Universal’s 1954 aquatic take on King Kong inspired an entire subgenre. Jack Arnold superbly directs this atmospheric story of an Amazon expedition in search of a prehistoric monster merman. But the clichéd script is the real missing link here. 7/10
Creature from the Black Lagoon. 1954, USA. Directed by Jack Arnold. Written by Arthur Ross, Harry Essex, Maurice Zimm, William Alland. Starring: Richard Carlson, Julie Adams, Richard Denning, Antonio Moreno, Nestor Paiva, Whit Bissell, Ricou Browning, Ben Chapman. Produced by William Alland. IMDb: 7.0/10. Rotten Tomatoes: 78/100. Metacritic: 68/100.
In 1954 the old Universal monsters had fallen into decay a long time ago, and few cared about the old gothic legends like Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Mummy or the Wolfman. During the forties Universal had milked everything and then some from them, resulting in an ever-declining parade of monster mashes, ending in The House of Frankenstein in 1945 (review). Presently, the old monsters were little more than punchlines in Abbott & Costello films. The political landscape, pop culture and filmmaking had changed. The old style, inspired by German impressionism, 19th century horror novels and Soviet montage symbolism had fallen out of style. The new science fiction style was cleaner, modern, urban and more linear. Nevertheless, the old monster makers still had one last shot in them, before the field was completely taken over by little green men, giant insects and computers-run-amok: Creature from the Black Lagoon.
The basic plot is beautiful in its simplicity. A team of scientists hire a barge and a captain (Nestor Paiva) to sail up the Amazon river to find the fossil of a presumed fish-man, an evolutionary ”missing link” between sea and land creatures. To their astonishment they don’t find a fossil, but a living, breathing Gill-man – a humanoid unchanged since the Devonian age, in a remote lagoon. The two lead scientists (Richard Carlson and Richard Denning) start squabbling about how to handle the situation: one wants to kill the creature and bring it back home to the States, while the other resents the idea of killing the last remaining being of its kind – and would rather just take pictures, but settles for catching it alive. The creature, however, has different ideas. Resenting he intrusion on its territory, it turns hostile, and starts killing off the expedition one by one. And it also seems to develop an affection for the female scientist in the group (Julie Adams). Things come to a point when the scientists count their losses and prepare to surrender and leave – but having been shot at, harpooned and its lagoon poisoned with knock-out powder, the creature isn’t going to let them get off that easy. Instead, it builds a barrier at the mouth of the lagoon, trapping the remaining scientists, basically turning the film into an old dark house movie on water.
Creature from the Black Lagoon was the brainchild of actor-turned-producer William Alland, who started his career as a member of Orson Welles’ stage company Mercury Theatre in the late thirties, and also worked with Welles in the radio business. Among other things, he was part of the famous production of The War of the Worlds in 1938. As an actor he is probably best known for playing the newspaper reporter who ”narrates” Welles’ masterpiece Citizen Kane (1941). At a dinner party during the production of that film, he talked to Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa, who told him a legend about an ”merman” living in the Amazon river. Once a year he would rise out of the waters and claim a virgin, and in return he would leave the surrounding villages alone.
Alland probably didn’t think much of the story then – there are hundreds of similar legends around the world – and he moved up in his career, started producing radio shows and in the early fifties he joined Universal Studios as a movie producer. He produced a couple of B-westerns and a cheap horror movie called The Black Castle (1952) with Boris Karloff. Then it came like lightning from a clear blue sky: Arch Oboler’s independently produced low-budget stinker Bwana Devil (1952), made in 3D. The public went crazy, and demanded more. Universal saw the potential of three-dimensional pictures, and for one reason or the other, William Alland was assigned to make a low-budget science fiction film in the new format. This could have been just another crappy fifties’ schlocker, but the movie saw the happy convergence of four important people: William Alland, director Jack Arnold, sci-fi author Ray Bradbury and lead actor Richard Carlson. The result was It Came from Outer Space (1953, review), which became one of the biggest grossers of the year for Universal, and is considered a genuine classic of the era today.
Eager to follow up on the success of It Came from Outer Space, the studio commissioned another 3D sci-fi from Alland and Arnold, but Alland had no script. However, the story of the merman of the Amazon had stuck with him, and he set about writing an outline of a movie based on the concept. Maurice Zimm, who had written mystery stories for radio worked on the script for a while, but was soon replaced by Arthur Ross, a young writer with a 15 or so film or TV scripts under his belt. Ross more or less wrote the script that went up on screen. In an interview with Tom Weaver, Ross said that the problem with Zimm’s script was that the creature was ”an unfeeling hulk” and that Zimm had written an archaic story with a mad scientist. Ross instead wanted a hero who wasn’t about destroying nature, but who was curious about it and wanted to learn, rather than kill or capture. He wrote the creature as a tragic victim, fighting against intruders in his habitat. However, the studio wanted the creature to kidnap and fall in love with the female scientist – Alland had based his original idea on the concept of Beauty and the Beast – which is why Ross left the project. Thus Harry Essex was brought in to finalise the script, just as he had done on It Came from Outer Space. Regarding both films, he has later boasted that Universal only had ”a vague idea” about the script when we came in, and that he basically wrote the whole scripts, statements that have been thoroughly debunked on both cases.
The script for Creature was unique for the fifties inasmuch as the monster here isn’t from outer space, a robot or created with nuclear radiation. The movie is also completely devoid of the two most recurring and tiresome tropes of the era: the atom bomb and the communists. Instead the film offers philosophical musings on the ethics of science, mankind’s place in the world and, surprisingly for a film from this age, a rather prominent environmental message. Some modern reviewers have criticised the fact that the expedition doesn’t turn and run until a white member of the crew is killed, despite the fact that four natives have been offed by the creature before that. Yes, true – but on the other hand, the characters of the movie do show grief at the loss of the native boys and there is never any hint at actual racism in the movie. One of the characters, Dr. Maia, played by Antonio Moreno, speaks highly of ”his boys”, and the whole crew, although none of them have met ”his boys”, are clearly distraught by their deaths. And yes, there is the casual Hollywood sexism, as the female scientist Kay (Julie Adams) tripping over her feet, screaming into her knuckles and generally being paralysed as soon as something dangerous happens. But for a 1954 movie, the take on gender roles is actually rather refreshing. Kay’s capabilities as a scientist are never questioned or belittled, on the contrary she is repeatedly described as a highly important member of her institute. She and the hero of the movie, David (Richard Carlson) are also a steady couple without having any plans of getting married, which would have been a rather controversial stance in the fifties. And furthermore, the film manages to have a a couple and a potential love rival (Richard Denning) in the same space throughout the film without really acknowledging it more than with a few quips. Of course that is partly because the real rival isn’t on the boat, he is under it.
