Mallory O’Meara, author of The Lady from the Black Lagoon, was a 17-year-old self-proclaimed “horror geek” when she first saw the Creature From The Black Lagoon. She was captivated, and did what she typically did when something caught her curiosity: investigate everything she could about the movie, the director, the actors, how they filmed the underwater scenes, and of course, the Creature. In her research, she came across a single black-and-white photo of a glamorous woman with dark hair and captivating smile, painting the mask of the Creature. The photo caption identified Milicent Patrick, animator and creature designer. It was several years before O’Meara came to learn that in 1950s Hollywood, a woman monster designer was a very rare thing.
Milicent Patrick was born Mildred Elisabeth Fulvia Rossi on November 11, 1915. She grew up in the shadow of the famous Hearst Castle, on California's Central Coast. She was one of the first female Walt Disney Studios animators, and her artwork appears in the 1940 movie Fantasia. She was a makeup artist, film and television actress, and most notable of all, she was the first and only female to design the Creature, the iconic movie monster from the 1954 Hollywood film Creature from the Black Lagoon, for which she never received credit.
It wasn’t until Mallory O’Meara worked as a producer in the horror film industry that she fully appreciated Millicent Patrick’s contribution. “The status quo was, and still is, all the well-known special effects artists are men," O'Meara told Spine. "The Wolfman, Frankenstein, Dracula, King Kong, Godzilla, American Werewolf in London, Dawn of the Dead, all of my monster-making heroes are guys.”
Patrick's singular accomplishment was nearly erased from movie lore in a fit of professional jealousy by Patrick’s boss, Bud Westmore, after sending her on a national promotional tour for Creature From the Black Lagoon. It was originally billed as The Beauty Who Created the Beast, but Westmore changed the name to The Beauty Who Lives With The Beast, possibly fearing the public would rightfully believe she was the mastermind behind the Creature. According to O’Meara, “She was not allowed to take any credit for it. Her role was to tell people that Bud Westmore alone created the Creature, but Milicent was a big hit … and when he [Westmore] heard how successful she was, he fired her on the spot ... she never worked behind the scenes in Hollywood ever again.”
After discovering Patrick's photo, and driven to find out what happened to her, O’Meara began a personal passion project in search for the truth. The result is a fascinating biography of a Hollywood icon, which establishes Milicent Patrick in her rightful place in the male-dominated, behind-the-scenes Hollywood film history. This is the kind of story of which films are made.
It was a deep dive to chronicle Milicent Patrick’s life, which early in her research, O’Meara said was a daunting task. Very little was known or recorded about Patrick’s life and accomplishments. The use of closing credits in film to list complete production crew and cast was not firmly established in American film until the 1970s. Patrick also worked in film and television under a few names, and in roles which were also uncredited. All of this made O’Meara’s search all the more difficult.
“I had to look so many places, and I had no idea how to find her. She lived before the internet or any databases ... back then film credits were not what they are now. I couldn't just look her up, even her Wikipedia page is wrong. I learned how to research with the help of the Los Angeles Public Library, and lots of nerds. When you work in this genre, it’s a small community, we all know each other, so I reached out to a bunch of friends. We are a tight group, we support each other,” she said.
One of her best resources was the Mormon Church. “They own genealogical, family-research websites and it was an information exchange — for me giving them my information, they gave me access to their archives —that was how I was able to track down so much of her life. I got her birth certificate. I got her father's draft papers, all kinds of things.”
In The Lady From The Black Lagoon, O’Meara weaves Patrick’s story with that of her process of research. She feels a deep connection to Patrick on both personal and professional levels, and was so inspired by her work that she now has a tattoo of Patrick with her Creature. From the first time she saw her picture, O’Meara knew she was looking at an exceptional woman.
O’Meara’s goal was to make the world aware of Milicent Patrick’s work and remarkable legacy, not only her career as a talented female artist, but also the behind-the-scenes Hollywood culture she dealt with, which O'Meara still sees in the reactions to Patrick's story.
“Thanks to #MeToo, the conversation has shifted, but there is still a lot of sexism. Many of the male historians I spoke to doubt her story. They think because she was beautiful, she had to be someone’s girlfriend, she couldn’t have any artistic talent ... some openly scoffed because they doubted her contribution. I wanted to show that what happened to Milicent is still happening to women in film every day.”
The Lady From the Black Lagoon is the narrative of an ambitious, artistic woman ahead of her time. It is a reclaimation of a forgotten feminist trailblazer. Mallory O’Meara establishes Patrick in her rightful place in film history.
E.F. Sweetman is a writer living in Beverly, Massachusetts. Her stories have appeared in noir, crime, flash, horror, and gothic anthologies Microchondria II, One Night in Salem, Switchblade V, Sixx, and Stiletto Heeled, EconoClash Review, Broadswords and Blasters, and FunDead's upcoming Gothic Anthology. She lives with her husband, two sons, and three rescue dogs. When she is not working on her noir novel, which she hopes to finish before she turns 95, you can find her glaring out the window at her neighbors.