Review: Author plunges into buried history of a classic movie monster

By PJ Graham

Seeing the book The Lady from the Black Lagoon promoted last year, I immediately knew I wanted to read it. I’ve adored creepy stories since childhood, and the Universal horror monsters were always favorites. While the book is much different than I expected, I would still recommend it for horror lovers – and for those who love reading about women who overcome the odds.

Mallory O’Meara’s book is not just a biography of artist and creature designer Milicent Patrick, as I first thought. This is also the story of how a young, modern film producer uncovered the life and work of a woman working in Hollywood’s good old boy system in the 40s and 50s. It’s as much about how Hollywood egos did and still do prevent women and other minorities from being part of creative teams in film ­– and how challenging it was to unbury the forgotten history of the only woman to design a famous horror monster (especially as she had several name changes).

Milicent Patrick works on the mask in a promotional photo for The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Photo courtesy of Hanover Square Press.

O’Meara, inspired by Patrick during her youth and clearly her devotee, tracked the artist’s story through her own contacts in film, some down and dirty university research, and finally meeting Patrick’s niece who had what was left of Patrick’s personal effects. We see her track Patrick’s life as the child of an engineer who helped build William Randolph Hearst’s famous estate and how she moved from model, background actress, and art student to Disney artist and then Universal makeup designer. The highlight, of course, is finding evidence to support the case the Patrick did design the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Uncovering the hateful sabotage of Patrick’s design career due to a man’s ego is the climax of the story but far from the end of it.

Not being a traditional biography, The Lady from the Black Lagoon is a down-to-earth read with a casual style, which includes cussing and sarcasm as well as anger at the discriminatory Hollywood system. Those with a conservative viewpoint may dislike some of what O’Meara has to say too.

Mallory O’Meara

At first, I was put off by O’Meara’s style and approach. Moving through the book, however, I grew to love what she had to say and that she didn’t mince words as she did so. The fact is that she has the right to be upset not only for what was done to Patrick but also for what continues to happen to women in the business. It doesn’t hurt that I had done research for a freelance project a couple years ago about how female and minority directors struggle for equal footing in Hollywood. The abysmal statistics were still fresh enough in my mind that I know O’Meara’s numbers were correct and not embellished to serve her anger. Her anger is justified.

What is difficult to see is how Patrick didn’t fight the system. She never (that we know of) retaliated against the makeup department head, Bud Westmore, who ruined her career. Even O’Meara gets frustrated at this, but eventually realizes it isn’t fair be angry at Milicent Patrick for not fighting back.

“At what point are women forgiven for not being supernatural resilient Amazons who spend all their waking hours fighting injustice? Millicent was thirty-seven and had been working in and out of male-dominated artistic industries for fifteen years.  She had a more successful and varied creative career than many people could dream of. My frustration with her was just a way of protecting my broken heart.” (pg 237)

For those of us who love the monsters of horror and cringe to see them or their creators unfairly treated, we can understand.

(The Lady from the Black Lagoon is 368 pages.)

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