In all fairness, one of the reasons the script stands out so much against the nuclear crazed communist hunting movies of the era is that it is basically a thirties monster movie wrapped in a new envelope. See if this makes sense: A team of
filmmakers scientists travel to a remote island lagoon where no white man has ever set foot before in search of a prehistoric giant gorilla man-fish. One team member is ready to endanger the lives of all the crew by bringing the gorilla man-fish to civilisation for his own profit. The gorilla man-fish just wants to be left to its own devices, but falls in love with the female member of the team. The gorilla man-fish kidnaps the woman, but doesn’t hurt her, and the final demise (or is it?) of the creature brings a sense of sadness, not triumph. Yes, this is William Alland’s very own remake of King Kong (1933, review), as he admitted decades later in an interview with film historian Tom Weaver.
The film also has the same problems as King Kong – despite some novel ideas, it isn’t very well written. By making this an underwater river adventure within a pseudo-scientific framework, the movie is able to pass as something original, but it is basically just a rehash of the old monster movies, especially films like The Lost World (1925, review) and King Kong, but it also draws clear parallels to Frankenstein (1931, review), even more so to The Bride of Frankenstein (1935, review). The characters are flat sketches. Richard Denning’s leader of the expedition is the fame-hungry, arrogant, ”shoot first, ask questions later” bully, Richard Carlson’s David is the kind-hearted, philosophical hero who advises compassion and is ready to sacrifice himself for the greater good, and for all her modern attributes, Julie Adams’ Kay is really just a wallflower, there for the creature to kidnap and for the young boys in the audience to gawk at in her racy swimming suit. The other characters, like Moreno’s Dr. Maia, Nestor Paiva’s world-weary boat captain Lucas and Whit Bissell’s Dr. Thompson are simply along for the ride.
The dialogue has its moments – some of the loving banter between Kay and David is quite fun – but for the most part it is horribly stilted, pretentious and at places even cringe-worthy. Especially David is fond of long, philosophical monologues regarding evolution, man’s littleness in the universe, the vast beauty of planet Earth and all the secrets she holds. These monologues were the joy of It Came from Outer Space – one of the greatest moments in fifties film is Joe Sawyer’s telephone line repairman waxing poetically about the way things get confused in the heat of the desert, and the way the wind gets in to the telephone wires ”and sings and listens”. Clearly Alland is looking to achieve the same effect here. But the difference is that It Came from Outer Space was written by Ray Bradbury. This film is written by a bunch of Hollywood hacks who’ve spent most of their time churning out B-westerns.
The science in this science fiction film is naturally preposterous, but is based on that age-old SF hope of finding a prehistoric monster survived from a bygone age. But disregarding the kooky basic premise, this is one of those movies that gets quite a lot right, and the crazy science doesn’t really get between the viewer and the story being told. The film hits most of its scientific marks, as explaining how evolution works and showing something that actually looks like real archaeological work. It gets some technical details wrong, such as misnaming the Devonian period as “the Devonian age” and misplacing it by around 200 million years. But these are minor quibbles and I just happen to know they’re wrong because I looked them up.
What makes this film stand out, though, is Jack Arnold’s direction and poetic visuals. Arnold storyboarded all his movies, and tended to stick to the storyboards rigidly. That means, that even if all of the beautiful underwater scenes were directed by James Havens, and shot by Scotty Welbourne, it was Arnold’s images they were producing. The most famous of these poetic moments is of course when Kay takes a morning swim in the lagoon and is filmed from the ocean floor, and we see the creature, mesmerised by this new, beautiful presence in his lagoon, doing a reverse mirror image of her swim underwater. Naturally, this horizontal ballet is rife with sexual overtones, as is the following scene where the creature tentatively, almost sweetly, touches her ankle, but they are also incredibly beautiful images in and of themselves.
Another visual scene that is pure Arnold is when the crew try to incapacitate the creature by using a knock-out drug. First they don’t succeed, so they decide to up the dose and pack it to bricks so that it sinks to the surface. David and Mark poison the lagoon in a row boat, and we cut to Kay, smoking on the boat. In a throw-away moment she throws the cigarette butt into the water, but the camera lingers on the fag, and then changes perspective to underwater, and moves from the cigarette to the creature, watching. In the next shot we see the aftermath of the knock-out drug, as the lagoon is filled with belly-up fish. It’s never spoken aloud, but the visual links between the littering of the cigarette butt, the knock-out poison, the creature observing and the dead-looking fish is too clear to be a coincidence. In fact, in an interview with creature actor Ricou Browning, he claims that the idea of linking the cigarette to the environmentalist message of the movie was actually his idea.
There are books with whole chapters dedicated to the Gill-man suit, so I won’t linger too long on that. Of course, it is a matter of opinion if you find it effective or not. I remember being hugely underwhelmed when I saw it the first time – I found it very ”suity” and inarticulate, and I don’t like the way Arnold instructed actor Ben Chapman to drag his feet in it when he was out of the water. However, I think it works really well underwater, greatly helped by Ricou Browning’s smooth, seal-like swimming. (The suits they used on dry land and in the water were slightly different, but not so much that one notices, unless one knows where to look.)
