Milicent Patrick & Her Enduring Design of the Creature from the Black Lagoon
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Did you know that a woman named Milicent Patrick designed "the Creature"—also known as Gill-man—the monster in the 1954 film The Creature from the Black Lagoon?
Her name and credit for her work were actively buried for decades, stolen by Milicent's boss Bud Westmore.
This whole thing about Milicent Patrick as the designer for the Creature is still controversial in some circles, even though there's abundant proof. After Bud Westmore died, Milicent came right out and said she designed the Creature. Chris Mueller, the artist who sculpted the Creature, and Ben Chapman, one of two actors who wore the costume, said publicly that Milicent created Gill-man.
Ben Chapman Interview with Classic-Horror.com
Jenn Dlugos: Now, who actually came up with the idea for the Gillman's costume?
Ben Chapman: Well, on paper, the artist was a woman named Milicent Patrick. She did the artwork. There's a gentleman named Chris Muller, who is the gentleman who sculpted my head. I give all the credit to supervising the costume to Jack Kevan. Jack has since passed on. But, he didn't get credit for it.
— Ben Chapman's website www.the-reelgillman.com
Bud Westmore was known for kicking his team out of the studio whenever a photographer was around so he could pose with others' work, but sometimes the visits were unexpected, like the one below.
And here's a photo of the design for the Creature before Milicent Patrick swooped in and saved the entire legacy of Universal Classic Monsters.
Here's Milicent Patrick's design that Chris Mueller sculpted for a quick comparison.
The film's entire cast are terrific actors, and I couldn't help but wonder how audiences would have reacted to the pollywog or any other design before Milicent Patrick came on board. I didn't have to wonder about it very long; some cursory research showed that Universal did a test shoot with the pollywog that was declared a disaster. However, a test shoot with Milicent's design gave the entire team precisely what they'd hoped for—a fearsome monster that audiences could still empathize with.
There are photos and first-hand accounts that Bud Westmore had nothing to do with the final creature design, and not only that, but he hated what Milicent Patrick created. Which one do you find more terrifying? Terrifying and well-designed clearly aren't the same thing here.
Artist: Milicent Patrick
Milicent was one of the first female animators to work at Disney Studios. She worked on Fantasia, and if you've ever seen it, you may remember this character.
As an aside, guess who pantomimed at Disney for the Chernabog animations?
From what I've gathered, Walt Disney himself personally picked out and hired Milicent, prior to her getting hired on at Universal by...
The Jealous Thief: Bud Westmore
I've said enough about this guy already. I'll let the header on this section do most of the talking, but a few more points are worth mentioning.
A man named Jack Pierce designed many of the classic creatures we all know and love, like the 1931 Frankenstein played by Boris Karloff.
Jack Pierce was fired because of mafia-style pressure from the Westmore family to hire one of their own. After being fired, Jack Pierce only worked on low-budget indies, essentially blackballed from Hollywood. After a bit of Westmore infighting and a plot to make sure a Westmore with experience had a bad hangover the day of the interview, Bud ended up with the position.
So, how did Bud do? Well, you already saw the horror that was the pollywog. Think of those pictures of the pollywog you just saw. Now, watch this 2-minute video of Milicent Patrick's design in action. The mouth, jaw, and eyes all resemble a human enough that it seems like it could jump out of the screen. You can see the area of the gills actually moving, breathing.
That's not to say Bud necessarily had a hand in designing the pollywog—the history is a little unclear, and as we know, he was a credit thief—and the pollywog held true to producer William Alland's vision. Still, the pollywog didn't have the same realism as the rest of the Universal monsters. Bud, on his own, didn't have the skills to create anything worthy of being in the Universal Classic Monsters pantheon. He couldn't hack it. His background was in beauty make-up, and nothing he could ever do could compare to Jack Pierce, and he never stood a chance against the magnificent Milicent Patrick.
Obviously, the next best thing to having the actual skill and putting in the hard work to make something of your own is to pay someone else to do it and then steal it.
That's Bud's role in this story. A jealous thief with a powerful family. I've mentioned his name enough times already, and I won't do it again. He doesn't deserve it. If I need to refer to him again, I'll come up with a new alias each time, so I can do my part to ensure Mr. I Don't Know How to Hold a Paintbrush may eventually be forgotten by history.
The Creature by Milicent Patrick
Let's take a close look at Milicent's design of the Creature, aka Gill-man.
One thing is immediately apparent, compared to other Universal Classic Monsters—Gill-man's head is a mask that covers the entire actor. And, as you can see below, it's a full-body sculpt.
This is very different from other creatures like Dracula, Frankenstein's Monster, the Mummy, and Wolf Man. The closest thing I could dig up from the era was The Invisible Man from 1933, but that's only because the actor's entire face was covered.
What makes Gill-man even more remarkable is that it's considered the last of the Universal Classic Monsters, so nothing like it came after it. Milicent Patrick's design ended the entire era with a full-body creature, unlike anything before it. Looking back, it's not surprising because Gill-man was the only monster in the old Universal movies that didn't start as a human.
