Friday, June 30, 2006

Born June 30: Lena Horne, Czeslaw Milosz (Polish/American writer), Florence Ballard (of the Supremes.) Posted by Picasa

Gandhi Posted by Picasa

This Day in Boomer History

1914- Gandhi's first civil disobedience arrest, advocating Indian rights in South Africa.

1946-Operation Crossroads, first postwar U.S. atom bomb test, begins in South Pacific.

1948- Southpaw Bob Feller pitches a no-hitter.

1951- NAACP begins attack on segregation and racial discrimination

1960- Congo becomes independent from Belguim

1962- Rwanda and Burundi become independent.
Southpaw Sandy Koufax pitches no-hitter.

1966- Beatles begin tour of Japan.

1971- Ohio becomes 38th state to ratify 26th amendment, thus lowering
U.S. voting age to 18.

Also born June 30: Olympic champion and Native American activist, Billy Mills; Susan Hayward and bassist Stanley Clarke. Posted by Picasa

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Publicity still with Julie Adams from
Creature From the Black Lagoon Posted by Picasa

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.

Lori Nelson in Revenge of the Creature Posted by Picasa
As young boys we were also dealing with our aggressive energies and the feelings that often ran counter to them, including empathy. These were tested by relationships with girls (though we typically had as little as possible to do with real girls) and with animals, which were often more a part of our lives. These films gave us several points of view on both.

Though the female leads were beautiful and screamed a lot, they were also often scientists themselves, and their relationships with the men around them were part of the story (especially in the last film.) And issues of humans v. nature (and what later gets called environmentalism), cruelty to animals and what separates humans from animals were all explored. The fright effects heightened emotional attention, and we were exploring other feelings, too. We learned behaviors and their consequences, in these vicarious experiences, and through identifying with characters (including the gill-man.)

These Creature films were science fiction in a very specific sense: the stories featured scientists, sometimes as heroes and sometimes as villains, and the pressures on them from various quarters were part of the drama. The stories were basically variations on King Kong (and its variation on Beauty and the Beast), but instead of Kong being captured for show business, the Creature was captured for science, including experimentation.

The role of scientist is one aspect that ties these films to others in the 1950s “bug-eyed monster” explosion, all very much inspired and commenting upon the atomic age. Though not directly related to the nuclear bomb theme of so many 50s monsters—he wasn’t created by radiation or unearthed by an atomic bomb or an invader from space—the Gill-Man was certainly part of the mood. (How could he not be? In the DVD docu, a theatre marquee for Creature From the Black Lagoon also announces “First Pictures of a Hydrogen Bomb Explosion!”)

All monster movies touched upon the Cold War theme of the Other—demonizing the different, the balance of real danger and imagined danger, of justifiable fear and manufactured panic. Also, most 50s monsters were versions of creatures in nature, and touched upon the sense of human’s twisting and violating nature by inventing and exploding the Bomb, which uses a secret potential of a natural force. Scientists were made more prominent by the Bomb, and the public saw them sometimes as admirable, and sometimes as violators of the natural order for daring to undercover these secrets. There was a sense that through them humans had taken on more power than humanity was equipped to deal with, and perhaps was ever meant to have.

poster for Revenge of the Creature Posted by Picasa
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.”