Watching Julie Adams glide weightlessly through the Amazon River was like liquid adrenaline in my prepubescent veins. Her curly brown hair collecting around her bare shoulders; the soft glimmer of her lucid eyes; her long, curvy body contorting into alluring positions: she was my first lesson in the power of cinema to transform female performers into objects of male desire.
For over three decades, Universal Studios utilized tales of macabre monsters and gothic milieus to explore the fears and anxieties of society. Dracula provided a glamorous distraction for people marred by The Great Depression and Frankenstein cautioned against dabbling in God’s domain in the 1930s; The Wolf Man examined the prevailing tendency of man to defer to the dark side in the 1940s.
In 1954, director Jack Arnold stepped behind the camera for a fifth time to create Creature From the Black Lagoon, a modern folktale about a misunderstood sea monster fashioned as a moral drama and wrapped in a deliciously entertaining package. The plot follows a team of scientists on an expedition along the Amazon River where they encounter the prehistoric Gill-Man, an aquatic creature who falls in love with one of the female travelers (Kay Lawrence played by Adams). Yet, on a deeper level, Arnold exploits the picture’s B-grade stylings to examine the precariousness of the decade.
America was experiencing a state of mental comfort leading into the 1950s. Confident the commotion and violence of World War II was behind us, citizens began having babies and settling on the outskirts of major cities. The G.I. Bill provided aide to post-war soldiers making it practical for them to purchase suburban houses. Writing about 1950s America, Diane Boucher observed that, “traditionally, suburban living had been the preserve of the wealthy, but in the newly built suburbs, the median price for a house was $5,000, roughly the equivalent to an average family’s wages for two years” (The 1950s American Home).
The film’s geology expedition puts a mirror to the development of rural America. “Between 1944 and 1954, nine million people moved to the new suburbs.” Dr. David Reed (Richard Carlson) relays to Kay that the Amazon “is exactly as it was one-hundred-fifty million years ago, when it was part of the Devonian era.” At one point Kay inexplicably tosses a cigarette into the black lagoon. The movie becomes a right-wing fantasy as the creature responds by savagely eliminating members of the crew. He acts as a stand-in for nature itself rising up against the carelessness of the human community.
Women of that period were second class citizens, defined as spouses before they were individuals. Their role was to serve the needs of their husbands: cook, clean, reproduce. Though Adams is reduced to portraying the beautiful and helpless damsel in constant need of rescue by her dashing boyfriend in the picture’s final act, her character is afforded a voice early on. She is a scientist who spearheads experiments and contributes to a number of communal decisions. At one point, her boyfriend comments that her work warrants a raise in pay. (By the way, though her male counterparts objected to giving her credit, the iconic costume worn by the Gill-Man was designed by a female artist by the name of Milicent Patrick).
Though Kay and Dr. Reed wish to leave the creature alone and return to civilization, Dr. Mark Williams (Richard Denning) becomes determined to capture the beast or kill it in the process.
Creature is mostly brain candy, still the hostile feelings of Dr. Williams toward the monster speak to the foibles of humankind. While Hollywood did take steps toward producing films with African American leads with movies like Carmen Jones, the black experience was hardly recognized by 1950s cinema. Following the Brown v Board of Education ruling in 1954, a number of southern whites resorted to violent tactics to maintain a dominant position in society. Dr. Williams’s cruel mistreatment of the creature could be viewed as an allegory for the bigotry marring America at the time. Of course, one could argue the prehistoric monster, with his wide nose and oversized lips (racist stereotypes of African American features), suggests an inferior position on the chain of being. While the white men have developed into intelligent beings capable of reasoning and understanding, the creature seems stuck in an evolutionary rut.
Despite its metaphorical associations, the true star of the show is Julie Adams and her curiously elegant tango with the rubber fish-man. The elastic costume made a vivid impression when it first appeared on screen fifty-five years ago and remains uniformly effective today. That soft and vulnerable core hiding beneath that dull, scaly armor and those razor-sharp claws and still eyes is iconic of the genre. Kay and the creature move in a rhythmic fashion through the lagoon, their heterogeneous bodies as measured as the water. We understand immediately the beast could never do her harm.
Arnold turns his lens on viewers who gawk at Adams with lust in their eyes. Each stroke of their arms, every kick of their legs tell a story. In his commentary track on the Universal blu ray release of the film, motion picture historian Tom Weaver notes that the relationship between Kay and the creature “strikes a chord” with audiences who all wish to “love and find love.” It tantalizes and frightens in equal measure, and in the end, provides a cathartic experience for all.
By now everyone has heard of the dissension between Ben Chapman, the stuntman who played the Gill-Man on land, and Ricou Browning, the ex-Air Force swimmer who donned the costume under water. Chapman apparently became aware of Browning signing stills of the creature in scenes he was not a part of and was none too pleased. In the end, Arnold could have worn the costume himself. It’s not the actor that incites awe in viewers, rather it’s the spooky suit that is the ultimate attention grabber.
William Snyder’s camera creates a playful stage for the characters to engage, the murky water bathed in a whimsical shade of gray. The movie is judiciously told and deliberately paced with the creature not appearing until the twenty-five minute mark. The three-chord musical composition that rings out every time the Gill-Man pops up on screen is as simple as the story itself. Yet, it’s oddly powerful, its shrill notes tapping some rudimentary part of the self and inciting genuine fear.
Famed director Guillermo del Toro satisfied leftover desires of fans with his movie, The Shape of Water in 2017. Set in the early 60s, his beauty and the beast story imagined how things may have played out had Dr. Williams successfully captured the creature. Trapped in a government laboratory, the aquatic humanoid gets one more chance at love when he meets a mute janitor assigned to his wing of the facility.
Other rumored returns of the creature have been popping up for years with marquee names like John Carpenter and Rick Baker attached. The most interesting pitch came in the early 80s and involved American Werewolf in London director John Landis and Arnold himself. I sat in on an appearance with Landis at a convention a few years back where he relayed tales of test shoots with playboy bunnies backstroking in Steven Spielberg’s pool.
SINCE ITS RELEASE:
Arnold directed a number of sci-fi films throughout the 1950s including It Came From Outer Space (1953), Tarantula (1955) and The Incredible Shrinking Man (1957). Later on he experienced success on the small screen directing episodes of Perry Mason, The Brady Bunch, Gilligan’s Island and Wonder Woman. Creature From the Black Lagoon spawned two inferior sequels: Revenge of the Creature (1955) and The Creature Walks Among Us (1956). The movie is available on blu ray in a thirty-film collection from Universal Studios Home Entertainment.