CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON —–Universal’s welcome 1954 addition to its classic monster lineup from the 30s & 40s, did well enough that Marilyn Monroe could wax sentimental over it in The Seven Year Itch. Co-star Julie Adams, her fame everlasting as a result of primordial amphibian lust, commented “I think the best thing about the picture is that we do feel for the Creature. We feel for him and his predicament…I think that’s a very positive thing really. I like that we feel sympathy for the Creature…there always is that feeling of compassion for the monster. I think maybe it touches something in ourselves, maybe the darker parts of ourselves, that long to be loved and think they really can’t ever be loved. It strikes a chord within us.” Taking his viewpoint, many mammals in the audience, seeing the fetching 27-year-old Adams in form-fit white swimsuit, would be forced to sympathize with his, uh–urges–to take her back to his swamp lair for a snack of piranhas, some rumba and a coconut pitcher of chilled Caipirinhas. We assume he has no shameful issues with candirus (the direst Ouch of all)….
The studio had Adams legs, described as “the most perfectly symmetrical in the world”, insured by Lloyd’s of London for $125,000. Damsel & gams were joined in the cast by stalwarts Richard Carlson, Richard Denning, Nestor Paiva and Whit Bissell. *
The script by Harry Essex and Arthur Ross descended from a story producer William Alland heard in 1941 at a dinner party during the filming of Citizen Kane (he played a reporter in the film). Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa told Alland a whopper about the myth of a race of half-fish, half-human creatures in the Amazon River. A decade on, Alland, combining the anecdote with inspiration from “Beauty And The Beast” and King Kong, wrote story notes for “The Sea Monster”. The rest is ichthyology.
A small band of scientists (with requisite contested-by-dueling-dudes lady scientist) on expedition somewhere in the “headwaters of a tributary of the Brazilian Amazon” (an exotic way to say remote) finds their support team has a rapid and violent turnover when they begin to poke around an enticing but mysterious lagoon. Its foremost inhabitant, a “piscine amphibious humanoid” (toss that into casual conversation)—6’7″, fearsomely ugly and equipped with a great set of webbed paws— spies ‘Kay’ (fallback name for a 50s lady scientist type) on her languorous lap routine, and sets up inter-species stalking. Got to dispatch some of the crew first.
Not credited, the YIKES! music score was collaboratively put together by studio workhorses Henry Mancini (12 minutes worth), Hans J. Salter (he did 16) and Herman Stein, who also handled 12 and was responsible for the famous repeated dramatic blares of the Creature Theme.
Playing our friend Gill—“C02-starring” as it were, fell to Ricou Browning (swimming) and Ben Chapman (walking). Chapman had to put up with the heavy rubber costume in the Palatka, Florida heat for 14 hours at a stretch. Browning’s underwater forays were mostly done in Wakulla Springs. He often had to hold his breath for four minutes at a time.Other locales were at Big Bear in California.
Well-managed by director Jack Arnold, originally shown in 3-D, the slimly plotted adventure chiller has some creepy moments and a few good jolts. From Arnold: “it plays upon a basic fear that people have about what might be lurking below the surface of any body of water. You know the feeling when you are swimming and something brushes your legs down there – it scares the hell out of you if you don’t know what it is. It’s the fear of the unknown. I decided to exploit this fear as much as possible.” It worked.
Two daft but entertaining sequels followed. A seeming sure-fire lock for a remake, for one reason or another that hasn’t come to pass, but 2017s wonderful The Shape Of Water reworks some elements beautifully. As a young creature, I had the monster model in my Aurora collection (made sure the paw-claws were bloody).
79 minutes all told, this gasped and thrashed its way to 66th place for the year, grossing $4,600,000. With Antonio Moreno and Perry Lopez.
* Burly Portuguese-American Nestor Paiva amassed 308 big & small-screen appearances between 1937 and 1968. In this outing, he’s presumably Brazilian, but over his career he stood for Spanish, Italian, Arab, Indian, Mexican, Greek, Russian. Nestor had 25 gigs in 1954 alone. Whit Bissell’s middle name should have been ‘Everywhere’. Over 44 years, starting as a palace guard in The Sea Hawk, closing with an episode of Falcon Crest, Whit logged 318 film & TV credits. He had eleven in 1954, including The Caine Mutiny, Riot In Cell Block 11, and the sci-fi epics Target-Earth and The Atomic Kid. Along with playing endless doctors, scientists and officers, Bissell was an accomplished yachtsman and fencer.
Speaking of credits, one Milicent Patrick is said to be most responsible for designing the creature, but Universal resident makeup chief Bud Westmore took the glory for it. In a display of turf pique and era chauvinism, he fired her when she tried to promote the effort. Also an actress, Miss Patrick was an animator for Disney, their first female animator in fact. Among her other offerings were the Metaluna mutant from This Island Earth and masks for The Mole People. Creativity was in her gene pool, as her father had been the superintendent of construction at Hearst Castle. Which brings us back to Citizen Kane: the Gill-Man a sort of Kevin Baconish Six Leagues Of Separation kind of horny, homicidal piscine amphibious humanoid.
1954 was a good year for fantastic adventure, with room in the Lagoon for the giant squid from 20,000 Leagues Under The Sea. Ashore were two different sizes of ant: small but numberless in The Naked Jungle, huge and L.A.-bound in Them! There was also a giant, irradiated and irritated guy named Gojira, who made his way from Tokyo to our delighted drive-ins a bit later as Godzilla, King Of The Monsters.