I know this is the Movie Madhouse, but I will review a book now and then, one that I really loved or one that pertains to the movie world…and what pertains more than a memoir about the woman behind one of the most famous horror icons in movie history, Milicent Patrick.
THE LADY FROM THE BLACK LAGOON by MALLORY O’ MEARA
You would think that a woman who was one of Disney’s first female animators and the designer of one of the most famous monsters in movie history, would be a household name, but Milicent Patrick’s legacy has gone virtually unknown, until a girl named Mallory O’Meara saw a picture of a beautiful woman working on the Creature from the Black Lagoon and swore to change that. Now an adult and a movie producer in her own right, O’Meara went on a quest to find the true story of this unsung pioneer artist and her journey is just as fascinating as the story she painstakingly uncovered.
O’Meara’s crusade was not an easy one. Peppered between the stories of Patrick’s upbringing as Mildred Elisabeth Fulvia Rossi, growing up around the Hearst estate where her father worked as an structural engineer, there are parallel’s to O’Meara’s own life and details of her investigation into Patrick’s. Whether it be going through endless files in Universal’s archives, or hitting the jackpot by tracking down Milicent’s niece “Gwen”, O’Meara’s task is worthy of a book of it’s own. It turns a simple biography into a fun mystery as we uncover the career of a talented woman, whose accomplishments were buried simply for making waves in a male dominated industry during the forties and fifties. We go along for the ride as O’Meara’s detective work uncovers Patrick’s breakaway from her strict family, to her going to art school, to becoming one of DIsney’s first female animators, including work on the masterpiece Fantasia. We’re then taken to the most important part of this untold story with her time working for Bud Westmore at Universal Studios make-up department, where Patrick did the initial designs for the Creature from the Black Lagoon…something Westmore took credit for…as well as other projects. Despite Universal sending her on tour with many of her monster designs, O’Meara paints a tragic story of professional jealousy…and maybe outright misogyny…as Bud Westmore fired Patrick for all the attention she was getting as “The Beauty Who Made The Beast”. The last third of the book is both sad and triumphant as Patrick’s personal and professional lives began a downward spiral that she never quite recovered from and author O’Meara details the big break of finally finding a living relative, who provided much of the info now in this book. Sure, there is a lot of filler, with details of Patrick’s life being so scarce, but some of it can be interesting, such as when we learn about another pioneer woman, architect Julia Morgan and some of Mallory’s own stories of what she’s had to face as a woman in a field still dominated by men.
The book isn’t perfect. O’Meara’s feminist rants can sometimes stop the story’s momentum and she does get repetitive. We understand she is passionate, but she makes her points well and doesn’t need to repeat herself. The whole book is a commentary on a woman whose rightful legacy was denied simply because she was making accomplishments and getting attention for them, in a man’s world. It makes O’Meara’s point without trying. Also, one sometimes wonders how and if she was able to remain objective dealing with a subject so close to her heart. You can feel her anger in her words. Were certain people definitely acting out of misogynistic intent…or was it simply ego?…thought the results are the same.
Overall, this is a very entertaining and thought-provoking book, with some hilarious footnotes from the author. Any horror or monster movie fan should read this, as should any girl wanting to make a career in film or in the arts. You may have to fight twice as hard, but it’s worth the fight when it’s something you love. Milicent Patrick didn’t fight back when her rightful due was taken from her…until Mallory O’Meara picked up the gloves and fought for her…and a rightful legacy is restored because of it. Now let’s make sure history does not repeat itself for all the future Milicent Patrick’s waiting to make their mark! A highly recommended read!
Rated 3 and 1/2 (out of 4) creatures, as designed by Milicent Patrick!
Milicent Patrick in a publicity still posing with her creature. (Family Collection)