What We Learned From Walt Disney Family Museum’s Presentation “Film Fatale: The Legacy of Milicent Patrick with Mallory O’Meara”

Last night, the Walt Disney Family Museum in San Francisco held another of their special virtual programs for members, fans, or those who simply just want to attend, as the museum is closed to the public right now.  Fortunately we were able to virtually attend this program, “Film Fatale: The Legacy of Milicent Patrick with Mallory O'Meara.”

The program focused on a pioneer at the Walt Disney Animation Studios, Mildred Rossi, or as she would later be known, Milicent Patrick. Milicent Patrick was a true Renaissance woman. Not only was she one of The Walt Disney Studios’ first female animators, but throughout her illustrious career, she also worked as an actress, makeup artist, and special effects designer.

Filmmaker and author of the book, The Woman from the Black Lagoon, Mallory O’Meara led the program and was joined by Ink & Paint: The Women of Walt Disney’s Animation author Mindy Johnson as we dove into the illustrious (no pun intended) career of the brilliant artist.

Recently recognized as the costume designer behind the iconic Gill-man from Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), Patrick also animated the pastel color work on the terrifying Chernabog from Fantasia (1940) and contributed to Dumbo (1941) before leaving the Studios to pursue a career in acting.

Aside from that, here are some more things we learned about Milicent Patrick:

Mallory O’Meara, a self-proclaimed “monster nerd” was researching more about Patrick’s early career but came to a standstill until she found out she had another name, Mildred Rossi, which led her to Ink & Paint author Mindy Johnson and discovered her early work at the Walt Disney Studios where she was (as was the case with most women employed at the studio at the time) employed in the Ink and Paint department as a chemist developing formulas and colors exclusive for animation cels. It was her education at the Chouinard Institute that caught Walt’s eye and he brought her over to the studio.

Walt Disney and Nelbert Chouinard (who started the institute) had made an arrangement to have his artists further their education. At the time, he could not afford to pay anyone and Chouinard and her school were the only ones in town that would teach the artists, and did so because she felt that his artists and animation were only the beginning of a new American art form. He remembered this later, contributing funds to her school and pulling his artists, including Rossi, from Chouinard. The partnership remained and became the genesis for what became the California Institute of the Arts.

While employed at the Walt Disney Studio, Rossi also illustrated some characters, including Pluto, for the staff bulletins. Johnson and O’Meara believe that this is what got the attention of Walt and others and she got moved over as one of two female In-betweeners in the animation department.

As O’Meara and Johnson said themselves, there has always been “a sort of urban legend” that Bela Lugosi (who played Dracula in the early Universal Monsters films) had served as the reference model for Chernabog in Fantasia. They were happy to confirm, though they weren’t allowed to show any pictures, that they had discovered during their research that this was, in fact, true. Rossi had worked on the animation of the character, doing all the pastel work and lighting effects on Chernabog in the film’s Night on Bald Mountain sequence. O’Meara loved discovering all of this, especially anything relating to Chernabog as that was the character that “planted the seed of monster love” when she first saw him as a kid.

Dumbo was the last film Rossi worked on for the Walt Disney Studios, where she was an in-betweener. She was prone to migraines, and animators are typically known (at the time) to stare at light boxes all day which didn’t help. She had also met and fell in love with another animator from the studio, and took his last name when they married, Fitzpatrick.

Mindy Johnson said that with all the contributions she made at the studio, “had she been a man, we would have taken note of her work.” We can also see her in the background in the film, The Reluctant Dragon.

Rossi, now combining her name and married name into Milicent Patrick, became a model, working at trade shows selling vacuums, jewelry, and tried acting but according to O’Meara, “wasn’t very good at it.” It was during downtime on set that a man named Bud Westmore saw her sketching and wanted her to work for him and his makeup departments.

The Westmore family makeup dynasty is a story unto itself, but Bud had her working on sci-fi movies and did designs for It Came From Outer Space at Universal and eventually into designs for The Creature From the Black Lagoon. This proved challenging as it was a full body suit, that unlike others would be filmed in complete daylight, and obviously, had to go underwater. Based on one phrase in the treatment for the film, “leftover from the Devonian era,” Patrick looked up Devonian fossils and came up with the design for the film. Westmore had no thought about a woman doing all this, because he didn’t think the movie would succeed. Patrick was approached to do press for the film, a campaign tentatively called “The Beauty Who Created the Beast.”

Westmore wanted none of the credit to go to Patrick so he went to Universal and expressly forbade the campaign to allow her or Patrick herself to mention that she worked on the Creature. He even had chaperones with her to make sure she didn’t say she designed the Creature. However, according to O’Meara, “People aren’t stupid,” and figured out what was going on and Westmore immediately fired Milicent Patrick, and in a true Hollywood cliche, made sure she never worked in that town again. Westmore received full credit (until recently) for designing Creature.

Patrick’s designs would also become the Metaluna Mutant in This Island Earth, for which she also received zero credit.

During the Q & A, O’Meara told a hilarious anecdote regarding a run-in with herself and the great nephew of Bud Westmore at her local BevMo, with the nephew pointing out a piece of Creature garb on her person saying “My great uncle designed him.” She went on to say that she asked to interview him, gave him her info, and never heard from him again, presumably after Googling who she was, he got scared away.

Mindy Johnson and Mallory O’Meara closed out the session by saying that women have always been here, they’ve always been a part of the industry, and their stories are just hidden archive pieces waiting to be uncovered whether or not they were signed.