Movie monster maker Milicent Patrick finally gets her due in ‘The Lady From the Black Lagoon’
In 1818, Mary Shelley created popular culture’s first and most enduring monster in “Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus.” Since then, “women have always been the most important part of monster movies,” as Mallory O’Meara states in “The Lady From the Black Lagoon,” her engaging and compelling, if uneven, book about artist Milicent Patrick, the unsung designer of another iconic monster.
As a teenager, indie horror filmmaker O’Meara became captivated by Universal Pictures’ 1954 “Creature From the Black Lagoon.” Its eponymous amphibian star — a scaled, humanoid figure fondly known to generations of sci-fi geeks as the Gill-man — was the last of Universal’s classic monsters, joining the studio’s pantheon alongside Dracula, the Frankenstein monster and his Bride, and the Wolfman, among others. The Gill-man was also, as O’Meara learned to her delighted amazement, the first — and at the time, only — movie monster to have been designed by a woman.
Yet as she researches her new creative crush, O’Meara’s delight swiftly turns to bewilderment and anger.
Patrick’s design for the creature had for decades been credited to Universal makeup artist Bud Westmore, who fired her rather than have her role in its success become known. “Milicent’s incredible life should have earned her an honored place in film history,” O’Meara fumes, and with good reason. “But few even recognize her name.” “The Lady From the Black Lagoon” sets out to right that wrong, as O’Meara goes in search of this mostly unknown, if perhaps ultimately unknowable, artist.
Born Mildred Elizabeth Fulvia di Rossi in 1915, the woman — who later became Milicent Patrick — was the middle child of three. When she was 6, her father, Camille Charles Rossi, a structural engineer, was hired to work on William Randolph Hearst’s vast California Central Coast retreat, La Cuesta Encantada, better known as Hearst Castle. Rossi soon became the project’s construction superintendent, reporting to Julia Morgan, California’s first licensed woman architect and the castle’s designer.
Like other children whose parents labored there, Mildred frequently visited this dreamland, with its 2,000-acre private zoo and constantly shifting human menagerie of celebrity guests. But her father seems to have navigated Hearst’s kingdom uneasily, fighting nonstop with Morgan, and was dismissed after a decade. In her diary, Morgan called him “unduly revengeful,” and the superintendent of Hearst’s ranch said that Rossi “seemed to glory in human misery.” He was, perhaps, the first monster in his daughter’s life.
A gifted artist, Mildred received three scholarships to Chouinard Art Institute, which served as an artist/animator incubator for nearby Walt Disney Studios. The school later became CalArts. In early 1939, she was tapped to work for Disney’s storied ink and paint department.
Staffed entirely by women, it was housed in a separate building on the Disney studio campus, where the so-called Ink and Paint Girls reproduced tens of thousands of animators’ drawings onto celluloid, a mind-bogglingly laborious process. As Patricia Zohn wrote in a 2010 Vanity Fair article, “their job was to make what the men did look good … at an average of 8 to 10 cels an hour, 100 girls could only, in theory, turn out less than one minute of screen time by the end of the day.” At Disney, Mildred worked as a color animator (then considered a special effects technique) on “Fantasia,” contributing to four sequences, including the legendary “Night on Bald Mountain,” where she created gorgeous color pastel animation for the demonic Chernabog — “the most magical Disney character” for O’Meara and generations of monster lovers.
Mildred left Disney in the wake of the 1941 animators’ walkout, a strike that irrevocably changed the way the studio functioned. But Mildred wasn’t among the strikers. At some point, she had embarked upon an affair with another Disney animator, Paul Fitzpatrick. His pregnant wife found out and killed herself and their unborn child. The tragedy left Mildred and Fitzpatrick free to marry, and also estranged Mildred from her family. When, after a few years, she and Fitzpatrick divorced, she took on the name Mil Patrick. At some point she refined this to Milicent Patrick. She claimed to be Disney’s first female animator — probably not true, but close enough — and further embroidered her background by saying she was an Italian baroness.
She certainly looked the part, as one can see in a promotional film and photos from her time at Disney — strikingly beautiful, with long black hair and a regal air that not even Ink and Paint’s utilitarian smocks could diminish. She continued to create art, including illustrations for a collection of off-color jokes, but mostly seems to have worked as a model.
Then, in 1947, she met William Hawks, brother of filmmaker Howard Hawks and also a producer. She began to get uncredited bit parts as an extra — water nymph, flashy woman, tavern wench — in mostly forgettable films. She became involved with actor Frank L. Graham, best known for voicing the lascivious Wolf in Tex Avery’s cartoon short “Red Hot Riding Hood.” A few months into their relationship, in September 1950, Graham committed suicide. His will contained a note that read, “To Mildred, I leave nothing except the pleasure she will have knowing that now she won’t have to decide whether I am good enough for her or not.” Also, a postscript: “Gee, I wish Mildred had called me back yesterday morning.”
By this point — nearly halfway through O’Meara’s book — readers may be thinking, “Gee, I wish we’d get to the Creature.”
