Book Review: A Biography of the Woman Who Designed the Creature from the Black Lagoon

Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick
Mallory O'Meara
Hanover Square Press, 2019

The Creature from the Black Lagoon, known as the Gill-man is one of the most beloved movie monsters, but few know that its design was created by a woman, artist Milicent Patrick. Film industry professional Mallory O’Meara found this unacceptable and set out to tell the story of this pioneering woman in creature design. Her book The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick is a fascinating combination of biography and memoir which gives this remarkable artist her due and questions how far Hollywood has come in its perception of women.

Patrick wore many hats in her career. In addition to designing creatures, she was one of the first woman animators at Disney, a modestly successful film actress, and a makeup artist. While she managed to do well in all these fields, her greatest talent was drawing with skill and imagination. She was so good that when she showed Universal make-up department head Bud Westmore her drawings while she was she was sitting in the make-up chair one day, he was inspired to hire her on the spot, make her the first woman to work for a major studio as a make-up designer.

While Patrick would be best known for creating the frightening, but sympathetic Gill-man creature, she had her hand in other projects, such as the creation of the bobble-headed Metaluna Mutant for This Island Earth (1955). She showed all signs that she would have a long, creative career, but it was not to be. Ironically, the man who gave her big break would be the one to end her design career.

While Westmore could spot talent, he was not a nice man. As a department head he was notorious for cruel behavior, employee harassment and jealousy. He wanted credit for all the work completed by his department and the Gill-man was no exception.

When the Universal Studios publicity department decided the novelty of a glamorous, poised woman like Patrick designing such a horrifying creature made her a perfect fit for a publicity tour for the film, Westmore was furious. Though she deserved credit for her design work, he didn’t want to give it to her. Though she was eventually allowed to go on the tour with strict orders from her boss to give him full credit for the design, audiences and media still gave her credit and he was furious. When she returned from the tour, she had lost her job and since Westmore’s brothers had a lock on the make-up design trade in Hollywood, she had also lost her career.

Patrick seems to have taken this injustice in stride, likely accepting it as a normal occurrence for the age, but O’Meara takes on the rage for her. She not only exposes the many ways in which Milicent has been denied credit for her work and the infuriating details of how she lost her career, but she has correlated those issues with the sexist behavior she has encountered in her own work in the film industry.

In addition to connecting her own stories to those of Patrick, O’Meara shares the frustrations and complications of trying to find information about the artist and her career. Without her own story, there wouldn’t be enough material about Milicent to fill a whole book, but the inclusion of O’Meara’s quest to save Patrick from obscurity and her own professional struggles give the story a depth and meaning that goes beyond the artist's personal story, while also perfectly placing it in historical context.

The result is a lively parallel narrative of a gifted woman who thrived despite the indignities she suffered and another gifted woman determined to make things better by standing up both for herself and a fellow creative nearly lost to the past.

Milicent Patrick and her Gill-man (Image Source)

On Blu-ray: Robert Ryan and Audrey Totter in the Boxing Noir The Set-Up (1949)

The rough-edged boxing noir The Set-up (1949) is notable for starring two of the best movie villains, Robert Ryan and Audrey Totter, as a loving married couple. It’s nice to see them be the good guys for once in a film where the rest of the world feels rotten to the core. I recently watched the film on a new Blu-ray release from Warner Archive.

Ryan is Stoker Thompson, a boxer past his prime whose wife (Totter) is desperate for him to stop fighting before he destroys himself. His manager also sees how damaged his client has become, but tries to use it to his advantage by telling a gangster the fighter will take a dive in his next bout. He doesn’t bother to tell Stoker about the deal, because he assumes he will lose.

The Set-up is based on Joseph Moncure March’s 1928 epic poem novella of the same name about an aging African-American boxer. According to Wise, a white actor was cast because at the time there wasn’t a black star with the stature to star in the film. As Robert Ryan had boxed in college, he was thought to have the skills necessary to convincingly play a boxer.

The film is notable for running in real time, which makes the action feel immediate and true-to-life. That trait is emphasized by a street clock that marks the time at the beginning and the end of the film. It is a characteristic at the heart of film noir: life can change on you very quickly and without warning.

There’s excellent attention to detail here, from the grimy feel of the Thompson’s hotel room to the cauliflower ears sported by the boxers. It’s an airless, sweat-stained milieu full of characters grabbing for what riches they can get, because the minute they stepped into the game, the clock started ticking on their self-destruction.

As Stoker’s worried wife, Totter painfully embodies the grief of a woman well aware of that inevitable decline. She loves him so much that she has gotten to the point that she can’t watch him crumble anymore, a decision he views as a lack of support or even the end of their love. With all the corruption around them, their fight to find each other becomes the core of the film and gives it heart.

