November 21, 2012
Guest: Margaret Talbot
TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. If you look up Lyle Talbot on IMDB, you'll find dozens of films and TV shows he appeared in, starting with the 1931 short "The Nightingale" and ending with roles on "Newhart" and "Who's the Boss?" Talbot made a movie with Bogart before Bogart was a star. He worked with a sexed-up Mae West and the child star Shirley Temple, and he was featured in the cheesy Ed Wood cult classics "Plan Nine from Outer Space" and "Glen or Glenda?"
He played Lex Luther in Superman serials, and he had the recurring role in "Ozzie and Harriet" as Ozzie's friend and neighbor Joe Randolph. My guest is Lyle Talbot's daughter Margaret Talbot, a staff writer for the New Yorker. She's written a new book about her father called "The Entertainer" that's kind of a history of 20th-century entertainment told through his life.
Before he went to Hollywood, he was a carnival barker, a hypnotist's assistant and a performer in touring theater. Let's start with a scene from "Ozzie and Harriet." Talbot, playing the neighbor Joe, has just knocked on Ozzie's door.
(SOUNDBITE OF TELEVISION PROGRAM, "OZZIE AND HARRIET")
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
OZZIE NELSON: (As Ozzie) Oh hi, Joe.
LYLE TALBOT: (As Joe) Hi, Oz. Close the door, will you?
NELSON: (As Ozzie) What's the matter?
TALBOT: (As Joe) Clara's on her way over here, and there's something I want to talk to you about before she gets here.
NELSON: (As Ozzie) You have nothing to worry about. I solemnly swear that you were with me at the bowling alley until 12 o'clock last night.
TALBOT: (As Joe) Ozzie, I was home in bed.
NELSON: (As Ozzie) Oh I'm sorry, I can't swear to that.
TALBOT: (As Joe) Listen to me, please. Clara's liable to be here any minute.
NELSON: (As Ozzie) OK, what's your problem?
TALBOT: (As Joe) Well, I just thought you might want to have a little talk with Ricky and sort of put him on his guard.
NELSON: (As Ozzie) On his guard against what? What's this all about?
TALBOT: (As Joe) If you'll stop interrupting me and let me finish a sentence, maybe you'll find out.
NELSON: (As Ozzie) I'm not interrupting you. You say something and stop, and I figure it's my turn.
TALBOT: (As Joe) Well, she wants to arrange a date with Ricky.
NELSON: (As Ozzie) Ricky and Clara?
TALBOT: (As Joe) (Unintelligible).
NELSON: (As Ozzie) You say something ridiculous, and then you stop.
TALBOT: (As Joe) Well, only to catch my breath. Now where was I?
NELSON: (As Ozzie) Have you been drinking?
TALBOT: (As Joe) No, do you want to hear this, or don't you?
NELSON: (As Ozzie) Of course I do, but get to the point, something about Ricky and Clara.
TALBOT: (As Joe) Yeah, well, anyway, Clara has this niece who's coming down to visit us for a few days. You know how women are. She wants to arrange a date between Ricky and the girl. Her name's Shirley(ph), maybe you remember her.
NELSON: (As Ozzie) Yeah, it seems to me I do. Yeah, last time I saw her, she was about this high. I think we've still got a couple of pictures of her wrestling around on the lawn with Rick.
TALBOT: (As Joe) Well, of course we're not allowing any of that this time.
GROSS: That's Lyle Talbot and Ozzie Nelson in a scene from "Ozzie and Harriet." Margaret Talbot, welcome to FRESH AIR. So one of the things that I found really surprising in your book was that you had family members in the two shows that a lot of people thought of as defining what the white, middle-class suburban family was like in the late '50s and early '60s.
Your father was the next-door neighbor in "Ozzie and Harriet," and your brother, Steve Talbot, played Beaver's friend Gilbert in "Leave it to Beaver." So did you watch these shows when you were young, and did they seem like that's what families were supposed to be?
MARGARET TALBOT: Yeah, I watched them later. I was born in 1961, so I watched them often in reruns, and they'd been on in reruns for many, many years. And it used to really surprise me, for one thing, that people would recognize my brother Steve, who went on to be a documentary filmmaker, was not an actor but would recognize him from his voice, I think, because those shows were such iconic shows for kids in the '50s and early '60s.
But yes, my brother and dad would, sort of, go off in the morning to work, you know, in the family station wagon, my dad wearing his requisite cardigan, which he did wear around the house, and, you know, Joe and Ozzie were always wearing at home. They spent a lot of time at home in those '50s television shows. They really never seemed to work.
