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Creature From the Black Lagoon (1954)

Poster - Creature From the Black Lagoon_03After becoming a fan last year of many of Universal Studio’s 1930s monster movies, I thought this year I would kick-start October with a slightly later entry into the Universal pantheon of monsters: the gill-man from Creature From the Black Lagoon. I must admit that my first thought was that it was a cross between King Kong and Jaws. There is the beauty and the beast aspect blended with the danger from an underwater creature (though unlike Jaws, this one can come out of the water and get you).

What was interesting was how it differed from the early 1930s horror films. In Frankenstein and Dracula or even The Mummy, there is an ethos of the supernatural and dealing with powers beyond the control of man and the message is often don’t mess with the things of God (like trying to create life). In Creature from the Black Lagoon, however, it is about evolution and the message is instead, don’t mess with Nature (which seems to hearken to later films like Jurassic Park: “Life finds a way.”).

One thing that does remain from the earlier ’30’s films is the pathos and longing of the monster. Like Frankenstein’s monster or even King Kong (admittedly an RKO monster rather than a Universal monster), they don’t quite understand what is happening to them, but simply long for something, whether it is a young lady or acceptance or kindness (or blood, if they’re a vampire). The trouble is that they are also destructive creatures who do not seem to be able to interact with civilization without causing death and chaos.

A scientist, Dr. Maia (Antonio Moreno), is working deep in the Amazon and discovers a fossilized hand of what looks like a kind of missing link, part human, part fish (it has webbing around the fingers). He returns to America and recruits a few other scientist: Ichthyologist David (Richard Carlson), his girlfriend and fellow ichthyologist Kay (Julie Adams), Mark (Richard Denning), the man who gets the funding and is ambitious for a big find, another doctor (Whit Bissell) and Lucas (Nestor Paiva), the captain of their ship who really seems to me to be the most sensible person around.

Richard Carlson and Julie Adams

Richard Carlson and Julie Adams

When they return to Dr. Maia’s camp on the Amazon, the two men he left there are found dead, but the expedition remains undeterred and eventually find their way to the Black Lagoon, where legend says a giant fish-man lives. And sure enough, they discover a giant fish-man, the modern day possessor of the fossilized hand. David wants to study it in its natural habitat, while Mark wants to capture it – dead or alive – and bring it back to civilization to earn plaudits and scientific glory and there is a lot of tension between the two men while Kay tries to mediate. But it is all taken out of their hands when the fish-man sees Kay and develops a King Kong-sized crush and soon it is no longer he who is the hunted, but the hunter. He puts logs and brush across the opening of the lagoon and traps the boat, slowly picking off members of the expedition while trying to steal Kay.

I have to mention the famous scene where Kay goes for a swim and the creature first sees her. The stunt-double swimmer for Julie Adams (Ginger Stanley) does a few Esther Williams-like moves while the creature is curious and swims beneath her and mirrors some of her moves, falling in love in a kind of aquatic dance (though he’s not quite so graceful). An amphibious stalker!

I was fairly impressed at how much tension the film is still able to generate. It is not a fast, action-filled film. There’s suspense, waiting for what the creature will do, who is fairly cunning. Also, because a surprising amount of the film takes place underwater – there are a number of underwater encounters between the men and creature –  there is an added tension because it is more difficult to maneuver or move as quickly as on land. It’s not as tense as Alien, but it stands in contrast to earlier, ’30’s horror films, which almost have a warm, cozy, eccentric and even nostalgic charm, like curling up with a good mystery or Gothic novel during the winter. Creature from the Black Lagoon is starting to look more like a modern film.

The gill-man - who was played by Ben Chapman on land and Ricou Browning when underwater - and Julie Adams

The gill-man – who was played by Ben Chapman on land and Ricou Browning when underwater – and Julie Adams

In early horror films, there tends to be no specific hero. There is the monster (Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the invisible man, the mummy) and a group of people (or even all of London, as in The Invisible Man) who are trying to stop the monster (who isn’t always truly a villain). In contrast, in the 1999 The Mummy, there is a hero who gets to be the one to stop the mummy, who is the official villain. Creature from the Black Lagoon also has a specific hero in David, while Mark plays the greedy guy who is willing to take stupid chances in order to capture the creature (think of The Company in Alien and especially Aliens – considering how dangerous those aliens were, it always seemed to me remarkably dense that The Company was so eager to bring those creatures back to earth). Mark represents the hubris of mankind, a different kind of hubris than Frankenstein. Dr. Frankenstein wanted to create like God. Mark wants to exploit nature for his own ends. It is definitely a more modern preoccupation.

Despite its inevitable differences, which reflect the changing era, Creature from the Black Lagoon is still recognizably a Universal horror creation. He’s not an impossibly huge, atom-bomb induced monster. He’s fairly normal-sized, just stronger and more powerful. And there is the poignancy, the yearning, but also the genuinely dangerous aspects. He’s not just some benign and misunderstood creature; he starts the film off with killing two men, completely unprovoked.

