An actor, $5 and a screen test in 1930s Hollywood

Craig Seligman / Bloomberg News /

Published Jan 6, 2013 at 04:00AM

“The Entertainer: Movies, Magic and My Father’s 20th Century” by Margaret Talbot (Riverhead, 418 pgs., $28.95)

As a contract player at Warner Bros. in the early 1930s, Lyle Talbot was groomed for stardom. He didn’t make it. By the ’50s he’d been reduced to roles in Ed Wood movies and an ongoing part as a neighbor on “Ozzie and Harriet.”

A moodier man might have seen himself as a failure. But as his daughter, Margaret Talbot, recounts in her affectionate biography-cum-history, “The Entertainer,” he always thought his life had been touched by luck.

After all, during the worst years of the Depression he was living the high life in Hollywood. Once, at the Cocoanut Grove, he nearly came to blows with Clark Gable over Carole Lombard, with whom he’d starred in the 1932 “No More Orchids.”

Later, he was always able to make a living doing what he loved: acting. And after four short-lived marriages, he found a prize in his fifth wife, who was 26 years younger. They were together for 40 years.

Their four kids all grew up to make them proud. The author — the youngest — has had a distinguished career in magazines and is now a staff writer for the New Yorker. Surprisingly, this is her first book.

In a way, it’s like a gargantuan New Yorker article. She seems to have assumed that a biography of a minor American actor wouldn’t hold sufficient interest for a wide audience and to have felt she needed to turn it into something richer.

(She’s inherited her modesty from her father. In 1933, a Variety reporter wrote, “Talbot seems a pretty regular guy. Made a quick jump upward in film circles, but hasn’t let it stampede him. Gives all the credit to lucky breaks.”)

The arc of his life gave her the opportunity. Born in 1902 and brought up in a small Nebraska town, Lyle Talbot started on the lowest rung of show business as a carnival barker, then worked as a hypnotist’s assistant, a vaudeville performer and, finally, a touring actor.

He had a disastrous debut: Playing a drunk who was supposed to enter and slug the star, Talbot knocked him out cold.

He stayed on the road for 10 years, rising to leading-man status and at one point starting his own company. Then the Depression hit. He was stranded in Dallas in 1930, his funds down to $5, when the invitation for a screen test arrived from Hollywood.

As so often, he was in luck. During the silent era, Hollywood had tended to look down on stage actors; with the advent of the talkies, it needed them.

After reading the story, it made me sorry that Lyle Talbot didn’t live long enough (that is, to the age of 110) to read his daughter’s tribute and feel the full measure of his luck.