Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Favorite Scenes :: When Visiting Scenic Wakulla Springs, Be Wary of the Living Fossils :: The Underwater Combat of Jack Arnold's Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

Mark Williams is one of those guys. One of those necessary guys who form the Never-Had-A-Chance corner of a lopsided love-triangle; one of those schmucks who were around to make the hero seem more heroic; and one of those assholes, if you think about it, prove to have had the right idea all along. Like Harry Cooper, another asshole, who wanted to spend the Night of the Living Dead (1968) in the basement, but the hero wouldn’t listen to him and wound up getting everyone killed, Williams (Denning) also seemed to have the right idea when he’s ready to pull up anchor and head home once the non-fossilized Gill-Man has been drugged and captured in Jack Arnold’s Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). 

But at fellow ichthyologist and designated hero David Reed’s (Carlson) insistence, Williams is outvoted and they remain to do a full study of the lagoon, allowing the Creature time to escape, severely injuring Dr. Thompson (Bissel) in the process, and murdering the rest of what little is left of El Kapitan Lucas’ (Paiva) crew. Now empty handed, the survivors decide to escape while they can, only the Creature won’t let them, blocking the way out of the lagoon, setting up a nasty showdown between man and man-fish, with Williams ultimately meeting the same fate that befalls most cinematic assholes when they try to redeem themselves and do the right thing: 

If you follow highway 61 south out of Tallahassee, Florida, you’ll come across Wakulla Springs; a large body of fresh water connected to the Florida aquifer through a series of large, interconnecting underwater caverns. And on top of the crystal clarity of the water, over the years the caverns have also yielded a ton of fossils, mostly mastodons and other ice age era mammals.

Then, in the 1930s, after a series of Grantland Rice newsreels and featurettes featuring Newt Perry and his fellow aquanauts showing off underwater at Wakulla and Silver Springs, Hollywood soon came calling, hoping to take advantage of that clarity for several features, including a couple of Johnny Weissmuller’s Tarzan movies -- and even saw the birth of the Wilhelm Scream in Distant Drums (1951). And then, when Universal came calling in 1953, scouting locations for an upcoming feature, as the cinematic legend goes, local entrepreneur Perry suggested one of his assistants show them around; a slim kid with a lazy smile, who could also swim like a fish, by the name of Ricou Browning. 

Back when producer William Alland was a member of Orson Welles' Mercury Theater, he had heard famed Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa spin a yarn about a humanoid creature that supposedly lived in the depths of the Amazon jungle in South America. And that legend became the origin of what was to become Creature from the Black Lagoon. Browning, meanwhile, was a lifeguard at Wakulla Spring when Perry asked him to show the Universal people around. He had starred in several of those aforementioned newsreels and served as an aquabat in Perry’s famous mermaid attraction at Weeki Wachee Springs. Once at the location, the scouts asked Browning if he could swim around the water for some test footage. And that seemed to be that until director Jack Arnold called two weeks later, told Browning he liked the way he swam in the tests, and asked if he would like to play an underwater monster for them. Browning’s answer? “Okey-dokey."

Browning, of course, did all of his work in Florida, while Ben Chapman played the Creature on land back on the Universal back-lot. And for all those underwater combat scenes, stunt divers Stan Crews subbed in for Richard Carlson and Jack Betz donned the aqualung for the doomed Richard Denning. The footage they got was ah-mazing. I just love the shot where Williams almost gets away, swimming out of the plume of silt and vegetation, just not quite fast enough. And for the cinematic record, you know that seminal underwater ballet as the Creature silently stalks Kay Lawrence as she swims along the surface of the lagoon? The vast majority of that was not Julie Adams but Ginger Stanley.

When it came time to do the sequel, Revenge of the Creature (1955), strangely enough Browning wasn’t the first choice to return as the Gill-Man for the underwater scenes; but when the new guy failed to pass muster, he was quickly peeled out of the suit and Browning was back in. And after playing the Creature one last time in The Creature Walks Among Us (1956), Browning stayed in the business, parlaying his experience into several assistant directing gigs and underwater cinematographer, mostly for Ivan Tors, but he also helped shoot one of my all-time favorite Final Big Battles in the James Bond franchise for Thunderball (1965), and then found a niche in small screen sea adventures, Sea Hunt and Flipper. But to me, with all reverence to Ben Chapman, Tom Hennesy, and Don Megowan, Ricou will always and forever be my favorite Creature. 

Other Points of Interest:

Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) Universal International / P: William Alland / D: Jack Arnold / W: Harry Essex, Arthur A. Ross / C: William E. Snyder / E: Ted J. Kent / M: Joseph Gershenson, Henry Mancini, Hans J. Salter, Herman Stein / S: Richard Carlson, Julie Adams, Richard Denning, Antonio Moreno, Whit Bissell, Nestor Paiva

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