The Lady from the Black Lagoon

While not many will know the name Milicent Patrick offhand, there is a good chance that they are familiar with the look of one of classic Hollywood’s monsters: the Creature from the Black Lagoon. The head costume for this aquatic Gill-man of the deep was designed by Patrick.

Patrick was born Mildred Elizabeth Fulvia di Rossi in El Paso, Texas, as the second of three children. She and her family relocated to California, where her father worked as the superintendent of construction at Hearst Castle. While working on the project, Patrick became close to William R. Hearst’s wife, Millicent Hearst. She would go on to take on the professional name of Milicent Patrick, with her first name being a nod to Millicent’s, as she took on careers as an actress, makeup artist, special effects designer, and animator.

Patrick studied at the Chouniard Art Institute for three years, focusing upon illustration and drawing. She would receive three scholarships for her skills. In 1939, she worked for Walt Disney Studios in the all-female ink and paint department. By the next year, she was moved to the Animation and Effects department, where she became one of the first female animators at Disney. In fact, some of her art can be seen in Fantasia (1940), including the design of the striking Chernabog from the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence, as well as in parts of Dumbo (1941).

Her career would go on to take her to Universal Studios, where she is cited as being the first woman to work in a special effects and makeup department. She met Bud Westmore, head of the Universal Studios makeup department, and soon began contributing her work to the department. She crafted masks and makeup for Mr. Hyde in Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953), the Metaluna mutant in This Island Earth (1955), and for the mole people in The Mole People (1956).

Of course, her most famous creation is the mask that constitutes the head of the Gill-man in The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1953). While sent on a press tour for the film as “The Beauty Who Created the Beast,” jealousy arose in Westmore, who changed the campaign to “The Beauty Who Lives With the Beast” to avoid Patrick being known as creating the Gill-man. Once she returned to Los Angeles, she found that she no longer worked for Universal Studios, as Westmore did not wish for her to be associated with the creation of the Gill-man.

After Universal, Patrick returned to small acting roles and never worked behind the scenes again. Westmore was given credit for the creation of the creature and Patrick’s story remained largely untold. However, thanks to Mallory O’Meara’s The Lady from the Black Lagoon, Patrick’s story, creativity, and achievements are back in the spotlight and finally getting some recognition.

Throughout the book, O’Meara, an author, screenwriter, and film producer, discusses her experiences in the film industry of the present and makes interesting connections to Patrick’s story to show how much the industry has both changed and stayed the same in many respects. Like O’Meara, Patrick worked in different facets of the industry and experienced different challenges along the way. Overall, her story is one that is particularly interesting, as Patrick was a pioneer in the industry for women looking to work in roles besides acting. These included the traditionally male-dominated departments of animation and makeup, where Patrick was able to demonstrate her fine skills and share them with audiences all over the world to enjoy.

Sadly, though Patrick’s career was cut short, the book celebrates her by telling her story and honoring the work she did accomplish during her time in the industry.

The Lady from the Black Lagoon is available for purchase through Hanover Square Press.

About Annette Bochenek

Dr. Annette Bochenek of Chicago, Illinois, is an avid scholar of Hollywood’s Golden Age. She manages the Hometowns to Hollywood blog, in which she writes about her trips exploring the legacies and hometowns of Golden Age stars. Annette also hosts the “Hometowns to Hollywood” film series throughout the Chicago area. She has been featured on Turner Classic Movies and is the president of TCM Backlot’s Chicago chapter. In addition to writing for TCM Backlot, she also writes for Classic Movie Hub, Silent Film Quarterly, Nostalgia Digest, and Chicago Art Deco Society Magazine.
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