The Lady From the Black Lagoon by Mallory O’Meara
Published by Hanover Square Press on March 5, 2019. Hardcover of 330 pages at $26.99. Also available as an eBook.
The cover: Matt Buck is the illustrator and the art direction is by Erin Craig on this gorgeous cover. Milicent Patrick is sitting in a chair, holding a large drawing pad with one arm as she sketches. Emerging from the pad is the Creature, looming over her threateningly. Both characters look fantastic. I’m a little saddened that the title of the book covers the illustration. However, enough of it remains to be impressive. The author’s name is at the top in smaller print than the title. Beneath the title is the subtitle “Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick” and beneath that a blurb from Publisher’s Weekly. The cover is in a much more electric green than the photo I took of my copy of the book, but I really wanted a photo that showed off the beautiful artwork and I wasn’t satisfied with images I found online. Overall grade: A
The premise: From the inside cover, “The Lady from the Black Lagoon uncovers the life and word 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 contributions 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’m so ready to read this book! I’ve heard for years about Patrick but know nothing about her. This summary spoils some of where her career went, but there’s enough held back to be surprising when encountered in the book. Overall grade: A
There is so much I didn’t know about Patrick and I’m extremely glad to now be aware of what she did. Without spoiling what the book reveals, her early years were spent near Hearst Castle, which her father helped construct and where she would encounter a woman who would have a strong effect on her life. She went to an art studio, leading to working at Disney, where she worked on the “Night on Bald Mountain” in Fantastia, Dumbo, and appeared in a live action sequence of The Reluctant Dragon, which now has me eager to find this film so I can watch it specifically looking for Milicent. Her personal life was not what her parents, especially her father, wanted. She lived the life of a modern woman who wanted to be her own person and not the one her father demanded. She was a model and spokesperson at trade shows before transitioning into film where she started as a background actor before getting one or two lines in films. Because she sketched others while waiting to be filmed, she caught the eye of an important person on the set of Universal Studios and she entered into makeup and design. I had no idea she helped design the creature from It Came From Outer Space and the Metaluna mutant from This Island Earth. Her biggest claim to fame, and the reason I picked up this book, was her work on Creature From the Black Lagoon. I was surprised by the tour the studio had her take to promote the film and stunned by the hate building back in Los Angeles by one individual who did all that he could to ensure that her creation of the Creature was credited to him. In addition to Patrick’s work behind the camera, O’Meara has done an exemplary job in tracking down her subject’s life, given that she changed her name more than once and there seemed to be no one living who remembered much about her. My heart broke several times with Patrick’s relationship with her father, men, and her final years. I admit I teared up on Page 296. I wanted to go back in time and tell this wonderful person that she would be remembered and her contributions would become iconic. This is not to say that this book is a cry fest, as there are several moments where the reader will thrill along with Patrick at her achievements and the joyful moments in her life. I now feel like I know who Patrick was. That’s the best compliment I can give to a biography.
This is a very different format for any biography I’ve read before. Often the author chronicles their subject from birth to death, punctuating their life with events or obstacles they had to overcome. O’Meara includes herself in her telling of the tale. I was expecting her to recount how she was able to find information on this important person, and she does, but she also includes moments from her life making her way into and working in the world of film. I initially thought these moments to be too much author intrusion; I was glad that O’Meara felt inspired in her career following in the footsteps of trailblazing Patrick, but I couldn’t understand why she keep putting off her subject to insert herself in her tale. At the conclusion of a film shoot, O’Meara is asked an unbelievable question by one of the workers on the film and it’s jaw-dropping. It hit me like a brick in the face as O’Meara goes on to recount an experience working with an actor coming in for a voice recording. It was an awkward, embarrassing, cringe-worthy, angry, infuriating moment to read. As O’Meara describes Patrick’s life, she makes it obvious to the reader that nothing much has changed since Patrick’s time in the world of cinema, as proven by several moments from her own life. Women are still up against horrible obstacles in the world of cinema. O’Meara is coming upon similar obstacles that Patrick did and it’s terrible. The reason that Patrick’s life was difficult to track down, until now, is that her merit wasn’t taken up by others at the time and that’s the ultimate message of this book. People, not just the ultra fans of any genre, need to be aware of everyone’s contribution to a film. That’s an added bonus of this book.
The final line: A must-read for fans of classic horror. This book not only tells the tale of this important figure in Hollywood, but of women’s treatment then, and now, in cinema. This book was long overdue and I’m hoping it inspires others to tell the tales of other contributors to the arts that have been forgotten or dismissed because of their gender, race, or ethnicity. Overall grade: A
To order a print copy go to https://www.amazon.com/dp/1335937803/ref=cm_sw_su_dp?tag=hqnweb-20