10 Facts About Creature From the Black Lagoon
By Mark Mancini
The black-and-white horror film about a half-man, half-amphibian first swam into theaters in 1954. Today, the 3D film is widely considered one of the greatest monster pictures ever made.
1. The Movie’s Concept Was Conceived at a Citizen Kane Dinner Party.
One night during filming of Citizen Kane, Orson Welles invited one of the movie's actors, William Alland, over for dinner along with a cinematographer named Gabriel Figueroa. While there, Figueroa shared a story he had heard during his travels of a race of amphibious beasts—half man, half reptile—that stalked the Amazon River. More than a decade later, still intrigued by the concept, Alland dramatized it by producing Creature from the Black Lagoon.
2. The Creature Was Modeled After the Academy Award.
Universal managed to snag an up-and-coming filmmaker with a prestigious resume to direct the film: In 1951, Jack Arnold’s documentary With These Hands had received an Academy Award nomination. Though he didn’t get the Oscar, Arnold kept the souvenir certificate that the Academy always mailed to its nominees. The little card would go on to become an unexpected source of inspiration behind the scenes of Creature from the Black Lagoon.
As Arnold told Cinefantastique magazine in 1975, “There was a picture of the Oscar statuette on it. I said, ‘If we put a gilled head on [the figurine], plus fins and scales, that would look pretty much like the kind of creature we’re trying to get.’ So they made a mold out of rubber, and gradually the costume took shape.” At first, the creature had what leading lady Julie Adams (credited as Julia Adams) described as an “eel-like” physique. Slick and streamlined, the outfit didn’t come with much in the way of fins, ridges, or body armor. These were later enhanced to give the monster a more menacing appearance.
3. Part of the Film Was Shot on Location in Florida’s Panhandle.
Observant viewers may have noticed that the film's Amazon looks a lot like parts of the greater Tallahassee, Florida area. Though Creature from the Black Lagoon was mainly filmed in Hollywood, several river and underwater sequences were shot at Wakulla Springs State Park.
4. A Former Frankenstein Actor Turned Down the Main Role.
When Boris Karloff retired from playing Mary Shelley’s reanimated monster, Glenn Strange took over. From 1944 to 1948, Strange terrified audiences in Universal’s House of Frankenstein, House of Dracula, and Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein. Years later, the studio tapped him to play their web-footed “Gillman” in Creature from the Black Lagoon, but because swimming wasn’t his forte, Strange declined the part.
5. The Gillman’s Designer Didn’t Get Her Due Credit.
Millicent Patrick’s huge contributions to the horror genre have been largely forgotten, even by die-hard fans. Her talents were numerous: Patrick acted in 21 films, drew concept art for countless others, performed as a concert pianist, and became the first female animator that Disney ever hired. Before Creature from the Black Lagoon, she’d sketched various monster body parts for Universal. The Gillman gave her an opportunity to really shine, as Patrick was responsible for designing every inch of the creature’s body.
As part of the film's ad campaign, Patrick posed with Gillman masks and sketches for some publicity shots. But makeup artist George Hamilton “Bud” Westmore, didn't want to be upstaged. He falsely claimed that he was the beast’s sole designer and made sure that Patrick’s name stayed out of the opening credits.
6. Two Slightly Different Suits Were Built.
During the pre-production stage, Florida native Ricou Browning was asked to show the filmmakers around Wakulla Springs. At the site, he also agreed to swim about for some underwater test shots. A few weeks later, the young man received a fateful phone call. As Browning reveals on the DVD documentary Back to the Black Lagoon, Jack Arnold said, “We like the way you swam. How would you like to be the creature from the Black Lagoon?”
Browning said “yes,” but soon learned that portraying the monster would be a two-man job: While the Floridian did all of the Gillman’s underwater scenes, Ben Chapman played him on dry land. This presented a few technical challenges: While Browning stood just under six feet in height, Chapman was an imposing 6’ 4”. Clearly, they couldn’t share a costume. So full-body molds of both actors were made, which formed the lowest layer of each man’s creature suit. Due to the height disparity, there are a few subtle differences between the outfits (Chapman’s, for example, came with an extra chest plate).
7. Restricted Eyesight Became a Big Challenge for the Creature Performers.
“Vision was the hardest part,” Browning said of his experience playing the Gillman. “I didn’t wear any goggles or [a] facemask and the eye of the suit sat about an inch from my eye ... it’s kind of like looking through a keyhole with blurred vision, so it was difficult seeing.”
Chapman, too, suffered from eyehole problems. Near the finale, the creature carries a passed-out Kay Lawrence (played by Adams) through his cave. Since Chapman’s peripheral vision was limited, he accidentally slammed Adams’ head right into an artificial rock. “I was of course being carried with my eyes closed and, all of a sudden, I had a bump on my head,” Adams recalled. Luckily, she was unhurt and shooting resumed a few hours later.
8. Studio Execs Demanded that the Striking “Creature Theme” Be Replayed Ad Nauseam.
Film scholar David Schecter estimates that the tune gets repeated around 130 times (listen for it at 0:35 in the clip above). As Schecter notes in Back to the Black Lagoon, the movie’s three composers—Henry Mancini, Herman Stein, and Hans J. Salter—were “told from on high ... ‘We want to hear the creature theme every time.’ So they no doubt grumbled a little and they did their job and their job was to incorporate this very intrusive theme.” Viewers won’t find a single Gillman sequence in which they don't hear that refrain.
9. Its 1955 Sequel Was Clint Eastwood’s First Movie.
Pleased by the box office success of the original film, Universal rushed a sequel production. Revenge of the Creature premiered in Denver on March 23, 1955. At one point, audiences got to see future star Clint Eastwood portraying a lab assistant. Though his appearance was uncredited, it hardly went unnoticed when the cast of Mystery Science Theater 3000 riffed Revenge of the Creature in a 1997 episode:
For Revenge of the Creature, Arnold resumed directing duties and he didn’t care for the young Eastwood's bit, telling Alland, “I told you I don’t want to do that goddamn scene!” Eventually, he relented and the footage stayed in. Eastwood never forgot the experience. As he told The Telegraph, “It was a hell of a way to start your acting career: walk on a set and you know that the director hates the scene. Therefore you know he hates you.”
10. The Gillman Enjoyed a Quick Appearance on The Munsters.
During the first season episode “Love Comes to Mockingbird Heights,” television’s spookiest family received a crate filled with their Uncle Gilbert’s rare doubloons. In the final scene, Gilbert shows up and is revealed to be none other than the creature from the Black Lagoon (as played by Richard Hale, who dons both a Gillman mask and a three-piece business suit).