Milicent Patrick helped invent a new kind of animation at Disney. She was the first woman to work in special effects for a movie studio. And she designed sci-fi and horror creatures that would go on to influence filmmakers from Steven Spielberg to Guillermo del Toro.
Patrick was such a big deal in her day that, in 1954, Universal sent her on a cross-country tour. The former model, then 38, went to theaters and TV stations with drawings and prototypes of the studio’s famed monsters, including her own design for the Gill Man from “Creature from the Black Lagoon.”
But she was also blackballed from Hollywood by a jealous male boss who stole her legacy.
Now a new book by Mallory O’Meara, “The Lady from the Black Lagoon,” restores Patrick’s rightful place in film history.
“She wasn’t being helplessly carried away in the arms of the monster,” O’Meara writes. “She was creating it.”
Born Mildred Elisabeth Fulvia Rossi in 1915 to a San Francisco society girl and an engineer who helped build Hearst Castle, Patrick went on to graduate from the Chouinard Art Institute in Los Angeles. In 1939 she became one of Disney’s first female animators. There she helped pioneer a signature style, diluting paint to create an impressionistic “pastel effect,” which she used to animate the winged demon in the “Night on Bald Mountain” sequence in 1940’s “Fantasia.”
But all that detail work led to unbearable migraines, and she quit Disney after two years.
Making her living as a model and a bit player in movies, she changed her name to Milicent Patrick — taken from a short-lived marriage — and told people she was an Italian baroness.
On set, Patrick would draw portraits of her co-stars, which is reportedly how Bud Westmore, head of Universal’s makeup department, came to hire her in 1952.
Patrick designed the looks of characters that the props and makeup team would bring to life. She came up with Errol Flynn’s pirate mustache for “Against All Flags,” the masks for “Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” and the creepy eyeball in “It Came From Outer Space.” But her greatest creation was the Gill Man.
Like “Beauty and the Beast” with a sci-fi twist, “Creature from the Black Lagoon” revolved around a sea monster who falls in love with a human woman. Patrick took the concept art — a guy in a spandex leotard — and discarded it for a superhero suit of articulated scales, based on prehistoric aquatic animals. The head, with its prominent brow and lush lips, didn’t disguise the actor’s humanity, allowing his eyes to show heartache.
“[Gill Man] elicits so much empathy,” O’Meara told The Post.
When Westmore got wind that Universal was planning a huge tour around Patrick, he demanded it be rebranded from “The Beauty Who Created the Beast” to “The Beauty Who Lives With the Beasts,” and that Patrick credit the design to “Westmore and his staff” instead of claiming her sole ownership.
She went along with it — and was such a hit that journalists devoted reams of copy to her beauty, glamorous get-ups and jarring affinity for frightful ghouls.
Driven by jealousy, Westmore not only sacked Patrick, he blackballed her from every makeup department in Hollywood. He also stole drawings she had been working on for Universal’s “This Island Earth” and claimed them as his own.
“It was the ’50s. She couldn’t fight back,” said O’Meara.
Patrick continued to work as a bit actress through the 1960s. She also had a string of doomed romances: one lover committed suicide, another died of cancer. Her family had long ago cut her off, considering her work as a model akin to prostitution.
She never stopped creating: Patrick designed her own outfits and drew portraits of co-stars including Kirk Douglas. When Westmore died in 1973, she began, privately, to take credit for the Creature.
“She never allowed herself to be tamped down,” O’Meara said of Patrick, who died in 1998 at age 83. “She carried her SAG card till her death; she filled her home with portraits of friends.”
Now, O’Meara added, Patrick is having the last laugh. “Westmore may have killed her career, but he couldn’t kill her artistic spirit.”
By Raquel Laneri