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The Lady From The Black Lagoon

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You may not know Milicent Patrick's name and that's precisely why filmmaker, monster lover, and author Mallory O'Meara decided to write "The Lady From the Black Lagoon." It reveals the lost legacy of this woman who created one of Hollywood's most iconic monsters.

Show transcript

Welcome back to another edition of listener supported K PBS cinema Junkie podcast. I'm Beth aka Mondo. Creature From The Black Lagoon holds a very special place in my heart. I've always loved monster movies thanks to my dad who introduced me to King Kong at a very early age and then to the creature from the Black Lagoon and many more. But I distinctly remember Kong and the creature and requesting model kits for each. I also specified that my dad buy red paint so I could detail the models with some blood. I think it was about 6 and I recall my dad confessing that he told the clerk at the store that he was buying the models for his son.

I guess the blood wasn't something a little girl in the 1960s was supposed to ask for but my dad supported my love of monsters and the creature was one of the best. If you've never seen the creature or the Gill Man as he's often called he's amazing. The suit designed for the two actors playing him was from head to toe and it had to work underwater. It was a perfect melding of a man and a guild creature something that the trailer told us. Science couldn't explain.

Science couldn't explain but there it was alive in the deep deep waters of the Amazon a throwback to a creature that had existed 100 million years ago immensely strong and destructive. A woman's beauty the beast that brought it out of its lair.

Was a beautiful woman who created this iconic creature a woman named Millicent Patrick whose work on the film would be obscured by her jealous male boss. That's the story Mallory O'Meara wanted to tell in her book The lady from the Black Lagoon. But before I speak with her I want to talk a little bit more about the Gill Man and The Creature From The Black Lagoon movie. Here's a scene where the scientists talk about their discovery. Here it is jungling and.

Exactly as I found it.

It's amazing. It's incredible.

Could it possibly belong to a place to scene man. The chances are much greater than that hand belonging to amphibian Mark one that spent a great deal of time in the water.

Well then how do you account for the structure of the fingers obviously for land use. What do you think Dr. madhouse.

We can be sure of one thing. Whatever it was it was very powerful.

You say you have hopes of finding the rest of the fossil as soon as I get a suitable expedition together.

Well why don't we make up the expedition. We're here now. And after all it does come under the heading of our work doesn't it David. It certainly does. More and more we're learning the meaning and the value of marine research.

Look over here. This lungfish.

The bridge between fish and the land animal. How many thousands of ways nature tried to get life out of the sea and onto the land. This one failed. He hasn't changed in millions of years. But here.

Here we have a clue to an answer.

Someday spaceships will be travelling from Earth to other planets. How are human beings going to survive on those planets. The atmosphere will be different the pressures will be different. By studying these and other species we add to our knowledge of how life evolved how it adapted itself to this world. With that knowledge perhaps we can teach men to adapt themselves to some new world of the future.

Nice speech David. But there's still a practical side to it by sound brash and more like a banker than a scientist try to remember that it takes money to run an institute like ours. I'll find of any real importance can be of great financial value to us also. Certainly your board couldn't disapprove. It certainly couldn't.

The creature sets his sights on Julie Adams sexy scientist Kaye Lawrence. But the monster finds his love unrequited just as King Kong experienced with Fay Wray.

There's a moment in the film however that suggests their impossible love. As Adams in her famous white bathing suit swims suggestively above the creature in his Black Lagoon He mirrors her every move in a romantic maybe even erotic water ballet. He chases her throughout the film and even gets a hold of her a few times.

And even though Kay expresses fear whenever she sees the creature she does convey a certain underlying compassion. When she's on the boat listening to the sounds of life from the lagoon.

Shouldn't you be resting. I could sleep. Listen to the service. Hunting calls mostly.

Animals out for the kill.

Some of them are cries of fear like people whistling down the Gill Man elicits compassion and in a sense creature of the Black Lagoon represents a dark sexual yearning that a 50s heroine just wasn't ready to embrace but gamble Del Toro is the shape of water is essentially a reaction to that film. The Shape of Water says the pub Valentine to all those monsters who didn't get the love they deserved. In Del Toro's film Sally Hawkins not only rescues Doug Jones's amphibious monster which is no match to the creature from the Black Lagoon but she falls in love with him.

