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Lyle Talbot led a wonderful life on screen

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Screening plus appearance by author << Margaret Talbot

When: 8 p.m. Wednesday

Where: Patio Theater, 6008 W. Irving Park

Tickets: $5


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Updated: July 22, 2013 4:06PM

In the 1934 film “Heat Lightning,” two “tomatoes” are hitchhiking to Hollywood. Departing from a gas station in the godforsaken desert, one of the gals cracks: “You go your way, and we’ll go the way of all flesh.”

This pre-Code melodrama, released by Warner Bros. and directed by Mervyn LeRoy, is notable for its fourth-billed actor: Lyle Talbot. In this black-and-white crime drama, shot on location, he plays a nervous crook on the run.

Born in 1902, Talbot hit the road as a teen for a very long run as an entertainer: from a magician’s stooge and actor in traveling stock companies, and eventually to the talkies and television.

The Northwest Chicago Film Society will screen a restored 35mm print of “Heat Lightning” from the Library of Congress on Wednesday at the Patio Theater. Margaret Talbot, author of “The Entertainer: Movies, Magic, and My Father’s 20th Century,” will introduce the film and sign copies of her bookr.

When Margaret was born in 1961, Lyle was near 60. She was the fourth child in his fifth marriage. Her mother, also an entertainer, was 26 years younger. When he died in 1996, he left behind big scrapbooks.

Based in Washington, D.C., and a staff writer for the New Yorker, Margaret Talbot is now on the road for a series of book-related screenings in Boston, Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco. In a phone interview, she recalled that she and her son Ike once got lost in Pennsylvania and stumbled upon the amusement park called Land of Little Horses. Musing on that roadside attraction prompted her to write a personal essay about the experience in the New Republic. “It made me think about the stories my dad used to tell — that lost world of entertainment,” says Talbot, who as a child, savored his show-biz sagas. In her book, she describes him “as an emissary from a past that was really like a foreign country.”

Talbot admits that committing to a 403-page narrative in a first-person voice was daunting. She likens it to marrying: “You have to really have to be in love in the long haul.”

“I didn’t want to write a straight biography, and I didn’t want to write a straight memoir,” Talbot explained. She found models for her kind of literary hybrid — family memoir and American history — in “Astro Turf: The Private Life of Rocket Science” (2005) by M.G. Lord and in “Nothing Daunted: The Unexpected Education of Two Society Girls in the West” (2011) by Dorothy Wickenden.

“The Entertainer” blends Talbot’s memories with her father’s backstage tales. Once a history grad student at Harvard University, she draws on the culture of American amusements to put her dad’s career in context. Among her curious findings: The decline of ushers in movie palaces coincided with increasing concession-stand sales of popcorn. Anecdotes about Chicago hoods abound. “Hollywood had made gangsters look glamorous, and they were grateful for it,” Talbot writes in her book.

Arriving in Hollywood in 1931, Lyle Talbot played his share of handsome criminals, as he did in “Heat Lightning.”

“No actor leads Lyle Talbot in the number of leading roles he played last year,” gushed a fan magazine profile of the era. “Seventeen is the figure, and it’s a record. When an actor can play that many roles — all big ones, and all different — in one year, he has what it takes to be a star.”

In truth, he never rose above the level of supporting player. The title of a 1936 Columbia Pictures programmer, in which he played a deadbeat inventor, served as a prophecy: “Trapped by Television.” By the late ’40s, he moved on to the small screen, where he played next-door neighbors on “The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet,” “Leave It to Beaver” and “The Bob Cummings Show.” He also found occasional film work in exploitation titles such as “High School Confidential” (1958) and “Plan 9 From Outer Space” (1959) for which director Ed Wood paid him daily in cash.

Despite its ups and many downs, her dad’s career taught her she could do what she loved.

“I’ll always be grateful to my father for showing me that you could make a life — and even a living — doing what you loved,” writes Margaret Talbot in “The Entertainer.” “Even if what you loved was a business that made stars — and you never were one.”

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