March 5, 1954
Harry Essex , Arthur Ross and Maurice Zimm
Richard Carlson as David Reed
Julia Adams as Kay Lawrence
Richard Denning as Mark Williams
Antonio Moreno as Carl Maia
Nestor Paiva as Lucas
This is another night of firsts in the Dusty Musties. First Universal film to make an appearance in this blog and the first appearance by the great director, Jack Arnold. It’s also our first visit to the Happy Days of the 1950s.
Leather jackets and greasy hair. Poodle skirts and bobby sox. High school gyms and Malt shops. Horror was leaving the gothic castles, crypts and haunted forests of literature and folklore behind and looking towards a future where alien spaceships filled the skies and giants and robots walked the earth. Adjectives like Terrifying, Horrifying, and Blood-curdling were being replaced with words like Amazing, Astounding, and Fantastic. Science Fiction was starting it’s decade long reign as the ruler of the Horror genre. But while others were catching the Earth on fire or colliding it with other worlds, or even making it stand still, Universal was introducing us to a clawing monster from a long ago age in the forbidden depths of the Amazon.
Universal Studios had already given us Dracula, Frankenstein, The Mummy, and the Wolfman and their numerous sequels. They had even reached the point where they were including these great Horror monsters in their Abbott and Costello films. Although being responsible for the great initial popularity of Horror films, the original Universal monsters had been overexposed and just didn’t have the scare appeal they had had a decade earlier, so Universal rose to the occasion and produced some of the best Sci-fi/ Horror films of the period. Some even in the new fad, 3-D.
Like their magnificent “It came from Outer Space”, Creature From The Black Lagoon was also filmed in 3-D, but it was probably the last of the 3-D boom pictures and since viewer interest in 3-D was fading , most movie houses presented it in 2-D.
The producer, William Alland, who had also worked with the director, Jack Arnold on It came From Outer Space, got the inspiration for the Creature from overhearing the Mexican cinematographer, Gabriel Figueroa talking about legends of half-men/half-fish creatures that lived in South america.
Jack Arnold was arguably one of the best sci-fi directors ever. Not only did he direct our film in 1954, but prior to that, he also directed It came From Outer Space and would go on to direct such classics as Tarantula and the great, underated Incredible Shrinking Man. Jack also has the distiction of having two of his movies mentioned in the song Science Fiction Double Feature from Rocky Horror Picture Show.
He was another master of the Black and White format, and while telling great sci-fi/ horror stories, he managed to also fill them with more action than most films of the time. He wasn’t afraid of difficulty and having the reputation of being a little hard-nosed and tough helped him to lead his cast and crew into making some great hard-to-make movies. The production values are great and the conversion of Universal’s backlot into a Amazon jungle is simply incredible. While watching the action, remind yourself, that except for the underwater scenes which were filmed in Florida, this entire movie was filmed on Universal’s backlot. The set and design guys did an amazing job.
We’ll now head into the dense Amazon on the boat of Captain Lucas who has heard the legend of the Man-Fish. The cast who board Captain Lucas’ boat, the “Rita” features Richard Carlson as Dr. Reed, the icthyologist and leading man, who realizes, perhaps too late, that they are not equipped to fight a monster. Carlson had also been the lead in It Came From Outer Space. The character of Dr. Reed would become one of the first of the new breed of scientist/heroes. Previously, scientists in Horror films were usually of the “Mad” variety.
His girlfriend Kay Lawrence is portrayed by the beautiful and curvy Julia Adams. Julia (later calling herself Julie) mainly worked in western genre films, but would later pull off the TV trifecta of acting in episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Night Gallery, and Kolchak.
Mark Williams, the money man who funds the expedition is played by Richard Denning, whose other claim to fame was being the husband of Evelyn Ankers, the love-interest of The Wolfman.
The other two scientists are Dr. Maiva, portrayed by Antonio Moreno, who had been one of the greatest stars of the silent era in his youth and Dr. Thompson who is portrayed by Whit Bissel (what a name). Bissel portrayed scientists and professors in many of the horror movies of the time, including I was a Teenaged Werewolf, I was a Teenaged Frankenstein, and the marvelous original Invasion of The Body Snatchers. He also played the wonderfully done undertaker in the terrific Magnificent Seven.
The creature was designed by the beautiful and sexy Milicent Patrick, an ex-Disney animator. The suit itself was possibly the best of the foam rubber monsters, including gills that actually flapped when the creature was out of water.
Glenn Strange, who had portrayed Frankenstein’s monster in several of the post-Karloff Universal films was originally offered the role of the Creature, but turned it down when he saw how much swimming was involved.
The 6′-5″ Ben Chapman was eventually chosen to play the Creature above water and had ten pounds of flat weights in the feet of the costume to force him to slide his feet instead of stepping.
