Sunday Reads: The Gill Man And The Woman Who Made Him

Meet Millicent Patrick, the most famous monster maker you've never heard of.

Of the many iconic Universal Monster designs, The Creature From The Black Lagoon's titular beast has always been my favorite. It's the most otherworldly and freaky-looking of the Uni Monster heavyweights, and it's also the most-impressive, from a technical standpoint. As an added bonus, there's a great - albeit somewhat depressing - story surrounding the Creature's design, one that too many people remain unaware of.

Unlike Frankenstein (1931), The Mummy (1932), and The Wolf Man (1941), all of which featured creature design from the legendary Jack Pierce, The Creature From The Black Lagoon was designed by a woman named Millicent Patrick. Patrick was something of a jack-of-all-trades, working around Hollywood as an animator (in 1941, she became the first female animator ever hired by Disney), an actress, and - starting in 1953 - as a creature designer for Universal (It Came From Outer Space, Abbott And Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Hyde). In 1954, the studio began work on Creature From The Black Lagoon, and by all accounts Patrick was largely responsible for designing the iconic suit Ben Chapman and Ricou Browning would go on to wear in that film.

Problem was, Patrick wasn't the only makeup effects artist working on the film. Bud Westmore was also involved, and...well, Bud Westmore was a big effing deal. Like Jack Pierce, Westmore was a legendary makeup artist, a guy who eventually racked up 450+ film credits over the course of his career (including work on The Munsters and Man of A Thousand Faces). He was also a scion of the famed Westmore family, whose contributions to the art of Hollywood makeup design really can't be overstated (the Westmores literally founded Hollywood's first-ever makeup department, all the way back in 1917).

So, when it came time to roll out Creature From The Black Lagoon, Patrick went on a promotional tour with the film, screening the film around the country and giving interviews where she wasn't shy about discussing her role in the creation of the Creature's design. Back in Hollywood, Universal was thrilled at the reaction CFTBL was getting from audiences: it was clear they had a big hit on their hands. Bud Westmore was not so thrilled. There's a great article about Patrick over on Tor, and they describe Westmore's reaction thusly:

Even before Ms. Patrick began her tour, make-up department head George Hamilton “Bud” Westmore had sent memos to the Universal front office taking exception to the studio’s intention to bill her as “The Beauty Who Created the Beast,” by claiming that the Creature was entirely the product of his own efforts. In February, while the tour was in full swing, Westmore went to great lengths to secure clippings of her numerous newspaper interviews, some citing her as the Creature’s sole creator, without mention of Westmore or of the other members of the make-up department staff. Westmore made it clear in his complaints to Universal executives that he had no intentions of engaging Ms. Patrick’s services as a sketch artist again. In correspondence between executives Clark Ramsey and Charles Simonelli dated the first of March 1954, Ramsey noted that Westmore was behaving childishly over the matter, and that Patrick had done everything possible to credit Westmore during her interviews. He further expressed regret at Westmore’s intention to penalize her.

Westmore followed through on that intention: once Patrick wrapped work on another Universal project she'd been working on, she was effectively booted from the studio's makeup department. Creature From The Black Lagoon should've been a career-launching hit for her, but thanks to Westmore's antics, Patrick's career as a makeup effects artist stalled out almost as soon as it'd begun. She continued to find work as an actress, but that work was in mostly forgettable films and even more forgettable TV shows (and usually in uncredited roles). Westmore, meanwhile, spent the next several decades telling everyone who'd listen that he'd been the one behind the Gill-Man design. Eventually Westmore died, and the biggest building on the Universal lot was named in his honor (Hooray for Hollywood!).

Luckily, the story of "The Beauty Who Created The Beast" has become more and more well-known over the past few decades, and every time someone tells it Patrick gets a little more of the credit she deserved back in 1954. That's a bittersweet ending to the tale-- it's too bad she didn't get even more recognition before her death in 1998-- but it's something.  Drink to Patrick the next time you watch Creature From The Black Lagoon*, and be sure to tell all your friends who really designed that awesome costume. It's what Bud Westmore would've done.

* = Which should be often: Creature From The Black Lagoon is one of the best Uni Monsters films. I was lucky enough to catch a digitally restored, 3D rerelease of the film via the Alamo Drafthouse a few years ago, and I was blown away by it. Not only how by how great it looked (especially the underwater photography), but by how thoroughly it holds up sixty years later.

This article originally appeared on the site in 2014.

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