The story of the trailblazing woman behind Creature From the Black Lagoon
The following is an excerpt from The Lady From the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick, by Mallory O’Meara, a biography of one of Disney’s first-ever female animators and the creator of the titular monster in the 1954 film Creature From the Black Lagoon. In this excerpt, O’Meara reveals how Hollywood gatekeepers attempted to keep Patrick in the shadows and, in turn, tarnished her legacy. Paired with the text are an exclusive early sketch of the creature from the author’s personal collection, and a modeling headshot of Patrick. Above you can also see a glimpse of Patrick at her workstation. The Lady From the Black Lagoon publishes March 5 and is available for pre-order.
In January of 1954, someone in the studio had the idea to send Milicent on a press tour to promote Creature from the Black Lagoon. She could talk about the creation of the monster, her design and the work that the makeup department did. Milicent was well spoken, friendly and charming. She’d be perfect for radio shows, television spots and interviews with journalists. She looked polished and professional and would represent the studio well. And of course, she was beautiful. Let’s be clear here. Universal wasn’t touting Milicent as the most brilliant and talented of monster designers. They weren’t even interested in the fact that she was the only woman to ever do her job, even though it made the Universal makeup department an important place at this time in cinematic history. They wanted her because of how she looked.
“The Beauty Who Created the Beast” was going to be the name of the tour, promoting Milicent as this great stunner (which, to be fair, she was) that was able to conjure designs for all sorts of terrifying monsters, as if being beautiful typically negated any creativity, inner darkness or artistic talent and Milicent was some sort of standalone wonder. Ironically, because so few women have followed in her footsteps, Universal ended up making that seem true. I certainly thought that was the case.
The publicity team immediately cooked up all sorts of ideas to go along with the tour. They wanted to send Milicent out with original sketches from all the monsters she had created for Universal for her to show off on television, in the lobbies of movie theaters, at exhibits or just to show to fans. This would go along with feature stories in magazines and newspapers about how the monsters were made—from Milicent’s original designs through all the approval steps, sculpture and finally, a real-life monster. They even wanted to have a party specifically for photo opportunities that would show all the monsters that Milicent had designed living at Universal and bidding her farewell on her tour, maybe even air it on television. I’m deeply sad that this never actually happened, because this is probably what my dreams look like.
This tour would have been revolutionary. A woman, not being menaced by a monster, but being showcased as the creator of it, as a talented artist. Yeah, the “Beauty” title is a little lame, but it was the 1950s. We’re still hung up on that kind of marketing and it’s 2018. It would have been a weirdly unintentionally feminist move for Universal. They were using Milicent as a gimmick. Ha, ha! How novel and crazy! A lady this beautiful creates things that look this scary! Who’d’ve thunk it? Now buy a ticket to see the movie!
But for the women and girls getting the chance to witness it, that tour might have been life changing. Seeing a woman that capable and artistic being praised for her creativity instead of being chased around by aliens or monsters, whew.132 That’s heady stuff.
Too bad Bud Westmore got wind of this idea.
He put a stop to it immediately. Or, at least he tried to.
When Clark Ramsay from the publicity team called Bud Westmore to discuss borrowing Milicent for at least a few weeks, Bud was instantly furious. Right off the bat, just the name of the tour incensed him. “The Beauty Who Created the Beast” was in direct violation of Bud’s idea that anything that was designed or created in his shop was his to claim, his to take credit for. The thought of Milicent traveling around the country, telling the general public that she designed the Creature infuriated him. Even though it was true.
He told Clark that the Creature was completely his own work, even though the publicity team had taken photographs months earlier showing Milicent at a drafting table, working on the design herself. Bud’s story was that lots of people contributed to the sketches and designs at the start of the project, but that they all had left the project because it had become too much work and too complicated of a design. After all these people had dropped, he had spent about a month working on the design himself, the design that became the final Creature. Big talk coming from the dude who couldn’t even hold the paintbrush the right way while he was posing with the makeup artist working on the suit.
Bud bargained with the publicity team, saying that he’d be willing to accommodate anything that they wanted to do to promote the film, except crediting the creation to someone else. Since it involved his professional reputation, he told Clark that it just wouldn’t fly. Stuff like this just wasn’t done. No one outed the head of a film department as not doing the work. Especially not a woman. Bud must have realized that if the studio was willing to put that much muscle into the promotion of this movie, it was going to be a bigger deal than he originally realized. I wonder if this phone call was the moment he began regretting bad-mouthing the Creature to journalists.
The publicity team caved. They couldn’t do this tour in the first place without cooperation from Bud and honestly, what did they care? It was most important for them to promote the film and make money, not champion women’s rights. Bud Westmore had all the power and prestige; Milicent was just some freelance artist.
Excerpted from The Lady From the Black Lagoon copyright 2019 by Mallory O’Meara, used with permission from Hanover Square Press/HarperCollins.