For years, I have been telling people about the legacy of Milicent Patrick to anyone who would listen, so you can imagine my delight when I came across this biography. As author Mallory O’Meara explains, there’s a dearth of female role models in monster movie production. Sure, there are plenty of women in front of the camera, but all they seem to offer is what Carol Clover identifies as “tits and a scream.” Therefore, when I first learned about Patrick’s design of the Gill Man for Creature from the Black Lagoon and the Metaluna Mutant for This Island Earth, you cannot imagine how overjoyed I was that some of my favourite movie monsters had been designed by a woman. But, as is the case with many talented women in Hollywood who threaten the egos of their male counterparts, she slipped into relative obscurity after she was unceremoniously fired from Universal Studios. Therefore, this biography shares a dual purpose: to tell an important piece of cinematic history that had been previously left out by sexism and Hollywood, and to share the inspiring journey of a woman who lived according to what she loved, including her monsters.
What I loved about this book is how O’Meara shared her own personal journey as a film producer and refused to sugar coat details that are usually omitted from women’s biographies, including frank anecdotes about the constant sexism in the male-dominated film industry. What’s more is that O’Meara took great pains to describe Patrick in human terms, rather than place her on a pedestal as some kind of anomaly of history. To be honest, it’s really refreshing to read about someone who made lots of mistakes along the way! As a woman creative, I really identified with Milicent’s struggle, but I was also relieved to find out that she was only human. It makes me feel like I don’t have to be perfect in my own creative business.
Another, slightly monster-geekier, reason I loved this biography is that I was thrilled to have more information about Patrick’s years as an animator for Disney, and the fact that she worked on the Chernabog scene from Fantasia, with all of those pastel-effect ghosts. I had previously known she had worked at Disney for a time, but I never knew which films or what she specifically did as an animator. But looking at Chernabog and the design of the Gill Man and the Mutant, I’m wondering how I never saw it before. There’s a particular quality to Patrick’s work that I’ve never been able to put my finger on, but I’m glad to know that she was responsible for my introduction to monsters in film.
It can also be a disappointing experience to read about your heroes, only to discover that they were terrible people in their personal lives. I had the opposite experience reading about Patrick. In fact, I was angrier about the world she lived in during that time, that seemed to conspire against intelligent, competent women who set to prove themselves. I had no idea about the construction of Hearst castle and Julia Morgan, who constructed the fairy tale backdrop of Patrick’s childhood. I wasn’t aware of the incredible backbone of the women-run ink and paint department at Disney, responsible for the fine detailed line work of the earliest Disney animated films. And I was appalled with how the studio execs at Universal sided with Bud Westmore instead of Patrick in terms of legacy versus creativity. I wonder what monster films could have been if they had allowed Patrick to continue to design monster makeups, perhaps leading the studio instead of Westmore. The Lady from the Black Lagoon is not only a biography about one woman’s life and work, it’s a case study in terms of how representation can change the game and improve the quality of life for all.
The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick written by Mallory O’Meara is published by Hanover Square Press. Buy the book. Read more of our horror book reviews.
Kellye McBride is a freelance writer and editor who has very complex ideas about the things that go bump in the night. When she’s not seeking out the dark forces and joining their hellish crusade, you can find her on Twitter at @kellyemmcbride or on her website, kellyemcbrideediting.com.