Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Genius of the Creature





Celebrating cultural highlights of 1954...
Creature-blogging, essay 1 on
Creature from the Black Lagoon





Citizen Creature

In an interview with film historian Tom Weaver, producer William Alland revealed that the idea for the Creature from the Black Lagoon came from a wild Amazonian man-fish story told by cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa to an incredulous Orson Welles during a small house party.  Naturally, this makes me wonder:  What if Welles responded by crying out, “Hey, Mankiewicz! Write me a man-fish picture!”

So just what would an Orson Welles’ Creature from the Black Lagoon look like? My dream Welles’ Creature would have:

  • Rita Hayworth as Kay in a one-piece bathing suit
  • Orson Welles as Lucas, the captain of the Rita (“Even I, Lucas, have heard the legend of a man-fish…”)
  • A new role written for Agnes Moorehead, confined below deck and slowly going crazy
  • William Alland as Dr. Edwin Thompson (in the Welles’ version, the attack on the doctor is moved to the beginning, leaving Alland’s face covered in bandages for the duration of the movie)
  • Exteriors filmed in the Amazon during Welles’ legendary film-shooting binge in Brazil
  • Cinematographer Gregg Toland scuba diving with the 3D camera
  • A Bernard Herrmann score built to heighten the shock scenes (no flutter horn themes for Herrmann—I want shrieking violins when the Creature appears!) 
  • A magnificent ten-minute opening shot takes us from an overhead view of the Amazon jungle through a leisurely descent all the way to a close-up of a rock on the lagoon shoreline where the Creature’s hand emerges, after which the camera tracks behind him as he stalks toward a tent where two native assistants are preparing for bed
  • Cameos by Marlene Dietrich and Zsa Zsa Gabor as missionaries working the Amazon circuit

The Genius of the Creature

I first saw the Creature from the Black Lagoon over forty years ago, doubtless with all the poor image quality that you naturally settled for when watching late 1960s TV.  It wasn’t wide screen, it wasn’t 3-D, and the screen was probably fuzzy with static.  Nevertheless, I don’t remember being bothered by the image quality one bit.  Perhaps poor reception made the murky Amazon and its primeval wildlife all the more mysterious.

I’m not embarrassed to still love the Creature.  It’s a very good 1950s science fiction movie that succeeds because of several contributions that I’m tempted to label as genius, backed by a production that’s solidly professional.

Here’s where I see genius in the Creature from the Black Lagoon:

Milicent Patrick with Creature sketch and head.
The design of the creature:  The full-body suit of the Creature has become so iconic that it’s difficult to grasp just how creative and original it is.  I see genius in both the design and the sculptural execution.  So who gets the credit for this inspired work?  For the design, evidence suggests that a fascinating (and strikingly attractive) woman named Milicent Patrick deserves bragging rights.  Briefly promoted as “the beauty who created the beast” (until makeup head Bud Westmore sulked about it to the head office), Patrick established the look that satisfied everyone—seamlessly combining elements of fish, frog, reptile, and man.  In addition, the costume works effectively as both a plausible aquatic creature and a lumbering land monster.  More genius needed?  Ace craftsmen Chris Mueller and Jack Kevan sculpted the sleek reptilian body and marvelously detailed heads worn by the two Creature actors (Ricou Browning in the water and Ben Chapman on land).

The Creature in motion:  The Creature doesn’t thrill me on land.  He employs standard monster moves, overly familiar from the Frankenstein monster movies and their descendents.  But once he’s in the water, the Creature is completely original, the most graceful of monsters.  In Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, there’s a special intelligence for bodily-kinesthetic—the art of body movement control.  I’d credit Ricou Browning, the man playing the underwater Creature, for bodily-kinesthetic genius.  And a bonus point to director Jack Arnold for realizing that Browning had to play the Creature after seeing him swim on film.

Ricou Browning, swimming Creature-style.

Julie Adams in a white
one-piece bathing suit.
Kay in a one-piece white bathing suit:  When something looks this awesome, someone deserves credit for genius.  Maybe Rosemary Odell for realizing that a white suit, cut high at the hips, looks beautiful in murky waters.  Maybe Julie Adams for the genius involved in being sexy beyond words…

The genius of location:  The underwater scenes were filmed in Wakulla Springs, Florida, located 14 miles south of Tallahassee.  Okay, it’s not authentic Amazon rain forest, but in many ways, it’s just as cool.  From underwater, it sure looks like the dawn of time.  And there really ARE underwater caves there (although none discovered yet with mysterious air pockets and altar stones).

Finally, two fast notes on more technical matters —

Note on 3D and the cinematography:  I have friends who say that I haven’t really seen the Creature from the Black Lagoon until I see it in 3D.  If that’s the case, it’s my loss.  Since I only use one eye, 3D is lost on me.

Note on the aspect ratio:  For this series, I’ve chosen to display most of the accompanying movie images in standard format (1.33:1), which is how I originally saw the Creature and how it was presented in many movie theaters.  I’m doing this even though I’m aware it was presented widescreen (1.85:1) in first-run theaters at the time of its release.  Perhaps it’s simple nostalgia on my part, but I genuinely prefer the look of most of the film’s frame compositions in standard format to wide screen.

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.

Watch Creature from the Black Lagoon...
Purchase a Creature from the Black Lagoon DVD or Blu-Ray set at Amazon or Barnes & Noble.
Rent Creature from the Black Lagoon at Netflix or other rental service.

© 2013 Lee Price

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