But he did go off to work making these shows, and as you say, these kind of representations of ideal suburban families, and that kind of supported our suburban family in the '50s and '60s. And then my brother, yeah, was the sidekick on the "Beaver" show at the same time.
GROSS: And your brother, you say, went on to become a leader of SDS, the radical student group at Wesleyan University in the late '60s, pretty funny.
TALBOT: That's right, that's right, yeah, and it was a source of real embarrassment for him there. He was always trying to get, you know, fellow students to go out on strike against the war, and people would unfurl these big banners that said gee, Beav, I don't know, because that was one of his lines in the show.
TALBOT: Yeah, yeah, he played it pretty low-key for a long time.
GROSS: So I mean, your father - your family was automatically different from, you know, the sitcom families because your father was, you know, not only in show business, but he was much older than the other fathers that you grew up around. Your father was close to 60 when you were born and nearly 80 when you graduated from high school. That's maybe more common today than it was then, but even today that would be considered, you know, reasonably old for...
GROSS: Yeah, so what impact did it have on you to have a father who was that much older than the other fathers?
TALBOT: You know, yeah, it did feel - you know, when you're a kid, difference embarrasses you sometimes. So I think there were times when I felt a little embarrassed when people would ask if he was my grandfather. And he was very vain and didn't like that question. But mostly it was actually a really positive thing for me because he had this kind of gallantry about him, which I associate with an earlier era and maybe with older men.
And it was quite lovely. I was his youngest, and he had a lifestyle at that point, where he was doing a lot of theater and going out on the road a lot, but when he was home, he was really a stay-at-home dad, very domestic in a way that was unusual for the '60s and '70s. He cooked my breakfasts and made me lunch and took me to school. So we spent a lot of time together, and he told me a lot of stories about showbiz, which, you know, eventually became the basis for this book.
So I actually really valued it and, kind of, after a while, as I became really fascinated by history, loved the fact that I had this very kind of vital living link to the past that I really, sort of, treasured, you know - that he would use terms like, you know, calling movies, well, pictures and talkies and that he - you know, and used terms to compliment my sister and I like you look very smart, you know, which I - which was to me a very sort of '30s, you know, kind of compliment.
So when I came to really value that as I came to value, you know, language and particular areas of language and history, as I say.
GROSS: Let's talk about show business as seen through your father's eyes and through the research you did in researching your father and his times. So your father starts off in show business at the Walter Savage Amusement Company, a job that his father and step-mother helped him get. What was this amusement company?
TALBOT: It was a touring carnival that toured, you know, really, primarily in Nebraska and had, you know, all kinds of sideshows of the kind that you can, you know, you can imagine and have read about. You know, the ape man and, you know, the fat lady. And then it also had - they put on theatrical productions, as well. They performed in a big tent, and, of course, since this was in tornado territory, the tent frequently blew down.
And they traveled from town to town. They had their own train, quite a splendid train, and they were, you know, a very, very big deal for the little towns that they went to because they were the primary form of entertainment, and they were looked forward to, year after year, you know, with great anticipation.
GROSS: What was your father's job at this amusement company?
TALBOT: Well, he had a couple of different jobs. Mainly he started off as a barker and worked at the Kewpie doll stand, and then he later picked up other work as a magician's assistant. And then, ultimately, his first, sort of, I guess you'd call it real break in showbiz was leaving that amusement company and being hired by a traveling hypnotist named McKnight(ph).
And he became kind of a shill in the audience for that guy. And his main role, and this was his big moment, was that he would rocks broken on his chest. He would volunteer from the audience, he would come up, he would lie between two chairs, and then McKnight would ask - would put him into a deep slumber, supposedly, although my father said actually he never was hypnotized and couldn't be. He wanted to be, he tried, but he couldn't be.
And McKnight would invite a guy, a man up from the audience who was a local strongman, you know, a blacksmith or something, and he would wield a mallet and break the rock on his chest and, you know, supposedly Lyle would be asleep through this entire thing.
GROSS: My God, what was it like for your father to actually have the rock broken on his chest?
TALBOT: Well, you know, he was very game, and he would always say, you know, well, you know, it's a matter of science. You know - I think this is what the hypnotist must have told him, you know, it's the principle of the thing. If I were lying flat on the floor, you know, then of course it would have been terrible, but, you know, because I was suspended between these two chairs, you know, my body would give, and it as resilient, and I was all right.
But actually when I did research on this book and on this kind of hypnotism craze that was sweeping the country at that time, I found that that was a pretty common trick, but that people, you know, not surprisingly were injured and even killed doing it. So it wasn't quite the, you know, lighthearted party trick that my father made it out to be.
