I don’t like horror movies. I don’t understand how people can watch them. I get easily scared and I don’t like to be scared and so, therefore, I can’t and won’t watch horror movies, nor do I have a wide knowledge of their history.
However, I can and will share with you the history behind one of the most iconic horror monsters, specifically the influence of one woman on its creation and the real life monster that she faced.
But first, as always, let’s set the scene.
Universal Studios took great pride (and great fortune) in becoming America’s principal creator of horror movies in the Thirties and Forties. The Depression and World War II created a significant need to escape from all of the world’s doom and gloom. And so, for reasons that elude my scaredy-cat constitution, people chose that escape to be Universal’s horror films.
However, once the world started to get a bit brighter, it seemed that the thrill of horror began to diminish and people no longer flocked to the pictures.
So Universal changed tactics. And thus, the Science Fiction Double Feature was born.
(I don’t count The Rocky Horror Picture Show as a horror movie. It’s a musical. I effing love musicals.)
People seemed fascinated by new science’s potential to both advance and destroy, and so Universal producers set in motion big budget projects that blurred the lines between the scientific and supernatural. People were hooked.
Suddenly, Universal, now called Universal-International, began rapidly churning out pictures, often creating a new monster for a film before the script was ever written.
The monster behind these monsters was Bud Westmore, the mercurial chief of makeup for Universal. Whenever one of his employees started to achieve individual fame, “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.” His own brother, Frank Westmore, said that about him.
He was also known by many to have an acute awareness whenever the press were visiting and he would run to the make up shop and futz around with something while his photo was taken. To the keen observer, however, I’m sure he was found out by the lack of paint on his fancy garb.
It probably goes without saying that Millicent Patrick hadn’t heard of Bud’s temperamental nature when she accepted a job offer to join his makeup department in 1952.
Millicent Patrick, born Mildres Elizabeth Rossi in 1915, grew up traveling with her architect father from El Paso, Texas to South America, New York City, and, finally California. While Dad casually worked in San Simeon on William Randolph Hearst’s estate, Mildres chased her dream of becoming an artist in Hollywood. She attended the Chouinard Institute and became the first female animator to work for Disney when she was hired in the late ‘40s.
But she quickly caught the Hollywood bug. Dreaming of becoming an actress, she changed her name to Millicent Patrick. It was around this time she joined Westmore’s makeup department as a character designer, admittedly not her fantasy on-camera role, but a dream opportunity nonetheless.
Tasked with turning agreed-upon creative ideas into an refined design, she quickly went to work on the globs from “It Came From Outer Space” and Mr. Hyde of“Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”
Her biggest break came in 1953 when she was asked to create original designs on the Gill-Man, the “Creature from the Black Lagoon.” As I understand, the creature whose fame rivaled that of Frankenstein and Dracula for true horror buffs, which, again, I am not one but I have taken other people’s words for it, so, you will just have to take my…second-hand word for it.
The Gill-Man was predicted to be a huge success for the studio and no expense was spared. The whole costume cost somewhere between $12,000 and $18,000 and took between six and eight and half months to create from concept to production.
Leotards were made from body casts of the two actors and foam rubber pieces and scales were later added to create the creature’s signature appearance. The heads, hands and feet were cast in plaster after they were sculpted in clay. The end result, though quite rudimentary to our modern eyes, was groundbreaking and the pride of Universal-International.
At the start of 1954, the studio decided to put together a tour to promote the film before its release in March and asked Millicent to go because of her role in the character’s production. They billed her as “The Beauty Who Created the Beast.”
The tour included interviews with more than 40 television and radio talk shows and Millicent talked about her process of working on the film.
Our volatile little Bud Westmore, however, took great offense that the title “The Beauty Who Created the Beast” implied that Millicent was the chief creator of the character. As far as he was concerned, all she had done was simply sketch out his own ideas. He demanded that the studio call Millicent “the Beauty Who Lives With the Beasts” instead.
It was unavoidable for Millicent to earn praise for her role in the creature’s creation, however big or small, when she was the only representative of the production on tour. However, Bud resented at any compliment she received and publicly resolved that he would never use her as a sketch artist anymore.
Clark Ramsay, the advertising and publicity executive, wrote “I think we all agree that Westmore is being a little childish over the entire matter,” in a memo and several other members of the production team agreed that some credit was due Millicent for her work.
It did little good against a powerful figure like Bud Westmore.
Millicent had some minuscule acting roles in the years that followed and completed makeup illustrations for “Captain Lightfoot” in 1955, but otherwise her career drifted into unfortunate obscurity. Many people say it’s like she never existed, creating a whole other psychological thriller element to her story. It’s believed she died in 1998.
The extent of Millicent’s role in the designing of the Gill-Man is still an ongoing battle, made more uncertain by the near invisibility of her later life. However, acknowledgements throughout the years by the members of the team who constructed the beast reference her significant contribution, a huge landmark for a woman in the industry.
It would seem that because of her charisma and beauty, and because she was the one promoting the film on the tour, that many people naturally attached the project to her and, because this insulted the insecurity of one man, a career that began with such potential became a mystery, a speculation, a tale.
Now, at least, I have a non-cowardly reason that horror movies make me shudder.