The Rube’s Review: The Creature from the Black Lagoon (Universal, 1954)
Believe it or not, if it wasn’t for a drunken conversation at fancy dinner party in 1941, there would not have been a Creature from the Black Lagoon… yeah, really. While attending a dinner party thrown by Orson Wells, William Alland (who played Thompson the Reporter in Citizen Cane) overheard an inebriated Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa tell a tall tale of a half man/half fish creature that lived in the Amazon who the villagers would give a female sacrifice to every year.
After Wells and his guests called bullsh*t on this story, Figueroa angrily claimed that not only his story was 100% true but that he held a photo negative and could show proof of the creature’s existence. Who knows if Figueroa ever came up with the goods to back up his story but that tale left such an impact on William (then a big producer at Universal) that 13 years later, he greenlit a 3 picture deal (which was unheard of at the time) to put this Amazonian Menace onto the big screen.
This legendary tale takes place in the uncharted wilderness, which lies deep in the Amazon. While on a scientific expedition, Dr. Carl Maia finds a fossilized webbed hand on the riverbank, which may be an evolutionary link to modern man. Unsure what to make of it, the Doc takes a trip to the local marine institute to visit his friend and colleague David Reed and his beautiful assistant/girlfriend Kay (Julia Adams). After a meeting with Dr. Edwin Thompson and a brief speech about how uncovering the full skeleton may be the link to a lost age, philanthropist Mark Williams decides to fund an expedition into the deeps of the Amazon. The following day the group sets sail on the RITA (captained by a salty fisherman named Lucas), in hopes in find the rest of their fossil… unaware of the haunting legend that is the Creature of the Black Lagoon.
Even though The Creature from the Black Lagoon (CFTBL) is considered a late entry in the Universal monster series, the movie (and it’s 2 sequels) did very well in their opening release in the mid 50’s and continued to be a fan favorite, especially during the 1960’s monsters craze when Universal re-released their monster franchise, usually as a 2 for 1 matinee bargain at theaters and drive-ins. This new monster craze was a big hit with the kids and spawned many CFTBL toys, masks, model kits. Also, making guest appearance as Uncle Gill on the Munsters didn’t hurt.
Currently, there have been talks to bring the Devonian Gillman back to the big screen which, unfortunately, have been nothing more than rumor for the last 30 years. However, with everything being remade now, especially with Hollywood’s current 3D craze, I couldn’t think of a more perfect time to bring the Creature back to life!
Out of all the Universal Monster movies, this one is my favorite. First off, to me, out of all of the Universal Monster movies The Creature is a REAL MONSTER, not a guy that got cursed, that’s out for revenge, or jealous of a fair maiden because he was beaten with the ugly stick. The Creature/Gillman from head to toe is a REAL MONSTER; emerging from a lost era, pissed that outsiders are in his domain and looking for love in all the wrong places. That reason alone makes him tops on my Universal Monsters list. Another reason is this movie’s main plot, that if we capture the creature we could understand that past and it’ll bring mankind one step closer to putting a man in the moon. I also really like that the movie actually opens with a science lesson of the Big Bang and evolution. For some reason I always though it was cool.
Overall the film is very well done, with a very intriguing story. Even in black and white, all of the underwater shots of marine life are beautifully done. I have to agree with most people that my favorite part is the famous beauty/beast scene where the lagoon dwelling Gillman mimics Kay’s strokes as she goes for a leisurely swim.
Both Browning (underwater) and Chapman (land) do their part to bring Gillman to life. Even though he doesn’t say a word, Ricco Browning’s fluid actions make the Gillman to feel like a very believable and in no way resembles an actor in a stiff rubber suit underwater and Chapman’s above water Gillman attacks are just scary! Even to this day I still find this classic full of suspense, especially in the scene when the Gillman escapes the RITA. I find myself at the edge of my seat during the gripping finale inside the Creature’s lair. Perhaps my only, and I mean ONLY, pet peeve is there’s a cheap scare near end with a plastic vampire bat. Even as a little kid I thought it was hokey and kinda felt out of place. Other than that, this is as good as it gets!
Back in 2008 I was lucky enough to be Ben Champan’s assistant for a Monsters in Motion model kit signing. I remember how happy he was to greet his fans for photos, signing CFTBL merchandise, making little kids giggle, and telling production stories with his co-star Julie Adams (who was also present for the signing). As a big CFTBL fan I was very excited to help out but, unknown to most, Ben was in very poor health and was even using 2 canes just to get around. One month later he passed away in Hawaii. Even though I only met him for 3 days, I thought of Ben as a nice guy and will always remember how nervous I was to ask him to sign my atomic green Creature action figure and how happy (and patient) he was to meet a crazy uberfan.
I’m sure you guys already know that The Rube is a big collector of Universal items, including toys, original film reel clips, and other nostalgia from the 50’s-present but my favorite is the Creature, to the point that I have one full wall/display case devoted to the Devonian monster. Currently, The Creature from the Black Lagoon is available on many DVD formats and now is available on Blu-ray… but if you have the chance, look up your local indie movie theater and catch it in 3-D print. I’ve seen it twice in it’s original format and let me tell you, there’s nothing quite like it.
All the underwater scenes were shot with extras at the same time in Florida, while all of the other above water shoots were back in California. Because of this, the Creature was played by two different actors; Ben Chapman performed all of the land scenes in CA while professional diver Ricco Browning did all the underwater scenes back in FL.
Universal Pictures was the first studio to film underwater with a 3-D portable motion picture camera. Take THAT James Cameron!
The Music Score has been reused in many Universal monster/scifi movies, which was a compilation of music of past pictures and most were scored by Henry Mancini.
This article is part of the Countdown to Halloween blogathon, a month-long blogging marathon dedicated to honoring the Halloween season. For more information and a full list of participating sites, please visit www.countdowntohalloween.com.