However, despite what you think of its design, the suit was a landmark for creature features. It was probably the first full body prosthetic suit made for a movie, in the sense that it was glued piece by piece on the actors every time. The design was completely unique as far as films went – you might had seen something similar in comic books, but never in a film. No surprise perhaps, that the person who did much of its design was an animator at Disney, as well as a fashion and commercial designer, and illustrator of children’s books, named Milicent Patrick. Patrick was also a bit-part actress, who appeared in about 20 films, and is perhaps best remembered as The White Goddess in three episodes of the TV series Ramar of the Jungle (1953). Patrick had previously designed the xenomorph in It Came from Outer Space.
From Patrick’s drawings Chris Mueller, one of Universal’s top sculptors and make-up artists – sculpted the head, and Jack Kevan made moulds of the body. Different suits had to be made for stunt performers Ben Chapman and Ricou Browning, partly because Browning’s suit had to be modified for underwater shooting, but also because Chapman, who played the creature out of the water, was much taller than Browning, and the shapes of their heads were very different. Overseeing the process was Universal’s head of makeup Bud Westmore, a member of the hugely influential Hollywood makeup family the Westmores. Bud’s father George had started as a wig maker in the silent era, and four of his sons became prominent makeup artists in different studios.
Chapman and Browning were uncredited in the film, but for a reason: the studio didn’t want to break the illusion that the Gill-man was actually real by naming the actors who played it. Both have since become celebrities in their own right within the horror and sci-fi movie circuits. Chapman passed away in 2008, and at 86, Browning is now (2021) the last surviving actor to have played one of the classic Universal monsters, at 91 years of age.
Dr. David Reed is not Richard Carlson’s best role, even though it has it’s moments. But Carlson gets stuck with all these badly written monologues that he has to recite into thin air, and you’d really have to be Morgan Freeman to make them work. Another thing is that Carlson seems unusually stiff in certain scenes, and when you watch the film a couple of times it becomes clear that the reason for this is that he is holding in his stomach in some of the scenes where he is displayed in nothing but his swimsuit. But Carlson is never bad, and he brings his usual intelligence and soft charm to the role.
Richard Denning is the cast member who impresses the most in Creature from the Black Lagoon. Unlike some of the other actors who got stuck with science fiction and horror films, Denning actually liked working on these movies. In an interview with Tom Weaver he says he was fascinated with the special effects work; ”In the next life I’ll probably come back as a special effects man”. He said that he sometimes shook his head in disbelief when he read the scripts: ”But there is a certain type of fan that loves this stuff. Including myself, in a way – I always enjoy watching them. It’s all imagination, and that’s what’s great about ’em. It takes great imagination to dream that stuff up.
Denning also tells Weaver that he really enjoyed working on Creature of the Black Lagoon, partly because he was cast against type – Denning almost always played nice characters, and had a blast playing the obnoxious Mark Williams. The film was made by two different units – the main unit with the lead actors and Ben Chapman was directed by Jack Arnold on the Universal backlot with its artificial lake and a water tank, and the second unit, with the actors’ body doubles and Ricou Browning did all the underwater shots in a lake in Florida, because of the good visibility in the water down there. They filmed in October, and many of the actors speak of the cold, especially during night shoots. Ben Chapman said in an interview that he was very cold during some of the shooting in the water, ”but at least I had a foam rubber suit. It was much worse for Denning and Carlson, they had to stand there in their swimsuits.” Denning reveals that the actors would sometimes be drunk at the end of a shoot, because an assistant would bring them brandy to keep warm: ”And then we finally wrap it up and we go to the dressing rooms – they’re nice and warm. All of a sudden [slurring his words] that brandy just hit like a sledgehammer!”
The most recognisable name in the cast is probably Julie Adams (billed as Julia Adams), who was already a veteran actress, having appeared in two dozen films prior to this one. Adams is charming in her role, but unfortunately doesn’t have much to work with, even though the role is one of the less sexist in the sci-fi multiverse of the fifties. There is a sort of dualism to the role though: while the movie sets the character Kay up to be this very capable, strong and independent female scientist, when the chips are down, she’s still not good for much else than screaming, tripping over and needing to get rescued by Richard Carlson.
Of course one of the things that made Adams so memorable in the movie, especially for a large audience of boys, was her bathing suit, especially created for the movie by Rosemary Odell: the skin-tight latex suit accentuated her bust and was pulled up at the thighs, making it fairly racy for the time. However, the scene which she is best remembered for was filmed on the other side of the country. While we see Adams swimming in a shot from above the surface of the water, the iconic image of her silhouette filmed from the lake bed actually depicts Adams’ body double, show swimmer Ginger Stanley. Denning and Carlson also had body doubles doing their underwater work in Florida, and none of the actors ever visited the Florida set, where the second unit was shooting under the guidance of assistant director James Havens. As a matter of fact, Havens didn’t want to get into scuba gear, so the credit for the beautiful underwater shots really has to go to camera man Scotty Welbourne.
One of the best characters in the movie is the burly captain of the barge, called Lucas, played by master character actor Nestor Paiva. While it can be seen as playing on some racial stereotypes, the role paints Lucas as the most level-headed of all people on the boat, and one gets the feeling that this is a man who has come up against all the jaguars, alligators, snakes, cannibals and river pirates that the Amazon could throw at him, and walked away victorious. Although initially portrayed as a comic relief, Lucas gets serious when Mark tries to order him around, and Lucas calmly informs Mark, at knife-point, that there is only one captain of the ship, and that is the actual captain. Paiva’s colourful and sympathetic rendition of Lucas was such a hit with the audiences, that he was the only actor to reprise his role in the sequel, Revenge of the Creature (1955, review).
