The Creature Returns

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Posted June 28, 2023 | By Nick Steele

On Saturday, July 1, the iconic “Gill-Man” as he is first called in a scene from the classic 1954 Universal Pictures monster movie “Creature from the Black Lagoon” will rise from the depths again when the Appleton Museum of Art will offer two free screenings of the film as part of the museum’s Free First Saturday.

The museum’s free admission day, held on the first Saturday of each month, allows visitors to view the permanent collection, special exhibitions and participate in making art in the Artspace from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. without paying the usual admission fees. Each month, guests may experience special happenings, like these film screenings, which will take place at 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. The film’s runtime is 1 hour 19 minutes. It is unrated, so is considered suitable for all ages.

The film was directed by Jack Arnold and the billed stars were Richard Carlson, Richard Denning and Julie Adams, however the years would eventually give credit to several key Central Florida performers who help give the film much of its magic and make it of particular interest to local audiences. The movie follows a group of researchers on an expedition to the Amazon to investigate a recently discovered fossil of a mysterious amphibious part-fish, part-human creature. Once there, they encounter a still very much alive specimen of the same species who becomes captivated by the sole female member of the team, even though he is none too pleased to have the humans invading his once idyllic environment.

While the movie is now considered more of a camp classic than horror flick, especially based on what the modern genre has evolved into with all its graphic violence and unrelenting gore, it stands the test of time with a solid story that hints at an early recognition of man’s carelessness and willful disregard with respect to the natural world and its many creatures.

The film has not only become a cult classic in the eyes of many fans but had an indelible influence on many iconic films that followed it. The most famous sequence has the elements of a poetic water ballet, complete with haunting music by one of the greatest composers in the history of film, Henry Mancini. In the scene, Gill-Man observes researcher Kay Lawrence (Adams) as she gracefully swims along the surface of the lagoon in a pristine white bathing suit and slips below the surface, diving into his territory and captivating the creature. These beautiful underwater shots become somewhat chilling and creepy as the creature begins to mirror her movements just a few feet below her, unbeknownst to our heroine that she is within the grasp of the Gill-Man. The scene is alarming enough to send a chill through both Kay and the audience when the creature reaches for her and allows his scaly fingers to graze her feet. Known as the master of suspense, famed filmmaker Alfred Hitchcock defined this sort of scene as deriving its power from the fact that the audience knows more than the characters in the movie.

The device is so powerful that it has been replicated in many films both before and after, but one of the most powerful echoes of Kay’s vulnerability being observed by both the audience and an unseen predator was in the opening sequence of the 1970s horror blockbuster “Jaws,” which was the launchpad for the career of a young director named Steven Spielberg.

According to Turner Classic Movies, “Steven Spielberg certainly took a cue from Arnold” with his opening shark attack in “Jaws” (1975), “in which we get a tantalizing underwater view of the female swimmer,” which they state is “clearly an homage to ‘Creature from the Black Lagoon.’”

Journalist Janne Wass goes even further in claiming, “Spielberg took the idea of the music motif for his shark in ‘Jaws,’ and almost completely copied the scene of Kay swimming in the lagoon, which he readily admits.”

“Creature” was something of a blockbuster back in its day and spawned two sequels, “Revenge of the Creature,” released in 1955, which featured a young Clint Eastwood in his first film role, and “The Creature Walks Among Us,” released in 1956. The original black-and-white, 3D film (requiring polarized 3-D glasses to view) was made for less than $500,000 and by the end of 1954 had already grossed more than $3 million.

Double Trouble

A classic femme fatale, Adams had been racking up credits alongside the likes of stars such as Jimmy Stewart, William Powell and Rock Hudson by the time she was cast in “Creature.” She had looks reminiscent of the quintessential leading ladies of the period—one part Katherine Hepburn, one part Elizabeth Taylor—but without all that fire and magic that made them stars. Her character is that of a smart and capable scientific researcher who initially holds her own among her male counterparts, but soon, due to the inherent sexism of the day, she spends most of her time changing into outfits that reinforce her as a goddess-like object of desire, the culmination of which is a particularly well-engineered seamed and boned white swimsuit. That one piece of clothing and the graceful swimming on display in the film make her the object of the creature’s affections. However, the talent displayed in the water is not that of Ms. Adams, but of her swim double. While the sequence is intercut with shots of her doing a respectable stroke above water, everything that was shot from the underwater perspective was someone else.

