Anyone who has read my blog knows that I am no stranger to classic film. What with a Masters degree under my belt and an insatiable desire to fill up my DVR with obscure films playing on TCM, I’ve seen more than is probably healthy. And I’m certain I’ve seen at least one with Lyle Talbot.
With this book, Margaret Talbot has not only chronicled her father’s early life, but also the childhood of American cinema. Beginning with the roots of travelling buskers, then magic lanterns and early silents, we see this endlessly creative era though Lyle Talbot’s eyes.
The world that Lyle inhabited in his twenties and the country’s is a lost world — the world of traveling theater troupes and local repertory companies that, before the definitive arrival of mass entertainment, could still command people’s desires and imaginations. Soon it would be overwhelmed, first by radio and movies, then by television. But from the 1880s till the late 1920s, touring companies were what brought America its most reliable entertainment, what sparked, season after season and however creaky the machinations on stage, its sense of make-believe.
Giving happiness in this way could be an arduous business, though. True, traveling actors of the 1910s and 1920s didn’t have it as hard as their predecessors in the nineteenth century. Traveling players in the early nineteenth century had been men and women of Bunyanesque stamina: they almost had to be, just to cover as much ground as they did in the years before the railroad. They trekked ahead on foot to post their one-sheet advertisements on rocks and trees; performed in barns, mills, stables, attics and hotel lobbies, for audiences perched in rough-hewn benches and logs, before footlights that might consist of tallow candles stuck into potatoes or beer kegs that had been nailed to the floor. ~Pg. 90-1
Lyle it seems did a little bit of everything. From working as an assistant for a carnival hypnotist’s to starring with 1930s starlets to being in Ed Wood’s infamous Plan 9 From Outer Space. Also with James Cagney, Bette Davis and Olivia de Havilland, he fought for actor’s rights and helped to co-found SAG.
In many ways, daughter Margaret was a lucky biographer. Lyle loved telling stories about his decades in show business. And there is plenty of archival material to pull from. Still, there is always a level of separation between generations. Only our imaginations can try to realize what that era must have been like. But the author does a fabulous job getting us there.
As a reader, I think any sort of memoir is a terribly brave thing to tackle, but even more so when it is a dear family member. You are bound to uncover things you never knew or actions you can’t understand. It is unnerving to recall that all parents had a life before you arrived. This, too, Margaret does with grace. She doesn’t sugar-coat anything but neither does she vilify or write-off Lyle’s shortcomings. And he is a much more real person to us, the readers.
Here she recalls some of his philosophy while writing about his final years:
I guess we had all come to cherish the old pro in him, the instincts of the workhorse actor, the ability to get out there and turn on the brights for the audience. My father didn’t talk much about the philosophy of acting, except to say that he didn’t believe in Method acting. He didn’t believe you should try to lose yourself in a role, merge your identity with it, access your own buried emotion. You always had to remember you were acting; you could get emotional, but you had to maintain control. If he had a credo, it was a credo of entertaining. You owed something to the people who came to see you. You did a job for them. You kept working for as long as you could, with as much love as you could muster. That didn’t make him the best actor, and it didn’t make him a star, but it made him a lifelong working actor, a man who raised a family without ever working at anything he cared for less than he did for acting. ~Pg. 400
I truly enjoyed reading this book. Margaret Talbot’s telling of her father’s life is nostalgic but not sentimental. And it’s a truly American story — A Midwestern, bootstrap, just keep trying kind of story. Furthermore, it’s a reminder to the younger generations, to ask their parents and grandparents for stories. You may not have a film star in the family, but their story is important too.
Thank you to the folks at Riverhead for the review copy.
08 Nov 2012
9.25 x 6.25in
18 – AND UP