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Gods & Monsters: Breathing Underwater- Searching for Millicent Patrick

The collective unconscious and water…

Water is the ultimate life giver and life taker and water is the key element to the livelihood of Millicent Patrick’s monster. Patrick breathes life into her creation, but this life is one plagued with mutation and a handicap that forces the creature into seclusion. The unwanted creature is imperfect, the horrible unknown, unlovable and ultimately terrifying.

 

What’s all the bad press about?

Well let’s face it, the Gill-Man is cold and scaly, has bad skin and emerges from down below to the land above whilst playing on our fears, our perceived intellect, our supposed enlightenment, established order and knowledge of nature and her workings.

An interesting aspect of the creature is precisely this, the qualities they possess could be us, and they are of us. The imperfections possessed by the creature are not gender specific and somehow we can all relate to the voyeuristic desperation of this character who experiences longing and dares to risk exposure and danger to capture the object of their desire.

 

What are some historically gender specific mutations that emerge from the depths of the water?

Historically female sirens – part woman, part fish – have always been physically beautiful and the embodiment of desire itself. The double edged sword of their beauty lies in their unattainable quality that leads to a repressed sexuality linked to a destructive lure resulting in impossibility, anguish and eternal suffering. Oh yeah, it works out okay for Ariel from The Little Mermaid (1988) but she must make a huge sacrifice to win love – don’t forget!

Referred to as a ‘merman’ in jest in the film and also a ‘man fish’ has one wonder if the Gill-Man is a play on the notion of the ‘the big catch’. Artists have undeniably clamoured to attribute the Gill-Man to themselves. The allure and mystique of this character are certainly unquestionable and enduring.

Interestingly, a traditional Irish folk tale describes a merman as a repellent being. In the tale of “The Soul Cages”, the mermen are green and scaly and horrid to behold, furthermore these ‘Merrow’ as they are named, capture dead sailors in cages and keep their souls out of the cold water. Perhaps the vivid repellent green of these Merrow are much closer to Patrick’s Gill-Man than a feminine Siren. ‘It had a fish’s tail, legs with scales on them, and short arms like fins’. “The Soul Cages” page 64. (Yeats, 1918)

A female visionary and one that images horror, lust, repression and fear.

Is Millicent Patrick the beauty who created the beast?

We can safely say that the creature represents a deeper message from the collective unconscious. Patrick’s visionary illustration for the concept of this character reflects a surrealist leaning that is playful, wondrous, and innovative in its sci-fi elements. Furthermore, the aesthetic quality of the Gill-Man is seamless and the final conundrum is that we love him and he has endured to become an icon of the era, taking place as the first Universal monster to be viewed in a 3D film, catapulting him into our lives forever.

Considering the visibility of the creature in all of our minds, memories and dreams, we need to pause and consider how someone as gifted and visionary as Patrick could disappear into relative film history obscurity.

Parallels for the erasure of women from historical writings regarding ground breaking work and concepts in the modern-era can be found in the art world. The Surrealist movement for one example gained a sure footing in academic validation and the male counterparts of the movement enjoyed notoriety and success within their lifetimes. Since the 1970s, important curatorial decisions, renewed analysis and research into the era and all artists connected reveal several powerful women artists that were instrumental in the development of the Surrealist aesthetic. Further to this, their works explored new territory in psychoanalysis, the occult, dream interpretation and magic in a way that in many cases was more direct and mind expanding than that of the key masters who have been imprinted on our memories via mainstream education and art history.

 

Rebellion – A Woman’s Response

Traditionally Surrealism was recognised as a male domain with the exploration of the human psyche and its unconscious drives and motivations being tied to it closely.

We know and love Frida Kahlo. Her suffering is art and it is corporeal, it deals with our reproductive organs, real horror, heart ache and disability. But herein is the argument. Kahlo rejected Surrealism and maintained that she painted her reality. She was right to reject the Surrealist moniker. However, recognition needs to go out to the women who were fighting the same fight as their male counterparts but who have been overlooked through the Modern embrace of male mastery in mainstream art history. Modernity worked well to claim ground breaking pursuits as male endeavours and the male master is celebrated readily when he embraces innovative ideologies and concepts in his work.

Remedios Varo, Leonor Fini, Leonora Carrington and Dorothea Tanning are essential Surrealist artists that require further study, critique and analysis. Carrington herself lived to participate in the 1970s Mexican Women’s Liberation movement, reflecting the gradual shifts that took place from the 1930s to the 70s in American culture and Western history as a whole.

In light of these cultural shifts that were very gradual particularly between the 30s and 50s, obscurity in the visibility of women who were taking on professional roles that matched that of their male counterparts is somewhat less mysterious.

