Monday, March 25, 2013

How to Destroy a Pristine Black Lagoon

Celebrating cultural highlights of 1954...
Creature-blogging, essay 4 on
Creature from the Black Lagoon


It’s night and the crew of the Rita is armed, each man prepared to destroy what may be the last surviving member of its species.  The camera tracks from bow to stern…

First, we see Dr. Edwin Thompson, armed.  Track to Dr. Carl Maia, armed.

Then to Dr. David Reed, armed.  And on to Captain Lucas, armed.

Finishing at the stern with
Dr. Mark Williams, armed for Creature.

Dr. David Reed (Richard Denning) is restrained from
killing the Creature by Dr. Mark Williams, who
argues they should imprison the Gill Man to
carry him back to civilization.

The 20th Century Intrudes  

Dissolve from the poisoned lagoon surface to the
Creature watching below the surface.

Captain Lucas, captain of
the Rita, relaxing.
Looking like the African Queen (with Captain Lucas in the Bogart role), the Rita confidently sails into the Black Lagoon, loaded with guns and poisons.  Wait a minute…  Who’s the villain here?  Who’s the real monster?  The expedition invades the Gill Man’s ancestral home, poisons his lagoon, and then vacillates between whether to imprison or kill the lagoon’s host.  With every man on board carrying a rifle, a speargun, or both, the Creature is seriously outgunned.

Polluting the lagoon.
Among the most disturbing scenes is the one where Mark and David scatter Rotenone, a fish-killing pesticide, across the waters of the lagoon.  As it spreads out through the water, it looks surprisingly like the doomsday oxygen-destroyer device in Gojira (Godzilla), also released in 1954.  Soon the lagoon is littered with belly-up fish.  In real life, fish take Rotenone in through the gills, leaving them unable to breathe.  They come to the surface to gulp air, needing oxygen.  The Rita floats serenely on the formerly pristine lagoon, which now looks like it should be sealed off by the EPA.  Apparently, the scientists have concluded that it’s worth wiping out an ecosystem to capture a Gill Man.

In later years, director Jack Arnold claimed that he brought an environmental slant to certain scenes, cinematically siding with the Creature more than with civilization.  As proof of his intentions, many have cited a singularly intelligent scene, very creatively directed by Arnold.  I call this scene:

No Littering in the Lagoon

While the men are out in the rowboat poisoning the lagoon with the Rotenone, beautiful smoker Kay Lawrence lights up a cigarette on deck.  When she’s finished enjoying her smoke, she casually flicks 
the butt into the water.

Cut to an underwater shot of the cigarette
striking the surface of the water, then floating there.

The camera tilts downward…

The Creature is watching—his eyes fixed on the cigarette that’s polluting his environment.  But is that really it?  Is that what’s really on the Creature’s mind?

We probably view this scene differently now than audiences would have in 1954.  Watching it now, the flick of the cigarette into the water makes me wince.  It’s easy to interpret the scene as an ecological comment.  But this was eight years before Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring ushered in the environmental movement and twelve years before cigarette packages carried health warnings in the US.  It was a different world then.

Today, we assume the Creature sees the cigarette and thinks, “What are they doing to my pond?”  But in 1954, the same Creature may have simply been thinking, “Ooooh… a romantic token from the pretty lady!”

Budding ecologist or eternal romantic?

Reference Sources
Creature from the Black Lagoon (Universal Studios Classic Monster Collection) DVD commentary by film historian Tom Weaver
Various discussions on The Classic Horror Film Board (in my opinion, the greatest and most civilized of all film discussion boards.)
Back to the Black Lagoon documentary with film historian David Skal

When processing Creature information, it all boils down to this:  If Tom Weaver says it, I believe it.

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© 2013 Lee Price

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