The Creature from the Black Lagoon, despite its unimaginative name, is a pretty darn good film for something that was just supposed to be a monster movie. A group of scientists travels up the Amazon to investigate reports of a fish/lizard/person/creature. Though there is some stilted 1950s dialogue, it is far overshadowed by the absolutely stunning underwater photography.

Julie Adams unwittingly swims with the Gill Man.

Filmed both in the clear springs of Florida and on set, these scenes are entrancing, not least because audiences had never seen any monster like that. After Universal had hits with Dracula, Frankenstein, and Wolf Man in the 1930s, they strayed from the formula, looking to become more ‘legitimate,’ but after the war they returned to their profitable genre films to buoy the studio.

One of the main components that makes the movie so successful, even today, is the creature himself. As Mallory O’Meara uncovers in her book, there are worlds of fascinating stories behind that single costume. It was designed by Milicent Patrick, and following a triumphant publicity tour with her creation, she disappeared from the film world.

Publicity still of Milicent Patrick with her creature.

Milicent was never going to be ordinary. Her father was an architectural engineer who was hired by William Randolph Hearst to design and manage the construction of his estate in San Simeon. Milicent literally grew up on the grounds of Hearst Castle. She convinced her parents to allow her to attend college and found she had a great talent for art. She landed a job at the fledgling Disney Studios, first as a colorist then as a designer. Her most notable creation for the animation studio was Chernabog in the “Night on Bald Mountain” scene in Fantasia.

Chernabog calls his minions in Disney’s Fantasia (1940)

O’Meara traces Milicent’s career, and personal life, from Disney to Universal and beyond. She explores the inherent prejudices that Milicent faced and how she managed to thrive in spite of them, and she muses on how little has changed in 60+ years in the film industry.

Monster stories are powerful. They explore prejudice, rejection, anger and every imaginable negative aspect of living in society. However, only half of society is reflected in the ranks of the people who create these monsters.

The book is about 85% biography of Milicent and 15% autobiography of O’Meara discovering Milicent. While I enjoyed the anecdotes, like research at the archive, a modern day visit to Hearst Castle and the visit with Milicent’s niece, there were other tangents that veered towards too personal. O’Meara makes excellent points and is absolutely justified in her frustration – I simply found them occasionally taking over the story and repeating arguments made earlier.

Publicity still of Milicent with her sketches and mockup of the creature

It is a wonderfully rich look at Old Hollywood from the perspective of the art department and how some of the most iconic looks were created. With O’Meara’s book, a talented figure in that world has been not only brought back from near-obscurity, but rightfully highlighted for her mastery.

Rent The Creature from the Black Lagoon.

My rating: 

I did not receive a copy for review. I borrowed this book from my local public library.

Hardcover: 368 pages
Publisher: Hanover Square Press; Original edition (March 5, 2019)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 1335937803
ISBN-13: 978-1335937803
Product Dimensions: 6.1 x 1.2 x 9.3 inches

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