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)

2 comments:

Terence Towles Canote said...

I am glad that Milicent Patrick is getting attention for her work at last! She was certainly a talented woman, both as an artist and an actress. It is sad and infuriating that she was blacklisted. Sadly, blacklisting women in Hollywood when they wouldn't kowtow to men didn't end it with the Fifties. As I know all too well, it was still going on in the Nineties and is still going on now.

KC said...

It makes me sad to think of all the creative works we have lost because of women who have gone through what Patrick did, though it is amazing that she still managed to create one of the most famous movie monsters ever. You're right though, the thing about this book is that it makes it clear women are still blocked from success in similar ways to this day.

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