GROSS: Yeah, there were a lot of traveling hypnotists then. You know, it was a fairly common act. Hey, I remember back in the Catskills, at the nightclubs in the Catskills, like in the '50s and early '60s, there were still hypnotists there.
TALBOT: Well yeah, and there was actually - in L.A. for many years there was this woman, I believe her name was Pat Collins, she was known as the Hip Hypnotist.
TALBOT: And it was - I think it was on Sunset, maybe on the Sunset Strip, and it was popular club that people went to. So yeah, hypnotists did continue to - you know, there continued to be stage hypnotists. But I got really fascinated when I was doing the book, looking into this era where my father was active, in the teens and '20s, that there was, yeah, this hypnotism craze so that there were all these, you know, worried headlines in the papers about how an army of itinerant Svengalis was sweeping the country.
And it became a big explanation for, basically, wayward youth. You know, so I think at the time, you know, people were running away to the cities, young people. And, you know, when you looked for an explanation, people would often attribute it to a hypnotist luring them away.
GROSS: There's a great headline that you reprint in your chapter on hypnotism. And a lot of hypnotists would travel with their wives, and they would do the whole I'm burying her alive bit, and then she'd be able to kind of survive being buried alive and come back out when he unburied her.
And there was one city that wanted to prevent this from happening, because they thought it was just, it was wrong and dangerous. But they couldn't find an ordinance that actually forbid such a thing. So the headline in the paper was hypnotist has right to bury wife alive.
TALBOT: Yeah, I love that, I love that.
GROSS: Yeah, that was really great. If you're just joining us, my guest is writer Margaret Talbot. She's a staff writer for The New Yorker. Now she has a new memoir about her father, Lyle Talbot, the actor, and the book is called "The Entertainer: Movies, Magic and My Father's 20th Century." And it's about the world of show business as seen through her father's eyes. Let's take a short break here, then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Margaret Talbot. She's a staff writer for the New Yorker and author of a new memoir about her father, the actor Lyle Talbot. The book is called "The Entertainer: Movies, Magic and My Father's 20th Century." And early in his career, Lyle Talbot worked in a carnival. He was a hypnotist's assistant. He was in theater. Then he was in the movies and towards the end of his career worked on "Ozzie and Harriet," as Ozzie's next-door neighbor.
Your father started his own theater company after a while, and this was a time when movies were starting to overtake theater. And then an agent suggested he should come to Hollywood and audition. And by this time it's the Depression, it's hard to work. And - so he goes to Hollywood in 1932. What was Hollywood like when he arrived?
TALBOT: Well, he used to describe it to me as being like a small town, and I really didn't understand this growing up in Los Angeles, but, you know, it is true. It was really isolated. You know, at a time before commercial jet travel, when you were, you know, would have to take a train to the East Coast and a journey of at least five days. And, you know, there was also just a feeling - it had always been called the movie colony, you know, when actors in the silent era first started coming out there.
And there was a small, actually rather, you know, religious agricultural community in Hollywood that had been founded by a couple called the Wilcox's, and again, a lot of disapproval of actors when they first came to Hollywood. And they would be referred to as the colony. So it had this feeling of being, kind of, unto itself, kind of isolated.
And so he remembers it as being - you know, Hollywood Boulevard was like the main street. You know, you went to the same barbershop, you went to the same tailor, you ran into everyone you knew. You know, you waited for Greta Garbo to leave the men's tailor shop where she was getting her pantsuit, you know, fitted before you went in.
And, you know, but it was a kind of an atmosphere that he, I think, loved and felt nostalgic for.
GROSS: So your father was signed to the Warner studio, and this was before the code. This was before the Hays Code that regulated what was moral in movies. So what could you do in the movies of your father's era, the era that he arrives in Hollywood, that you couldn't do just a few years later?
TALBOT: They call it the pre-code era, and it's the early '30s to 1934. And it - the code was actually in effect, but it was a period when the producers were just willfully ignoring it. And so the movies of that era tend to be a little racier, a little more cynical, less likely to have the good clearly triumphing, and more likely to have some sort of ethnic stereotypes but also more of a sense of ethnicity with some, you know, Yiddish words thrown in and that kind of thing.
GROSS: So one of your favorite films that your father was in from that period is the 1932 movie "Three on a Match," and this featured Bette Davis, Joan Blondell and Ann Dvorak. And they played, like, three young women who light their cigarettes using the same match, three on a match, and they discuss the superstition that this is going to bring them bad luck, which it does.
And Dvorak ends up leaving her husband for the character played by your father, Lyle Talbot, and then she becomes addicted to coke and throws herself out the window.
