Why you should care
Because it’s time to change the script for women’s contributions in Hollywood.
It was a glamorous film premiere in Detroit, with cinephiles streaming into a 2,700-seat theater to see Universal International Studios’ new horror flick Creature From the Black Lagoon. The black-and-white movie had all the makings of a hit — 3D thrills, underwater action, stunts and special effects that included a monster known as the Gill-man.
Outside the theater on that February evening in 1954, a tall woman with dark hair and striking features posed with a papier-mâché version of the smooth-scaled, mythical creature from the Amazon. Half man, half fish, it had long, webbed fingers that ended in claws; gills flared from the sides of its neck. The woman’s name was Milicent Patrick, and as a makeup artist at Universal, she had created the beast.
I spent six weeks with the Gill-man. He changed his shape three times before he was able to win the approval of the [studio] executives.
Milicent Patrick, makeup and special effects artist
Patrick had been on a promotional tour for almost two weeks, doing interviews on more than 40 TV and radio shows, most notably NBC’s Today show to talk up the film, which follows two scientists into the unknown as they look for a mysterious creature. In an interview with The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, Patrick noted: “I spent six weeks with the Gill-man. He changed his shape three times before he was able to win the approval of the executives who always have the last word on Hollywood monsters.”
Back in Los Angeles, Patrick’s comment turned her into an instant enemy of Universal’s temperamental makeup chief, Bud Westmore, who was a scion of a Hollywood makeup dynasty.
Milicent Patrick herself was no Hollywood blue blood. She was born Mildres Elizabeth Rossi in 1915 in El Paso, Texas. Her architect father’s career took the family to South America to New York City to California, where he worked on William Randolph Hearst’s estate in San Simeon. By 1940, Rossi was employed as an artist in Hollywood, and in the late ’40s she became one of the first female animators at the Walt Disney Studios.
But she also had acting aspirations, and in 1948 she changed her name to the more mainstream Milicent Patrick in hopes that it would land her more on-camera work. Meantime, she went from success to success in her day job. In 1952, she joined Universal’s makeup department under Westmore and created such memorable monsters as the globs in It Came From Outer Space and Mr. Hyde in Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
In 1953, Patrick began designing Creature From the Black Lagoon, drawing the original sketches for the Gill-man, according to Chris Mueller, who sculpted the costume, and Ben Chapman, one of the actors who played the Creature. Mueller stated publicly that Westmore had nothing to do with the project, even though Westmore is the only makeup artist credited on the movie. Universal declined to comment on who else played a role in the creation of the costume.
Prior to Patrick’s publicity tour to Detroit and New York, Westmore had stormed into the office of assistant publicity director Sam Israel. According to a letter that Israel wrote about the encounter, Westmore was upset that Patrick was taking credit for his work; he wanted her to stress in interviews that her job was just to put his ideas into sketches. The studio had already appeased Westmore by calling Patrick “the Beauty Who Lives With the Beasts” instead of “the Beauty Who Created the Beasts.” Westmore eventually signed off on the strategy.
Then came the Daily Eagle article. Tom Weaver writes in The Creature Chronicles: “Even though Patrick had sallied forth with Westmore’s imprimatur … the kudos she received must have stirred the soup of his discontent and he continued to raise hell about it.” Westmore barged into advertising and publicity executive Clark Ramsay’s office, where he “let it be known in a general way that he is not going to use [Patrick] as a sketch artist anymore,” Ramsay wrote in a memo dated March 1, 1954, adding, “I think we all agree that Westmore is being a little childish over the entire matter.”
Apparently, this was common behavior for the makeup master. “For members of his staff, complete compliance was the only means of staying on his slim sunny side,” writes Weaver. Frank Westmore, also a prominent makeup artist, thought his own brother was too much sometimes. When a member of Bud’s staff became too inventive, “Bud would either fire him or resort to his famous ‘silent treatment,’ making the makeup artist’s life so miserable in general that he would quit,” Frank wrote in his 1976 memoir, The Westmores of Hollywood.
Bud Westmore, who worked at Universal for 23 years and is credited on such cinematic classics as To Kill a Mockingbird and Spartacus, died in 1973; Frank, in 1985.
After The Creature From the Black Lagoon, Patrick handled makeup illustrations on Captain Lightfoot, a 1955 swashbuckler starring Rock Hudson, but “apart from that, she may never again have worked in a makeup or sketch artist capacity at Universal,” writes Tom Weaver in Universal Terrors 1951–1955. Like other colleagues who were snubbed by Westmore, Patrick may have tired of working for him. “My guess is that she soured on it after this rotten experience,” Weaver tells OZY. Post-Universal, Patrick didn’t work for any other studios and only had small acting roles.
Patrick may have ended her career in obscurity, but her Gill-man went on to become a horror movie icon “that was immediately and forever associated with the 1950s,” writes Steve Kronenberg in Universal Terrors. Oscar-winning director Guillermo del Toro became obsessed with the Gill-man after he saw the movie as a boy. “I would draw the Creature riding on a double bicycle with Julie Adams [the film’s bathing beauty] having an ice cream, a triple-cone ice cream,” del Toro said in an NPR interview prior to the release of his film The Shape of Water, in which the female protagonist and a Creature-like monster explore a mutual attraction. The film earned Golden Globes for del Toro (best director) and Alexandre Desplat (original score).
Milicent Patrick died in 1998 without sharing her story of who created the Gill-man, but over the past half-century, Hollywood historians have chipped away at Westmore’s claims and now the beauty gets credit for her most memorable beast.