 
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Posted by on October 5, 2015 in Movies

 

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The Young in Heart (1938)

220px-Poster_-_Young_in_Heart,_The_01The Young in Heart is a delightful, though not well known, comedy about a family of sophisticated, charming con artists who are trying to con a wealthy, elderly lady by pretending to be far better people than they really are. The trouble is that with all the effort to appear good, they begin to find themselves becoming just who they pretend to be and it’s very embarrassing to each member of the family; they don’t want the others to know they are becoming soft-hearted.

It seems like such a shame that this film is not better known today. Part of the reason could be that the cast does not contain actors we are as familiar with now. The movie is about the Carleton family, who are attempting to con their way into a wealthy position: Colonel Anthony Carleton (Roland Young), who is called Sahib by his family, Mrs. Carleton (Billie Burke), who everyone calls Marmy, and their two children George-Anne (Janet Gaynor’), the youngest and the real brains of the family, and Richard Carleton (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr,), suave, but who has never worked a day in his life.

Of course, the Sahib is not really a sahib from India or a colonel or a Bengal Lancer, though he is always saying that he is. He just played the role in a play, many years ago, with his wife.

While arranging for Richard to marry an heiress so they can all sponge off of her, the Sahib cheats at cards and they are unmasked and told to leave the Riviera. They are destitute in a train station, where Sahib and Marmy fondly reminisce about the old days while their two children despondently contemplate the wreck of their plans: Richard to marry the heiress and George-Anne to marry a Scotsman without any money (since she was going to sponge of Richard’s wife, she didn’t need a rich husband).

Janet Gaynor, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Roland Young, Minnie Dupree, Billie Burke

Janet Gaynor, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Roland Young, Minnie Dupree, Billie Burke

The Sahib and Marmy are a very affectionate couple and seem to be crooks out of sheer eccentricity. Their children, however, are quite serious about their crookedness; they mean to have money. Fortunately, they encounter Miss Fortune (Minnie Dupree), a lonely, rich and very sweet old lady who is only too delighted to meet such an agreeable family and is so touched by their kind attention that she invites them to stay with her. Then George-Anne conceives a plan: they’re going to be as good as Miss Fortune thinks they are so that she’ll make them her heirs.

George-Anne even talks her father and Richard into pretending to look for jobs, although they really just go out and tour the city. But then Duncan Macrea (Richard Carlson), her former fiancé, comes to see George-Anne. He’s extremely annoyed about her whole family con artistry, but says he finds he can’t live without her. She tells him that he will have to and he, rather mischievously, knowing that her father is supposedly looking for work, gets Sahib a job as a salesman for the Flying Wombat, which is a car that looks like the kind of thing Batman should have driven.  George-Anne is obliged to make Sahib take the job so that Miss Fortune won’t know he wasn’t serious about his job hunting. He does so with much trepidation and discovers that he has a real knack for the business.

Janet Gaynor with puppy for Miss Fortune

Janet Gaynor with puppy for Miss Fortune

Richard also ends up with a job, sorting mail at an engineering company. His boss, Leslie Saunders (Paulette Goddard) is not impressed by his smooth lines, but is intrigued that he has never had a job before and is curious how he will turn out. She also lets him take her out to dinner after he gets his first paycheck and soon he thinks he’d rather like to study engineering.

There are two themes in the film: faith and love. Miss Fortune says “one must have faith in the people you love,” even though her lawyer warns her about the Carletons. Duncan, in his own way, has faith in George-Anne. He is always showing up on some errand or other and they always argue and he is always leaving “once and for all.” He drives her nuts by insisting that though her family are all crooks, she’s a good girl, while she keeps telling him to stop making her out to be better than she is and that she’s just as crooked as her family. Ironically, she’s right, but Duncan keeps on insisting and is eventually proved right. Even Leslie Saunders demonstrates faith in Richard when she gives him the job.

Of course, the reason people live up to the faith is because they love the person with the faith. The difficulty is just to get over their bad habits and crooked ways. At one point Richard asks if George-Anne is in love with Duncan and she replies, “How could I be in love with him? He hasn’t any money!” They are all touched by Miss Fortune’s utter faith and love for them, but won’t admit it to each other. When Richard buys her a dog, he says it’s part of the act. When George-Anne catches her father with a moist eye, he denies it has anything to do with being moved by Miss Fortune’s kindness.

It’s all very sweet and charming and the humor is rather droll. It is a comedy of crooks becoming good, quite accidentally, because of the people around them and their own efforts of deception.

The movie is on DVD and can also be seen on youtube.

 
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Posted by on November 10, 2014 in Uncategorized

 

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