GROSS: So here's the scene where Ann Dvorak and your father meet.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THREE ON A MATCH")
TALBOT: (As Michael Loftus) You're a funny one. I can't figure you out.
ANN DVORAK: (As Vivian Revere) Why not? What's so funny?
TALBOT: (As Michael) I can tell you're a real woman, not one of those stuffed brassieres you see on Park Avenue. You've got all the works that make a woman want to go, and live and love, but you're only making passes that'll never get you anywhere.
DVORAK: (As Vivian) How do you know what I do?
TALBOT: (As Michael) I can tell. Say, you don't know what life is.
DVORAK: (As Vivian) But I suppose you could show me. I never met a man yet who didn't ask to try.
TALBOT: (As Michael) Yeah, well listen, you keep on stalling and backing away, and then someday they'll quit asking you.
DVORAK: (As Vivian) Oh, I'm getting too old, is that it?
TALBOT: (As Michael) Oh darling, I didn't say that. Why, to me you're the most marvelous girl in the world.
DVORAK: (As Vivian) But you don't know me. We've only met tonight.
TALBOT: (As Michael) Oh tonight, in an hour, 10 years, what's the difference? It's now that matters. Vivian, don't turn your back on life. Take it. Take it while you can.
GROSS: So that's Lyle Talbot and Ann Dvorak in the film "Three on a Match" from 1932. My guest Margaret Talbot has written a new memoir about her father and his era in show business, it's called "The Entertainer: Movies, Magic and My Father's 20th Century."
So as we mentioned, that was a pre-code movie. After the code, would your father have been able to call certain women stuffed brassieres?
TALBOT: No, definitely not. And also as you say, Ann Dvorak goes on to a pretty obvious drug addiction, and that's part of her downfall in the movie, and drug addiction was a theme - also kidnapping. There's child kidnapping in this movie, and even though it was quite soon after the Lindbergh kidnapping, and that was a theme you could not see in movies for many, many years, really probably until the '60s or '70s.
GROSS: So why is this one of your favorites that your father's in?
TALBOT: Well for one thing, it's just got everything in it. It's got that Warner Brothers, you know, timely, topical, torn-from-the-headlines kind of energy and verve to it. And, you know, it's got - it's got gangsters, it's got sex, it's got, you know, drugs. And the performances are really good.
I love Ann Dvorak. And I think for me it was - you know, I guess it was the height of my father's own attractions in a certain way. So it was kind of interesting to see he's a very seductive character in this movie, although he's also - and this I think was a role he played very well - he's also kind of a - he turns to crime, and he's a weak-willed kind of playboy character who has a conscience but is sucked into a life of crime.
And he did that kind of character quite well, I think, so I really enjoy him in this movie.
GROSS: Was your father weak-willed as a man?
TALBOT: I think he had certain weaknesses, yes. I mean, he had a long-term, major alcohol problem that he eventually resolved quite resoundingly and successfully when he started a family with my mother. But that was a long time coming. And, I don't know, I guess was it a weakness for women? He certainly loved women. He had many, many girlfriends.
And in the course of writing this book, I discovered he'd had four wives before my mother. We'd always been a little vague in my family about the number of times that he had been married.
TALBOT: So I was able to nail that down and was a little surprised by the number. So I think yeah, for a long time - he particularly liked really live-wire women, I think, some of whom were, you know, sort of tough, stubborn, mouthy types. And that got him into a certain amount of trouble. He finally found one in my mother who was also incredibly sweet and decent. So that worked, but before then, I think he had some - I guess we would call them hot messes today, but, sort of, very high-maintenance girlfriends and wives.
GROSS: Margaret Talbot will be back in the second half of the show. Her new book about her late father, the actor Lyle Talbot, is called "The Entertainer." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Margaret Talbot, a staff writer for The New Yorker. Her new book "The Entertainer," uses the life of her father, the actor Lyle Talbot, to tell the story of 20th century showbiz. He never became a star, but he made dozens of films, starting in the early '30s. He worked with Humphrey Bogart before Bogart was a star. He played Lex Luther in "Superman" serials. He costarred in Ed Wood's cult films "Plan 9 from Outer Space" and "Glen or Glenda," and on "Ozzie and Harriet," he was Ozzie's neighbor Joe Randolph.
So, you know, we heard your father in a scene from the 1932 film "Three On A Match," a film that, you know, had, you know, drugs and adultery and crime and so on; a pre-code film. Let's compare that to a 1935 film that your father made with Shirley Temple.
TALBOT: OK. Sure.
GROSS: The child star. And this is called "Our Little Girl." And what's the premise of this film, Margaret?