The movie was simultaneously shot in Hollywood on the Universal back lot, in the lagoon where “Gilligan’s Island” and “McHale’s Navy” were also filmed, while a second unit shot the underwater sequences in Wakulla Springs in Florida’s Panhandle. The sequel was filmed in Silver Springs, Jacksonville and Marineland. This meant that stand-ins were used to double the cast, which is how native Floridians Ricou Browning and Ginger Stanley Hallowell swam their way into movie history.

Hallowell, Adams’ underwater double, learned how to swim underwater by taking gulps of air from a hose in a method developed by Newt Perry, the owner of the Perry Swim School in Ocala and the father of underwater shows in Florida. Perry recruited her to be a “mermaid” at Weeki Wachee around 1949 after she graduated from high school.

Browning, who had been on the U.S. Air Force swim team, worked as a lifeguard at Wakulla Springs and had a penchant for underwater stunt work, which he had honed at a young age while diving for coins at the beach and performing stunts in underwater shows. He also learned the hose method from Perry and the pair honed their skills at Weeki Wachee before moving on to jobs at Silver Springs. Browning even worked with legendary Ocala photographer Bruce Mozert creating underwater sketches.

In 1953, Hollywood came calling when “Creature” producers and cameramen arrived in search of a region of Florida that could pass for the Amazon jungle. The 23-year-old Browning was tasked with helping them scout potential locations. It was during their tour that they asked if they could shoot some underwater footage of Browning to get a sense of the creature’s proportion to fish and grass.

Hallowell told the “Orlando Sentinel” in 2017 that the “Hollywood folks” had never seen anything like Browning’s underwater crawl or their ability to hold their breath and maneuver underwater for at least two minutes at a time. Browning would frequently tell the story that two weeks after he showed the producers what he could do in the water, he got a call from director Jack Arnold, who said, “We like the way you swim. You want to be the creature?”

Browning, who died of natural causes in February of this year at the age of 93, delighted in saying that he saw no reason to pass up $600 a week. And the rest, as they say, is history. He would reprise his role in the sequels and go on to have a successful career in the industry as a writer, director, actor and underwater stunt coordinator. He even conceived of the story for the successful 1963 movie “Flipper,” and the popular TV series of the same name that followed. In 2013, he told the “Ocala Star-Banner” that he came up with the story idea after a trip to South America.

Even with all of the success that followed, once Browning was eventually recognized for his work in “Creature” it became the thing he was best remembered for. He became a hero of sorts among film enthusiasts and a staple at sci-fi conventions, where he regaled fans with stories from the filming. Browning was honored by Film Florida when they awarded him the first Florida Legends Award in 2006.

Costume Drama

The film is also regarded as a standout because of the creature design. In fact, many regard the exhaustively executed and articulated costume, which had the appearance of a sort of organic segmented armor and gills that moved to simulate the creature’s breathing, as the real star of the show.

“Audiences had never seen a full-body monster costume like that before,” asserts Jim Knipfel of “Den of Geek” magazine. “With the Wolf Man and Frankenstein’s Monster, you always knew there was a man back there behind the makeup, but the Gill Man was so elaborate, so detailed and believable, and so utterly alien that it was easy to accept it as it was. It’s pretty much exactly what you’d expect an evolutionary missing link between man and fish would look like.”

And where there is credit to be had, so often follows drama. The exact truth of the costume’s creator or creators is a story muddied by the passage of time and complicated by alleged jealousies. Many sources say the costume was the result of a collaboration between a number of artists and sculptors in the Universal makeup department.

However, when the publicity campaign to coincide with the film’s release was launched, Milicent Patrick was used to promote the movie and its creature to the press with a campaign titled “The Beauty Who Created the Beast.” Patrick was an artist and sculptor and a true pioneer for women, as one of the first female animators to be recruited by Disney in the 1930s to work in their famed ink and paint department. She reportedly worked as a color animator, which was then considered a special effects technique, on the classic film “Fantasia.” In 1952, she moved to the makeup department at Universal and helped create creature designs for films like “It Came From Outer Space” and “Abbott and Costello Meet Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” In 1953, she began work on “Creature” and later engaged the press on the studio’s behalf, speaking openly about her role in sketching, designing and executing the creation of the creature. The campaign was supported by publicity images of Patrick engaged in all those activities.

