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One of the more overlooked entries in Universal Pictures' pantheon of monster movies is the watery, web-footed 1954 gem, Creature From The Black Lagoon, which often lurks in the shadows of the legendary studios' classics like Frankenstein, Dracula, and The Wolf Man.
Casting fresh light on this seminal fright flick, author Mallory O'Meara has written a captivating new book that unveils the amazing story of Milicent Patrick, a little-known female makeup effects artist who co-created the film's famous gilled beast — and SYFY WIRE has an exclusive chapter excerpt to reveal.
The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick arrives from Hanover Square Press on March 5 and it's a poignant tribute to one of the pioneering women in the film industry, a trailblazing special effects designer and animator whose creative efforts helped craft a nightmarish aquatic creature still delivering old-fashioned chills.
O'Meara's revealing new novel unveils the fascinating life and instrumental work of Milicent Patrick — one of Disney’s first female animators and the only woman in history to help conjure up one of Hollywood’s most classic movie monsters.
In addition to designing the Gill-Man's memorable head piece, the talented artist also embarked on a publicity tour for the Creature From The Black Lagoon billed as "The Beauty Who Created The Beast." She was also instrumental in many of the striking makeup effects for It Came From Outer Space, Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, The Mole People, and This Island Earth.
Patrick’s contributions were eventually downplayed by jealous colleagues and her Hollywood career was cut tragically short. O’Meara has set out bring her true story back into the limelight and restore luster to this forgotten footnote of horror history.
"I first found out about Milicent Patrick when I was a teenager," O'Meara tells SYFY WIRE. "I was looking for information about Creature From The Black Lagoon after watching it for the first time. The movie blew me away. While browsing monster movie fan sites, I came across a photograph of Milicent working on the Creature suit. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that picture was going to change my life. It was the first time I had ever seen a woman working behind the scenes on a monster movie and until then had never entertained the idea of working in film. After that, she became my hero."
During the research process, O'Meara was surprised to discover how remarkable Patrick's life was and was stunned to find out the entirety of all she accomplished.
"From growing up at Hearst Castle, to working at Disney, to designing and acting at Universal, her life was practically cinematic in its scope," she adds. "I didn’t have to invent or exaggerate anything to make it interesting.
"All these years later, I’m still a Creature nerd! I watch it at least once a year. The first impression that I got when I saw it as a teenager really stuck with me. I truly believe the film holds up, 65 years later. The plot is well paced and exciting, the performances are good. But most of all, the monster is enthralling. The Creature was and still is the best part of the movie for me. Filled with both grace and power, he truly is one of the greatest movie monsters of all time."
Now enjoy this exclusive chapter excerpt taken from The Lady from the Black Lagoon copyright 2019 by Mallory O’Meara, used with permission from Hanover Square Press/HarperCollins.
That night at the premier, star Julie Adams was in attendance along with Milicent. Having the two female stars of the film—from both in front of and behind the camera—must have been amazing for the audience. The premier went well; the audience loved Creature from the Black Lagoon. Milicent was on top of the world.
She was reaching a level of fame that was and is unheard of for artists working in film. It’s extremely rare for anyone behind the camera, besides directors and sometimes producers, to be well-known. The average person doesn’t have a favorite cinematographer or editor or costume designer. Unless you are a filmmaker or a hard-core cinephile, these aren’t names you are familiar with. Actors are the most well-known people on a film set for the obvious fact that they’re the ones in front of the camera. Their names are the big ones on the movie poster. Audiences see them, they don’t see the production designer or the screenwriter or the colorist. Directors become well-known because they’re at the top of the production ladder. In many instances (if they’re good directors), they’re guiding all the heads of departments and steering the look and feel of the entire film. They represent all that behind-the-scenes work. Even then, only a small portion of directors are known by the general public.
When it comes time to do press for a film, usually only the actors and the director get sent out to do interviews for the page and the screen. In fact, I can’t think of any instance besides Milicent Patrick where the studio sent out the creature designer to promote a film. Because of the confusion surrounding the creation of special makeup effects (Is it makeup? A prop? CGI?), many artists in this field are ignored by mainstream media outlets. This is especially true for monster-suit creation.
The stunning 2017 film The Shape of Water is an example of this. Guillermo del Toro’s creature masterpiece swept the awards season, ultimately winning well-deserved Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director. The movie was nominated for 234 awards total, winning 82 of them. The film is both a monster movie and a love story, centered on a mute cleaning woman who falls in love with the Gill-man-esque creature being held captive by the facility she works in. The creature, played by renowned actor Doug Jones, is one of the main roles and the makeup/suit that he wears in the film is absolutely magnificent. It’s an exquisite visual marriage of digital elements and a practical suit, a technique Guillermo del Toro often employs in his films to great effect. The beauty of that monster is integral to both the film and the film’s successes. It’s a central part of the look of the film and the character of the creature.
As of the writing of this book, of all those awards, Doug Jones was nominated for only one, by the Austin Film Critics Association, where he was given a Special Honorary Award, instead of, you know, Best Actor. Of all those awards, the makeup team responsible for the creature suit was only nominated for three Best Makeup honors. Three. Mike Hill and Shane Mahan were nominated for Best Special Make-Up Effects in a Feature by the Make-Up Artists and Hair Stylists Guild, by the Critics’ Choice Movie Awards and by the Saturn Awards. Hill and Mahan were not nominated for the Oscar for Best Makeup and Hair, even though their creature design and makeup execution played a crucial role in The Shape of Water being the filmmaking achievement that it is. This is a heinous crime from which my heart shall never recover. I will go to my grave being furious about this artistic injustice.
So, sixty years ago, in an age before DVD special features and behind-the-scenes featurettes, when people were even more in the dark about the process of filmmaking and creating monsters, it was a historic move for Universal to send out their creature designer on tour to promote Creature from the Black Lagoon.
It was poised to change Milicent’s life as an artist forever.
Just not in the way she thought.