Interviews · Movies

The Unearthed History of the Real Designer of ‘The Creature from the Black Lagoon’

Milicent Patrick, the creator of the iconic Gill Man, was fired by Bud Westmore so he could steal her credit. 65 years later, Hollywood still runs on sexism.
Creature From The Black Lagoon
Universal Pictures
By  · Published on May 6th, 2019

Lies and theft. Hollywood was built on stolen ideas, and the ethically-challenged men in charge of it all distracted us with the glitz of massive productions. Or, maybe we’re complicit because we just didn’t care enough to ask the right questions. We watch it all, anyway. Regardless, early Hollywood movers and shakers didn’t care whose work they stole as long as it made them rich, famous – and most importantly – powerful. And they stole some damn fine work. Here’s a whopper: did you know that Gill Man, A.K.A. the Creature from the Black Lagoon, was actually designed by badass creator Milicent Patrick? Bud Westmore, the artist credited for the work, stole her designs by firing Patrick and slapping his name on her work.

Classic Hollywood! Or, also, Present Hollywood? Let’s just go with Hollywood!

Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water, itself a love letter to the Universal Pictures 1954 film The Creature from the Black Lagoon, dominated the 2018 Oscar race with thirteen nominations and four wins, including Best Production Design and Best Picture. Del Toro and Shape’s design team –  creature designers Mike Hill and Shane Mahan and visual effects supervisor Dennis Berardi – started their creative process with the iconic look of Creature’s Gill Man.

Creature Poster Albert Kallis

The series of horror films made by Universal Pictures from the 1920s through the 1950s have continued to inspire and captivate fans for the better part of a century. That era is full of gorgeous work, stolen or otherwise. Whether it be collecting remastered versions of their longtime favorite films, or the treasure trove of art those monsters inspired, or the impact they’ve had on the works of newer filmmakers, one thing is certain: the legacy of the Universal Monsters is undeniable.

Shape’s team has given interviews about how challenging it is to create a fish-man that isn’t a flat-out imitation of Gill Man. Patrick’s work is the look of this type of monster for the past sixty-five years. Gill Man is as close as we’ve come to the platonic ideal of a fish-man. That alone is enough to put her in the history books.

Patrick is a Great in a field of Greats. But, Gill Man isn’t the only fascinating aspect of her career – or life.

She was one of the first female animators at Disney. Amongst other projects, Patrick contributed animation to the final sequence of Fantasia. The segment is based on Mussorgsky’s composition “Night on Bald Mountain” and holds one of Disney’s darkest villains: Chernabog. The short film is full of demonic imagery, skeletal ghosts, and fire creatures that morph into goats and lizards. The artwork is spectacular.

Her personal history is no less fascinating. She grew up in William Randolph Hearst’s massive estate, now called Hearst’s Castle. The publishing magnate, the rich-kid heir to the victor of the gold-rush George Hearst, decided he wanted to create a little getaway. The project turned into a massive estate whose crowning structure is basically a castle. Patrick’s father was the chief engineer for the project. Oh, Patrick also eventually married the fella that played the Lone Ranger. Y’all, she lived a Life.

Mallory O’Meara, a modern-day badass filmmaker in her own right, has shone a spotlight on the amazing career and life of Patrick in her book “The Lady From The Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick”.

“I’ve been a monster nerd almost my entire life. When I saw The Creature from the Black Lagoon for the first time, when I was 17, I did as all nerds do: I wanted to find out about how it was made. I went online and I found photos of them making the suit. Amongst those photos was a picture of a woman working on the creature suit, and I had never seen a woman working on a monster movie. I’d never seen a woman working on any movie before, so she really became my hero. And, years later when I became a filmmaker myself, she was still a talisman to me.” – Mallory O’Meara

The magic of the book isn’t just that it uncovers Patrick’s erased history. O’Meara shares her own experiences with Hollywood in the context of Patrick’s. The combination of those two stories is fascinating and moving.

