A black and white photo of Milicent Patrick in her studio working on design for the Gill Man from Creature from the Black Lagoon's head.
Stories & Ideas

Sun 15 May 2022

Creature from the Black Lagoon: Mallory O'Meara on the lost legacy of Milicent Patrick

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Author Mallory O'Meara shines a light on the previously-untold story of Milicent Patrick, the designer of the iconic Gill Man costume featured in Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954).

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Maria Lewis: Hi there my name is Maria Lewis, assistant film curator here at ACMI and massive monster movie fan, in particular of the film you just watched: a beautiful restored 3D print of the Creature from the Black Lagoon. And there's few people more perfect to talk about this 1954 classic and one of the key women who worked on it, than Mallory O'Meara the award-winning author of The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood monsters and the lost legacy of Milicent Patrick, a book that I highly recommend – read it several times.

Mallory, thank you so much for joining us.

Mallory O'Meara: Thank you so much for having me.

ML: I was so excited to have you. I'm such a massive fan of the book and I'm so excited that people are going to get to dive in to a little bit more about who Milicent Patrick was. So, I guess that's probably the simplest way to kick things off. Let's start at the very beginning. Who is Milicent Patrick and what does she have to do with Creature from the Black Lagoon?

MO: So, Milicent Patrick was an artist, designer, many many things, but most notably, for your audience, she designed the Creature from the Black Lagoon. She designed that suit. That monster is her baby

ML: I like the idea of the Gill Man being her baby, like a very scary and a weird smelling baby.

In your book you said that Milicent inspired your career as a monster movie maker, and it was a shot of her working on the Gill Man's design that became the first image you ever saw of a woman working on a genre movie like this. You not only quote a bunch of stats in the book – I'm thinking specifically of the one where you talk about how it's more likely that a woman will end up on the Moon than she will as a female director in Hollywood; that made me want to throw up a little bit – but you also had to calculate a bunch of your own stats because there's just not enough information about women working on films like this. So, I was wondering if you could break down exactly how rare it is for someone like Milicent to be in a position to create one of the most famous movie monsters of all time, and how rare that still is.

MO: So Milicent was actually the first woman ever to design a big monster for a film, for a horror movie. No one had done it before her... and how rare she is? No one has done it since. There is, in Hollywood at least – I can't speak to the Australian film industry, even though I know there are some amazing female film directors that work in Australia – still a sense, even though we've seen remakes of Alien, Predator, King Kong, Godzilla, every single Universal monster movie except for Creature, we still haven't gotten to see a a monster made from a big studio that's been designed by a woman – 60 years after Milicent worked.

And even when Milicent was working in the 1950s at the makeup studio at Universal... I mean they didn't even count it. Back then it wasn't... today we get so excited about firsts for women and we celebrate them and the ones that happen today, the ones that have happened historically, but back then in the the dusty smelly dirty makeup shop at Universal there were no alarm bells going off that Milicent had done this thing, it was just sort of a behind-the-scenes thing, and a lot of people didn't even realise it for a while. And when you watch a movie today you get to see 10 minutes of an end crawl and you see every single person in the movie who worked on it, from the people who who cater it, all the way to the director, but it wasn't like that back then in the 1950s. Only the heads of department got credit for things, and Milicent did not get any on-screen credit for Creature, which is heartbreaking, but hopefully sometime in the future... every year I hope we'll get to see a woman's name in the end crawl for for designing an an incredible monster.

ML: Yeah, it is interesting to think about how just how different it was in terms of credits and things back then, but Milicent also worked briefly as an actress and she was one of the first female animators at Disney and some of her work was in Fantasia, but designing the Gill Man on Creature from the Black Lagoon was a step up, and a step that Hollywood wasn't ready for. And the head of the maker makeup department on the film Bud Westmore definitely wasn't ready for at the time either, and Universal originally sent Milicent out on a press tour to promote the movie which you talk about in your book. What happens at the conclusion of that press tour and what happened to Milicent's career after?

MO: So, basically what happened, and like I said, up until very recently only the heads of department got on-screen credit for things and especially when it came to makeup. So, Bud Westmore, who came from the Westmore family of makeup... it was truly a dynasty; I mean his father George Westmore was the one who invented the idea of a makeup department... so Bud and all of his brothers had come from this incredible makeup dynasty and he worked at Universal and was very used to getting all of the credit when it came to the press for anything that went through a shop, whether it was beauty makeup, monster makeup; no matter who worked on what on it whether they were sculpting it or like Milicent designing it, it was his to take credit for. So, if something was amazing movie was fantastic, he got he got all the credit for and he was was very used to being in that position.

But what happened was when all the the public publicists and the press folks at Universal were trying to figure out like okay how do we market this movie? They were coming up with all these schemes and all these ways to to get folks to to watch it. They had pulled out all the movies that they had made decades before –Frankenstein, Dracula, all the Universal monster movies that they hadn't really been touching in decades because they had been made in the 30s and 40s – now like in the mid 50s they're like, okay, yes we've done all these monster movies we have this legacy of making monsters. One of the things they wanted to do was send Milicent out on tour to to promote it because they were like, oh my gosh, we have this beautiful woman; she's super talented, she's very friendly, she's very personable, wouldn't it be cool if we did a tour 'the beauty who created the beast'. I'm like slam dunk, even today, you're like, oh wow, that sounds super cool, really essentially...

