In the summer of 1816, what began as a simple parlour game while holidaying close to Lake Geneva gave rise to one of the most enduring fictional creations of our age: Frankenstein’s monster. For some people, its originator – Mary Shelley – is still not receiving due credit for her work, due to claims and arguments coming from various quarters over the extent to which Mary’s work may have seen some involvement on the part of her husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley.
Thankfully, most people rightly see Mary Shelley as the true author of Frankenstein, with any arguments to the contrary being chiefly confined to the bickering of literary academics. When mentioning Frankenstein’s monster, the image most commonly associated with it is the one created by make-up artist Jack Pierce with Boris Karloff for 1931’s classic movie by British director James Whale. Pierce also became associated with the distinctive look of the creatures as seen in Universal Pictures’ The Wolf Man and The Mummy.
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One of the pantheon of what was to later be described as the ‘Universal Classic Monsters’ was the Gill-Man, best known as the titular Creature From The Black Lagoon. Both the name and the Creature itself have passed into popular culture, and provided the inspiration for Guillermo del Toro’s 2017 film The Shape Of Water. The Creature even made an appearance at the 2019 confirmation hearing of one of Donald Trump’s nominees, in order to represent the metaphorical ‘swamp’ of Washington’s perceived political landscape.
However, for many decades the real identity of the designer who was responsible for coming up with the distinctive look of the Black Lagoon’s lonely denizen has been obscured, with all of the credit being directed elsewhere. Recently, the truth has emerged from the murky depths, and the name Milicent Patrick is now openly spoken of as being the Gill-Man’s true progenitor. Patrick’s vital role in designing an iconic monster was intentionally obscured for around half a century, due to one insecure man’s fragile porcelain ego, aided by the studio system’s – and society’s – inherent patriarchy.
Although Patrick was now finally being given her due credit for devising the Creature’s distinctive look, it appeared that she was still something of an enigma, with next to nothing seemingly being known about her life, other than her work on Creature From The Black Lagoon. Someone who wanted to know more was Mallory O’Meara, lifelong horror fan and now a movie producer; O’Meara had loved the Creature since her teens, and found out about Patrick’s part in bringing it to life, coming to see her as truly inspiring.
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In fact, O’Meara went as far as getting a tattoo of Patrick and the Creature, and it was talking to a literary agent friend at a party about the significance of the ink, and the story that lay behind it, which started her on the path to writing a book all about the largely unknown Patrick – the end result of this is The Lady From The Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters And The Lost Legacy Of Milicent Patrick, which sets out to right the monumental injustice of Patrick having been denied her legacy for so long, by bringing the facts to light.
O’Meara is quite candid about the fact that she is not a writer by nature, and The Lady From The Black Lagoon is not what you could describe as being a conventional biography; this is not, however, in any way a criticism of her work. As well as an exploration of Patrick’s life, this also serves as something of a voyage of self-discovery for O’Meara who, in the process of her extensive researches, uncovers many parallels between the two of them – both faced experiences of blatant sexism and discrimination while working in the film industry.
As such, this is a highly personal account by O’Meara, which is actually written on a deeper level than just expressing her fangirlish admiration for Patrick’s work on giving form to the Gill-Man; it shows that even in the age of #MeToo, there are still far too many inequities which need to be addressed, and how little things have truly advanced since Patrick’s era, not only within their chosen lines of work, but also within society as a whole. Some of O’Meara’s experiences are shockingly so similar to those of Patrick’s despite several decades between them, showing chauvinism and misogyny are still rife.
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If you are used to biographies being dry recitations of dates and facts, then O’Meara’s livewire style may take a little bit of getting used to, as she at times is as much the focus as her subject; however, this only strengthens the narrative rather than detracting from it, and you end up with an account that is honest, engaging and heartfelt. O’Meara’s passion just shines through here, which you can see is not limited only to her previously mysterious idol, but also extends to her drive to try and advance the cause of women everywhere, seeking to avoid anyone else facing the indignity which Patrick faced of being cruelly sidelined for so long.
The part-memoir by O’Meara does add some extra flavour, but there is certainly plenty of meat to be found in Patrick’s remarkable life; full credit should be given for all O’Meara’s efforts in actually uncovering so much previously unknown information about Patrick, and managing to make her feel like a fully rounded individual, springing right off the page. O’Meara takes the reader along on her journey, showing all the setbacks and triumphs as they happened, and how the story unfolded.
It means that we feel all of her joy and her heartache, as the tale carries us along, and we see O’Meara learning as much about herself as Patrick. You would be forgiven for thinking that Patrick’s pinnacle was her design of the Creature, and that there may be little else to tell; in fact, Patrick’s life was quite remarkable, and O’Meara has most certainly done her proud by not only giving a comprehensive cradle-to-grave account, but also not shying away from some uncomfortable truths, thereby making sure we get a frank, honest depiction of Patrick, not some sugarcoated image.
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They say you should never meet your heroes, in case you end up being disappointed or disillusioned; O’Meara never had a chance to, as Patrick had passed away years before there had even been any thought given to writing a book. However, you find from reading The Lady From The Black Lagoon that her only disappointment would have been in not completing her task of bringing Patrick’s life story to as wide an audience as possible. You may also never get a chance to see as amusing a set of footnotes again, with O’Meara using these almost as thought bubbles or streams of consciousness.
Unlike Creature From The Black Lagoon, Milicent Patrick’s life was not a horror story; however, with Mallory O’Meara’s compelling and insightful biography, we get to see that the real monsters still walk amongst us, and that there is also a long way to go before all the glass ceilings are shattered. The Lady From The Black Lagoon tells us all about a pioneer and trailblazer, whose historic struggles still feel somewhat too current, but we can still come away seeing her as a source of real inspiration.
The Lady From The Black Lagoon: Hollywood Monsters And The Lost Legacy Of Milicent Patrick is out now from Solaris.