Including your personal history in a book about the erased history of another person is a bold choice. What prompted her to put her own experiences into the story? When she pitched her friend on writing the book, her friend – in an effort to focus her project – asked her why should this story matter to someone who doesn’t care about Creature?

According to O’Meara, the first words out of her mouth were “Oh, well what happened to Milicent Patrick is happening now to so many other women.” And the book became what it is now: “Julie & Julia for monsters and weirdos.”

One of O’Meara’s personal stories right at the outset of the book resonated profoundly with me and sold me on the absolute correctness of her choice.  The anecdote is about the conclusion of the first film where she was a real-deal no-foolin’ movie producer. There is no higher moment than that first time you realize you are actually living the life of your dreams. That feeling of “It’s all really happening!” is beautiful and as fragile as it is rare. Those moments must be protected at all costs as they are absolutely essential to sustaining anyone across the normal low moments encountered in any career.

O’Meara’s moment was stolen by a casually hateful remark. They had finished production and she had gone to get the t-shirts that are typically handed out to cast and crew who worked on the picture. The “I Survived X” sort of thing. Another assistant producer walked in and directly stated that she must have slept her way onto the project. How else could someone as young as her have the same job as him?

Can you imagine? If you’re a dude, this might be shocking. It was for me. Fellas, be mindful that the women hearing that story either nod their head in solidarity because they’ve lived that same moment a hundred times over or flashback to their own traumatic experience with similar people.

The book is a celebration of the raditude of Milicent Patrick, yes. However, today isn’t all better. Hollywood has improved, I suppose. The advances, tiny as they are, have been ripped from unwilling hands solely by the relentless determination of women. However, in O’Meara’s story, the specter of Bud Westmore reaches out through generations of entrenched sexism and attacks her.

O’Meara’s personalized approach makes it harder for people who haven’t experienced the receiving end of discrimination (white straight dudes, really) to dismiss the insidiously destructive nature of institutionalized, normalized sexism in the small moments she shares from her own life.

The struggle continues. However, the recent slate of films featuring stories similar to Patrick’s has me optimistic that we might be headed in a better direction. It feels like we’ve reached a point where most folks are reasonably comfortable saying: “we know we’ve been fed bullshit.” But, where are the real stories? Who are the real heroes?

And there are amazing storytellers ready to give us some real heroes. Hidden Figures, the story of a team of African American women who were essential mathematicians in the development of NASA, was extremely well received. Same for the recent documentary Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, which features many of the less well-known aspects of the Hollywood star’s life, including her daring escape from Nazi Germany and her many inventions in the field of wireless communications.

Well-meaning people, like Cannes Film Festival Director Thierry Fremaux, have argued that the best solution to problems with biased representation is to grow new filmmakers in the demographic you’d like to improve. That doesn’t work. One major problem of that approach is that it absolves the present of any responsibility. The truth is women are and have been making movies. Promises of investing in the next generation and fixing it later require zero reflection on our parts. And I specifically mean guys. Our sin is that we don’t acknowledge and elevate half of our very best storytellers because of their gender.

It’s very easy to admire Patrick for both her talent and her passion for creating. O’Meara shares that passion. Baring our most personal moments is an act of uncompromising bravery. I can barely handle sharing a joke I wrote. She does it so well and it is absolutely essential to driving home the urgency of recognizing the filmmakers we have and have had.

Seek out the book and learn about Milicent Patrick’s full life and a bit about what it’s like to be a woman working in the industry.

The quotes in this piece were pulled from a chat my FSR compatriot Brad Gullickson and I had with O’Meara at the Chattanooga Film Festival. You can listen to the conversation here and you should plan now to go to the festival next April.

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Writer for Film School Rejects. He currently lives in Virginia, where he is very proud of his three kids, wife, and projector. Co-Dork on the In The Mouth of Dorkness podcast.