"It plays on the basic fear that people have about what might be lurking below the surface of any body of water. You know the feeling when you are swimming and something brushes your legs down there. It scares the hell out of you, if you don't know what it is. the fear of the unknown. I decided to exploit this fear as much as possible."
-Jack Arnold, director of The Creature from the Black Lagoon
Although it sounds strange, the actual genesis of The Creature from the Black Lagoon occurred during the filming of Citizen Kane. In 1941, producer William Alland attended a dinner party during the filming of Citizen Kane. Alland had a role in the Orson Welles classic as a reporter named Thompson. At the dinner party, Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa told Alland about the myth of a race of half-human, half-fish creatures who live in the Amazon River.
Eleven years later, in 1952, Alland recalled the conversation of a decade previous and wrote a story called "The Sea Monster." His memory was jogged and he recalled the 1941 incident, but he also said he was influenced by the story of "Beauty and the Beast." In December of '52, Maurice Zimm expanded the story into a treatment. Finally, Harry Essex and Arthur Ross rewrote this treatment and called it "The Black Lagoon."
Vincent Price had starred in Hollywood's first 3D film House of Wax in 1953. House of Wax was a smash at the box office and the 3D fad was at its peak. Everybody from the Three Stooges to Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis were quickly churning out films in 3D.
Jack Arnold was chosen to direct the The Creature from the Black Lagoon in 3D, hoping that by releasing the releasing it ASAP, they would cash in on the new movie craze. The Creature from the Black Lagoon was filmed in 3D, originally projected by the polarized light method. Audience members in the 1950s wore viewers with gray polarized filters, much like the viewers movie-goers use today in watching 3D films.
Unfortunately for The Creature from the Black Lagoon, the 3D craze in the '50s (like today, as 3D action films are losing popularity) was very short-lived. Because the fad was quickly fizzling out, The Creature from the Black Lagoon was shown nationally in both 3D and flat (in 2D). As a rule, it was shown in the larger, downtown theaters in 3D and flat in the smaller local movie houses.
The Creature from the Black Lagoon is unique too, among the classic monster films. Unlike Lon Chaney's The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1925), Bela Lugosi's Dracula (1931), or Boris Karloff's Frankenstein (1931), The Creature from the Black Lagoon was actually played by two different actors. Ben Chapman played the Gill-man (as close as the creature ever got to a proper name) on land and Ricou Browning, a professional diver and swimmer, took over the role underwater. The two Gill-man suits were slightly different colored, Chapman's land Gill-man suit being slightly darker.
The original Gill-man suit was actually designed by Disney animator Millicent Patrick. In a classic example of the sexism of the times, make-up man Bud Westmore downplayed Millicent's role in the iconic suit's design, incorrectly claiming (and getting) full credit for over a half-century. Jack Kevan, who worked on The Wizard of Oz (1939) and created prosthetics for amputees during World War II, created the body suit. Chris Mueller, Jr. created the famous Gill-man fish head.
The Gill-man's head was based on old 17th-century woodcuts of two bizarre creatures called the Sea Monk and the Sea Bishop. The original head, designed and discarded, was based on the Sea Bishop, the final Gill-man head, used in the film, was based on the Sea Monk.
Ben Chapman had to wear the uncomfortable and extremely hot Gill-man suit for 14 hours at a stretch during the films's production. Most of Chapman's on-land scenes were filmed at Universal City, California. His on-the-water swimming scenes were shot on location in Rice Creek, near Salatka Lake, Florida. Because Chapman was so hot in his suit and because of the fact that the constricting outfit made it impossible for him to sit down, Chapman would often sit in the lake to make things easier. Also, when he needed cooling off, he would often ask the crew to hose him down.
Perhaps worst of all were the eyes in the Gill-man suit. They were basically two fairly narrow, inflexible holes in the rubber suit and were designed very poorly, leaving the actor little or no room to actually see. In the scene where Chapman (as the Gill-man) carries his lady love (played by Julie Adams) into a cave, Adams is supposedly unconscious in his arms. It is an urban legend that Chapman, who could barely see, banged Adams' head against a cave wall, causing real unconsciousness to result. Adams denies this and says that while she was not actually knocked out, Chapman did accidentally scrape her head against the plaster cave wall. Adams, being both a trouper and a pro, stayed in character and feigned unconsciousness until the scene was filmed.
Ricou Browning's underwater scenes were filmed in Wakull springs, Florida. Ricou's outfit was designed without an air tank, thus, he was required to hold his breath for several minutes at a time for his underwater Gill-man scenes.
During one day's filming, poor Ricou was stuck underwater when he realized "nature was calling." He quickly swam to the surface to get out of his outfit as quickly as possible and find a place to relieve himself. When he swam out of the water to make his emergency bathroom visit, he arose, in full costume, next to a mother and daughter who just happened to be enjoying a peaceful day on the shore. Seeing the Gill-man arise from the water, they fled in terror. (Ricou recalled, "They took off, that's the last I saw of 'em.")
One would imagine the beautiful Julie Adams would have been scared, or at least "creeped out" by playing the unrequited female object of affection of the hideous-looking Gill-man. On the contrary, Julie always felt only sympathy for her pursuer. She felt the audience (perhaps secretly) had this emotion for the Gill-man too. She recalled: "There always is that feeling of compassion for the monster. I think maybe he touches something in ourselves, maybe the darker parts of ourselves, that long to be loved and think they really can't ever be loved. It strikes a chord within us."
Julie performed all her own stunts in the film. Long periods in the frigid water was one of the most challenging parts of filming for her. A water tank was also often used, which, fortunately, was usually heated. However, Julie held icy memories of one particularly chilly day, when the crew accidentally forgot to heat the tank and she was forced to shoot her scenes in freezing cold water.
The Gill-man suit, as cumbersome, hot and uncomfortable as it was, may actually have saved Ben Chapman's life, or at least prevented him from sustaining a very serious injury. In one scene, the Gill-man (Chapman) encounters Zee (played by Bernie Gozier) on the shore, where Zee, wielding a machete, swings it at the Gill-man, only to have the Gill-man stop it with his hand. This rather complex and potentially dangerous scene was rehearsed over and over by Chapman and Gozier.
However, while filming the scene, Gozier swung and accidentally missed with the machete, swinging it right into Chapman's head. The only things saving Chapman from a very serious injury were the thick, rubber padding of the Gill-man's suit, plus the fact that the machete was fairly dull and not particularly sharp.
The Creature from the Black Lagoon premiered on February 5, 1954 and was released regionally across the country on March 5, 1954. Filmed on a shoe-string budget, the film collected almost $1.5 million dollars at the box office (a huge figure for a low-budget film the mid-'50s) and garnered mainly positive reviews.
The film's great popularity spawned two sequels, Revenge of the Creature (the only 3D film released in 1955 and the only 3D sequel to a 3D film made in "the golden age of 3D") and The Creature Walks Among Us (1956). The 1955 movie Revenge of the Creature also holds a important place in movie history- keep a close eye out and you'll glimpse 25-year-old Clint Eastwood making his motion picture debut in a brief role as a lab technician (un-credited yet).
Julie Adams would complain (and sometimes laugh) in her later years when recalling her most famous role. Like Fay Wray of 1933's King Kong, Julie knew that no matter how well she acted or what roles she got, she would always be "Julie Adams of The Creature from the Black Lagoon fame."
Bonus trivia: Famed director Ingmar Bergman would watch The Creature from the Black Lagoon every year on his birthday.