TALBOT: Well, in this movie actually there is a threatened affair because her - Shirley Temple's parents - her father is played by Joel McCrea, and Joel McCrea is a hardworking doctor, who's working on, of course, you know, a cure for something - we don't know what exactly- and spending a lot of time at the office. And so his wife is getting a little restless and she has a flirtation with a character played by my father, who is, you know, that he's a sort of a European playboy type because his name is Rolfe...
TALBOT: ...and he seems to have a lot of time to go horseback riding during the day. So he is kind of a ne'er-do-well. So there's a flirtation and it's really, the whole movie is about a threatened flirtation, or threatening flirtation, and Shirley Temple, their little girl, kind of thwarting it. So nothing really happens, unlike very much unlike "Three On A Match." Yeah.
GROSS: OK. So this is a scene where your father in the role of Rolfe.
GROSS: Drives up in his car, opens the gate and says hello to Shirley Temple, who is on the front lawn there.
TALBOT: And her name is Molly.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "OUR LITTLE GIRL")
TALBOT: (as Rolfe Brent) Hello, Molly.
SHIRLEY TEMPLE: (as Molly Middleton) Hello.
TALBOT: (as Rolfe Brent) Well, what's wrong?
TEMPLE: (as Molly Middleton) I don't like (unintelligible) stuff, except for my dad.
TALBOT: (as Rolfe Brent) But he's not here just now, Molly. Won't I'd do?
TEMPLE: (as Molly Middleton) You don't know how a daddy does.
TALBOT: (as Rolfe Brent) Well, maybe I could learn.
TEMPLE: (as Molly Middleton) It's very hard to learn, sir.
TALBOT: (as Rolfe Brent) Well, look here. Let's have a try. Let's pretend that I'm the daddy and you're the little girl.
TEMPLE: (as Molly Middleton) I am the little girl.
TALBOT: (as Rolfe Brent) Well, all right. We're just pretending. Now here I come. Now there, young lady, you give me an account of yourself. Any cuts, pains, bumps?
TEMPLE: (as Molly Middleton) That's not like a daddy.
TALBOT: (as Rolfe Brent) No? Well, why not?
TEMPLE: As Molly Middleton) You were laughing. You're supposed to laugh inside. But if you laugh outside that spoils it.
TALBOT: (as Rolfe Brent) Oh, Molly. Why don't you like me, Molly? I like you. I like you and your mother and your daddy.
TEMPLE: (as Molly Middleton) I don't care. We don't like you. We wish you'd go away and never come back.
TALBOT: (as Rolfe Brent) Who is we, Molly? Your mother? Are you sure?
GROSS: That's Shirley Temple with Lyle Talbot, the late father of my guest, Margaret Talbot, who has just written a memoir about him and his show business career called, "The Entertainer: Movies, Magic and My Father's Twentieth Century."
How did your father like opposite, acting opposite Shirley Temple?
TALBOT: He actually really enjoyed it because he liked kids and he thought she was - as people always say about her - that she was a total pro. And she made one of her first, her first autographs that she wrote in cursive - she had just learned cursive - to him, to Uncle Lyle, which is a picture I have at home. I hated that particular scene when I was a little girl because I, I used to watch Shirley Temple movies and loved them, kind of at an age when you still don't quite get the difference between, you know, your father in acting in a movie and your father. So the idea that she would tell him that he didn't know how a daddy does it was very offensive to me. And I, 'cause actually, my dad was quite a doting dad. So the idea that, you know, his daddiness was being questioned was bothersome to me at that age.
GROSS: I like it when Shirley Temple says, I am the little girl.
TALBOT: Yeah, she's very good at it. She's very, she's quite believable.
GROSS: So we have to talk about your father's work with Ed Wood.
GROSS: Ed Wood was considered maybe like the most inept filmmaker in Hollywood history. But, you know, it's a fascinating story. So fascinating that a movie was made based on his life...
GROSS: ...with Johnny Depp playing Ed Wood.
TALBOT: Right. Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Who directed that?
TALBOT: Right. By Tim Burton. Tim Burton. Mm-hmm.
GROSS: Tim Burton. Right. Yeah. Of course. So he did "Plan 9 from Outer Space," a science-fiction film, considered to be among the worst science-fiction films. Because it's, the acting always is very stiff, everything about it is incredibly cheap, the writing and the stories are very, like kind of over-the-top. So your father was a...
TALBOT: And they don't make a lot of internal sense either. That's it.
GROSS: Yes. Thank you. Yes.
GROSS: So your father was in three of Ed Wood's films, "Plan 9 from Outer Space"...
TALBOT: Mm-hmm. "Glen or Glenda."