The film lore of Gill-man has it that he represents an entirely unknown branch of intelligent piscine/amphibious humanoids that evolved out of the Devonian period (otherwise known as the Age of Fishes.) I'm sure most people are familiar with merfolk, but there are dozens more from all over the world. The legends mainly fall into two categories: 1) piscine (fish) humanoids and 2) amphibian humanoids.
Did you know?
The difference between a marine biologist and an aquatic biologist—a marine biologist focuses on life in the oceans and seas. In contrast, an aquatic biologist focuses on life in freshwater systems like lakes and rivers.
In The Creature from the Black Lagoon film, Gill-man lives in an unexplored area of the Amazon rainforest. Supposedly, the film's producer, William Alland, attended a dinner party in 1941 for Orson Welles' Citizen Kane. He spoke to Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa at the party, who told him about half-fish/half-human creatures in the Amazon River. William Alland originally envisioned the monster for the film as a "sad, beautiful monster" that was frightening yet still very human.
Milicent's design captured that idea quite well. Who knows what information she had at the time, Amazonian legends, ancient folklore, fossil drawings/photos, but she created a face that, while isn't human at all, evokes a sense of connection and empathy. You can really see this better by watching the film, instead of just still images.
I did track down four legends of fish people in the Amazon, but none of them seem to fully fit Milicent's design, though it's clear she pulled aspects of her design from real animals.
Legends of the Amazon River
I was curious from a scientific standpoint which animals Milicent may have taken inspiration from, so I found an expert to help out.
John Curtin Distinguished Professor Kate Trinajstic is the Dean of Research for the Faculty of Science and Engineering at Curtin University in Perth, Australia. She is a palaeontologist, and her research is undertaken in the School of Molecular and Life Sciences. You can read more about her extensive and impressive background here.
She graciously gave some of her time to help me understand from an expert where Milicent Patrick may have drawn inspiration.
What initially interested you about paleontology, and how did you get into it?
Kate: My undergraduate degree was in biochemistry. I was interested in understanding how bone changes shape as an animal grows. This interest led to me working with the WA Museum on fossils from the Gogo Formation in Western Australia, which showed a growth series of early vertebrates, meaning each growth stage was frozen in time. Once I started working with fossils, I never looked back and moved my research to look at not only bones but also the preservation of soft tissues.
How would you describe what you do in your field of work to someone who knows nothing about paleontology?
Kate: It's a bit like a lucky dip. We go into the field, and years of work mean we know where the rocks are to find fossils; however, not every rock has fossils. We end up cracking a lot of rocks to find a single fossil.
The Devonian period, the supposed origin of Gill-man species, was roughly 400 million years ago. What kinds of evidence do we have for a period so long ago and, based on that evidence, what was the world like compared to the Earth we all know today?
Kate: The Devonian period went from 419.2-358.9, a period of 60.3 million years. There are many sites known globally from this age with a wealth of fossils that give us a window into a past life. Several sites are Lagerstatte, sites of exceptional preservation that not only preserved the skeletons of past animals but also soft anatomy and chemical signatures.
What animals survived the Devonian period and are still around today?
Kate: Sharks and fish, including lungfish and coelacanths. Many invertebrates, animals without backbones, including insects, arthropods, molluscs, and cephalopods to name a few.
Venturing into science fiction, when you look at photos of Gill-man from the 1954 film "The Creature from the Black Lagoon"—if you were to encounter a real version of the Creature today, what would you think of it?
Kate: It looks like a giant salamander. These grow to 1.8 m, so around the same size as the average northern European male (USA average size is 1.7 m). As giant salamanders are not dangerous to humans, they are actually quite shy; I'd not necessarily be scared. As they live in Asia, I'd probably think - What's a Giant salamander doing here?
Concerning Gill-man's evolutionary biology—do any features of the design resemble fossils or species from our Earth's past?
Kate: The head and Gill-man actually resemble axolotls and juvenile salamanders - with the external gills. Although, even the giant salamander losses its external gills at around 20cm. The head is a little narrow for a salamander, but the eyes, mouth, and nose are more salamander-like than fish-like, so, overall, there is a greater resemblance to a salamander. A small number of salamanders have webbed feet; the webbed feet in Gill-man are more like those of a frog. The limbs – arms and legs are also more amphibian-like than fish-like. The body plates, though, are like those found on fossil jawless fish from the early Devonian Anglaspis heintzi. Therefore, Gill-man is a chimera with various body parts taken from different animals.
What are your thoughts on us ever encountering such a radically different evolution of species either here on Earth or in other areas of the universe?
Kate: It's not radically different – this really does look like a salamander. The only difference is that the arms and legs are longer, and it has scales. Modern amphibians don't have scales, but their ancestors, the fish, did. In 2000, Adrienne Mayor published a book suggesting that many of the monsters of myths and legends were inspired by the discovery of fossils. However, not everyone believes this.
Thank you so much for your time, Kate. Your insight into Milicent Patrick's design is absolutely fascinating!
The book Kate mentioned is The First Fossil Hunters: Paleontology in Greek and Roman Times by Adrienne Mayor if you are interested in checking it out.
