When Julie Adams passed away a few weeks ago I struggled mightily as I tried to put into words what her iconic role and screen presence meant in Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954), and what it meant not only to me but to the whole congregation of my beloved B-Movie brethren out there. And then I realized what I wanted to say, and tried to write, had already been said, and written, and said and written much better than I ever could, by Drive-In movie guru, Joe Bob Briggs, in an essay he wrote on the film for his book, Profoundly Disturbing: Shocking Movies that Changed History (2003).
“Because Creature from the Black Lagoon was only 79-minutes long,” said Briggs, “the perfect length for TV syndication, it was a staple of late-night horror shows and afternoon ‘creature features’ well into the 1980s, and it was just all-American enough to escape the attention of the concerned moms who probably couldn’t figure out why their sons were so obsessed with it.
“What was the main attraction? Was it the Gill Man, the king of all rubber-suit monsters, who survives from the Devonian Age in an Amazon lagoon and preys on a ship full of scientific invaders? Or was it Julia Adams, the only female in the movie, whose curvy, leggy body and perky breasts are poured into a white, French-cut, crotch-enhancing swimsuit as she plunges into the lagoon, Esther Williams-style, and performs her seductive underwater dance
“It was both, of course. The one sequence that sticks in the mind long after the details of the film are forgotten shows the gill-faced creature swimming below the back-stroking fantasy woman, studying her, following her, yet never approaching as she performs her underwater spins and turns. The monster may or may not be falling in love -- the movie is short on exposition in this department -- but the fourteen year old boys in the audience definitely are.
"It doesn’t take a master psychologist to see how a prepubescent boy, struggling with feelings of being ugly, unloved, and half-formed, would not only identify with the creature (who has acne like protuberances on his face) but imagine a girl just like Julia Adams, who would finally come to rescue him from the lonely black lagoon called his room.
“This masterfully directed underwater sequence would later be copied by Steven Spielberg, almost shot for shot, in the opening sequence of JAWS (1975) -- but in that case the creature obviously has lunch, not love, on his mind. The beautiful thing about the original is that we somehow sense, in spite of the ominous music, that the girl is safe and in fact belongs here instead of in the arms of the man she thinks she loves."
I freely admit Julia Adams was one of my first cine-crushes. And this infatuation began with just photos in books and monster mags, as I didn’t get to even see the movie until VHS tapes became a thing in the 1980s when I was, you guessed it, 14, where this notion really cemented itself. When I had my brainstorm as I struggled to memorialize her passing, I re-read the essay (-- the whole book actually, which is wonderful, as is the author’s follow up book, Profoundly Erotic: Sexy Movies that Changed History), and then reached out to Briggs on Twitter and he responded most kindly:
Born in Waterloo, Iowa, as Betty May Adams, her family moved around a great deal when she was young. Her father was a cotton broker, and Betty May spent most of her school years in Blytheville, Arkansas.
And after a brief career as a secretary, at the age of 19, Adams was crowned “Miss Little Rock” and rode that sash and tiara to Hollywood to pursue an acting career.
She made her big screen debut with a bit-part in the barn-burning musical, Red, Hot and Blue (1949). And then, after starring in a string of poverty row westerns for Robert L. Lippert (-- six different films shot in five weeks), Adams got signed by Universal-International, who changed her name to Julia Adams (-- though she always preferred Julie), and she bounced around mostly between B-pictures and a few A-westerns, co-starring alongside Jimmy Stewart in Bend of the River (1952) and Rock Hudson in The Lawless Breed (1953).
In the 1960s, after a brief retirement to raise her family, Adams starred opposite Elvis Presley in Tickle Me (1965), but spent most of the decade, and the rest of her career, really, taking roles on the small screen; most notably the infamous episode of Perry Mason, The Case of the Deadly Verdict, where her character was found guilty, marking the only time one of Mason’s clients was convicted in the show’s original nine year run. And speaking of mysteries, Adams would also have a recurring guest role on the TV series, Murder, She Wrote.
But as Adams herself put it, “No matter what you do, you can act your heart out, but people will always say, ‘Oh, Julie Adams -- Creature from the Black Lagoon.’" Adams really didn’t want the part of Kay Lawrence, the object of desire for a triumvirate of co-stars -- Richard Carlson, Richard Denning, and the two guys in the Gill-Man suit, Ricou Browning and Ben Chapman. In her eyes, it was just another run ‘n’ gun B-picture. She even tried to turn it down, but the studio wouldn’t let her.
At least she would get to lose the western duds this time, and finally show off those legs Universal’s publicity department had been hyping up for years, claiming they were "the most perfectly symmetrical in the world" and had them insured for $125,000 by Lloyds of London. But I have no idea what her head was insured for, which got dinged pretty badly while filming, with the actress forced to do her own stunts due to the limited budget.
Aside from the minor head trauma, Adams noted the making of the film was an extremely pleasant process, and the cast and the crew, under the steady direction of Jack Arnold both above and below the surface, got along quite well. I don’t think she ever regretted making the film, tired of talking about it, maybe, but came to fully embrace it in her later years. And when asked why the film had so much impact and staying power, Adams thought compassion -- not pent up passion from the Devonian Age, is what drove the film. And how she always felt sympathetic toward the monster, saying, “I think maybe it touches something in ourselves, maybe the darker parts of ourselves, that longing to be loved and thinking they really can't ever be loved. It strikes a chord within us."
Which brings us back to the essay Brigg’s wrote about that iconic scene, which echo Adams’ sentiments, and what it underscored. Now hold on. I know, I know that you know, and I know, that you know that 90% of this scene where Kay goes for a swim wasn’t even Julie Adams in that swimsuit, observed from below by the Gill-Man, but her swimming double, Ginger Stanley, gracing the waters of Wakulla Springs in Florida while Julia never left the backlot in Hollywood, and those were Stanley's, less than symmetrical legs the Creature sheepishly paws at before he pulls a 360 and heads for his grotto.
Briggs was well aware of this, too, and even comments on this confusion. And he expands on this notion further when discussing the film’s climax: “What’s odd about the last scene is that there’s no moment in which we see what the monster’s intentions are. He doesn’t brush her hair away from her face or do anything except steal her, carry her, and dump her on a rock. In other words, we don’t know anymore about him than we did when he killed the guy in the camp in his first big scene. Then again, maybe a fourteen-year-old boy who suddenly had Julia Adams in his arms wouldn’t have known what to do either."
Here is where Briggs and I part ways as I don’t think there was anything sexual to this relationship with the creature (-- for that, we’d have to wait for 2017 and Guillermo del Toro’s consensual The Shape of Water). On the surface, sure. Her character is both beautiful and desirable and the end goal of a dick-fight between Carlson and Denning. But below the water I don’t think her iconic role is about being an ideal to be objectified, or possessed, or violated, but an idea. An idea that there is hope for us all to someday find love, compassion, sympathy, and understanding. And in that role, Julie Adams was a beacon that illuminated some very dark and lonely places and brought hundreds if not thousands into the light.
Julie (Julia) Adams