In Del Toro's enlightened film the monster does not have to change in order to get the girl. Instead she discovers something in herself that allows her to live happily ever after with the creature. The film allows for a consummation of their love that was not allowed in the Creature From The Black Lagoon. But happily Mallory O'Meara has come along to set the record straight and enlighten us to Patrick's other accomplishments as well as to the obstacles she faced in her career. I began my interview with O'Meara by asking her how she first discovered Millicent Patrick and when did she first realize who she was.

So when I was a teenager I got really into monster movies and I had to give myself you know my own education and that because no one in my family was any of them. I started with all the classic universal monster movies and Creature From The Black Lagoon with the last one that I got to and I loved the movie and I did what all good nerds do as soon as I finish it. I had to go look it up online and find all the information I could about it. And while I was trolling the Internet for creature trivia facts and pictures I saw this photo of a woman working on the creature suit and it was like being struck by lightning because I had never seen a woman working behind the scenes on a monster movie before.

And that was my first exposure to Millicent.

And what was it about the movie itself.

Creature From The Black Lagoon that kind of hooked you I think Creature From The Black Lagoon is very special because in that movie The monster is not the bad guy. He's not the antagonist. The some of the male scientists in the crew are the bad guys who are wanting to do evil things. The creature is just this poor monster that has got his you know his slumber disturbed. So it was very amazing to watch and I think part of the reason why creatures still holds up is that creature is very empathetic.

You feel bad for him. He's very intriguing to you. He's not just this big scary thing that lumbers around and tries to eat people. He has a real humanity to him and it really really made an impression on me.

Well it's funny because I just did this list of movies for Valentine's Day and because I love monsters. My list was the 10 best monster romances. And of course Creature From The Black Lagoon had to be on that.

Oh yes. Oh that's so funny. That's part of the reason why get him off El Toro said that he meets Shape of Water because when he saw a creature from the Black Lagoon when he was a kid his thought at the end of the movie was why why didn't Kay and the creature end up together because clearly they were meant to be. So he you know that was the sort of genesis of shape or shape of water which I completely agree with.

Yes. And it took me years to realize that the reason I hated Fay Wray was because I always resented the fact that she didn't save King Kong.

I felt the same. I felt like if she had only clung onto him the planes wouldn't have shot him down and it would have all been okay.

Oh I know. Maybe someday there will be a we'll get our King Kong remake where he'll be our version of shape of watering farang King Kong we'll go and live together somewhere and in the jungle.

So what made you decide to actually investigate Millicent Patrick's life and do this book on her.

So it was sort of a funny way of a book coming to be. I had you know she had been my hero for a very long time and I ended up getting into monster movies myself and becoming a filmmaker. So I got a tattoo of her as sort she's always been like a talisman to me as a sort of proof that I belonged in the sort of male dominated world of monster movies because of Melissa could do it so could I. I got this tattoo of her in a few weeks after that I was living in New York City at the time and I was at a publishing party and I was speaking to a literary agent and he said Hey Mallory I saw on Facebook that you just got this new tattoo.

Who is she. Tell me about her. And I was telling him that she created the creature but then no one really knew what happened to her after that she was sort of this mystery and he said oh wow that would make a great book and I laughed and he said No really you should write that book. And up until that point it was just sort of a fixed quantity in my mind that you know there was you know Melissa Patrick is existed but no one knew what happened to her. And it was the first time I thought well why not me.

Why why why can't I look into this. I'm you know I work in the same industry that she did. I know that what she went through.

Let's see if I can do this now because this is audio only I can't show up. Sure of Millicent Patrick and although how someone looks. Isn't that important.

The thing that's so striking about her is she really grabs your attention. I mean she's a stunning looking person.

Yeah. Oh absolutely. She really is. And I think that was that's always been sort of part of the mystery about her is that she was this very glamorous very beautiful woman. You know she used to walk into the universal monster shop every day and heal and a beautiful dress and pearls. You know she is sort of she would totally fit right in with this old vintage pinup revival that's been happening right now. And she but she walked into this male dominated environment looking like that.