Something should be said about the music of the film. Musical director Joseph Gershenson had a clear idea for what the movie should sound like, and opted to use three different composers for different kinds of scenes. These were Hans J. Salter, Henry Mancini and Herman Stein. Each would get clear instructions for each of their scenes, and sometimes even bits and pieces of stock music to work around – not the preferred way for any composer to work. Gershenson had decided that the creature would have a cue – a shrill, aggressive trumpet attack, not all that different from what Alfred Hitchcock and Steven Spielberg did with strings in subsequent famous movies. This ”triplet motif” was written by Stein. The problem is that this cue is played each and every time even a fin of the Gill-man is in frame, and and once you pass the point of it being overbearing, it becomes almost comical. Stein also composed the music for the beginning and end titles. The music for the film was crucial, since so much of the movie took place underwater with no dialogue. Mancini, who was then a young composer, but already known as a master of light music, wrote pastoral themes describing the beauty and calm of the lagoon, while horror film veteran Hans J. Salter took care of of the darker and more dramatic parts of the score. Mancini, of course, is the creator of the immortal Pink Panther theme, and four-time Oscar winner, and had previously worked in It Came from Outer Space. Mancini has later said that he and the other three composers are eternally grateful for their involvement in these ”terrible little films” because they provide an endless stream of ASCAP earnings: ”In some country, somewhere, at this moment, in some little tent theatre, or on some little TV station, those pictures are being shown.” Hans J. Salter should be a familiar name to readers of this blog as the creator of the music for the many of the Universal horror sci-fi films of the forties. Salter was nominated for an Oscar six times, but sadly never won.
The movie is often cited by fans as THE inspiration for everything from Jaws (1973) to Predator (1987). And in some ways it was a ground-breaking film, primarily as an underwater adventure. While underwater photography had been around for a long time, this was allegedly the first time scuba gear was used by the crew on a Hollywood film. In any case, the underwater photography is absolutely stunning and would set a template for all underwater films to come. The film has been cited as a primary inspiration for Alien (1979), but so have about a hundred other films. Steven Spielberg took the idea of the music motif for his shark in Jaws, and almost completely copied the scene of Kay swimming in the lagoon, which he readily admits. However, Creature also draws on a rich history of films, from The Lost World to King Kong to The Wolfman to The Thing from Another World (1951, review), and so on. Movie history is fluid, and all the really great filmmakers know the importance of stealing from the best.
Creature from the Black Lagoon turned out to be the most successful film of the short-lived 3D craze of the early fifties, and also the last. Studios quickly abandoned the innovation, as it required too much precision from the projectionists. Two different reels had to be projected simultaneously, and if they were off by even one frame the image would glitch, causing headaches and nausea with the viewers. Off by four or five frames, and the whole movie was ruined. Another problem was that the double strips took up so much space, that films had to have an intermission for changing reels. The concept had a short revival in the eighties before, as we know, getting a revival in the 21st century with digital screening, removing the projectionist from the equation. Thus proving Richard Denning right, when he told Tom Weaver that he was certain that the film industry would one day solve how to project 3D movies without using double film strips.
For all its flaws, Creature from the Black Lagoon holds up surprisingly well to this very day. Yes, the suit is a bit silly looking and inarticulate by modern standards, but it is still a great piece of creative work, especially considering what materials were available at the time. Estimates put the cost of the suit at between 12 000 and 18 000 dollars, which was a fairly large suit budget, but then the budget of the film was also 650 000 dollars, somewhat less than for its predecessor, It Came from Outer Space, but still a decent mid-size film budget. The film got two sequels, Revenge of the Creature (1955) and The Creature Walks Among Us (1956), none of which come close to the quality of the original.
Bill Warren in his book Keep Watching the Skies! writes that “When first released, the movie received mostly unfavourable or, at best, bemused reviews, but it was very successful at the box office. The Los Angeles Daily News headlined their review: “3-D terror film is water-logged”. The anonymous reviewer found the first half of the film “had some solid components of a story”, but “then the Hollywood conception of sex was introduced”. The critic complained that Miss Adams is “dragged around like a very white sugar cube in front of a lecherous house fly” for the rest of the film, “changes bathing suits several times, walks woodenly and persistently into danger and screams so often, and so loud, that the little babes in the audience grew pale”. Louis Schaeffer at the Brooklyn Newsstand also questioned the sex angle, noting “it is reasonable to assume that the Gill-Man would be smitten by a Gill-Girl, not a girl scientist”. The Los Angeles Times wrote: “the story is pretty tired”, while Lincoln Haynes at the Pasadena Independent noted that the Universal monster makers were at it again: “They’ve put fish scales on the old monkey suit and called it science fiction as a gesture to the changing times, but it’s the same monster come back to haunt you. […] Well, the kids will love it”. A.H. Weiler at the New York Times, true to form, focused more on making lame puns than on the actual film: “It’s a fishing expedition that is necessary only if a viewer has lost all of his comic books”, and concluded: “This adventure has no depth”. In Maclean’s Magazine Clyde Gilmore wrote that the Gill-man’s “courtship is a failure. So is the movie.”
Fortunately all critics at the time were not preoccupied with coming up with puns at the expense of the movie. At least the trade papers tried to take it seriously, not sniggering just because it was a monster movie. Harrison’s Reports called Creature from the Black Lagoon a “pretty good horror-type picture”; “As can be expected, the story […] is rather fantastic, but the subject matter has been handled in a way that makes for a maximum of suspense and with an eye towards satisfying those who seek horrific chills and thrills. […] The photography, especially in the underwater scenes, is very good.” Variety wrote: “The 3-D lensing adds to the eerie effects of the underwater footage, as well as to the monster’s several appearances on land. The below-water scraps between skin divers and the prehistoric thing are thrilling and will pop goose pimples on the susceptible fan, as will the closeup scenes of the scaly, gilled creature. Jack Arnold’s direction does a firstrate job of developing chills and suspense, and James C. Havens rates a good credit for his direction of the underwater sequences.” Milton Luban in Hollywood Reporter called Creature from the Black Lagoon “a good piece of science-fiction”. He continued: “Screenplay […] is soundly developed, leading to an exciting climax. Jack Arnold’s megging is briskly competent, although too much time is wasted on underwater shots”.
Today Creature from the Black Lagoon shows up on top lists almost as regularly as its thirties predecessors. Entertainment Weekly lists it among the 10 best aquatic horror movies and Time Out names it the 21st greatest monster movie of all time. Esquire goes a few notches higher, placing it among the 17 best monster pictures in history, while Rolling Stone crowns it the 7th best monster film ever made.
