THE LADY FROM THE BLACK LAGOON
Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick
By Mallory O’Meara
A 2019 congressional confirmation hearing on C-Span is probably not a place you would expect to see the titular gilled fellow from the 1954 monster movie classic “Creature From the Black Lagoon.” However, this past March, there he was — that unmistakable rubbery visage sitting behind the nominee to lead the Department of the Interior — in a stunt by Greenpeace activists wearing masks to protest the Washington “swamp.” But when the incident quickly went viral, it also highlighted the Creature’s solid place in pop culture after 65 years.
In “The Lady From the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick,” Mallory O’Meara has set out on a mission to correct the common assumptions about the Creature’s creator. As a 17-year-old fan poking around the internet, O’Meara learned that an uncredited studio artist named Milicent Patrick (1915-98) was the real visionary behind the Creature and is “still the only woman to have designed an iconic movie monster” as of this book’s writing.
O’Meara is now a screenwriter and producer who makes monster movies and works for an independent film company. Her continuing admiration (and tattoo) of Patrick — and dismay at the lack of a proper biography — propelled her to begin work on “The Lady From the Black Lagoon” when she was 25. Learning that Patrick had to deal with a serious amount of Hollywood sexism further reinforced her bond with her subject. “I could easily put myself in her shoes,” she writes. “I have the same pair — every woman in film has them. They’re standard issue and they’re uncomfortable as hell.”
As the book reveals, Milicent Patrick had an unconventional and fascinating life. Born Mildred Elisabeth Fulvia Rossi, she grew up on the grounds of what would eventually become Hearst Castle in San Simeon, Calif., where her father worked as a structural engineer on the estate. She went on to have a varied film-industry career that included work as a bit-part actress, as an animator on the 1940 film “Fantasia” for Walt Disney Studios and as a designer in the makeup department led by Bud Westmore at Universal Studios.
O’Meara’s search for Patrick’s life story is helped in part by library archives, digitized genealogy databases and the continued interest in “Creature From the Black Lagoon,” with its fandom community willing to share their resources. “Never, ever underestimate the power of nerds,” she writes. (The filmmaker Guillermo del Toro is another fan — he first saw the movie when he was 7 and has cited his own deep admiration for the Creature’s design and story as an inspiration for his Oscar-winning 2017 fantasy, “The Shape of Water.”)
[“Creature From the Black Lagoon” is available to buy or rent, but you can also find a free copy of the film in The Internet Archive and read the movie’s 1954 review in The Times here.]
Readers looking for a straightforward account of Patrick’s life and work are likely to be frustrated with the rambling pace and structure of “The Lady From the Black Lagoon.” Although earnest and well-intentioned, the book comes off like small nuggets of biography thickly padded in autobiographical Bubble Wrap that recounts O’Meara’s own career, angst and writing process. The text is also peppered with occasional dashes of gossipy Hollywood history, seething rage over the way women are still treated in the industry, moviemaker tidbits and thoughtful observations on the cultural importance of horror films.
However, the book’s meandering path should not come as a surprise. O’Meara freely admits early on that she’s not an experienced or even objective biographer, and her infectious enthusiasm for her subject may hook similarly curious readers wondering whatever became of the Creature’s creator. (Without giving too much away, sometimes the monsters behind the scenes are worse than the ones stomping around on the screen.)
Despite the disjointed narrative, O’Meara achieves her goal. Thanks to her persistent efforts, “The Lady From the Black Lagoon” pulls Milicent Patrick and her considerable accomplishments out of the murky swamp of overlooked history and back into the light.