And she created these monsters that were so terrifying and she was so beautiful and glamorous when it seems like she really invites that whole comparison of Beauty and the beast. Oh yes absolutely. And you know it's just that's why it's so cool to see photos of her holding the creature head or with any of her creations because it's the contrast is just so striking and it's sort of what those photographs have really kept the very very small amount of people who have known about her for the past few decades interested.

You know it's just it's it's we're very very lucky that she is so interesting to look at because it's probably the thing that saved her and the reason why I found out about her now for the book he wrote it's about her and her career.

But you also weave your own story into this and we've kind of a contemporary perspective on what's going on in her life. Why did you feel that was important and why was that something you felt you needed to include.

I think it's very easy for readers to hear this story about this woman you know in the 1950s. She got her credit for the creature from the Black Lagoon and stolen away from her by a jealous male colleague and then she fell into obscurity and it's you know you look at that go Oh it's so sad it happened in the 1950s. That's how things were back then. But the truth is it's not. It's how things are right now. And it gave her story a lot more urgency and importance because it's something that is very especially now the meta movement happened while I was writing the book and now people are really clamoring to find out about women's stories and you know trying to scramble to realize how it's all happening right now.

I thought you know what the best way for me to show how urgent and how relevant these this her story is is to tell my own stories of being a felt female filmmaker and dealing with sexism and dealing with problems with male colleagues to show that look you know yes the stuff still happens here's an example that happened to me just a year ago.

No. Since a lot of people do not know who she is. Give us a little background on her early life because one thing that's kind of interesting is the role that William Randolph Hearst ended up playing kind of in her early years.

Oh yes it was so strange when I started investigating her and researching her life you know just designing the Creature From The Black Lagoon alone would make her interesting enough to write a book about. But the more I found out about her early life and the rest of her life I was like oh my gosh people are going to think I made all this stuff up. But her father was a man named Camille Rossi and he was the superintendent of engineering at Hearst Castle for 10 years. So that's where she grew up.

Hearst Castle was sort of the summer home and came became more and more of the full time home of William Randolph Hearst who was America's first big media mogul. And you know that's where she grew up and I really think that sort of started the foundation of her getting into Hollywood because where else could you go after living at Hearst Castle than Hollywood.

And then she ended up working or getting into a school that was a pipeline to Walt Disney. So what were those early years like.

Oh yeah. So she went to college at the hewn Art Institute which was a female run art school in Southern California. Here in Los Angeles by a woman named Albert Chouinard and number two in art had kind of formed this pact with Walt Disney because in the early years Walt Disney couldn't afford to train his animators but he knew that he needed them trained in a special way. So Melber agreed to have his his animators come down to the studio and learn animation there and then they would send the back to Disney so a sort of pipeline got formed from should Art Institute to Disney Studios.

And when Millicent went to school it's an art. She caught the eye of Walt Disney and he hired her to come work at Disney.

And you mentioned that she had kind of a special skill because one of the things Disney needed was he didn't need people who could just draw. He needed people who could draw in a way that worked for animation and that she had a real skill for kind of this fluidity of motion in her drawings.

Yeah. Her Milton has this incredible ability to just in a few lines really really able to convey a lot of movement which is exactly what you need for an animator or anyone working in animation. He was you know when you see a friend and they could do a little drawing and just a couple of lines that just show so much Millicent was that kind of friend.

And what was it like for a woman being an animator at that time at Disney.

What's funny is that Disney was actually one of the best places for a working female artist because they could make a living. And Disney actually went out it went out of his way to tell his male employees you have to leave these women alone. This is not a place to look for dates. This isn't this is where people work. So he was actually a really great advocate for his female employees and what kind of stuff did she work on there. Well I do want to keep it a secret for readers but there are some really really big films that early Disney animated films that she worked on and she worked as an in-between her.

She worked as a color animator she worked in the ink and paint studios so she and her short amount of time there she ended up doing quite a number of interesting things.

How hard was it for you to uncover some of this information because part of what this book seems to be is detective work.

Oh it was incredibly incredibly difficult and I actually includes a lot of that process in the book just so readers can see you know the effects of purposely hiding somebodies legacy for so long after she got fired at Universal. You know her. All of her artistic influence was sort of hidden away and I really want to see people people to see what know the effects of that you know just even getting into Disney took me years and years. Disney is not a place that you can just sort of call up and ask to come over.

