as a contracted actor you were basically set — assuming you did what you were told and didn’t do anything to upset the heads of the studio. In The Entertainer, Talbot recounts the story of her father’s make-or-break audition at Warner Brothers in which Lyle, a naïve young fellow from the Nebraskan prairie, chose to perform a monologue from a play he’d recently performed at a theater in Dallas titled Louder Please. Unbeknownst to Lyle, the character he plays in this scene is fighting with a scoundrel of a man who happened to be based on the head of production at Warner Brothers himself, Darryl Zanuck. Lucky for my grandpa, when Zanuck saw this audition he responded with a laugh, evidently impressed with the ballsy nature of my grandpa’s audition selection. He decided to put Lyle under contract.

When I think of my grandfather, I think of a story box that, when opened, would endlessly relay the detailed accounts of his life as an actor from start to finish. He took every role that came his way, from Humphrey Bogart and Shirley Temple films to Plan 9 From Outer Space — arguably the worst movie ever made. When I was a young girl, my grandfather would sit on his sofa chair retelling detailed memories of his past. He would show me his elaborate collection of scrapbooks and I remember being dumbstruck by the endless black-and-white portraits of him with hundreds of different chorus girls and actresses whose legs seemed to go on forever. While my grandpa did eventually find the love of his life and have four children, he was definitely a ladies’ man who, my aunt discovered, had been married some five times.

We tend to assume it was much easier for actors in early Hollywood, when there was less competition for roles. Yet Talbot’s research concludes that while there were fewer actors in number, competition was just as rough: Unless you were hired as a contracted actor by one of the studios you were basically at a loss in terms of building a film career. This was not the day of Kickstarter or Indiegogo or other means of self-producing your own projects through the Internet.

My grandfather was lucky to catch the wave of an emerging technological development — movies that talked! — and he used his good fortune to benefit all actors by helping found the first actor’s union in Hollywood, The Screen Actors Guild.

Talbot’s research into the history of Hollywood is also a personal exploration of her father, who was almost 60 when she was born and a bit of an enigma to her. As she uncovers his past, she brings him to life and delivers a visceral sense of living in Hollywood in the 1930s. You almost feel you are watching the films she describes, experiencing the parties on Sunset Boulevard and the Coconut Grove, or on set on a pre-code film like Three On A Match.

As a child, I got to see my grandfather relive his glory days when films of his screened at art houses in San Francisco, such as the Castro Theatre. While his old-fashioned films were sometimes lost on me as a child, my grandfather never missed an opportunity to see me perform in plays, including a self-produced version of Jack & The Beanstalk staged in my parents’ garage, complete with tickets and a consignment store, “Jack’s Snacks.” Reading about his past as a magician’s assistant and tent-show trouper, I can see why Lyle took to the let’s-put-on-a-show spirit of my early plays.

Considering the hundreds of films and TV shows my grandfather acted in (his IMDb page reads like an endless scroll) — from Barbara Stanwyck and Mae West movies to The Adventures of Ozzie & Harriet — I’ve also gained respect for his durability and stamina and the satisfaction he received from his life as a working actor.

My grandfather, who lived to the age of 94, was an orderly man and I assumed as a child that all older people were neat by nature. Now I see that his dedication to crossword puzzles, neatly stacked magazines, a carefully arranged wardrobe closet and structured eating habits were all indicative of his disciplined life as a professional actor. While he experienced serious bouts with drinking and an early family tragedy — his mother died shortly after his birth — Lyle’s commitment to staying mentally alert, organized and ready to work at a moment’s notice allowed him to survive and endure. He was a talented and handsome actor, a dedicated craftsman and a loving granddad.

In The Entertainer, Margaret Talbot uses her own skill as a gifted writer and interpreter of history to illuminate the father she knew only much later in his colorful life. She is graced with the same commitment to craft, dedication to her work and love for family that he exhibited himself.