Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick
I promise I was trying to be better about posting regularly this month, but the time, where does it go? The Lady from the Black Lagoon was the Nonfiction Book Club selection for June, so I really am behind with this one!
From the publisher marketing:
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.
I didn’t know what I was getting into with The Lady from the Black Lagoon. One of the members of the Nonfiction Book Club had put it up for voting as a selection and I hadn’t done much research on it beforehand. It did, however, get the rest of the group really excited (as the moderator I abstain from voting since a, I pick most of the books we vote on, and b, I think it’s more fair as the moderator that I don’t) and that, in turn, excited me.
The Lady from the Black Lagoon is really, at it’s core, Mallory’s memoir. Most subjects for full length biographies have more than a few lines in their Wikipedia pages, even if they haven’t been the subject of numerous articles or other books ahead of time. I have a feeling Milicent’s is now fleshed out because someone read, and loved Mallory’s The Lady from the Black Lagoon and decided to add more details.
Milicent was, by all accounts, a fascinating human being – one of the first female animators at Disney (Mallory goes into great detail about what constitutes being an animator and the idea of “first”), worked on some of the biggest cult horror films of the fifties, was screwed over by her father and boss at various points in her life, had a terrible track record with romantic relationships, and died in relative obscurity, but was loved dearly by her neice.
Milicent’s story is the stuff of long-form essays in The Atlantic or The New Yorker, not full length books. There’s just not enough to it unfortunately, so enter the real story here, Mallory’s. The Lady from the Black Lagoon is an interesting dual narrative and I would argue that Mallory herself could be described as the Lady from the Black Lagoon as the entire book starts with her recounting getting a tattoo of Milicent and the Monster (from The Creature from the Black Lagoon, the cover is designed by her tattoo artist) and the impact both had on her desire to get into the film industry, specifically as a producer of horror films.
Mallory then proceeds to tell Milicent’s tale alongside her own process of researching the very book she’s writing while sharing anecdotes of her own life, particularly as they relate to the under-representation of women in the film industry at large. And that, dear friends, is what ties Mallory and Milicent’s stories together more than their mutual love of horror films.
Every women has a story (if not many) of when she was degraded, talked down to, treated poorly, and more, by a man. Every. single. woman. My earliest memory of a time where this happened is from when I was seven. SEVEN. And it came from a fellow seven year old. Sexism is SO entrenched in our society that we in the Nonfiction Book Club, a group of predominantly women from middle class backgrounds of varying generations, all had to continuously remind ourselves that the way were think about Milicent’s experiences, the way we go about our lives as women, is rooted in sexism. We even participate in sexist behaviors AGAINST OUR OWN GENDER without even realizing it.
Just this week, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez stood up in the House of Representatives and stood up against the casual language used by men to exert their power and dominance over women. I couldn’t help but think that there are so many women who routinely call each other the same terms, because that’s how we talk down to those we don’t like. And I thought, on both counts, about Milicent. Her father, and boss at Universal Studios, did everything they could to silence and disadvantage her when the cards were already stacked against her.
At work, she was often the only woman and her contributions continuously downplayed, doubted, or straight up denied because of her gender. The head of the department launched a vicious campaign to discredit her while she was out on a promotional tour for The Creature from the Black Lagoon. And while I would have loved to see Milicent take a stand and fight harder for her career, I’m sad to say I wasn’t surprised at all that she faded away into the back pages of history, barely even a footnote in the movie’s story.
While I wish there had been more for Mallory to tell of Milicent’s story, I enjoyed the dual narrative and also greatly enjoyed Mallory’s performance reading the audiobook (as usual with book club books I did a mix of listening and reading). I recommend The Lady from the Black Lagoon ardently to film history enthusiasts, and to everyone who loves a good forgotten story now told.
Rating: 8 out of 10
Where to Buy
In the USA, I recommend purchasing through BookShop or your local independent, in the UK, and many other parts of the world, I recommend Blackwell’s, and if neither of those cover where you live, I recommend checking out your local booksellers! Independent bookstores are vital parts of every local community and I wholly endorse supporting your local stores versus Amazon.