The beauty behind the beast

Created date

April 29th, 2019
Milicent Patrick working on the design of the creature from the black lagoon in her home studio in Sherman Oaks, Calif.

Milicent Patrick working on the design of the Creature From the Black Lagoon in her home studio in Sherman Oaks, Calif.

Earlier this year, actress Julie Adams passed away at the age of 92. Adams enjoyed a long and successful career in Hollywood, appearing in 50 films and even more television programs. She shared the screen with many Hollywood legends including Elvis Presley, Dennis Hopper, and James Stewart, but she is best known for one of her earliest roles where she played opposite another film legend—the creature from the black lagoon.

Released in 1954, The Creature From the Black Lagoon was Universal Studio’s last big monster movie. The black-and-white 3-D film tells the story of a scientific expedition to the Amazon. Deep in the jungle, scientists encounter an amphibious “gill-man” who later falls in love with the character played by Adams.

The film was a tremendous success, spawning two sequels and a special appearance by the creature on The Colgate Comedy Hour.

More significantly The Creature From the Black Lagoon served as an inspiration for scores of filmmakers. Among them is Guillermo del Toro, who has said that his childhood memories of the creature and movie inspired his Academy Award-winning film The Shape of Water.

Who’s that girl?

The Creature From the Black Lagoon inspired another filmmaker named Mallory O’Meara. Long a fan of monster movies and a collector of memorabilia, O’Meara came across a photograph of a beautiful woman working on the gill-man’s head. It shocked her. She had never seen any woman working behind the scenes in production stills from that era.

Curious, she did some research and discovered that the woman in the picture was Milicent Patrick, a staff member of the Universal Studios makeup department. As it turned out, Patrick didn’t just work there, she was the one who designed the gill-man.

O’Meara searched for more information but found nothing. As someone who works in the film industry, she wondered why Patrick’s contribution to the Hollywood classic went untold.

The mystery captivated her so much, O’Meara moved from New York to Los Angeles to devote herself to finding out who Milicent Patrick was and what became of her. O’Meara had no idea what she would find but hoped it would make an interesting book.

Patrick had passed away in 1998, but O’Meara was able to interview Patrick’s family members. She also gleaned information from genealogical and cinema libraries in California to unearth the true story of how Millicent Patrick designed the creature from the black lagoon.

The result is The Lady From the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick (Hanover Square Press, 2019).

The truth

There’s a reason you’ve never heard of Milicent Patrick until now. She was all but erased from cinema history by her jealous boss.

A trained artist, Patrick was one of the first women animators at Walt Disney Studios before moving over to the makeup department at Universal Studios. There, she designed makeup for Against All Flags and It Came From Outer Space.

When she was asked to create a design for the gill-man, she took the assignment seriously, researching amphibious and prehistoric creatures for inspiration. Her design was well-received, and before long, a suit based on Patrick’s drawing was constructed.

While planning the film’s publicity tour, a publicist suggested sending the beautiful woman who designed the monster on the tour. They planned to call it “the beauty who created the beast” tour, and it would be the first time a major studio sent a “behind-the-scenes” person out to promote a film.

However, before she even left the studio lot, the head of Universal’s makeup department and Patrick’s boss, Bud Westmore, pitched a fit. He did not want someone who worked for him taking all the credit for what came out of “his” department.

The lie

Back then, credits were done differently, with only department heads receiving screen credit for craft categories like makeup and costume design. In the finished film, Bud Westmore was the only one to receive a screen credit for makeup even though he had nothing to do with the gill-man’s design.

To keep Westmore happy, Patrick was told to lie about her contribution to the film. She was instructed to tell reporters that she was merely an emissary from the studio and that Bud Westmore was solely responsible for creating the creature.

On tour, Patrick kept her side of the bargain, but she had no control over what reporters wrote in their articles.

Back in Hollywood, Westmore kept close tabs on Patrick’s press and didn’t like what he was reading. Many articles failed to mention Westmore and others gave Patrick sole credit for the monster.

By the time Patrick returned from her tour, she no longer had a job in Universal’s makeup department. In fact, she never worked behind the scenes on another film.

After that, Patrick married and worked as an extra in a number of studio pictures.

When Bud Westmore died in 1974, Patrick changed her resume, finally claiming credit for designing the creature.

Were it not for O’Meara’s determination to find out about the beautiful woman in the photograph, the story of Milicent Patrick may never have come to light. Thanks to O’Meara, however, Patrick now takes her rightful place in film history.