Creature from the Black Lagoon is not the most revered among the Universal horrors. For example, the “original” Universal Dracula and Frankenstein films have a 94% and 100% critic approval on Rotten Tomatoes, respectively, while Creature from the Black Lagoon has a 78% rating. It sports a good but not stellar 7.0/10 rating on IMDb. Creature’s classic stature is however revealed by the fact that it is one of the few fifties SF movies picked up by Metacritic, with a Metascore of 68/100.
AllMovie gives the film 4/5 stars, as does Empire, with Kim Newman writing: “The underwater scenes remain definitive, with the curvy Adams floating on the surface and dangling her long white legs above the Creature’s claws, and the Gill Man performing a serpentine underwater ballet beneath her pin-up form. Few 1950s science fiction films bothered with sex, but this swimming flirtation remains as classic an image of impossible love as King Kong and his tiny blonde. This element of ‘mad love’, harking back to classic horror, is at odds with 50s trends and was the single ingredient that made Creature From the Black Lagoon more than just another fun monster romp for the kids.” TV Guide is also positive: “Imbued with great atmosphere by director Jack Arnold, the film is genuinely frightening, but also elicits a certain amount of pathos for the creature, reminiscent of that that goes out to the unfortunate King Kong“. And Steve MacFarlane at Slant Magazine gives it 4/5 stars, writing: “What distinguished Jack Arnold’s pictures from mutant spinoffs/knockoffs is even more imperative to sci-fi today than it was in 1954: wonderment”.
Legendary film critic Pauline Kael was, unsurprisingly, not impressed, calling Creature from the Black Lagoon a “low-grade horror film”. On the other hand, Leonard Maltin’s Classic Movie Guide gives it 3/4 stars, calling it an “archetypal 50s monster movie”. Noted film critic Josh Larsen notes in his 3.5/4 star review that the film is very far from seamless, but: “Creature from the Black Lagoon […] endures in a way many similar films haven’t largely because of those underwater scenes. That extended sequence of the creature swimming beneath Adams (or perhaps it’s Ginger Stanley […]) has an eerie beauty, especially when he spins upside down and begins to mirror her movements. It’s a voyeuristic courtship, with death as the likely outcome, be it his or hers.”
In a great write-up in his book Keep Watching the Skies, Bill Warren notes that the film’s quality lies not “in its limp script” but in “the conception of the scenes, and in the premise; these are enhanced by the direction”. At DVD Savant, Glenn Erickson writes; “Sort of a space age scientific answer to gothic horror, the Creature is one cool dude, blessed with a scaly design that still hasn’t dated. Although his movie vehicles were never quite good enough for him, the Gill Man is a keeper, even in his two sequels”. In his 4/5 star review at Moria, Richard Scheib notes: “The script trades in stock types – token female of the expedition, the villain killed off by his own greed. However, Arnold’s direction raises the script above the routine. Throughout his films, Arnold pit human beings in a metaphorical relationship with landscape. Humanity was constantly seen as a stranger in landscapes that resonated with the vastness of geological time. The mystery of the Amazon and alienness of the underwater environment are well conveyed here.”
I agree with most of the praise for the film, and as I note above, I love Arnold’s visuals, his atmosphere and metaphors, as well as the wonderful underwater photography. There is much to be enthusiastic over in Creature from the Black Lagoon, and like all of Arnold’s SF movies, it stands head and shoulders above the usual flying saucer fare churned out in the decade. It is also a film that stays with you, owing to the fact that it is a unique fifties movie, and one that spawned an entire subgenre. It was the first underwater monster movie, giving birth to a plethora of slimy menaces and monster sharks. Dozens upon dozens of imitations of the Gill-man have been put on screen since 1954, and the case of The Shape of Water shows that it’s influence has not faded. And the “underwater ballet” scene between the Creature and Kay is one of the stand-out scenes in cinematic history, endlessly copied, imitated and spoofed. But the truth is that it is this single scene that all critics point to when defending the film’s place at the Pantheon of horror and science fiction movies. Between this one scene and the enduring impact of the Creature itself, there is little in the film that is particularly memorable. The actors are all good, Arnold’s direction is superb, the underwater footage is sublime and Ricou Browning’s portrayal of the Creature is legend. All of this tries its darn hardest to counteract a sluggish and, as Warren points out, “limp” script. Whether they succeed is probably a matter of personal opinion. I think they do a terrific job of trying, but ultimately don’t quite succeed in turning this classic from a good into a great film.
Jack Arnold quickly became Universal’s top sci-fi director, often in collaboration with William Alland. He directed the sequel Revenge of the Creature (1955), as well as the classic Tarantula (1955), and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957), which is often considered his crowning achievement. He didn’t only direct, but also came up with the story treatments for Tarantula and surprisingly good The Monolith Monsters (1957), and acted as second unit director on This Island Earth (review). He also directed the the rather shoddy Monster on Campus (1958) and The Space Children 1958). After his last hurrah as a film director with the great Peter Sellers satire The Mouse that Roared (1959), Arnold moved into TV, and worked on a large number of series, including some sci-fi. In 1960 he made the underwater pop comedy Hello Down There, about a family living in a submerged house, and made a string of cheap exploitation films in the mid-seventies.
Universal’s head of makeup Bud Westmore’s name is on over 500 films and TV series, and it is clear that he didn’t have time to do extensive work on all of them. While he did oversee, plan and tweak much of the work on most of the films he is credited for, a big portion of the actual work was done by others, with Westmore still often receiving sole credit.
Such was the case with Milicent Patrick, who did do a lot of press and PR work for Creature, but received no on-screen credit. Neither did Mueller of Kevan, two other unsung heroes of Universal’s makeup department, who both worked on numerous films without credit. Exactly which films they all worked on is hard to establish, but we do know that Mueller sculpted the giant squid in 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954, review), the mutant in This Island Earth (1955) as well as the mole people in The Mole People (1956). In fact, the creatures for the last two were probably made in the same fashion as the Gill-man: they were drawn by Milicent Patrick and sculpted by Mueller and perhaps Kevan.
