Creature from the Black Lagoon, 1954. Directed by Jack Arnold. Richard Carlson, Julia Adams, Richard Denning, Nestor Paiva, Whit Bissell.
The moviegoing experience isn't just about the movies themselves. Or, at least, it didn't used to be. Between the dawn of television and the dawn of the video era, going to the movies was an event for most families. This was the era before multiplexes, the era of the roadshow edition, the era of the gimmick and the spectacle. Hollywood consciously tried to manufacture this aura of an "event" as a coutnermeasure to televisiion. Sometimes, the gimmick was all there was (William Castle was notorious for this). Sometimes, the movie was good in itself. It was the experience that mattered, though. All of this died out when home video came into the picture, which coincided with the demolition of the old-style movie palaces in favor of multiplexes.
Movies have always been a communal experience (with the exception of the lone movie fan screen movies on DVD in the darkness of his own home). Sometimes, the communal experience is satisfying out of all proportions to the quality of the movie itself. This explains in part the gargantuan success of certain films that many film fans think are unworthy. Gone With the Wind is certainly not the be all and end all that its success in the marketplace suggests, but it tapped into a specific zeitgeist that had nothing to do with its relative quality (or lack thereof). More recent examples include Titanic and The Passion of the Christ. If mere quality were enough to generate this kind of phenomenon, the top box-office draws of all time would be peppered with the films of Bergman, Ozu, and Welles.
So keep all of this in mind when I state, unequivocally, that seeing Creature from the Black Lagoon on the big screen, in 3-D, with an audience of 1100 strangers was one of the best filmgoing experiences of my life. Creature has never been in my own personal pantheon of greats. There are at least a dozen films from the era I like more (including two of Jack Arnold's other films). But none of that really mattered on this particular April evening. Spring was in the air. It was a fine, fine night to go out to the movies.
This particular showing was sponsored by the Ragtag film society and cinema cafe and the Missouri Symphony Society. This is the latest in their continuing series at the Missouri Theater, a crumbling movie palace that the Symphony society took over in the late 1980s. This is the natural habitat of movies as an "event," complete with a balcony, a huge velvet curtain in front of the screen, and a live band to warm up the audience. It was a particularly diverse audience, too, young and old, gay and straight, democrat and republican. As I surveyed the audience and eavesdropped on conversations, it occurred to me that this is a sort of experience that unites people more thoroughly than many social constructs (religion, politics, etc) that are designed for that very purpose. If I have a complaint about this particular audience, it was the number of idiots weened on Mystery Science Theater who felt the need to comment during the first part of the film. These clueless, witless people don't seem to understand that a: they aren't at home and b: the MST3K treatment was invented for bad movies, which The Creature (whatever its faults) is NOT. But even these people shut up after a while. The movie won them over.
The movie itself holds up better than I remembered. I'm not a fan of Jack Arnold, though many fans of fifties-era creature features have made him into an auteur of sorts. I've always believed that his best films were dominated by their writers rather than by Arnold himself. This viewing of The Creature, though, convinced me that Arnold had more on the ball than mere "competence." Blame this on the 3-D process. I've seen one of Arnold's other films in 3-D (It Came from Outer Space), and while The Creature reuses a number of 3-D tropes found in that film, it also provides a better view of Arnold's directing methods. One of the things that stands out in stark contrast to my previous flat viewings of the film is a sense of the blocking of actors within the frame. Arnold has learned something between It Came from Outer Space and this movie. His actors always seem to be in exactly the right place in this movie, and I suspect that Arnold made a study of the way Howard Hawks blocked his movies, because that's whose films the blocking in Creature seems to be taking as a model. Beyond that, a 3-D version of Creature also calls attention to the deep-focus photography Arnold has used to emphasize the dimensionality of his film. This is especially true during the many, many shots taken at the level of the water.
If the film has a flaw, it lies in the Creature's motivations regarding Julia Adams. Mind you, the sight of Julia Adams in a white, one-piece bathing suit is an indelible image, but whatever sexual behavior an amphibious gill-man has, I'm pretty sure Adam's doesn't tickle it. But as a plot device, it works okay. It even has a certain primitive charm, like those rape fantasies on the covers of pulp magazines in which nubile, scantiliy clad young women are threatened by bug-eyed monsters (even Forbidden Planet exploited this on its misleading movie poster). This aside, who WOULDN'T lust after Julia Adams in this movie? And, of course, this results in the lovely swim the pair takes, with the Creature just below her. Adams is such a central part of the appeal of this movie that it's almost criminal that both Richard Carlson and Richard Denning are such stiffs in the film. Carlson isn't as bad as Denning, who is stuck with the thankless role of human antagonist. Both actors are at their best during the underwater sequences (in which they can't talk). The underwater sequences in which our lead's square off against the Creature have an immediacy and a sense of actual danger to them that eludes most of the creature features of the period.
Of course, all of this is really incidental to the actual experience of watching the film. Most of the audience members were smiling when the lights went up. You could feel the good will in the air. You could also share in the common experience of having one's eyes re-adjust to normal vision once the damned glasses were off. There was a guy sitting behind me--a 3-D enthusiast--who had a custom pair of prescription 3-D glasses who may have been the only person in the audience who didn't have this experience. I almost envied him. Almost.