Uncovering the overlooked, oft-dismissed contribution of Milicent Patrick to the development of horror cinema
The Lady from the Black Lagoon uncovers the life and work of Milicent Patrick — one of Disney’s first female animators and the only woman in history to create one of Hollywood’s classic movie monsters
As a teenager, Mallory O’Meara was thrilled to discover that one of her favorite movies, Creature from the Black Lagoon, featured a monster designed by a woman, Milicent Patrick. But for someone who should have been hailed as a pioneer in the genre, there was little information available. For, as O’Meara soon discovered, Patrick’s contribution had been claimed by a jealous male colleague, her career had been cut short and she soon after had disappeared from film history. No one even knew if she was still alive.
As a young woman working in the horror film industry, O’Meara set out to right the wrong, and in the process discovered the full, fascinating story of an ambitious, artistic woman ahead of her time. Patrick’s contribution to special effects proved to be just the latest chapter in a remarkable, unconventional life, from her youth growing up in the shadow of Hearst Castle, to her career as one of Disney’s first female animators. And at last, O’Meara discovered what really had happened to Patrick after The Creature’s success, and where she went.
A true-life detective story and a celebration of a forgotten feminist trailblazer, Mallory O’Meara’s The Lady from the Black Lagoon establishes Patrick in her rightful place in film history while calling out a Hollywood culture where little has changed since.
In The Lady From the Black Lagoon, debut author Mallory O’Meara gives us an interesting and illuminating look not only at the life of a pioneering female artist, but also a glimpse into the early years of behind-the-scenes Hollywood. A must read for cinephiles, horror fans and also pretty much anyone who likes narrative non-fiction. I really enjoyed this.
When I first started The Lady From the Black Lagoon, I was expecting something more like a straight-up biography of Milicent Patrick. This, despite the fact that O’Meara makes it clear that a). not that much was known about Patrick because b). her contributions have often been scrubbed out of the histories/narratives that surrounded the classic movies on which she worked. It took me a little longer than it should, therefore, to re-orient myself into reading this as both a biography and the “true-life detective story” mentioned in the synopsis. (To be honest, I tend not to read synopses too often, so this is entirely my fault.)
Patrick worked under a few names, too, which made O’Meara’s quest that much more difficult. (Seriously, the author’s investigative efforts are nothing short of heroic, given how thin the available information was — also, often amusingly rendered on the page.) O’Meara weaves together Patrick’s story with that of her process of researching and writing this biography, as well as a bit of personal history and memoir: O’Meara was inspired by Patrick’s work, and she has a tattoo of Patrick and her Creature. I was a bit surprised by how absent Patrick was in the first 70-80 pages of the book, but her family’s history provided some excellent context through which we better understand Milicent’s choices and strained relationship with her family.
The narrative flow throughout the book is excellent. The author uses footnotes to add further context, commentary and amusing asides. The balance between Patrick’s story and general context was also very good — I especially enjoyed the wider discussion of Hollywood and Disney, for example. O’Meara does a wonderful job of showing us what cinematic artists actually did before computers and modern animation techniques (after all, Disney was at the forefront, so a lot of what it did was new). The evolution of Hollywood, and the lack of progress in certain important areas is passionately and intelligently discussed: women must still overcome many of the same obstacles and clear the same hurdles that they did back in Patrick’s time.
Not only that, the book is a clarion call in support of genre/horror films, and I absolutely share O’Meara’s frustrations with Doug Jones’s and the make-up artists’ awards-snubbing following The Shape of Water‘s success. (How did he and they not get more recognition?! A travesty.)
Engaging, written in an inviting and welcoming style, packed with fascinating details, and frequently witty and funny. The Lady From the Black Lagoon is a great read. Highly recommended for all fans of film, and horror in particular. I hope O’Meara has another book in the works!