So there were so many pieces of her life that had just been lying hidden in different archives and different personal collections and getting access to all of them and getting to go see them was a year is long very expensive very difficult process.

And was it difficult to actually find like examples of her early work or photos of her or things like that like actual kind of visual elements to add to the book.

Yes it took me quite a long time to do that because especially in the early days like when Millicent worked at Disney you know that individual artist didn't get credit like they do now. So I'm very very lucky to link up with another author who was a Disney historian. Her name is Mila Mindy Johnson and she wrote this incredible book called and can paint that's all about the women who work have worked and do work at Disney just over the many years that the studio has been open. And she had found all of these drawings in the Disney Archives that weren't signed you know they were just drawings and you know they weren't marked as you know a female animator did this.

So you know just being able to find those or find someone who knew about them was so so hard.

So she moved to she worked at Disney studios doing some animation. How did she eventually get to universal and start actually creating monsters or did her work at Disney kind of lay the groundwork for her love of monsters.

No there was a quote there was quite a big gap actually in between where she did a lot of acting and modelling and it was actually she was just on the set of the Universal Studio lot. She she's working as a background actress but she never lost her love of art. So while she was waiting between scenes she would sketch out portraits of her co-stars or of the leads of the film. And while she was in the makeup chair one day she showed the head makeup guy at Universal some of her drawings that they were so incredibly talented that he hired her.

Now would this be Bud Westmore who yes it is.

So talk a little bit about this man and his influence or his affect he had on Millicent life because he was in one sense like the right guy to get her into the business and then also the wrong person completely.

Yes it's interesting. He actually set her up for the biggest career moment of her life and he also took it away. So Bud Westmore ran the universal makeup shop at the studio. So he was in charge of all the makeup and all the monsters and he was a really really big figure at the time the Westmore as were sort of a dynasty and makeup and Hollywood. But the problem with Bud Westmore was that he was also very notorious for taking the credit of others for being a very difficult person to work with.

He didn't like people being more talented than he was. He didn't like people getting more attention than he did. So for when Millicent started getting a lot of attention over her work on creature he couldn't handle it. And that's why he fired her.

And what do you think she brought to the creature in terms of the design of it. What do you think kind of to you like when you're researching this what do you feel that she might have brought to it that wouldn't have been there if she hadn't been there.

Well the first thing was certainly the empathy. You know Millicent wasn't looking at this monster and thinking I'm just going to make the scariest thing on earth. She really wanted to make a monster that you could feel bad for that you could sympathize with and her ability to convey so much emotion and movement and just a few lines led her to be able to make this the creature space feel imbued with so much humanity and emotion. And it's even today people think that the entire face is articulated but it isn't it's just a mouth.

It's just her it's that incredible design skill that she had that makes it look like it's conveying more emotion than it actually is.

And did she create other monsters while she was at Universal.

She did she actually worked on universal very first science fiction movie ever which was it came from outer space was written by the great Ray Bradbury. So she there was a couple other movie I don't want to spoil it for readers but there are a couple other movies that she worked on so she really had a huge huge influence and effect on the world of science fiction.

Well and in your book you mentioned that for Ray Bradbury one there isn't a whole lot of clear cut detail that she had to work with in terms of creating what she did.

Yeah. It's funny because as someone who was as incredible a writer as Ray Bradbury he gave her this description to design from that sort of was just you couldn't have pulled anything out of it. It was so like he literally used the word nebulous and how we're going to draw that it was just this giant paragraph of stuff that really didn't mean anything. And somehow she pulled that this very iconic design out of it that you know I mean it came from outer space is still probably one of the most important early science fiction movies you know considered by historians and critics.

So well done Millicent now you're a filmmaker yourself and you work in horror. Has it ever crossed your mind that maybe this story would make a great film.

It has. Unfortunately I can't say too much more about that line of questioning at the moment.

Well I'm glad maybe you can't because maybe that means something good is coming. My lips are sealed in doing the research.

Was there anything that you uncovered that really surprised you or that you were happy to find or something that just was really a turning point for you in writing the book.