This was one of director Robert Wise’s favorite early films, and for good reason. He makes a lot of a spare setting and a bleak situation, creating a compelling and in some ways hopeful story in the process.

Special features include separately recorded commentaries by Marin Scorsese and Robert Wise which are a carryover from the DVD release.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

On Blu-ray: Bette Davis at Her Best in William Wyler's The Letter (1940)

I’ve always viewed the films that Bette Davis made with director William Wyler as an emotionally charged conversation between actress and filmmaker. There’s something precise about the cinema they made together, as if they are trying to achieve the perfect mix of the authentic and the dramatic. You can sense it in Jezebel (1938) and The Little Foxes (1941), but I’ve found that mood most intense in The Letter (1940), which just made its Blu-ray debut from Warner Archive.

Adapted from a Somerset Maugham novel, the story of a married woman living on a far east plantation who kills her lover first came to the screen in 1929 as one of the few movie performances of troubled stage actress Jeanne Eagels. Her performance remains remarkable today for its intensity. She doesn’t seem intimidated or restrained by the camera and microphone and somehow makes a playing to the rafters performance work on film. Her stilted costars look like they’re in another world. She’d first performed the role on the stage and seemed to have carried her interpretation to Hollywood intact. It’s a theatrical take, but it’s drawn from real, raw fury.

Davis’ take on Leslie Crosbie seems to have been somewhat inspired by Eagels intensity, but she finds power in repressing her anger at being trapped on a plantation, ignored by her husband, with nothing to do but obsessively make lace. She doesn’t feel guilty about committing adultery and murder, because in her mind, she had no choice but to find ways to entertain herself. She acts as if the true betrayal is by her lover for leaving her alone again.

This is not Leslie’s world though, and while the court is firmly on the side of the white upper classes, her lover’s Eurasian wife (Gale Sondergaard) will see that justice is served. In classic Hollywood, even a rich white lady can’t get away with sinning in the end. As opposed to Eagels, who is defiant in her undying love for the man she murdered, Davis’ Leslie is tortured, and on a certain level realizes she will never have a moment of peace without him. It is possible that revenge is a welcome distraction for her.

Wyler and Davis fought hard about how the complicated Ms. Crosbie should be portrayed and the result is a ferociously executed performance that reflects that passion. These two have long been my favorite director and actress combo, because the turmoil of their fiery, but ultimately productive onset battles never fails to translate in some way to the screen. It is lively filmmaking which transcends the essentially orderly nature of making movies in the studio age.

The Blu-ray image is clear and clean without being too sharp. Special features on the disc include two different radio productions of the story starring Davis and her costar in the film Herbert Marshall. There is also a theatrical trailer.

Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copy of the film for review. To order, visit The Warner Archive Collection.

On TCM--Image Makers: The Adventures of America's Pioneer Cinematographers

In celebration of the 100th anniversary of the American Society of Cinematographers, TCM is premiering the documentary, Image Makers: The Adventures of America’s Pioneer Cinematographers on November 6. Drawing upon never before heard interviews from the ASC archives, the film aims to take viewers in to the minds of the greatest early cinematographers.

Image Makers is an essentially straightforward exploration of the work and methods of these craftsmen from silent pioneers W.K.L. Dickson, Billy Bitzer, and Charles Rosher to early sound innovators like William Daniels and Karl Struss. German Expressionists like F. W. Murnau and Karl Freund get their due, as well as innovators like Gregg Toland and James Wong Howe who took cinematography to a higher artistic plane.

Experts including Leonard Maltin and cinematographer Rachel Morrison weigh in, but it is film historian Kevin Brownlow who most effectively communicates the wonder and technical craft these filmmakers brought to their profession. Brownlow’s delight in discussing the topic, which at one point even moves him to tears, inspires a palpable joy which gives life to an otherwise fascinating, but by-the-numbers production.

It can often be forgotten that cinematographers had as many challenges as performers and sound technicians when talkies began to dominate. Image Makers addresses that transition and acknowledges the contributions of cinematographers like Struss who got the camera moving again after recording limitations rendered it immobile.

I most appreciated how thoroughly the film gives cinematographer James Wong Howe his due. A profoundly talented artist and technician, Howe molded his profession as he adapted to decades of innovations, from the beginning of sound films to the birth of Technicolor. It was especially gratifying to see his masterwork Hud (1963) given the attention it deserves for the way it elevated a Hollywood product to a deeply moving work of art.

Images: The Adventures of Americas Pioneer Cinematographers premieres on TCM on November 6 at 8:00 pm ET.
Related Posts with Thumbnails