Bud Westmore has received some flack in latter years for the fact that he was credited on screen for a lot of the work done by people working under him. Articles today tend to frame Milicent Patrick (born Mildred Elizabeth Fulvia di Rossi) as the “forgotten” artist behind many of Universal’s fifties monsters. But this is partly a misunderstanding, for a number of reasons. For one thing, one should remember that back in the day, the credits were shown at the start of the movie. Necessity dictated that the credits be as short as possible as not to bore the audience to death before the movie even started. Thus, the heads of respective departments were credited, often regardless of their actual input in the films. But big movies, like Creature of the Black Lagoon, were accompanied by large PR campaigns, and just like blogs and Youtube channels today keep track of a movie’s developments, so did newspapers back in the day. Numerous articles were published in early 1954 about Creature of the Black Lagoon, and the Gill-man was familiar to most readers long before its premiere. Ricou Browning was interviewed about his work on the film, as was Milicent Patrick, see for example this article in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle. If Patrick has in some way been forgotten, then it is not because Universal wanted to cover up her contribution to the film. In fact, Universal proudly paraded “the beauty who created beasts”, to the extent that Bud Westmore’s name often didn’t even feature in newspaper clippings about the creation of “his” creatures — something which he complained about to the studio. It is true, however, that Westmore got so riled up about being upstaged by Patrick that he stopped using her services after 1954.
According to screenwriter David Schow, interviewed by Vincent di Fate at Tor.com, the notion that Westmore did nothing and received all credit is exaggerated, as may also have been Patrick’s contribution to Universal’s films. According to Schow, the Westmore makeup department was a collaborative shop, and everybody, from producer Alland and director Arnold to Westmore and Mueller probably pitched in. Patrick – being the illustrator on the team – was probably then assigned to simply put the ideas to paper, thus being more of a ”renditioner” than a designer of the creature. According to Schow, she did do early renditions for This Island Earth, but the actual design used later on the film was very different from her sketches. Robert Skotak tells Tor that she herself had said that the studio was very eager to use her as a ”face” for the makeup department, because of her background in modelling and her bright personality, and she seems to have no bad feelings toward Westmore today. According to Skotak, she said that the work on Creature and other films was very collaborative, and that Alland, if anyone, should receive more credit for his involvement in the process.
Of the two male leads, Richard Carlson should be well known to someone following this blog. Carlson was THE sci-fi leading man of the early fifties, and already had four hero roles under his belt, in The Magnetic Monster (1953, review), The Maze (1953, review, where he actually played the villain), It Came from Outer Space (1953) and Riders to the Stars (1953, review), as well as a bit-part in The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951, review). He also co-directed Riders to the Stars (review). Creature from the Black Lagoon was to be his last major sci-fi film, as he was already partly making a transition to TV, as so many other fifties B movie stars. He is probably best known for the FBI spy drama I Led 3 Lives (1953-1956), and in 1958 he landed the lead in the western series MacKenzie’s Raiders. His career declined in the sixties, and he returned to science fiction again with The Power (1968) and The Valley of Gwangi (1969).
If Richard Carlson was the science fiction hero of the early fifties, then that mantle was passed on to his co-star Richard Denning with this very film. Granted, Denning had dabbled with sci-fi in the past, in Television Spy (1939) and the Lost World-ripoff Unknown Island (1948, review). But Creature from the Black Lagoon was the real starting point for the string of movies that made him what Tom Weaver calls ”perhaps the most decorated soldier in the 1950s war against the Its and the Thems that rose from the depths of the oceans or the bowels of the Earth”.
Denning, a blonde, athletic charmer, was one of the many male actors whose careers where sidetracked by WWII. Starting in the mid-thirties, Denning’s career was on a steady rise up until his turn in the leading role in the jungle adventure film Beyond the Blue Horizon. However, when he returned from the war, few studios were interested in him, and for over a year he and his wife, horror movie legend Evelyn Ankers, lived in a trailer and supported themselves by catching and selling lobsters. Ankers more or less dropped out of the business in the early fifties, despite offers from producers and directors, and Denning managed to do a role or two a year in B-movies. But things started looking up again in 1952, when Denning landed the male lead in the light-hearted crime/romance drama Mr. & Mrs. North in 1952.
His success in Creature from the Black Lagoon led to more science fiction leading roles: the robot invasion film Target Earth (1954, review), the Curt Siodmak-scripted Creature with the Atom Brain (1955, review), Roger Corman’s The Day the World Ended (1955), the Willis O’Brien-animated The Black Scorpion (1957) and Twice Told Tales (1963), starring Vincent Price. All the while he had a steady working pace both in other B movies and on TV, to the point that he decided to retire and move to Hawaii with Ankers in the late sixties. But just as he had settled in, he got a phone call from a TV company begging him to postpone his retirement to play the governor of Hawaii in the new TV series Hawaii Five-0. Denning agreed with he condition that he wouldn’t have to appear in every episode, and thus landed him the role that he is probably best known for outside of his sci-fi work. He appeared in a total of 73 episodes of the show over the course of 12 years.
The only bad thing anyone seems to have to say about Richard Denning comes from his co-actress on The Black Scorpion, Mara Corday, regarding the above interview with Weaver, where Denning claims that Corday ”was coming on to him” during the shoot, which Corday vehemently denies. But even so, she tells Weaver in the book It Came from Horrorwood that she adored Denning: ”I thought he was a fun guy, wonderful and professional and easy to work with.” Alex Gordon, producer of Day the World Ended, has the same sentiments: ”He was a very, very, very, nice guy – I can’t say enough about Richard Denning. He was always up on his lines and he was never late for anything and he was just an absolute pleasure to work with.” Denning stayed married to Ankers until her death in 1985, and then remarried with Patricia Leffingwell in 1986, who in turn stayed with him until his death in 1998. In an obituary in The Independent he is quoted as calling Hawaii ”as close to paradise as we could find”. IMDb has a personal quote from a 1991 interview: ”I’m very grateful for a career that wasn’t spectacular, but always made a living or filled in in-between. I have wonderful memories of it, but I don’t miss it.”