I think the most surprising thing for me when I was writing it was to uncover how much of my own biases that I was putting on to Millicent you know as a female filmmaker I have to deal with so much sexism every day. And as I was writing the book I realized that some of that I was projecting onto Millicent when I was a kid. It was when I first found out about her it's kind of funny. The thing that I disliked about her was how feminine she was because I was you know a teenage monster nerd and I wanted to dress like a boy and I wanted to fit in and I didn't wear any makeup and I thought girly stuff was stupid.

And so I didn't. That was the thing I didn't like about her. And then as I was writing the book I realized how much I had changed since then. And I thought how absolutely cool that she marched into this male dominated space in curls and high heels every day. And I ended up thinking that it was. Now it's one of my favorite things about her and it was so interesting that just writing about her and examining her in this way made me a better person and kind of unearths some of the internalized sexism that I have.

And it almost felt like getting exercise.

Well from the pictures that are in the book and that I've seen over. The thing about it is she might have been feminine but she was also she had a real flair for like flamboyance and you felt like the way she dressed was to make an impression like she didn't want to just be looking like everyone else that was there.

That was really the thing that's amazing to me about her femininity is it wasn't like she was dressing in you know the biggest name brands and the most expensive clothing. She made a lot of her old clothes and she wasn't dressing like that to show off and or to look like she had a lot of money or to like you know follow any trends. She just loved absolute flamboyance. She loved being over the top. You know she grew up at Hearst Castle. She was always chasing that level of opulence. So it just made her happy.

And the fact that she embodied that every day to the point where she literally made her own clothes really just made makes her shine so much to me.

And in talking about kind of how you shifted your perspective on her when you were doing this the fact that Bud Westmore essentially you know took her career away she had it at Universal. You talk about kind of dealing with the fact that you wanted her to make this big stand and to kind of be a different person than she wasn't. What do you think about how she actually reacted and how you wanted her to react.

I think there's this interesting knee jerk reaction that we all have when we hear about a story like that your first thought is always well why didn't they do anything about it. Why did they fight back. Why did they say something. And at that point in Melissa's career she had been in these male dominated industries for decades and she had been swimming upstream for decades. And at first I had the same reaction I thought guy why didn't she just make a stink. Why didn't she fight back. And then I thought when do we get to take a break.

When does it when did she get to go you know what I have been fighting for years and years and years I've been working in this industry for years and years and years I think I'm going to take a break and I think that we all need to look at people like that and again it feel like I felt like writing this book made me a better person because in forgiving Millicent for that I was able to forgive myself to forgive other women in the media and to sort of get so much kinder more respectful outlook on all these situations.

And in doing this and in looking at some of her work in some of these sketches and things like that. Did it cross your mind thinking what would have happened if she had stayed on at Universal what films might she have contributed to.

Oh absolutely I think about that all the time though because you know universal continued to make a lot of monster movies science fiction movies but none no I think it's very telling that creature from the black lagoon was the last classic monster movie. You know it was really the last one to make a big impression and I think that more movies that universal put out during the late in mid 1950s would have had more of an impact if Millicent had been allowed to design them. And at the same time militant Patrick was really the first creature designer that they had that universal sent out on press tour.

You know even now even today we really the public doesn't have a real appreciation or understanding of you know special effects artists or and they don't get the recognition that they deserve. You know that the creature designers for the Oscar winning Shape of Water were not nominated for an Oscar even though that monster was one of the most important parts of the movie. And I think that of Millicent legacy hadn't been buried we might be you know it might have set a precedent for oh hey we made this great monster movie maybe we should interview the creature designers.

Maybe we should give them some spotlight.

And I think things would really be different for designers and makeup artists and special effects artists today and now that this book is behind you in the sense of having completed it has it changed you as a filmmaker as it kind of given you a different way of looking at what you're doing or at the kind of stories you want to tell.

Oh absolutely. I mean my day job as I work as a producer and it is absolutely made a difference in my hiring practices when I look at my crews. And it's also made me a lot braver when I originally pitched when me and my agent were trying to sell this book. We got rejected by so many publishers because people weren't interested in my side of the story. And we kept pushing and we kept pushing and finally you know we did reach out you know as we're having this conversation now it's clear that I did sell the book and the book is coming out and it made me realize that there is an audience for these stories and people do want to hear these things.

