The Forgotten Career Of 'The Lady From The Black Lagoon,' Milicent Patrick A new book by Mallory O'Meara explores the life of artist Milicent Patrick, who worked on Fantasia and costumed a legendary Hollywood monster — and then ran afoul of misogyny in the workplace.
NPR logo

The Forgotten Woman Who Designed The Creature From The Black Lagoon

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/707306134/707722656" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
The Forgotten Woman Who Designed The Creature From The Black Lagoon

The Forgotten Woman Who Designed The Creature From The Black Lagoon

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/707306134/707722656" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

The Creature from the Black Lagoon has re-emerged.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Science couldn't explain it, but there it was, alive in the deep, deep waters of the Amazon, a throwback to a creature that had existed a hundred million years ago - immensely strong and destructive.

CORNISH: First immortalized on film in 1954, that elusive creature and the woman who designed him are now the focus of a new book. NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports on "Lady From The Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters And The Lost Legacy Of Milicent Patrick."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character, screaming).

MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: The terrifying movie creature swam in his lagoon and also walked on land. His feet and hands were webbed with long claws. His scaly body had a dorsal fin. And his round, fishy head had big eyes and gills. Ricou Browning was one of the two actors who got zipped into the creature's costume for the movie. He was the one who swam.

RICOU BROWNING: At first, it was a little awkward, but I got used to it. And I got to where I could swim in it very easily.

DEL BARCO: Browning, who is now 89 years old, doesn't know for sure who designed the costume. But he remembers meeting Milicent Patrick on set - twice - when she measured him for leotards and once when he was in costume.

BROWNING: She was painting something on my chest with a paint brush. She said, I'm giving it a touch up. I said, well, OK, but you better let it dry. I'm going in the water. And that was the last I saw of her.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character, screaming).

DEL BARCO: More than 60 years later, Milicent Patrick shows up with the creature as a tattoo on Mallory O'Meara's forearm.

MALLORY O'MEARA: He's embracing her, which I kind of love because it looks like he's saying, thank you for creating me. Thank you, Mom.

DEL BARCO: The 28-year-old is an indie horror, sci fi and fantasy film producer. She tracked down Patrick's life for her book "The Lady From The Black Lagoon."

O'MEARA: She's the first woman I ever saw working on a monster movie, and she just became my hero because of that.

DEL BARCO: Milicent Patrick was born Mildred Rossi in 1915. When she was 6, her family began living on the property of Hearst Castle in San Simeon, where her father, Camille Rossi, was the superintendent of construction. Years later, she talked to an estate historian about growing up there in style - swimming pools, French pastry chefs, pet leopards and lions. She recalled William Randolph Hearst as an enormous frightening man who threw lavish parties with movie stars. Mildred says she changed her name to Milicent, same as Hearst's wife. Over the years, she would add the last names of her various husbands.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEL BARCO: In Hollywood, Milicent Patrick had a few forgettable bit parts. In one Abbott and Costello flick, she was a dark-haired beauty. And in the TV series "Ramar Of The Jungle," she played a white goddess of an African tribe.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RAMAR OF THE JUNGLE")

MILICENT PATRICK: (As The White Goddess) So you say you friends. You no make trouble?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #4: (As character) Why - why, you speak English.

PATRICK: (As The White Goddess) Come inside.

DEL BARCO: Patrick was also a skilled visual artist. After attending art school, she became one of the first women animators at the Walt Disney Studios. Her pastel chalk artwork was featured in the 1940 movie "Fantasia."

(SOUNDBITE OF LEOPOLD STROKOWSKI AND THE PHILADELPHIA ORCHESTRA'S "TOCCATA AND FUGUE IN D MINOR, BWV 565")

MINDY JOHNSON: When you look at the "Toccata And Fugue" sequence, it really is this abstract impressionistic suggestion of musical tones.

DEL BARCO: California Institute of the Arts instructor Mindy Johnson is an expert on the history of women animators. She says Mildred Rossi, as the artist was known at Disney, also worked on another "Fantasia" sequence called "A Night on Bald Mountain."

(SOUNDBITE OF LEOPOLD STROKOWSKI AND THE PHILADELPHIA ORCHESTRA'S "A NIGHT ON BALD MOUNTAIN")

DEL BARCO: There's a winged creature named Chernabog.

JOHNSON: Walt wanted this creature of darkness to be defeated by light. As the bell tolls, you see this blue pastel reflection of the light cross the body of Chernabog, and it's powerful. And it's actually, interestingly, her first monster.

DEL BARCO: The artist moved to Universal Studios to design special effects makeup and monsters, her most famous being the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Mallory O'Meara's book includes a photo of the artist that her easel with a sketch of the creature. O'Meara says, at the time, Universal's publicity department sent Patrick on a promotional tour for the movie.

O'MEARA: Her boss at the Universal monster shop, a man named Bud Westmore, said, no, I don't want it to be the beauty who designed the beast. We're going to rebrand it, and it'll be the beauty who lives with the beast. He said, OK, we'll do this tour. We'll send you all around the country. But you have to tell people I designed it. You cannot take credit for it.

Bud Westmore was so jealous of all of the attention she was getting that he fired her, and she came back to Los Angeles. She never worked behind the scenes in Hollywood ever again.

DEL BARCO: To back up this version, O'Meara found Universal Studios memos archived at the USC Cinematic Arts Library. Universal declined to comment to NPR about not acknowledging its first female monster designer. The director of the Westmore Museum did tell us Bud Westmore supervised a woman who created the creature. As the head of the studio's makeup department, it's his name on the movie credits, as was the custom.

DOUG JONES: Having played so many creatures over so many years, I can tell you that it takes a village to make a monster.

DEL BARCO: Actor Doug Jones portrayed the amphibian man in the Oscar-winning 2017 film "The Shape Of Water," Guillermo del Toro's homage to "The Creature From The Black Lagoon." Jones says crews of artists rarely get accolades.

JONES: Designers and creature creators and makeup artists are, you know, it's a tight circle of people. Legacies have been passed down from one generation to the next. And so for her name to never have come up until now is a travesty.

DEL BARCO: Milicent Patrick Rossi Trent continued to sketch portraits as she lived as a society lady in LA. She died at age 82 in 1998, and now you know her name. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIVERSAL STUDIO ORCHESTRA'S "THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON")

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.