Creating a Creature: Millicent Patrick and Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

By Marian Phillips

Marian is a first year student in the Women’s History Graduate Program at Sarah Lawrence College.

On March 5, 1954, Universal International Pictures released the groundbreaking Science Fiction film Creature from the Black Lagoon across the United States. The film details a scientific exploration of the Amazon River when the discovery of the prehistoric fossils of the “Gill-Man” are found in the Black Lagoon. Returning from his ancient sleep, the Gill-Man resurfaces and falls in love with Kay Lawrence (played by Julie Adams). With its intricate costume and make-up design for the Gill-Man, Creature from the Black Lagoon impacted the future of Sci-Fi b-movies, and creature features. Often, George “Bud” Westmore receives credit for the entirety of the design efforts that went into creating the creature. In recent years, fans of the feature demanded that Millicent Patrick receive credit where credit is due, and where Westmore denied it.

Born in El Paso, Texas, Millicent Patrick (born Mildred Elizabeth Fulvia di Rossi) became a talented make-up artist, actress, and costume designer in Hollywood, California. During the 1940s, she began working in the animation department at Walt Disney Studios. Patrick was the first woman hired to the animation staff at Disney, and her credentials continued to flourish as a designer and animator. There is heavy speculation as to specific times and dates that she worked at specific studios, as well as which films she worked on. For this reason, writing a fully developed history on Millicent Patrick is difficult, but also necessary. She was a pioneer for women working or wanting to work in animation, and set a precedent for the future of the Science-Fiction genre as a whole.

In the early 1950s, Universal International Pictures (better known as Universal Studios) sought out designers for their upcoming feature length film, Creature from the Black Lagoon. With her talent and credentials, Millicent Patrick was an undeniable choice for the design team that the famous Bud Westmore was head of. As a member of the design team, Patrick designed and created the head for the Gill-Man suit (Jack Kevan created the body). When the film was ramping up to hit theaters, the Studio requested that she go on a promotional tour called “The Beauty who Created the Beast.” During the tour, Westmore sent letters to Universal objecting to the idea of a woman receiving credit for the creation of the creature. As the head of design department, he had the power to make or break her career. Westmore threatened to fire Patrick during the tour, and true to his word, did so a year later.

Westmore’s tirade impacted the way that Patrick and her design work is or is not accredited on films produced through Universal. Rumors that she worked on more than twenty films in her career have spread rapidly online, and have created cause enough to call for the studio to give her the credit she deserves. Patrick is known for other popular Sci-Fi films such as It Came from Outer Space (1953), Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1953), and The Mole People (1956). These are only three films (not including Creature) that she undoubtedly worked on the design team for, and it is indisputable that she deserves credit for them; as there is photo evidence of her creating the costumes. This raises the question, does the studio only give her credit for features that there is physical proof of? Or would they give it to her regardless?

While some may not know the name of Gill-Man or Millicent Patrick, more than likely they’ve seen a film or a television show that was influenced by her creation and/or the film itself. Guillermo del Toro’s award winning 2017 film The Shape of Water is notably inspired by Creature from the Black Lagoon and is considered to be a reworking of the love story within the original. Other works such as Monster Squad (1987) features the Gill-Man rising from the Black Lagoon, Stephen King’s novel IT (1986) mentions Gill-Man, and The Munsters (1964-66) features Uncle Gilbert, a man who claims he has risen from the Black Lagoon. If one takes a trip to Universal Studios’ park in Florida, the Gill-Man is one of the first creatures you see at the Classic Monsters Café. The creature is one of the most popular Sci-Fi characters in cinematic history, and is making a big return.

Universal Studios has recently been given the green light on creating the Dark Universe, a planned cinematic universe that will feature Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolf Man, and of course, Gill-Man. As a longtime fan of Creature from the Black Lagoon, I can only hope (if there is a remake) that somewhere in the credits, Millicent Patrick’s name will be there, and that future audiences see her name attached to the films she made possible. As Patrick was the first woman hired to the animation department of Walt Disney Studios, and the creator of famous creatures in Sci-Fi features, leaving her name out of the credits erases the magnitude of her existence in the drawing room, and in the history of women in Hollywood. I urge you to consider where names of women may be missing or erased from popular culture, and to attempt to make their names just as popular as the creatures they created.

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