Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Boomer Movies Hall of Fame

The Gill-Man: From the Depths of the Fifties

Orson Welles hosted a dinner party sometime in the 40s—maybe during the making of Citizen Kane. Present were his then-girlfriend, actor Delores Del Rio; Gabriel Figueroa, the Mexican cinematographer who shot “Night of the Inguana” and Bunuel’s Mexican films; and William Alland, member of Welles’ Mercury Theatre and participant in the famed radio “panic broadcast” of H.G. Wells War of the Worlds. Figueroa told what he said was a true story about a half-man, half-fish who lived outside a village in the Amazon. The Creature left the villagers alone except for once a year, when he took one of the village maidens. When others laughed at him, he became indignant, claiming he’d even seen a photograph.

Alland didn’t laugh: he remembered. As a movie producer in the early 1950s, he came up with the idea for a film that became “It Came from Outer Space,” and passed it off to Ray Bradbury to develop, so he could concentrate on writing the story of the half-man, half-fish he called “The Sea Creature.” His treatment eventually led to three movies, made back to back and released in 1954, ‘55 and ‘56.

The first was “Creature From the Black Lagoon.” Universal seemed intent on a sequel even before it was released, but its box office success led to more location shooting for “Revenge of the Creature.” But the budget was cut way back for the third, “The Creature Walks Among Us,” and it shows. Nevertheless, these black and white films were thrilling to see on the big screen, especially if you were a boy between 9 and 11. I saw them all several times, including at least one in 3-D. But the projection at my hometown theatre was bad, and only a few of the 3-D effects really worked. Now all three films (non-3-D) are available on a two DVD set in Universal’s “Monster Legacy” series, along with commentaries and a documentary.

The Gill-Man was the most original and most memorable of the 1950s creatures. He had an alien (that is, animal) appearance, but fluid movements, and I remember we all imitated the way he waved his fingers in front of his face in the water.

These movies were memorable also for the underwater photography, and the creature’s interactions with The Girl. In the first one, it’s dark-haired Julie Adams. Universal execs believed she had the best legs of any actress they had under contract and kept looking for a role where she could wear a bathing suit. They found this one. “Creature From the Black Lagoon” is famous for the scene of her swimming with the Creature watching her and swimming along far underneath her in the deep water. This humanized the gill-man, and certainly interested the boys in the audience. (John Muzulla’s comments at the Internet Database site for this film are terrific on this point.) I actually saw “Revenge of the Creature” first, and blond Lori Nelson was pretty interesting, too.

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