Summer Read: The Lady from the Black Lagoon

Millicent Patrick

I’m completely enamored of Mallory O’Meara’s biography of Milicent Patrick, the illustrator-designer-model-actress who designed Universal’s original Creature aka Gill Man, even more than I’d imagined I would.

Patrick’s tale is quintessentially Californian. She grew up in the shadow of Hearst Castle where her father was superintendent of construction. When she broke away, she fled to the Chouinard Art Institute which in turn led her to become one of the first female animators at the Walt Disney Company, where she contributed to Fantasia. After being laid off, she transitioned to working as a model and an and did extra work (as in “background actor”).

Her penchant for sketching while on set she landed her a gig in Bud Westmore’s make-up design department at Universal Studios. There she designed the aliens for It Came From Outer Space (1953) and This Island Earth (1955), and her coup de grace, the gill man better known as The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954).

I won’t be spoiling much if I tell you jealous Bud Westmore got her axed, and that was the end of her monster design career. There is SO much more to Milicent’s tale, and O’Meara turns her tale into a fierce and joyful cry of feminist solidarity and inspiration.

What I particularly loved was that this book is “meta.” O’Meara is honest about her unabashed fandom. (She has a tattoo of Patrick and the Creature wrapped about her arm.) She alternates chapters about Milicent with chapters about how she, somewhat blusteringly, researched the very book you are reading. (As an archival historian, her account of her experience at the USC Special Collections library is a riot.) There are also passages that simply rant against the plight of women in the entertainment industry of today. If you chose the audiobook, as I did, O’Meara reads it herself, making it feel all the more personal, urgent, and immediate.

If you’re interested in women in Hollywood, women in horror, Universal Monsters, or even just Hollywood of the 40s-50s, I highly recommend this read!

 

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