“Lost Hollywood.” The phrase conjures up starlets in silver lamé and lunchtime gimlets at The Brown Derby; it does not bring to mind slimy swamp creatures or screwball surrealists starring in movies featuring walking melons. But two new books that retrieve forgotten moments in Hollywood history expand our sense of La La Land’s long legacy of magic and bad behavior.
Mallory O’Meara is a young producer and screenwriter who works in the monster/horror genre. Growing up a self-professed “monster geek,” she first watched that 1954 classic, Creature from the Black Lagoon, when she was 17 and she was smitten.
Filmed in 3D black and white, the movie follows a team of archaeologists who search for a prehistoric fish-man rumored to be paddling around in a remote Amazonian pond. Of course, there’s a gorgeous woman on the team who becomes romantic fish bait, but, as O’Meara says, it’s the lonely Creature himself, sometimes called “Gill Man,” who’s the real star.
Curious, O’Meara began Internet surfing and discovered that a woman designed the Creature’s monster suit. Her name was Milicent Patrick, and she herself was a raven-haired knock-out who looked like a movie star. In fact, when the movie was about to premiere, Universal Studios sent Patrick on a publicity tour, billing her as “The Beauty Who Created the Beast.”
But Patrick’s powerful male boss was jealous of the attention and insisted that the tour be retitled, “The Beauty Who Lives With the Beasts,” making it sound like she was some kind of den mother for the Creature, along with the Mummy and Wolfman. Even worse, Patrick’s boss fired her after the tour.
Because her name appears nowhere in the original credits, Patrick’s accomplishments faded from memory, known only to “geeks” like O’Meara. To date, Patrick is the only woman credited with designing a great Hollywood monster.
O’Meara’s chatty, impassioned book, The Lady from the Black Lagoon, lifts Milicent Patrick out of the mire of obscurity. There’s so much great material here — including Patrick’s childhood at Hearst Castle and her early career as one of Disney’s first female animators — that her own life story could be a film.
O’Meara is a dogged researcher and a fierce partisan (she even sports a tattoo of Patrick and the Creature on her left forearm), but I must warn readers that this book should be rated “O” for “Ohmigod, where was an editor?” O’Meara’s prose is bogged down in lame jokes and Wikipedia-level historical context. Still, I think it’s worth putting up with these transgressions for Patrick’s story, which, as O’Meara points out, has resonances for today, when women in Hollywood still find themselves in the company of monsters.
And, now, for something completely different: In 1937, the Surrealist artist Salvador Dalí traveled to Hollywood to meet one of his idols, Harpo Marx, whom Dalí called, “The American Surrealist.” If ever there were two people who “got” each other, in terms of their shared manic subversion of reality, Dalí and Harpo were those kindred spirits.
After their meeting, two things happened: Dalí sent Harpo an actual harp festooned with silverware (spoons, knives and forks) whose strings were made of barbed wire. Harpo loved it and had a publicity photo of himself taken playing that harp with bandages wrapped around his fingers.
The other outcome was a script scenario written by Dalí of a movie for the Marx Brothers called, Giraffes on Horseback Salad. Big surprise, Louis B. Mayer, the humorless head of MGM studios, turned it down and the unfinished script was presumed lost, appearing only on lists of “Greatest Movies Never Made.”
Enter Josh Frank, who, like O’Meara is, among other things, a screenwriter and a geek, in his case, a Marx Brothers geek. Frank excavated Dalí’s forgotten film treatment from the Centre Pompidou in Paris and, in collaboration with comedian Tim Heidecker and artist Manuela Pertega, he’s produced a gorgeous graphic treatment of Giraffes on Horseback Salad.
It’s far beyond me to encapsulate the storyline here, which involves a businessman named Jimmy who’s in love with a dame called The Surrealist Woman. Some of Dalí’s directions call for Groucho Marx, who’s dancing the tango with a woman whose cheek annoys him, to remove her cheek with a spoon and for the three Marx brothers to cut off the nose of a locomotive train with a guillotine. Don’t even try to understand; just revel in the weirdness, along with the wonderful photographs and other archival material Frank includes in this book.
Lost Hollywood turns out to be stranger and, in a way, more ahead of its time than most of us could’ve imagined.
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