'Black Lagoon': The First, Great Pretty-Girl-Attacked-by-Aquatic-Beast Film?

Chatting with Julie Adams, the star who helped set the formula followed by the new 'Piranha 3DD.'

Chatting with Julie Adams, the star who helped set the formula followed by the new Piranha 3DD.

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From piranhas and sharks to brain-eating crabs and giant leeches, Hollywood has provided some frightening and improbable reasons over the years for why pretty girls in bikinis should stay out of the water. Long before this week's Piranha 3DD or even classics like Jaws, however, it was the lustful Gill Man from 1954's Creature From the Black Lagoon who first made young women think twice about going swimming.

A beauty-and-the-beast tale of an aquatic humanoid who falls for a female scientist during a research expedition to the Amazon, Creature helped inspire the 3D science fiction craze of the 1950s. It also made its young star, Julie Adams, sci-fi's first pin-up girl—and launched her distinguished career in film, TV, and on stage.

Still vibrant and active at age 85, Adams remains a popular draw at sci-fi and classic film conventions, where she's currently promoting her lively new autobiography, The Lucky Southern Star: Reflections From the Black Lagoon, which she cowrote with her son, Emmy Award winning editor Mitch Danton.

Over her lengthy and colorful career, Ms. Adams has seduced Elvis Presley and Dennis Hopper on screen, played John Wayne's wife, tussled in a burning basement with Barbara Stanwyck, and played the love interest to James Stewart, Rock Hudson, and Charlton Heston. She's been directed by Anthony Mann and Raoul Walsh—and more recently has appeared in projects like Oliver Stone's World Trade Center and TV shows like CSI and Lost.

Yet Adams still remains best known for her role as Kay Lawrence, the sultry brunette in a plunging one-piece pined over by the Gill Man in Creature.

What was your initial reaction upon getting offered Creature?

[Laughs.] Well, I wasn't thrilled, you know, and I thought I could turn it down, but then I would go on suspension [from Universal Pictures] and wouldn't get paid ... and so I thought, well, the studio wants me to do it, what the hey, it might be fun. And it was!

What was director Jack Arnold like, and how did you two get along?

I got along great with Jack Arnold, and he was a wonderful director. He was very low key, he seemed almost casual—but it was very easy to work with him. Any suggestion he made always made sense.

Did you interact much with William Alland, the producer?

Not that much, because he was not on the set that much—but I liked him. He was always very nice to all of us.

Alland played the reporter in Citizen Kane, and he apparently attended a dinner party hosted by Orson Welles while they were shooting Kane. Welles's lover Dolores Del Rio was also there, and she brought along Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa. Figueroa had heard a legend as a child about an Amazon water creature, half-man and half-lizard. And the story went that there was an Amazon village that would bring a virgin to the creature once a year in order for the creature not to terrorize the village.

Poor virgin!

Right. So Alland went home later and wrote Figueroa's story down. And then about 12 years later the whole 3D craze started, and at that point he pulled out the story and started to make a movie of it.

That's a very interesting story—it fits in, in a wonderful, cuckoo way.

Did you create some sort of a back story for your character while you were playing her?

I had thought about her, of course, that she was a doctor. I had one scene that I loved—where I was an ichthyologist pointing in a lecture about ancient fish or something. I loved that crazy scene. [Laughs.]

One of the things I've noticed in a lot of the '50s sci-fi films is that the women got to play scientists—you weren't always just love interests. Your character has a very intelligent quality, and it's explained in the film that you were crucial to Richard Dennings' character—to his research. Did you like that?

I did like that. Because I was smart in school, I always made good grades—so it was kind of nice to play somebody who seemed to be bright, and knew what she was doing, knew what her job was and did it very well.

Creature really seems to be your film, because the camera is focusing on you most of the time, especially in your private moments. You and the Creature also have a kind of bond, you sense that he's there even before the other scientists do. Did you feel that it was your film when you were making it?

I don't know that I thought it was my film ... but I did feel that she [Kay Lawrence] had a kind of understanding of the human part of the Creature. A sense that this was not just some misstep of nature, that there was something poignant, there was something moving, there were human qualities within this Creature.

Was that something you got from reading the script, or that you thought of adding on your own—or that the director suggested to you?

I think that was in reading the script and seeing where it was going. I felt that she had, perhaps, women's intuition—a sense that there was something more to this Creature than simply that it was a monstrous being.