Enter a real monster: As the story goes, Bud Westmore, who was Universal’s chief of makeup at the time, was so angered by the attention she was receiving for being promoted as the person responsible for the final design of the Gill-Man monster that he demanded that Patrick instead inform the press that she was merely responsible for making sketches of Westmore’s ideas. He received sole on-screen credit for the creature and by the time Patrick returned to Hollywood she no longer had a job. He reportedly removed her from all film projects and refused to hire her for future work. Patrick never had the opportunity to design another monster or, in fact, anything for a film ever again. And while the film enjoyed tremendous success over the years, partly because of the innovative creature design, she faded out of the picture and was largely written out of film history until her story was chronicled in Mallory O’Meara’s book “The Lady from the Black Lagoon” in 2019.

Form Versus Function

Even with the innovative design, Browning recalled that “it was very crude compared with what they do today,” in an article on the Turner Classic Movies’ website. “I had a little squeeze bulb that I held in my hand, and the tube from it ran up my arm. I could squeeze that and make the gills fluctuate in and out. I could move my lips a little by moving my chin, but the eyes I had no control over whatsoever.”

He recalled having particular difficulty navigating during the famous swim duet with Hallowell.

“The creature head that I wore—the eyes sat maybe a quarter of an inch away from my eyes. So, it was like looking through a keyhole. But then, when you open your eyes underwater without a mask on—with your naked eye—everything is blurred,” he explained to in 2013. “I had a very difficult time seeing her well. I had to get upside-down, or I never would have seen her.”

Browning also frequently shared the story of the time he had to make an emergency bathroom visit during filming. He recalled that he emerged from the water onto the shore in full costume where he inadvertently frightened an unsuspecting woman and her small child. He said they took off running and he never saw them again.

But Browning’s costume wasn’t the only one to leave an impression. Adams often spoke about the fact that so many fans would ask her about that iconic custom-made, skin-tight, one-piece swimsuit. She recalled that the suit caused quite a stir at the time because it “pulled up a little bit on the upper leg,” she told the “LA Times” in 2012. “We were quite risqué.”

Happy Ending

In 2017, “The New York Times” heralded that Guillermo del Toro’s film “The Shape of Water,” which it called “partly a code-scrambled fairy tale, partly a genetically modified monster movie,” as “altogether wonderful.” And they were not alone in their praise of the film, which would go on to win the 2018 Academy Awards in the categories of Best Picture, Best Director, Best Production Design, and Best Original Score. The film was Del Toro’s way of giving the creature the happy ending he felt it deserved.

del Toro got the idea for the project as a boy when he first saw “Creature” and was moved by the swimming scene where the creature becomes entranced by Kay as she swims above him.

“There’s a beautiful, very simple, very poetic image, very fairy tale-like. It’s a gorgeous scene. And I got overwhelmed by it in the way that you get overwhelmed by art. I was 6. I couldn’t articulate that it represented love for me, but it did,” he recalled to NPR in 2020. “I so loved the encapsulation of the yearning and all that. And having not seen the movie before, I was disingenuously thinking that they would end up together, you know, and they didn’t. I decided I would someday have to correct that.”

The filmmaker tried to get permission from Universal to create a remake but was rebuffed.

“I went to Universal and I said, ‘Can we do the movie from the point of view of the creature?’ They didn’t go for it,” del Toro told the “Hollywood Reporter” in 2017. “I said, ‘I think they should end up together.’ They didn’t go for that, either.”

One day, a writer he knew mentioned an idea for a storyline to him that allowed him to pursue his own take on a creature movie, this one based on “The Amphibian Man” and set in the early 1960s at the height of the Cold War. In both stories humanity’s darker nature is on display and in both the creatures become infatuated by the female protagonists. While del Toro found inspiration in “Creature” his film is a fantastical love story that is full of hope and magical realism and where the only evidence of “horror” can be found in the behaviors of humans.  What makes “Shape” a compelling update is perhaps the same sentiment that Adams expressed during an interview with “The Atlantic” in 2012 about her thoughts on the enduring appeal of the original “Creature” movie.
“I think one reason that the picture has survived is because there is an empathy for the creature. It’s not a horror thing, like a monster … I think people feel for him. I did feel that she (her character Kay) had a kind of understanding of the human part of the creature. A sense that this was not just some misstep of nature, that there was something poignant, there was something moving, there were human qualities within this creature,” she recalled. “You know, the fact that we have invaded his territory. He didn’t come out and break into houses like Frankenstein—so we were the interlopers, really. I think that’s one of the reasons.”

Beyond the costumes and local connections, the real appeal of “Creature” might be in how it asks us to examine our collective humanity, our need for connection and the role we play in shaping our own stories.

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