The role of the media has also played a crucial part in the film industry and its relationship to representation of female talent, particularly in this era. Several exceptionally breathtaking publicity shots exist of Millicent Patrick being photographed in her studio sketching and more significantly holding the creature costume itself, most notably his mask. She is also famously captured on the set of the film itself outdoors touching up the Gill-Man suit with a brush in hand.

Although the Gill-Man is Patrick’s most complete monster she in fact worked on a number of projects, living a ‘dual’ existence. She was both actress and artist. Interestingly, she played a Hun woman in a Cinemascope production titled Sign of the Pagan (1954), whilst also devising the make-up for the barbarian kings in the film. Her sci-fi visions and monstrous legacy live on in the ectoplasmic creatures who grace the film It Came from Outer Space (1953), as well as the Mutates, her giant bugs who attack the human race in This Island Earth (1955).

With the building of the Gill-Man from a green tinted latex, a team of additional artists were of course involved. Patrick worked for Bud Westmore who was head of make-up at Universal. Michael Westmore’s book on his work in the industry omits Patrick’s involvement. Ben Chapman, one of the actors who played the role of the Gill-Man, sheds light on the puzzle asserting that Patrick created the character and that Chris Mueller sculpted the suit itself.

Further investigation will have you find a key interview from 1954 with Patrick where she discusses her role as the creator of this iconic character titled “Science-Fiction Monsters –  Who Invents Them? A Girl!”, attributed to Jane Corby. The following excerpt taken from the closing paragraph of the interview is very revealing and Patrick does not disappoint with her casual anti-establishment attitude:

In a low-cut, tight fitting black crepe dress, worn under a white lace coat, with flashing necklace, earrings and bracelets, Miss Patrick who is of Italian-German descent, looked a lot more like a fashion illustration herself than a creator of bizarre monsters. Unmarried, she admits to no current romance. ‘Why should I bother with the Hollywood wolves’, she murmured, ‘I’m happy with my monsters.’

Of her Gill-Man she playfully states that he would ‘create a sensation if he walked in here and ordered a drink…but nobody’d even look twice in Hollywood.’

 

Love, lust and marriage

Could Millicent Patrick’s response be viewed as a critique of marriage and even the industry itself? The opening of the film spookily echoes similar sentiments and as the film develops we find that the woman who explores alone places herself in peril.

Notably, in the film Creature from the Black Lagoon, we are introduced to David (Richard Carlson) and Kay’s (Julie Adams) relationship with David emerging from the depths of the water from his scuba dive. We bear witness to the pair playfully engaging in banter about their attachment and mutual disinterest in marriage. Kay’s wage earning capacity is even thrown in for good measure.

This subtext is taken to new and terrifying heights when one of the attacks by Gill-Man on one of the crew members is launched in the black lagoon with Kay present as she is being questioned about her inquisitive nature, behaviour and lifestyle choices. The light-hearted tone of the earlier conversation is now a distant memory. The Gill-Man is very real and waiting for the right moment.

From the film:

Kay: ‘Thought I’d come up and get some air.’

Dr Carlson: ‘Shouldn’t you be resting Kay?’

Kay: ‘I couldn’t sleep…listen to the sounds…’

Dr Carlson: ‘Hunting calls mostly…’

Dr Carlson: ‘…Once you admit, which you have, that you’re in love it’s time to be the scientist about it.’

Kay: ‘It’s not as easy as that.’

Dr Carlson: ‘Why?’

Delve a bit deeper

Researching the visibility of the work of Millicent Patrick is a case in point about the importance of inquiry and investigation as a cultural consumer. The best discoveries are well hidden.

Essentially the Gill-Man conjures thoughts about breath, arousal and being consumed by your desire. By being somewhat invisible, Patrick’s absence reveals more than it conceals regarding the power of the written word, creative ownership and authorship. These are critical issues in a historical sense and perhaps even more so today and need to be tackled and explored fastidiously. If there was ever a symbol to represent the murky waters of a secretive, urgent longing Gill-Man is it. Thank you Millicent Patrick for living a life worth investigating that beguiles and fascinates as much today as it did when you made your first splash.

Hammer Horror: The Warner Bros Years

About Natalie Papak

Natalie is a visual artist and art educator living and working in Melbourne, Australia. Natalie's art practise has varied in media over the years, but for the past 14 years she has been primarily working with sculptural ceramics. A career highlight was her artist residency in the the historic town Vallauris in the South of France in 2014 where she worked alongside a group of peers to create and exhibit an individually proposed body of work during her stay. She has been exhibiting her work professionally in numerous solo and group exhibitions since 1998. Natalie's academic and artistic investigations have consistently sought to examine the role of women in the arts, popular culture and antiquity. Her academic qualifications include a Bachelor of Fine Art in Painting and A Post-Graduate Diploma of Visual Art which were completed at the Victorian College of The Arts in Melbourne between 1997-2000. Her Graduate Diploma of teaching was completed in 2003 at Melbourne University.

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