The Lady From the Black Lagoon by Mallory O’Meara (Hanover Square Press, $33.50)

“I don’t know a single woman working in my field, or any creative field, or any field at all, who cannot relate to Milicent Patrick. It’s not just her story. It’s mine, too.”

-Mallory O’Meara (from The Lady From the Black Lagoon, page 15)

Back in the 1990’s my friend Hill and I managed to land unpaid internships with a TV production company. We worked on several of their news-related shows over a 3-month period. Because I already had a full-time job, I could only work on Saturdays, which luckily was the day the broadcasts were taped. Hill did not have such a restriction and was able to commit to four days a week. She was such a dynamo that halfway through the season the company’s owner offered her a paid position. On the final taping date of the season, after we finished a 12-hour workday and the equipment was all packed up, I saw Hill leaving the boss’s mobile trailer office almost in tears. When I asked her what happened she said that they never paid her or put her name in the credits of the shows as promised. When she confronted the boss, (who had such a fiery temper that when one of the newsmen who hosted the shows asked, when I was giving him a ride to the airport, what it was like working for him, I replied “It’s like dancing with a chainsaw!”), blew up and called her an “ungrateful (c-word).” She immediately quit. (Later Hill told me that on more than one occasion he made lewd, inappropriate and unprofessional comments in front of her and other staffers.) When the next season started they called and left a message on my machine to come back and work for them again (for free, of course). I didn’t call them back; Hill and I never worked in TV production again.

Stories like these are not uncommon in the entertainment industry. And that is the subject of The Lady From the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick, the debut book from writer and movie producer Mallory O’Meara.

I was told and always believed that Bud Westmore, from the legendary Hollywood family of make-up experts, was the creator of the Gill Man, the iconic title creature who resided in the aforementioned Black Lagoon. Turns out history was unfairly rewritten, robbing the creature’s true designer, the surprisingly un-goth and glamorous artist, actress and designer Milicent Patrick, of her rightful place in Hollywood lore.

O’Meara pieces together the life and forgotten work of Patrick in an intriguing and readable story that intertwines their parallel lives. The history of how the book was put together is nearly as interesting as Patrick’s life itself, and in the process we get to know and relate better to the book’s elusive subject. The tale has all the makings of a Hollywood epic: An underdog hero, a smarmy, despicable villain, and an unfair and oppressive system that must by conquered. It held my attention to the final page.

Years ago I read a biography of Charlton Heston by Marc Eliot. It was well-written and informative, but a little dry. O’Meara’s style is a refreshing change. I especially enjoyed the author’s personal touches, informal language, asides, footnotes and humour, which made the narrative vibrant and luminous. (It reminded me of the time when I was Lead Teller at a bank and I had to train a new, young employee who kept calling me “dude” in front of the customers; when I took her aside and calmly explained that referring to me that way was unprofessional she sighed, rolled her eyes and said: “Omigod, like, what-ever!” Needless to say I remained “dude” to her until she completed her training and left the branch.)

If I were to have any complaints about The Lady From the Black Lagoon it would be the sections O’Meara devotes to unnecessarily explain Hollywood jargon and job title definitions (like what a Key Grip does). Most people who are interested in the subject matter would ordinarily be already aware of who does what on a movie set, and it tends to interrupt the flow and pace of the book. And on page 42 William Randolph Hearst is listed as “born in 1893” when in fact he was born in 1863 (source: Wikipedia), but that’s just a simple proofreading error and I admit in bringing it up I am nitpicking.

Today some closing credits are almost as long as the movie itself, with everyone from the car washer to the dog walker listed. All movies, TV shows and other productions are collaborative efforts; Hollywood history is littered with uncountable forgotten artistes and technicians whose influence will never be recognized, many of whom are women. (In fact, back in the 30’s and 40’s, virtually all film editors were women; they spliced the movies together according to the director’s strict instructions and forbidden from using their own ideas and creativity.) The Lady From the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick is the beginning of what I am hopeful are more works celebrating the behind-the-scenes work of omitted talent. I recommend it for devotees of all genres of the cinema, not just horror fans.

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