The world class swimmer Ricou Browning was chosen to wear the suit in the underwater scenes in Florida. Browning was a producer of, and diver in, many of the underwater shows at the Florida Water Show parks that were very popular at the time. He would later go on to produce the original Flipper movie and write for the TV show that it spawned. During his career he ended up producing, directing, co-ordinating stunts, acting, and performing underwater cinematography in many situations where water played a crucial element in the shoot.
During his his lengthy swimming scenes as the Creature, Browning would sometimes hold his breath for as long as 4 minutes. Where Carlson and Denning were using oygen tanks, Browning was just using his lungs. Jack Arnold did not want to use any breathing apparatus as part of the Creature suit, believing that air bubbles would take away from the illusion that water was flowing through the Creature’s gills. While watching some of the underwater fight scenes, you’ll notice clearly the air bubbles flowing from the tanks of the humans, but nothing from the Creature. It’s amazing when you realize that Browning was performing all the swimming in that suit as well as the fighting while holding his breath.
It was the early 50s when films with a large amount of underwater content like Moby Dick, Hunters of the Deep, and of course our movie, were finally being able to be made. The scuba tank (originally called the underwater lung) had just been invented by Cousteau and Gagnon ten years before Creature From The Black Lagoon began filming. Previously, all divers were connected to the surface using air hoses.
Most cameras at that time were not meant to be underwater and filming underwater presented quite a few difficulties. There are strange optical properties involved when filming underwater. The camera angles are very important and light diffuses and changes color, as well as loses contrast. Cameraman Charles Wibourne designed a light weight water-proof camera unit with two cameras side-by-side shooting each scene at two different angles simultaneously.
While many of the Sci-fi/Horror films of the 50s tried to blind us with science, this one actually starts out by teaching us how the Earth was formed and how life began. After our lecture, we find Dr. Maiva hard at work in the Amazonian jungle where he discovers the fossilized hand of a humanoid creature that defies explanation. So after bringing his remarkable find back to civilization and gathering the good doctors Reed and Thompson, the wealthy Mark Williams, and the beautiful Kay Lawrence, love-interest of all creatures, human or otherwise, they head into the jungle on the good ship, “Rita” hoping to find more fossils, not the real thing. Boy, are they suprised. What starts off as a jungle paleontology quest, complete with pith helmets, soon turns into a fight for survival. The Creature finally gets a glimpse of the lovely Kay and realizes that humans may be good for more things than just being killed. Much underwater stalking ensues. I find the scene when Kay is swimming on the surface, back lit from above, with the Creature swimming face-up beneath her to be very erotic. Jack Arnold even admitted in later years that scene was a stylized simulation of sexual intercourse.
This film includes plenty of action, with a decent body count for a Universal picture. In addition to the victims of the Creature, base camps, boat crew members, and others, he is also harpooned, poisoned, set afire, stabbed, shot, and even hit with a rock in futile attempts to hold off his constant attacks. Trapped in a forgotten lagoon by a deadly Creature from another age, who will escape the claws of the creature?
The Creature was the last of the great Universal monsters and his iconic features are almost as recognizable as those of the Frankenstein monster. Compared with Frankie, Drac, the Mummy, and the Wolfman, he may have been Universal’s most original monster. Aurora created model kits for him just like they did Dracula and King Kong and rightfully so.
Some of you may say that he’s not Dusty–everyone knows who he is. Yes–but honestly, how many of you have actually watched the film? Just as I thought–Dusty. He did spawn two sequels and although not bad, they don’t hold the magic of the first one. TV was still in its infancy and the classic Universal movies had not been released yet to that medium. If you missed them in the movie theatres and drive-ins then you had to wait for a second run. The Creature fed the hunger for a new monster and he didn’t need spaceships or radiation to be scary. He filled the gap between Davy Jones and Jaws as far as monsters who can drag you to a watery grave go.
At only 79 minutes it contains enough action and adventure to seem much longer. The soundtrack is not bad either and even features Henry Mancini as the composer of the romantic river exploration music. Several composers worked on it and it pays off. The music used for the underwater scenes is great and a nice example of how light and minimal sound can be effective. The trumpets which blare, “Da-Da-Daaaaa everytime the Creature makes an appearance are also a nice touch.
You may wonder if Gene Roddenberry and the Star Trek writers were inspired when Dr. Reed informs Mark that, “Dr. Maiva is a scientist, not a fortune teller” and you may wonder at the shivering of environmentalists everywhere as a ton of Rotenone is dumped into the lagoon to drive the Creature to the surface. Regardless of the wondering, I think you’ll count yourself among its many fans, one of which was Ingmar Bergman, who loved this movie and rewarded himself by watching it on his birthday every year.
Now load your tub with bubbles, grab your rubber duckie, watch Creature From The Black Lagoon and try to scare yourselves.
Next time we’ll scurry close to the borders of Dusty Mustie land and check out an early 70s flick, complete with color (a rarity in Dusty Mustie land). You may want to bring that bug spray.