GROSS: "Glen or Glenda." Yes. And what was the third one? "Jailbait."
TALBOT: "Jailbait." Mm-hmm.
GROSS: So let's hear a clip from "Glen or Glenda." But first, I want you to set up the plot, which is a very surprising plot for the year the film was made, which was 1953.
TALBOT: Yes. Well, Ed Wood wanted to make a movie about the transsexual Christine Jorgensen, who had just, you know, had her sex change operation. And Christine Jorgensen didn't give him permission to tell her story, so he made another, he made a movie "Glen or Glenda," that kind of - well, it's about a cross-dresser. And it's kind of a plea for understanding of cross-dressers and people who have may be different, you know, gender identities. So in that sense it's, you know, although again, there are moments of it that make absolutely no sense, there is a consistent sympathy for her gender nonconforming people, I would say.
GROSS: so this is a scene in which her father, Lyle Talbot, is playing Inspector Warren. He's just handled the suicide of a transvestite, who has taken his life because he's been persecuted by society. So your father, Inspector Warren, goes to a psychiatrist to see if he could learn more about the mind of a transvestite. And the psychiatrist, Dr. Alton, is played by Timothy Farrell.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "GLEN OR GLENDA")
TALBOT: (as Inspector Warren) Doctor? I'm hoping to learn something from you, and with that knowledge, maybe save some human from a fate which I just witnessed a few days ago - a four-time loser. This type of case comes to me as well, as yourself, many times during the course of one month.
TIMOTHY FARRELL: (as Dr. Alton) The suicide?
TALBOT: (as Inspector Warren) The suicide.
FARRELL: (as Dr. Alton) Most of us have our idiosyncrasies.
TALBOT: (as Inspector Warren) This fellow's was quite pronounced.
FARRELL: (as Dr. Alton) Yes. But I wonder if it rated the death warrant it received.
TALBOT: (as Inspector Warren) Well, that's why I'm here today, doctor. What do we do about it?
FARRELL: (as Dr. Alton) I've always heard you to be a hardhearted policeman, Inspector.
TALBOT: (as Inspector Warren) Isn't that was thought up most policeman? The laws are written. A policeman is hired to see that those laws are enforced. We have a job to do. As in most jobs, there's always somebody who doesn't want that job to be done. In most factories today, the employer has put up suggestion boxes. Even the employer needs advice once in a while. I think in the case that we're referring to, I need advice. Maybe it shouldn't have happened as it did, but it did. Perhaps the next time we can prevent it.
FARRELL: (as Dr. Alton) Get our story straight. You're referring to the suicide of the transvestite?
TALBOT: (as Inspector Warren) If that's the word you men of medical science use for a man who wears women's clothing, yes.
GROSS: So Margaret Talbot, how did your father, Lyle Talbot, end up in "Glen or Glenda?"
TALBOT: Well, so this was kind of a low period in his career and he had - was having a lot of problems with drinking, and was not under contract anywhere at the time. Had met Ed Wood went Ed Wood was sort of a gopher on a Universal picture that my father had made some years before, and Ed would have said to him at the time, you know, you're my favorite actor and someday I'm going to make movies and I'm going to put you in them. So he called him up out of the blue, invited him to be in a couple of movies. My father decided to take him up on it. Ed Wood would pay him at the end of the day in crumpled up bills that he would draw out of his pocket, but he paid him everyday. They would film all over town, but never with any permission, so they were always being chased off of - chased out of, you know, alleys in Hollywood.
But my father always just described him as kind of a sweet, peppy guy - much as he's portrayed by Johnny Depp in the Tim Burton movie; a guy who really, really believed in what he was doing, had no sense of irony about it himself. Was quite sincere.
GROSS: So your father got a chance to see these movies before signing on to make more of them with Ed Wood?
TALBOT: I don't think he ever watched them, quite honestly.
GROSS: Oh, really? Oh, OK.
TALBOT: Yeah. We never watch them growing up and my father never talked about them. You know, when the Johnny Depp movie came out and there was this kind of resurgence of interest in Ed Wood, then my father, you know, sort of the ever the accommodating showman and interviewee, was sort of happy to talk to people about them. But a kind of wonderingly, I mean, couldn't, couldn't believe that these movies have been resurrected and that there was interest in them, but did have these recollections.
GROSS: My guest is Margaret Talbot. Her new book about her father, the actor Lyle Talbot, is called "The Entertainer."
More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: Let's get back to my interview with Margaret Talbot. Her new book, "The Entertainer," is about her late father, the actor Lyle Talbot. When we left off, we were talking about playing in inspector in the 1953 cult film about a transsexual, "Glen or Glenda," which was written and directed by Ed Wood.