Julie Adams (then still going by the name Julia) was a contract player at Universal at the time the script of Creature came her way, and in an interview with Los Angeles Times she reveals that she nearly passed the role on, because she had no interest in doing a sci-fi horror film. The only reason she said yes was that as a contract player, she would have been put in quarantine without pay for the duration of the movie if she had refused to do it. She has stated that she is extremely happy that she did take the role, as she had a wonderful time making the film, and today it is the film that people still remember her for, even though she is also fondly remembered in the western movie circles, especially for her role in Bend of the River (1952) opposite James Stewart.
There’s a famous press image of Julie Adams slumped against a fake rock at Universal studios, with the two Richards, Jack Arnold and Ben Chapman in the creature suit leaning in over her, as a nurse patches up her forehead with a small bandage. The legend surrounding the photo was that while carrying her through the rock sets, Chapman had accidentally banged her head into the rocks, knocking her unconscious. She has laughed about the incident in later interviews, saying it really wasn’t anything more than a scratch, and she certainly wasn’t knocked out. But there happened to be a photographer on set, so the studio thought it would make a great photo for the press kit to have the lead actress patched up by a nurse, so they made a whole PR thing out of it. She tells Media Mikes: ”Someone at the studio had forgotten to heat the [water] tank that day. It was a chilly autumn morning, and the water was quite cold. So when Ben emerged with me in his arms I was trying desperately not to shiver. The goggles on Ben’s Creature mask fogged up and he couldn’t see very well. The cave set was made up of papier maché rocks that had a few jagged edges. While carrying me unconscious in his arms, Ben accidentally bumped my head against one of the rocks and my eyes suddenly opened and I raised my head. The director yelled ‘Cut’, and production was delayed momentarily while a small scrape on my forehead was tended to by a nurse. Of course, the studio made a publicity stunt out of it and pictures were taken of the mishap. I still love seeing the photo of Ben in his Creature suit looking over me solicitously as the nurse tends to my forehead. In the end, it was a very minor incident and production resumed about fifteen minutes later.”
Ben Chapman had been doing convention tours since the nineties, and convinced Adams to tag along in 2002, and since then she has been a regular on science fiction, horror and western conventions – spending most of her time talking about Creature from the Black Lagoon. Unlike so many B movie actresses that had their prime in the forties and fifties, Adams never once dropped out of Hollywood, but kept working steadily until 2011, although from the mid-fifties onward, most of her work was guest spots on TV series. When TV work was sparse, she worked on stage. In interviews she has said that she is very happy with her career, and the fact that she has always loved working as an actress – not for the fame but for the work and the art. She comes across as such a sweet and lovely person and never has a single bad thing to say about anyone or any project she has been involved in. She does jokingly tell Tom Weaver that she finds it funny that of all the work she has done, it is that science fiction role that she almost turned down that she is always remembered for: ”Once I was working in a Chicago play, Father’s Day by Oliver Hailey, and I was peeved when I got this review that said ‘Julie Adams shows more depth than one would have suspected from the star of Creature from the Black Lagoon.’ You can act your heart out, but people will always say ‘Oh, Julie Adams – Creature from the Black Lagoon.” But she then insists that she is perfectly happy to be remembered for a film that is so loved by fans across generations, and that still entertains people to this very day.
Adams released her autobiography in 2011, and since the passing of Ben Chapman in 2008 she now tours conventions with her son, film editor and co-author Mitch Dalton, who is happy to fill in details and and refresh his mother’s memory when her own recollections are a bit hazy. At 90 years, one can certainly forgive her for forgetting the odd detail. Adams actually just did one other sci-fi film: Underwater City in 1962.
The character of Dr. Carl Maia, who first discovers a fossil that sets the scientists on track towards finding the Gill-man is Antonio Moreno, a minor legend of silent Hollywood. Born in Madrid, Moreno was one of the few challengers to Rudolph Valentino’s position as top Latin Lover of Hollywood in the twenties. He had a whole bunch of leading man roles, courting actresses like Clara Bow and Greta Garbo. Like many foreign-born actors, Moreno suffered a career decline with the onset of sound pictures. However, despite the fact that his leading lover roles became few and far between, Moreno made the transition much easier than a lot of his colleagues, and continued to work steadily in decent roles throughout the thirties. In the forties, however, he found himself stuck in supporting and bit parts, more often than not in B movies, Creature from the Black Lagoon was one of his last films, although he had a last hurrah in a small role in John Ford’s classic The Searchers in 1956, after which he retired.
Born in the US to Portuguese immigrant parents, Nestor Paiva had what Gary Brumburgh on IMDb calls ”one of those nondescript ethnic mugs and a natural gift for dialects that allowed him to play practically any type of foreigner”. First noticed by larger audiences as the villain The Scorpion in the film serial Don Winslow of the Coast Guard (1942), he made a career out of playing foreign villains, henchmen or authority types in B films like Angel’s Alley (1948) and Bride of Vengeance (1949). His defining role, however, was as Lucas in Creature of the Black Lagoon.
The role gave him numerous guest spots on big TV series, such as Rin Tin Tin (1955-1957) and Sugarfoot (1957), but the one he is maybe best remembered from is Disney’s Zorro, where he played the innkeeper in 14 episodes between 1957 and 1961. That in turn led to even bigger series like Perry Mason, Sea Hunt, Rawhide, Lassie, The Third Man, Bonanza, etc. Creature wasn’t Paiva’s first sci-fi, he had had a few bit-parts in serials and sci-fi-ish films. After Creature he appeared in Tarantula, Revenge of the Creature, The Mole People, Atlantis, the Lost Continent (1961), The Madmen of Mandoras (1963), Jesse James Meets Frankenstein’s Daughter (1966) and They Saved Hitler’s Brain (1968), as well as a number of sci-fi-tinged TV series. He passed away in 1966. Overall he appeared in over 300 films or series.