ML: A perfect headline

MO: Truly, but the problem was that Bud Westmore found out about it, and if Milicent had been allowed to go on that tour, it would have been exposed that it wasn't Bud that had done the design work on this; he oversaw everything on the movie but it wasn't his design, it was Milicent's and he was not happy about it. This was a big upset for events. No special effects designer had ever been sent out to promote a movie before. This was really a historic tour. You know even today we very rarely see special effects designers or makeup artists sent out on tour to promote a movie. You send the actors and you send the director, maybe the producers, but really nobody else. So he wasn't happy about it, and he went to Universal and said no, this is not happening. I'm getting credit for this, and this isn't cool. So, the folks at Universal said, okay, this guy's pretty mad, but this is a really good idea. How can we do this tour while also placating this guy's ego? So they decided to rebrand the tour as the 'the beauty who lives with the beasts', so Milicent went from being the Creature's creator to being like his babysitter or his roommate. It was very weird, but she did it and she went out on tour and dazzled everybody. She had all these radio interviews, television interviews, magazines, newspapers, and people loved it. They were so excited. But the only problem was she had to promise to not tell anybody that she had designed it. Could not take credit for her work. She was instructed to give all of the credit to Bud Westmore, and Bud followed the tour very, very closely because he wanted to see and make sure that she wasn't stepping out of line and telling anybody that she had designed it, but people started to pretty quickly figure out that, okay, there's this woman, she's an artist and she is talking about this work on this movie... maybe she's the one who designed it? And she started getting a lot of press and a lot of attention – very positive attention – and Bud wasn't having it, so he got her fired and when she came back to Universal, she did not have a job. She got taken off the movies that she was already working on and she never worked behind the scenes at a makeup shop ever again.

ML: Such a tragic story. I was thinking a lot about the memos that you uncover in the archives and talk about in the book as well, where it was almost as if her talent was secondary to her beauty, and how frustrating that must have been to be so talented and get to go out and do this tour and feel like you're on the precipice of something career-wise, and then it all just disappears with a click of the patriarchy.

But anyway, there's obviously a direct line between Creature from the Black Lagoon and The Shape of Water, and Doug Jones who's famous for playing lots of different movie monsters, but specifically the fish man in that movie – the fish man with the great butt as Twitter would say – said it was a travesty that Milicent's name and work was forgotten. What made you want to spend years of your life and literally right that wrong to talk about her

MO: So, when I was growing up as a young horror fan and I loved, loved, loved the genre but it never occurred to me that I could do it too. You know, all of my heroes in the in the monster world – Jack Pierce, Rick Baker, Dick Smith, Tom Savini –they're all guys. It never occurred to me that women did stuff like that, so when I was a teenager and I saw that photo online of her working on the creature, and it said 'Milicent Patrick illustrator and designer', all of a sudden it was like being struck by lightning, and I realised, oh my god, girls do this. Girls can do this too. This is a girl thing. And it completely changed my life and it directly led to me working in the film industry and working in the horror industry, and realising that I could do that and there was a place for me there, and that experience just... and I didn't even know anything else about her at the time. She had no website, no Wikipedia page, nothing. There was not no information about her. No one even knew she was alive or dead. But just knowing that she existed was so powerful to me, especially as I was just in this desert of women in the horror genre. Now we're living in sort of an incredible time with all these women in the genre, but back then I just didn't know anybody, I didn't know anything, and it was really life-changing and I wanted to take that moment and I wanted other girls and women to experience it. I wanted more people to have access to that sort of power, and I wanted men to know that women do those things –and also for my own personal curiosity. I wanted to know... she meant so much to me and she really had changed my life and she had become sort of this symbol for me that I wanted to know. I wanted to know who this woman was and I want to know everything about her life. I am a very curious person, and so I realised that between those two things I wanted to... it was worth it, dedicating years of my life and all of my savings, and just sort of spending all this time and effort to uncover her story and to bring it to the world.

ML: Well I'm so grateful you did because now there's a whole bunch of people and a whole generation of female horror fans, in particular, who get to grow up knowing all about Milicent.

There's a line in your book that really stayed with me because it helps to contextualise my own obsession with horror, and a lot of women's obsession with horror, and people who love the genre, but goes, "women by and large are the most important part of horror because we're the ones the horror happens to." Do you think we're beginning to reach that point where the lens through which we tell horrific tales on screen is starting to become more balanced, and starting to become more representative of the real world?

MO: It is, but big ships turn slowly. Like I said, compared to nothing, we're doing great. There are so many fantastic female directors, designers, writers; there's just an incredible amount of wildly talented women in the field. So, that's the thing; it's not the fact that we have to get women into horror, it's that we have to hire them. There are still, every year, especially for the past 10 years or so, great, great films come out. have come out, are coming out. We have some great ones coming out this year that are created by women and that's wonderful. And people see that and they see it compared to nothing and they're, like, oh great you know we have lots of like "women are taking over!" But if you look at the bigger picture and you compare how many horror movies are made by men and how many horror movies are made by women, it's still a very small amount. Just this year [2021] in America, we have the first Asian-American woman to get nominated for Best Director – ever, ever! I mean, that's so long overdue it's scary. So, I do think we're on the right path and we're going in the right direction, but I think we still have really, really far to go. Until we get to the point where the people who are hired to make movies, especially horror movies, are reflective of what our society actually looks like, we're not there yet.

But I am excited about the progress that we're making but I think we still have a lot farther to go. We still have to keep pushing.