This is the heart of O’Meara’s story, and it’s a good, if infuriating, one. O’Meara writes that, in 1952, while working as an extra on the Universal lot, Patrick met the head of the studio’s makeup department, Bud Westmore. (I recently came across a 1948 publicity photo online of Patrick holding the monster’s mask from the film from the same year “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein,” with a handwritten note saying that she helped make the mask and also did its fine detail painting.) Westmore oversaw makeup for that earlier film, so it’s possible that Patrick met him at that time, and that Westmore was already familiar with her work when, in 1952, she was hired as makeup designer for the B picture that became “Creature From the Black Lagoon.”
Unfortunately, none of her preliminary or finished sketches seemed to survive.
But others familiar with the movie (including Chris Mueller, who sculpted the Gill-man’s mask) state unequivocally that Patrick designed the creature, a graceful, elegant and surprisingly sexy monster whose influence extends to Guillermo del Toro’s 2017 Oscar-winning homage, “The Shape of Water.” During previews, it became clear that Universal’s new monster flick was going to be a hit, its audience reactions fueled, no doubt, by an underwater pas de deux between the Gill-man and his female, human prey that still retains an erotic charge. The studio decided to capitalize on Patrick’s involvement and send her on a publicity tour with the tagline, “The Beauty Who Created the Beast.”
Westmore, known to be difficult and controlling with underlings, hit the roof.
O’Meara summarizes memos from the publicity team (they can be read in Tom Weaver’s in-depth “The Creature Chronicles,” one of O’Meara’s sources) detailing their battles with the makeup chief. The upshot: Patrick was sent out with masks of several Universal monsters, including the Creature, and was renamed “The Beauty Who Lives With the Beasts.” Even this wasn’t enough for Westmore. He struck Patrick’s name from the credits, replaced it with his own and, when she returned from her successful, nearly monthlong tour, had her fired.
At one point, O’Meara rages, “Several [people] expressed doubt that [Patrick’s] story could be more than an article, let alone fill an entire book.” The truth is, much of the book is padding, and it often reads as though it were written for a young audience, with long passages and footnotes explaining who Hearst was, what a scream queen is, and so on.
If Patrick left any diaries, journals, letters or the like, they’re not quoted from here, though O’Meara does speak with others intrigued by her history (including Mindy Johnson, whose 2017 “Ink & Paint: The Women of Walt Disney’s Animation,” delves deeply into the role of women in the studio’s early years).
But many specific details of her life as a working artist remain scarce.
O’Meara even visits the artist’s niece, who talks to her for hours about her aunt, and gives the author access to Tupperware filled with Patrick’s papers and ephemera. “The answers to almost all of my questions about Milicent were in these boxes,” O’Meara states, but she shares nothing of what she learns, except in the vaguest terms.
We learn that Patrick is “a friendly and warm person,” with “a warm personality,” “well-spoken, friendly and charming.” “Socializing was easy for Milicent,” and Graham’s suicide “caused her to lean harder than ever on her friends.” There are no interviews with friends, and no citations for quotes, including comments like “[Milicent] loved looking glamorous. It made her happy” or, “How marvelous that she refused to try to fit into the boy’s club [sic], that she was unapologetically herself,” or, later, that she was “beset by loneliness.”
O’Meara, unsurprisingly, identifies with her subject. Like Patrick and many other women, O’Meara has her own experiences of being harassed, abused and treated contemptuously by men in the film industry. Still, her book could use less of the author’s own rage and occasional fangirl gushing, however well deserved, and more about its subject, a woman whose father was said to “glory in human misery,” who knew firsthand the devastating effect of suicide, and who submitted a memo totting up the damage to her wardrobe for the Universal tour (amounting to nearly $4,000 in today’s money).
“One cocktail dress—completely ruined.
One cocktail dress—beading broken and lost.
One gabardine suit—shrunk and can’t be repaired.
One lace coat—burned, torn, and shrunk—ruined beyond repair.
One afternoon dress—torn but repairable.
One pair of earrings—cut in half by pub. man and stones lost.
One velvet blouse—torn, can be repaired.”
All of which makes one wonder if Patrick was accompanied on tour not just by masks but by the monsters themselves.
“Women are the most important part of horror because, by and large, women are the ones the horror happens to,” O’Meara writes.
“Women have to endure it, fight it, survive it — in the movies and in real life. Horror films help explore these fears and imagine what it would be like to conquer them. Women need to see themselves fighting monsters. That’s part of how we figure out our stories. But we also need to see ourselves behind-the-scenes, creating and writing and directing. We need to tell our stories, too.”
Patrick died in 1998, at age 82, largely forgotten except for a coterie of devoted fans. O’Meara has seen to it that she won’t be forgotten again. Her book is a fierce and often very funny guide to the distaff side of geekdom and reproduces photos and examples of Patrick’s work, many previously unpublished. That alone would be worth the price of admission to the world of this complex, brilliant artist.
Hanover Square Press, 351 pp, $26.99
Hand’s novel, “Curious Toys,” will be published this fall.
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