As a part of the scientific expedition we also see famed character actor Whit Bissell, a future cult actor in the horror and science fiction genres, but also noted supporting player in many A movies. To list all his achievements here would take up too much space in an already long article, so we’ll cover him more thoroughly in a future post, but just to name a few of the projects he appeared in: Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), The Time Machine (1960), The Time Tunnel (series, 1966-1967), Star Trek (1967) and Soylent Green (1973).
Born in California, but raised in Tahiti, Ben Chapman had a short stint as a contract player at Universal, and got the role as the Gill-man because of his 6’5 height (195 cm). Apart from a few bit-parts, this was his only Hollywood movie. Paradoxically the role that made him a legend didn’t even earn him a screen credit, as Universal didn’t want the audience to think of the creature as a man in a suit. Chapman, as stated, played the creature above water. He later became a real estate manager, and passed away in 2008. Quick to catch up on the ever-growing convention scene in the nineties, he became something of an ambassador for the film. Unlike more successful actors, Chapman never had any trouble with The Creature from the Black Lagoon being the only movie he was remembered for, and according to fans, a friendlier monster was hard to find. Chapman didn’t appear in the sequels, as Universal didn’t pick up his option when his contract ran out in 1954.
Ricou Browning also went without a credit – not in one, but in all three creature films, not that he seems to mind these days, as he is just as famous for his underwater work on the films as Chapman is for the above water acting. Browning got the role by accident, as he was at the time working as a a swimmer in, and producer of, water shows in and around the Weeki Wachi Springs in Florida. Underwater cameraman Scotty Welbourne came down to scout for locations with his crew, and was supposed to meet Browning’s boss, who couldn’t make it. So Browning showed them around, and telling them he was a swimmer, Welbourne asked him to swim in front of the camera, so that they could get shots of the scale of marine life toward a human body, and he happily obliged. Some weeks later, Browning got a call from Arnold, who told him that he liked Browning’s fluid swimming, and offered him the role as the underwater monster.
In fact, Browning was no stranger to underwater filmmaking, as the company he worked for produced a number of short films from their acts. And as a matter of fact, Browning’s first collaboration with Hollywood was the Disney movie 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, where he took part in all the underwater scenes. However, because of the long post-production period, the film was released after Creature from the Black Lagoon.
Browning has since had a long and illustrious career in the film business, and IMDb only lists a small fraction of all the projects he’s been part of, often uncredited. He went on to become not only actor and underwater stuntman, but also a successful underwater cameraman, director, producer and writer. He is said to have worked as a stuntman on many episodes of the TV series Sea Hunt and The Aquanauts and worked on eight different James Bond movies. The one he is best known for is Thunderball (1965), for which he directed the ground-breaking underwater fight scenes. He also directed the underwater work on films like Hello Down There (1966) and Caddyshack (1980). His real pride and joy, though, was Flipper (1963). A life-long animal lover, Browning came up with a story about an intelligent dolphin, and set about writing a script treatment along with his friend Jack Cowden. After first trying to sell it as a book, without success, he turned it over to producer Ivan Tors, another animal lover, who liked it, and managed to sell the idea to MGM, and that became the feature film Flipper (1963). He then worked as writer, director, producer, stunt-man and actor on the subsequent TV-series Flipper (1964-1966), and in the film sequel Flipper’s New Adventure (1964) he even got a rare speaking role.
Creature from the Black Lagoon still remains Browning’s crowning achievement in the eyes of the fans, and that is what people want to talk about at conventions, at which he is a regular guest these days, despite an age of 86. In an interview for nj.com he reveals that the Hollywood crew wasn’t the only one that had a bit of a brandy problem because of the chilling waters. The same thing happened on the underwater set in Florida, and some of the takes had to be discarded, because the filmmakers had a drunk monster on their hands. The design team tried to outfit the suit with a small air tank, but couldn’t get it to fit, so Browning had to hold his breath for as long as he could, and breathe from air hoses between takes. As he recalls, the biggest problem was visibility. He couldn’t wear goggles under the suit (”If water gets in the goggles, there’s no way to get it out, because the goggles are inside the mask”), and the suit only had tiny slits to look out from. Not only was his vision restricted, it was also blurry.
Incidentally, Julie Adams’ underwater double Ginger Stanley was something of a celebrity herself, being one of the top mermaids at the water show where Browning worked. In fact, it was Browning who suggested her for the part. Stanley also worked as the primary model for Bruce Mozert’s famous underwater photographs, and at one time reportedly held the world record for distance swimming under water. Stanley also appeared in Revenge of the Creature.
Principal cinematographer was three-time Oscar nominee William Snyder and the art direction was done by Oscar winner Hilyard Brown. The iconic posters were created by artist Reynold Brown, responsible for some of the greatest science fiction iconography of the fifties, as well as the often imitated poster of Ben-Hur (1959), among others.
Creature from the Black Lagoon. 1954, USA. Directed by Jack Arnold. Written by Arthur A. Ross, Harry Essex, Maurice Zimm, William Alland. Starring: Richard Carlson, Julie Adams, Richard Denning, Antonio Moreno, Nestor Paiva, Whit Bissell, Bernie Gozier, Henry A. Escalante, Ricou Browning, Ben Chapman, Perry Lopez, Sydney Mason, Rodd Redwing, Ginger Stanley. Music: Henri Mancini, Hans J. Salter, Herman Stein. Cinematography: William E. Snyder. Underwater photography: Scotty Welbourne. Underwater direction: James Curtis Havens. Editing: Ted J. Kent. Art direction: Hilyard M. Brown. Set decoration: Russell A. Gausman. Makeup: Bud Westmore, Robert Hickman, Jack Kevan, Chris Mueller. Creature design: Milicent Patrick et. al. Sound: Leslie I. Carey, Joe Lapis. Wardrobe for Miss Adams: Rosemary Odell. Produced by William Alland for Universal-International.