The film lore surrounding Gill-man actually says that he is amphibious. In fact, the Gill-man suit was made from airtight molded sponge rubber and was itself amphibious. In the underwater scenes from the film, air was fed into the suit with a rubber hose, allowing the underwater actor Ricou Browning to swim freely.
To Kate's point above about Gill-man as a chimera most closely resembling a salamander, it is interesting to note that film lore states Gill-man regenerates or heals quickly. As it turns out, salamanders are the champions of regeneration, exhibiting a remarkable ability to regrow tissues, organs, and even whole body parts. This regenerative ability is portrayed extensively throughout all of the films and even used as a device to create openings for subsequent sequels.
A Big Splash & Eternal Ripples
I'm linking to two books at the very end of this to read more about Milicent and her involvement in The Creature from the Black Lagoon. There's a story in both of those books about the marketing for the film that involved a tour around the US called "The Beauty Who Created the Beast"—Universal showcasing Milicent as the Creature's designer. This story was easily reconstructed by official memos from the publicity team working on the tour. Universal ended up renaming it to "The Beauty Who Lives With the Beasts" after her stalker-who-shall-not-be-named-lest-we-summon-him-from-behind-the-grave-to-steal-other-people's-work-again pitched a fit like an entitled two-year-old, demanded that Milicent Patrick sign a contract giving all credit to himself, and going on the attack against reporters who saw through his shrill cries for attention.
Anyone who attended the tour or reported on it saw right through everything because they were, after all, talking to the actual designer of Gill-man. Milicent Patrick was contractually obligated to never tell them that, though, and to give all credit to the make-up mafia man. She followed her contract precisely—but it didn't matter. Everyone knew Milicent Patrick was the "Beauty Who Created the Beast," and the guy yelling at reporters to pay attention to him was a complete fraud.
In the years following the film's release, Milicent's design has captured the hearts and minds of billions. Gill-man has influenced everything from film, music, and novels to pinball machines. A quick check on Etsy shows at least 1,500 different products from independent artists that took inspiration from Milicent Patrick's original design. One of my favorites is Hypnovamp by Stephanie Smiszek, and you can see some of her fabulous jewelry designs here on her website: here, here, and here. And don't miss seeing her glowing sculptural vintage television necklace; you really have to see it to believe it. It's one of a kind and still available at the time of writing this.
Going full circle, Milicent Patrick's design influenced more areas than entertainment. In 1998, a paleontologist, Jenny Clack, of the University of Cambridge, discovered a fossilized amphibian in what was once a fetid swamp. She named it Eucritta melanolimnetes, Greek for "the true creature from the black lagoon." You can read all about it here or watch a 3-minute video here. The video is a bit mesmerizing if you've seen the film recently because the swimming movement of the modern animals in the movie so closely resembles that of Gill-man.
Some people just can't accept that a woman created the design for a monster. In the case of the Creature, what was it about Milicent Patrick's creature design that caused her horrible boss to stalk, fire, steal credit for her work, and then spend the rest of his life blackballing her from Hollywood? Misogyny, certainly, as there are plenty of accounts. But there was also something else at work, another layer of hatred from he-who-shall-not-be-named. He just couldn't deal with one simple fact.
Milicent Patrick was better.
Where to Watch: Creature from the Black Lagoon
- Apple TV
- Amazon Prime Video
- Countless other places, just take a look at what you have available, and you might be surprised by how accessible some of the old monster classics are these days.
- If you're interested in reading more about Milicent's life story, there's an entire book written about her by Mallory O'Meara called The Lady from the Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick. Mallory tells her own fascinating story of her journey to uncover Milicent Patrick.
- If you'd like to delve into the entire history of the Black Lagoon trilogy, including Milicent Patrick, you'll want to check out The Creature Chronicles: Exploring the Black Lagoon Trilogy by Tom Weaver, David Schecter, & Steve Kronenberg.
- Luke Munson over at Monsters of Makeup has a great article with more information and photos.
Equality for Women in the Film Industry
Please allow me to disturb you with data for a minute. Take a look at the following chart.
This is from an article written by data journalist Miriam Quick for the BBC. You can read the full article on BBC's website at The data that reveals the film industry's 'woman problem'
The question is: what can the everyday movie lover do to support equality in the film industry? To begin with, check out some of these, several of which have ways to donate:
- Women in Film
- EWA - european women's audiovisual network
- Women and Hollywood
- Women Make Movies
- Film Fatales
- Brown Girls Doc Mafia
Above are some organizations I found that support gender equality in film, but what can we all do in our daily lives to further equality? Statistically, most of us don't work in film, but we can support equality with our dollars by renting or purchasing movies created by women and opening up discussions about the great works of women in the film industry.
You can also keep an eye on this list by Film Fatales and throw in some support by checking these features on Netflix directed by members of Film Fatales. You can also check out films directed by underrepresented filmmakers right here.
I reached out to Film Fatales for help compiling some ideas on supporting parity in the film industry (thanks, Film Fatales!) If anyone reading this has any more specific advice on actions we can all take to support equality, please drop me a line, and I'll be happy to add your ideas.