Margaret Talbot, a staff writer for the New Yorker, has written The Entertainer: Movies, Magic, and My Father’s Twentieth Century, a biography of her father, the “little-remembered” Hollywood and stage actor Lyle Talbot. It’s a terrific read, a surprising page-turner, and a splendid cultural history of 20th-century theater, the early (and middle) days of the movies, and television family sitcoms of the 1950s and 1960s.
I picked this up in the bookstore because of its subtitle, and it really does deliver. But to my surprise, it has added relevance to my work on Lindbergh on several counts. I’ve always been interested in the life courses of people who were of Lindbergh’s generation: men and women born around the turn of the last century, who came of age in the 1920s–a little older than the “greatest generation,” in other words– and who went on to become figures of cultural or political importance in American history: Walt Disney (born 1901), Clark Gable (1901); Louis Armstrong (1901); Humphrey Bogart (born Christmas Day, 1899), Margaret Mead (1901); Lillian Hellman (1905), John Steinbeck (1902), Langston Hughes (1902); Richard Rodgers (1902), William Wyler (1902); David O. Selznick (1902).
Lyle Talbot was not, as even his daughter/biographer would admit, someone who might comfortably appear on such a list of eminences. But for me, at least, he was born at just the right time: February 8, 1902, making him just four days younger than Charles A. Lindbergh. Talbot was born in Pittsburgh, but his parents were from the small-town Midwest, and he would grow up in and around Brainard, Nebraska. Lindbergh was born in Detroit, but his parents moved him back within months to their small town in the Midwest–Little Falls, Minnesota.
The young Talbot and the young Lindbergh also shared an erratic history of what is today known as “parenting.” Talbot was “kidnapped” as a baby by his grandmother after his young mother died, and he was raised away from his father, though they reunited later. Lindbergh’s parents became estranged when he was less than five, although they never divorced and they even put on something of a public appearance of being happily married. None of these facts–in either Lindbergh’s or Talbot’s families–was ever discussed, or questioned, or examined, and they were certainly not aired in public. As Margaret Talbot writes perceptively about her father:
He was born in 1902, and grew up in a time and place–small town Nebraska–that was in some sense pre-psychological, a time in which people did not customarily explain one another’s actions and motives with the kinds of concepts–repression and projection, anxieties and drives–that would become so familiar to people a couple of decades later.
More (early) similarities: Both the boy from Brainard, Nebraska and the boy from Little Falls, Minnesota, propelled themselves out of their small-town lives by sheer force of will, and both of them did so by means of performance. In Lyle Talbot’s case, he joined the circus, briefly, as a teenager; then did a stint as a performing hypnotist’s assistant; then performed with a small traveling theatre troupe–all by the time he was 20, all before Hollywood beckoned in the 1930s. For his part, Lindbergh roared off to college in 1920 on his motorcycle, but not before allowing himself to be photographed doing so, of course, posed as a prototypical rebel without a cause. Failing at college, he headed off to the Army Air Corps to improve his flying skills, then toured with flying circus and aviation shows–billed and misspelled as “Daredevil Lindberg”–in the early 1920s. Throwing his hat in the ring for the Orteig Prize in 1927–to become the first person to pilot a plane from New York to Paris non-stop–was another gesture toward performance, as well as the fame and glamour that attended it. Lindbergh was not naive or ignorant about these probable outcomes; he loved the movies, and entertained aspirations in that direction, up to and even slightly beyond his transformational moment in May 1927.
And there was another odd intersection of Talbot and Lindbergh “paths,” and that was in 1932, when Talbot appeared in a Warner Brothers’ gangster and dames movie called Three on a Match, co-starring Bette Davis, Ann Dvorak, Joan Blondell, and–in a small role–Humphrey Bogart. A significant subplot of this racy story involves the kidnapping and threatened murder of a child of one of the leading characters–an astounding plot point in the same year as the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and murder. An administrator at the movies’ production code office–then without the censoring power it would have later–wrote with some distress to Darryl F. Zanuck at Warner Brothers, that “while there has been no signed agreement among the studios not to make child-kidnapping pictures, the general impression here is that no one would follow the Lindbergh tragedy with a picture dealing with the kidnapping of a baby for ransom.” (quoted in The Entertainer, p. 184).
The photo above is a publicity shot for Murder in the Clouds, a 1934 aviation flick with Lyle Talbot and Ann Dvorak. As the Turner Classic Movies article on this movie summarizes:
Typical of many aviation films of the period, the film depicts commercial flying as a high-stakes game perfect for hot-heads like Talbot’s Bob ‘Three Star’ Halsey, who keeps getting grounded for daredevil stunts but always comes through when they need someone for a life-risking assignment. In addition, it offers a brief yet fascinating glimpse of air travel in an era before in-flight movies and luxury class accommodations.