Saturday Excerpt: The Lady from the Black Lagoon by Mallory O’Meara
We are starting off the weekend with a fascinating look behind the scenes at Hollywood culture. In The Lady from the Black Lagoon, Mallory O’Meara uncovers the hidden history of Milicent Patrick and her contributions to the iconic Creature from the Black Lagoon.
As a teenager, Mallory O’Meara was thrilled to discover that one of her favorite movies, Creature from the Black Lagoon, featured a monster designed by a woman, Milicent Patrick. But for someone who should have been hailed as a pioneer in the genre, there was little information available. For, as O’Meara soon discovered, Patrick’s contribution had been claimed by a jealous male colleague, her career had been cut short and she soon after had disappeared from film history. No one even knew if she was still alive.
As a young woman working in the horror film industry, O’Meara set out to right the wrong, and in the process discovered the full, fascinating story of an ambitious, artistic woman ahead of her time. Patrick’s contribution to special effects proved to be just the latest chapter in a remarkable, unconventional life, from her youth growing up in the shadow of Hearst Castle, to her career as one of Disney’s first female animators. And at last, O’Meara discovered what really had happened to Patrick after The Creature’s success, and where she went.
A true-life detective story and a celebration of a forgotten feminist trailblazer, Mallory O’Meara’s The Lady from the Black Lagoon establishes Patrick in her rightful place in film history while calling out a Hollywood culture where little has changed since.
In 1954, Milicent Patrick was an artist working for the world- renowned special effects shop at Universal Studios in California, the movie company famous for its monsters. Dracula, the Mummy, the Wolfman and Frankenstein’s monster all had leaped from the studio there onto the silver screen and eventually, into the pantheon of film legends. That year, Universal was gearing up to unleash their latest horror creation upon the world, Creature from the Black Lagoon, and Milicent Patrick had just made history by designing it. No woman had ever designed a monster for a major motion picture before.
Universal sent Milicent on a press tour across the country to promote the film. During the months she was away, a storm of resentment and jealousy raged back at the studio. The head of the makeup shop, a man named Bud Westmore, wanted the recognition Milicent was getting. Even though he received sole on-screen credit for the Creature, he couldn’t stand seeing Milicent in the spotlight while he stayed behind at Universal. By the time she returned to Hollywood, she no longer had a job. He pulled her from the film projects she had already started working on and refused to hire her for future work.
After that, Milicent never designed another monster. She never designed anything for film ever again. Her name faded into obscurity while the Creature went on to become one of the most iconic movie creations of all time.
On-screen credits in the 1950s were not as comprehensive as they are today; her name does not appear anywhere in the film. Her contribution to cinematic history soon sank into a black lagoon of its own. The only people who remembered her were dedicated monster fans. Even they were in the dark as to where she went, what happened to her.
That’s where I come in.
Until I started writing this book, the previous few paragraphs were all I, or any of my horror film colleagues, knew about Milicent Patrick. She is, at the time that I write this in 2018, still the only woman to have designed an iconic movie monster. Her rise, fall and disappearance behind-the-scenes in Hollywood is the type of story films are made of, the type of story that needs to be told.
This book started as a straightforward biography, the fascinating story of a fascinating person. But the more people I told about the project, the more I was asked why I was doing it. She was some woman who designed a monster for an old black-and-white movie. Why was that important?
It was a good question to think about as I began to spend all my savings and all my spare time investigating what happened to this woman who I didn’t know and wasn’t related to. Why was I doing this? Why did it matter so much?
When I first heard Milicent’s story, my heart lurched with a terribly familiar ache. Hearing about a career beset by sexism, I could easily put myself in her shoes. I have the same pair—every woman in film has them. They’re standard issue and they’re uncomfortable as hell. Almost every day of my life as a filmmaker, I face the same kind of infuriating, misogynistic bullshit that Milicent faced in 1954. I didn’t have to imagine what it felt like for her because I constantly feel it myself.
So many women share this experience, women in every profession. We’re ignored, sexually harassed, talked down to, plagiarized and insulted in and out of the workplace. It’s worse if you’re a woman of color, a queer woman, a disabled woman, a transwoman and worse still if you’re a combination of any of these. 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.
This toxic environment made it difficult to uncover much of Milicent’s history. The sad truth is that many of the male collectors and historians I spoke to who had pictures or information about her were only interested because she was gorgeous, not because of her artistic talent. Some openly scoffed at the project and doubted her contribution to film history. But I never doubted Milicent. From the first time I saw a picture of her, I knew she was exceptional.
I was seventeen years old when I found out about Milicent Patrick.
I had just finished watching Creature from the Black Lagoon for the first time. Like millions of viewers before me, I was completely entranced. The film is a masterpiece. Over sixty years have passed since it was released and it’s still stunning. The story, about a group of archaeologists who travel to South America to investigate the mysterious fossil of a fish-man hybrid, is compelling. For an old monster movie, it holds up. The cast is a pleasure to watch, with lead Julie Adams lighting up the screen. As with all great monster movies though, the true star is the Creature himself. He is still one of the best designed and recognizable movie monsters in Hollywood history. The pairing of grace and primal power as he moves through the murky depths of the lagoon is astounding. You can’t tear your eyes away from the horror and beauty of his longing as he swims beneath the heroine. The Creature is absolute movie magic.
Like all the best magic tricks, I needed to know how it was done.