Tuesday, June 20, 2006

We were fortunate that at least some of the films we saw at this impressionable age were made by intelligent and conscientious filmmakers. Jack Arnold was perhaps foremost among them. Though he spent most of his later career making nondescript TV episodes, he had a period between 1953 and 1957 when he made several of the most memorable of these kinds of movies, beginning with “It Came From Outer Space,” and ending with one of his best and least known, “The Space Children.” His recognized classics include “The Incredible Shrinking Man” and the first two gill-man films. (He also did reshoots on another of my favorites, “This Island Earth.” He later showed a comic touch with another late 50s classic, “The Mouse That Roared.” )

Richard Carlson played a scientist in Arnold’s “It Came From Outer Space” and “Creature From the Black Lagoon,” and in other films and TV shows of the era as well, like Science Fiction Theatre (Arnold also directed a few episodes.) We also knew him from the TV show, “I Led Three Lives.” He added an air of intelligence and conscience. And he got the Girl. Apparently kind of a jerk on the set, he was a role model on screen.

The DVD commentaries are uneven. Film historian Paul Jensen does one alone for “Black Lagoon,” and its full of information, much of it interesting. There’s a lot less of substance in the other two. But you get a sense of how the films were made, and who did what (different men playing the Creature in the water and out of it; aquatic dancer Ginger Stanley is actually the woman we see in the underwater scenes for Julie Adams). The very effective musical score was the work of several composers, including Henry Mancini. Much of the music was original, but some recycled from other films, including westerns.

Jensen quotes Jack Arnold as commenting that he had polemical intentions to say something about human progress in accepting differences, but that he had to mask it for entertainment purposes, and also so it wouldn’t be “under investigation by the House UnAmerican Activities Committee,” which suggests another aspect of the era, and why a lot of commentary and point of view was given symbolic expression in the 50s and 60s. Forced to express meaning through monster B-movies, moviemakers like Arnold wound up making enduring myths.

This wasn’t lost on others involved either. I think it was Julie Adams who said somewhere on these DVDs that “in the real classics there’s always that compassion for the monsters. I think it says something about ourselves—maybe the darker part of ourselves that longs to be loved and thinks they really never can be loved---it strikes a chord in us. That’s what Creature From the Black Lagoon did.”

Another major message from these films came at the end of the third one. Commenting on human overreaction to the Creature, one scientist says, “We’re not so far from the jungle after all.” Rex Reason, playing the good scientist hero (as he did in other 50s s/f) responds, “We’re not so far from the stars, either. The way we go depends upon what we’re willing to understand about ourselves.”

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