You have a great story in your memoir about the night that Ed Wood stayed at your parent's home.
TALBOT: Yes. So, my father, you know, was really a very tolerant guy in many ways, but didn't kind of know a whole lot about cross-dressing and transvestism or transgender, I would say, and one night after a premiere of an Ed Wood movie - and you can imagine what kind of event that might have been - but I - he came home with my dad. They were driving together, but Ed Wood was drunk and couldn't remember where he lived, or couldn't tell my dad. So my dad said, well, you can sleep it off in the car outside. Went inside the apartment and my mother was there, who was, you know, 26 years younger, and a somewhat innocent person, I would say, at that point, and they had the two little boys, my two brothers. And my mother, who is very soft-hearted, said, oh don't leave him out there on the street; have him come in and he can sleep in here. He can take our room, and we'll sleep in the boys' room.
So in the morning, the family was sitting around having pancakes with the little boys, and out comes Ed Wood, and he's wearing my mother's negligee and a bra that he had found evidently, hanging on the back of the bathroom door. And that actually, that was it for my dad. He did order him to leave at that point. My mother I think was shocked, but knowing her, probably laughed a little, too. I mean, you know, so he actually never saw Ed Wood again after that.
GROSS: So the outre of "Glen and Glenda" was into cross-dressing himself?
TALBOT: Yes. That's right. He was. He used to say he had been a Marine and fought at Guadalcanal and he used to say that he wore, you know, satin undies, red satin or pink satin undies under his uniform. But, yes, he was a cross-dresser. He was particularly into Angora sweaters. And I guess my father had not realized that the movie was quite so autobiographical.
GROSS: Right. Your father is such a, was such an interesting mix of famous and not famous. He's in, like, lots of movies. Many are those movies are movies most people have never heard of. He was sometimes the leading man, but often one of the, you know, character actors, secondary actors. And then, you know, so after the war he's in serials. He's in "Batman and Robin" serials, playing Commissioner Gordon. In "Superman" serials, he's Lex Luther. So everybody seeing these serials, but they're not kind of walking out talking about Lyle Talbot.
TALBOT: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm. Yeah.
GROSS: So can you talk about that a little bit about that - his placed in Hollywood, you know, of having a lot of work, being kind of well known, I mean I grew up knowing that name but I wouldn't have been able to recognize him.
TALBOT: Right. Right. yeah. That was the kind of actor he was. And there are, you know, that's a group of people. And, you know, he, I think took actually a lot of pride in having been somebody who never have to take another kind of job, you know, never had to sell real estate or work as a waiter or whatever, you know, people do in Hollywood to make - teach yoga, they would do today, but whatever people do on the side to make it work. He was able to act, you know, to work in his chosen field which he loved all of his life.
And, you know, I think when you work in a system like that, that has such an obvious star hierarchy, hierarchy of stars, you know, a lot of people become very bitter, of course, if they have a moment where it seems like they might break through - he did have a moment in the very early '30s - and then they don't. They don't make it to the stratosphere or anywhere near it.
That can be, you know, that can really put some people off their life course and really ruin their lives. For my father, I think he took the attitude I am so lucky to be able to work in this field, in this creative field that I love, and do it and raise a family and have this kind of middle-class life as a working actor. So he, I think, came to feel that.
And I think he, you know, there are a certain number of points you get in acting or in Hollywood, in many fields, I think for just sticking around and he did. You know, he acted until he was in his 90s.
GROSS: So is there any one thing you'd most like to ask your father about his career that it's too late to ask?
TALBOT: No, there isn't, actually. I would've liked to ask about his feelings about some of his former wives, actually. And I sometimes dreamed that I was asking him that and he was answering me. But I feel like I was able to explore his film career pretty thoroughly, partly through these amazing scrapbooks that he left with so many reviews and clips that would be hard to find today, I think.
GROSS: Margaret Talbot, thank you so much for talking with us.
TALBOT: Thank you. My pleasure.
GROSS: And have a Happy Thanksgiving.
TALBOT: Thank you.
GROSS: Margaret Talbot's new book about her father Lyle Talbot is called "The Entertainer." You can read an excerpt on our website freshair.npr.org. Coming up, Kevin Whitehead reviews a new Bessie Smith box set. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
TERRY GROSS, HOST: In the 1920s, journalists and press agents dubbed Bessie Smith The Empress of the Blues and no one contested the title. She was first among the era's great women blues shouters. Her demise in the late '30s inspired Edward Albee's historically dubious play "The Death of Bessie Smith." Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says her art always seemed larger than life size.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BACKWATER BLUES")
BESSIE SMITH: (Singing) When it rains five days and the sky turns dark as night, when it rains five days and the sky turns dark as night, then trouble's taking place in the low lands at night. I woke up this morning...