That seems to be a big point that sci-fi films of that era were making, that science can only go so far. Frequently in the big '50s sci-fi films where there's some kind of a threat—a creature or some kind of alien—women's intuition is very powerful in understanding these things where science can't.

That's interesting, I hadn't thought of that.

By the way, the underwater ballet is beautiful—just a great sequence.

Everybody loves that!

I've got to ask you about the swimsuit—it's very famous. [Julie laughs.] Did you have any input in that?

I wouldn't say so, no. I think Rosemary O'Dell in wardrobe designed it and fitted it. It's a great bathing suit. [Laughs.] Everybody has said that for years and years now.

Today it looks very tame, but back then it was considered a little scandalous?

A little racy, a little high on the leg.

You did this sexy color photoshoot with the Creature for Life magazine that was supposed to be on the cover—until the first hydrogen bomb test knocked it back to page 50. The Universal publicists also made up a story that you had "the most symmetrical legs in the world," and that they were insured by Lloyds of London. Did you know all this was going on while you were filming?

I did hear something about all this. During Bend in the River something was said about [my legs being insured] and Jimmy Stewart said, "Well, I think those people in publicity—they all smoke something, you know, and dream stuff up." [Laughs.] So since then I've ascribed a lot of things to that theory of Jimmy Stewart's!

It shows the great rationalism of the '50s, the idea that you could scientifically evaluate a pair of legs as being the most symmetrical—and that this would be a great selling point for the public when seeing a movie! It's a charming bit of ...

... of goofiness. [Laughs.]

Creature seems different from the big sci-fi features of that era, because it has this sexy, romantic quality to it. For example, in The Seven Year Itch Marilyn Monroe is walking out of a screening of Creature right as her dress is blown up over the subway grate. How was Creature thought of back then? Was it considered racier than we think of it now?

Well, I don't really know. I always had a way of doing a picture and then going, "OK, what am I doing next?" It was all sort of amusing when people would say, "Oh, they said that in Seven Year Itch," and I'd say, "Oh, that's interesting!"

Wasn't Marilyn saying, "Oh, that poor Creature, he just wants to be loved."

Yes, that's a very Marilyn Monroe kind of comment. [Laughs.]

It is. When you were shooting, did you feel that sympathy for the Creature?

Well, I think one reason that the picture has survived is because there is an empathy for the Creature. It's not a horror thing, like a monster ... I think people feel for him. You know, the fact that we have invaded his territory. He didn't come out and break into houses like Frankenstein—so we were the interlopers, really. And so I think that's one of the reasons ... because otherwise it would just be a scary horror story.

And the Creature was also a relative of humanity.

Yes, I'm not quite sure where it all came from—whether it was in the original story or in the screenplay, or whether it evolved in who played the Creature, and also in the design of the suit. It was not a horrifying face, it had this human aspect to it.

Do you think the Creature represented the submerged desires of the '50s, submerged passions bubbling up from below?

That's right! And that's the Creature—a species from millions of years ago, perhaps, but something that managed to survive. So, it's got all those elements in there that people have come to love. And still do. It's amazing, really.

You must be very proud of your contributions to the film. How do you look back on it within the context of your career?

I look back on it with great affection—including everybody from [makeup artist] Bud Westmore and Jack Arnold, to everyone else who did the picture. Richard Carlson and Richard Denning were both lovely actors and charming men, and Ben Chapman became a great pal, and Ricou [Browning], as well. I enjoyed doing the role, and I think there's a sweetness that saves the movie from being just a horror picture—and it has to do so much with the Creature, that we have an empathy for him. So I look back on it with affection, one of the things in the work that I did at Universal. Got to work with Jimmy Stewart, Rock Hudson, and the Creature!

It's an incredible array of leading men, the full spectrum: from very civilized, very genteel leading men, to a more elemental ...

... very watery one. [Laughs.]

By the way, have you seen Jaws?

I did see Jaws.

What did you think?

The scene where something touches her—right at the opening of the film—I thought that was definitely related [to Creature], was a first cousin. That sequence, I think it's kind of a tribute to our film—that they liked it and thought it worked so well.

Which must amaze you. I just can't imagine doing the film back in 1954 and still talking about it today.

It amazes me all the time! I mean, if anybody had told me when we made it, "Fifty-some years later you'll be answering questions about this movie," I'd have said: "Are you out of your mind?" [Laughs.]