And you know finding out about this stuff is really really important.

And you're going on tour with the book and actually you know meeting people at bookstores and things like that. Have you had a chance to kind of get a sense of the public's reaction to the story.

I have. And it's been overwhelmingly positive. Although I will say there are there are a lot of men who are very angry about this book. I get a lot of bad reviews about the book who say it's too outrageous and it's too feminist. But on the flipside of that I get so many people men included people of all genders who are just overwhelmed by how much they love it. And I've had so many female filmmakers and horror fans come up to me and say Oh my God I feel like this book was written for me.

And that makes it all worth it.

And do you think that this is going to help kind of secure her place in history as the person who created the creature.

I really really hope so. It's been funny even announcing some of the some of the dates on the tour. There was one date where I'm doing a creature screening and they announced the creature screening by saying that it was Bud Westmore who design was just like Oh my God really do we I'm I still having to have this fight. But I I'm hoping that after the tour and after me talkie doing so many talks about her that it will solidify her as not only the creator of the Creature From The Black Lagoon but also is this really really important and influential artist.

And do you have any more plans to write another book. Do are there any other women in film that you've kind of uncovered that have sparked your interest.

Yes there is one and I can't announce who it is yet but I am I it's funny I promised myself I would never do another biography because this is such an emotional experience for me. But you just like you think as soon as I was done with the book I was reading some stuff about one of my favorite old monster movies and I found a woman who was involved in it and I thought oh no here we go again and she actually appeared in some films as well because I think you mentioned that there was an Abbott and Costello film that she was in.

As a background ACTRESS Yes she is an Abbott and Costello Army Captain Kidd which is really funny. She plays like a tavern when she actually has a couple of lines.

She's in a few movies and her first onscreen role is actually is in the Disney film The reluctant dragon. She's a background actress. So if you and you can find these on YouTube. So if listeners are interested in seeing her hearing her voice or see her in motion you can just YouTube Melissa and Patrick and you can see you can see she really does light up the screen. She's very very electric.

Even from still pictures she has to light up the screen.

She really does. It's incredible.

And what are you working on now in terms of your own films.

So I have a movie that is actually also out this month in select theaters and we'll be out on video D in April it's called Yama song and it is a live action puppet movie. So think Dark Crystal think labyrinth and it is sort of like Dark Crystal meets Princess Monaghan OK. It is a sci fi fantasy film with Moby Goldberg. George Takei Nathan Fillion we have an all star cast of voice actors and we're so proud of it. We're so excited about it. It's the first the first film that I've developed and I produced it and I'm so so excited about it I'm really thrilled to have people finally see it.

Well that's great. And you are when is your next book tour date.

Everything kicks off on the 5th and I on March 5th and I'm going to be traveling for most of March and April and part of May and June.

And if people want more information about your films or about the book what's the best place for them to follow you or to get information.

I keep my website which is Mallory O'Meara dot com updated constantly. But I spend way way too much time on Twitter at Mallory O'Meara and I'm constantly posting updates about my movies my book all projects I do my weekly podcast reading glasses. So if you're at all interested in anything that I've talked about today Twitter is a great place to go get updates for it.

All right well I want to thank you very much for taking some time to talk about this beauty and the Beast. Thank you so much for interviewing me.

That was author and filmmaker Mallory O'Meara. Her book The lady from the Black Lagoon comes out March 5th and she'll be in San Diego on March 8th at the mysterious Galaxy bookstore. Thanks for listening to another episode of K. PBS cinema Junkie podcast. If you enjoy the show please recommend it to a friend and leave a review on iTunes. I appreciate all the great reviews people have already posted. I'll have a podcast coming up soon about the TCM Classic Film Festival since that's rapidly approaching in April. So till our next film FIX ON BETH aka Mondo your resident cinema junkie.

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Satisfy your celluloid addiction with the Cinema Junkie podcast, where you can mainline film 24/7. This film and entertainment series is run by KPBS Film Critic Beth Accomando. So if you need a film fix, want to hear what filmmakers have to say about their work, or just want to know what's worth seeing this weekend, then you've come to the right place