KEVIN WHITEHEAD, BYLINE: Bessie Smith "Back Water Blues" recorded shortly before the 1927 floods that devastated the Mississippi River Valley. She'd written it in sympathy with flood victims she'd encountered near Cincinnati months earlier, whom, the story goes, asked her to bear witness to their pain. Even so, having a song ready for folks along the Mississippi just when they needed some empathy speaks to her mythic power - her ability to give voice to her listeners' tribulations and yearnings.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BACKWATER BLUES")
SMITH: (Singing) When it thunders and lightning and the wind begins to blow, when it thunders and lightning and the wind begins to blow, there's thousands of people ain't got no place to go. And I...
WHITEHEAD: James P. Johnson on piano. In the 1920s, Bessie Smith was a colossus who straddled jazz and blues. For all the acclaim she still gets, over time she's been marginalized a bit in either field - like she's too jazzy for blues people and vice versa.
But Smith played a decisive role in shaping early jazz. Horn players who worked with her learned a lot about bluesy feeling and inflections, a raspy vocalized sound and the economical statement. She helped brass players in particular to find their own individual styles, as personal as singing voices.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WEEPING WILLOW BLUES")
SMITH: (Singing) I went up on the mountain, as high as any gal could stand. And looked down on that engine that took away my love in May, and that's the reason I've got those weeping willow blues.
WHITEHEAD: Bessie Smith, 1924, with two favorite accompanists - cornetist Joe Smith and trombonist Charlie Green from pianist Fletcher Henderson's band. The horn players who answered her plaintive phrases might respond with sympathy, mockery or sarcastic sweetness; they stretched their own rhetorical range. She found Louis Armstrong a little too aggressive in support, more in it for himself. But he and Bessie sound great together on the "St. Louis Blues." Fred Longshaw's wheezy harmonium conjures up a little country church.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ST. LOUIS BLUES")
SMITH: (Singing) Feeling tomorrow like I feel today. Feeling tomorrow like I feel today. I'll pack my grip and make my getaway. St. Louis...
WHITEHEAD: This music is from a 10 CD box, "Bessie Smith: The Complete Columbia Recordings," which is to say all her recordings spanning 1923 to '33. There are many less daunting Smith compilations around, but the remastered sound here is mostly quiet and clear, and immersing yourself in her sides helps you get past the primitive recording to the music itself. Tracking her session by session, you hear her style evolve.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SLOW AND EASY MAN")
SMITH: (Singing) Don't care where he is. Don't care what he does. All my love is here. He's my only one. Ah, my slow and easy man.
WHITEHEAD: As a live performer, Smith was famous for bellowing to a theater's back rows and balcony. But by the later 1920s, she'd learned how to use the recording studio. She could lower the volume without diminishing her power. This is the Bessie Smith who influenced the young Billie Holiday, whose own early sides a few years later have a similar playful quality.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SLOW AND EASY MAN")
SMITH: (Singing) Miss him, yeah, in town. Miss him everywhere. He's the only man that can make me care. Ah, my slow and easy man.
WHITEHEAD: Even modernized a bit, Smith's blues began sounding old fashioned by the end of the 1920s. Her recording career was almost over. The Great Depression didn't help. But she left the music very different from when she began recording. She no longer had to coax musicians into bluesy expressionism, now they carried her.
Bessie Smith's last recordings from 1933 marked a changing of the guard, with newcomers like saxophonist Chu Berry and clarinetist Benny Goodman on board. Four years later, she died after a grisly road accident near Clarksdale, Mississippi - the cradle of the man-with-guitar country blues that had replaced her theatrical kind. Even her exit had its mythic sides.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I'M DOWN IN THE DUMPS)
SMITH: (Singing) I had a nightmare last night when I lay down. When I woke up this morning my sweet man couldn't be found. I'm going down to the river. Into it I'm going to jump. Can't keep from worrying 'cause I'm down in the dumps. Someone knocked on my door last night when I was asleep. I thought it was that sweet man of mine making his 'fore day creep. Was nothing but my landlord, a great big chump.
(Singing) Stay away from my door, Mr. Landlord, 'cause I'm down in the dumps.
GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point of Departure, Downbeat, and Emusic and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed "Bessie Smith: The Complete Columbia Recordings," a 10 CD collection spanning the years 1923 to '33. You can download podcasts of our show on our website freshair.npr.org and you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.