The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) introduced the last of the iconic Universal Monsters, the Gill-Man. This article will discuss the origins of this cinematic creature, and the making of the first movie to feature him.

Story Development

It all started at Orson Welles’ house. In 1941, William Alland attended a dinner party at the legendary director’s home. Alland had played the reporter in Citizen Kane (1941). At this party, Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa was also in attendance.

Figueroa entertained the other party guests with a story about Cipactli, a half-man/half-fish creature from Aztec legend. Alland thought this sounded like a great idea for a movie. However, he wouldn’t do anything with the idea for over a decade.

In 1952, inspiration hit Alland in the form of the classic French fairy tale, Beauty and the Beast. He jotted down some notes for a story called “The Sea Monster”. Shortly after this, in December 1952, Alland hired screenwriter Maurice Zimm (Perry Mason) to produce a story treatment for the project. The treatment Zimm wrote was 59 pages long and was then turned over to screenwriters Arthur A. Rose (Brubaker) and Harry Essex (Dragnet). Their goal was to transform it into a working script.

Creature Design

Director Jack Arnold (It Came From Outerspace) wanted the creature to resemble an eel-like monster. The initial design work for the creature came off as feminine. It also, surprisingly, tended to resemble the Oscar statue given out at the Academy Awards.

Former Disney animator, Milicent Patrick (Fantasia) was primarily responsible for the final design of the Gill-Man monster. To coincide with the film’s release, Patrick was used to promote the movie and its Creature with a press tour entitled “The Beauty Who Created the Beast.” However, that changed when Bud Westmore, head of Universal’s makeup department got jealous of the attention she was getting.

He complained, and the name of the tour was changed to “The Beauty Who Lives With the Beast.” This was done to avoid giving her credit for the character’s design. When the press tour was over she was fired from Universal by Westmore, who received full credit for the Creature’s design. Patrick never again worked in motion picture production and would be denied the credit she deserved for decades.


The first person approached to play the Gill-Man was Glenn Strange (Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein). However, he wasn’t interested. Instead, Ricou Browning played the Creature for the underwater scenes, and Ben Chapman played him on land. Because Ricou Browning was much smaller than the 6’5″ Ben Chapman, two entirely different suits needed to be constructed. This included entirely different masks, which were created from molds of the actor’s heads.

Julia Adams (Bend of the River) landed the role as the beautiful ichthyologist, Kay Lawrence. Veteran actor and Broadway stalwart Richard Carlson (The Little Foxes) was cast as Kay’s boyfriend and mentor, Dr. David Reed.

“At first I thought, ‘The Creature from what?’ Then I read through it and thought, ‘What the hey? It might be fun.’ And it was a lot of fun. We had a good time making that picture, we all laughed a lot. In the morning, I would pat (Ben) Chapman on his rubbery cheek and say, ‘Good Morning, beastie!”

– Julia Adams


Filming for The Creature from the Black Lagoon was split into 2 units. The main unit was based at Universal Studios, located in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley. This was where the majority of the movie was shot. The water location shooting and underwater scenes were shot on location in Florida.

Browning was hired after he had driven Arnold out to Wakulla Springs in Florida for some location scouting. The young actor was asked to swim for some test footage. The footage was needed to see how everything looked on camera. The following week Arnold called Browning and offered him the part.

“I can hold my breath for a fairly long time, but if you’re fighting and moving and swimming fast, you’re using up your oxygen. I had four safety men, each with an air hose. I’d do my scene, holding my breath, and then I’d go to one of the safety men for more air.”

– Ricou Browning

The filming of The Creature from the Black Lagoon was particularly grueling for Ben Chapman. He would have to endure being in the Gill-Man suit for over 14 hours a day on the Universal Lot. The only way that Chapman could stay cool was by submerging himself in the backlot’s lake.

Production Issues

Jack Arnold wanted Gill-Man to glide on land. In order to get the desired effect just right, the production team added 10lb weights inside the feet of the costume. This way, Chapman had to drag his feet, instead of lifting them as a human would. Another aspect of the Creature that Arnold wanted to capture was the movement of the gills on the neck of the monster. This was accomplished by creating a special mask that contained an inflatable device. The device would expand and contract on cue, thereby giving the illusion of functioning gills.

The production also featured a relatively famous mishap that injured Julia Adams. Chapman had difficulty seeing out of the masks, even though it was based on a mold from his head. He subsequently banged her head into some paper mache rocks in the cave set, causing an abrasion. Although Adams was not seriously injured, the incident produced a fairly iconic photograph of her being administered to by a nurse as the cast, including Chapman in full Creature regalia, looks on.

Arguably the most iconic scene in the movie involves Julia Adams swimming while Gill-Man looks on. Arnold intentionally backlit the cinematography to give the illusion that Adams was nude during the sequence. Her appearance and movements in the water attract the Creature and give off a sexual intimacy to the scene, as intended by Arnold.


The Creature from the Black Lagoon features one of the most iconic musical scores in a 1950s Universal picture. It was composed by Henry Mancini, Herman Stein, and Hans J. Salter in a patchwork fashion. Mancini composed the lighter, more romantic music. Stein was in charge of the opening and ending credits, as well as the underwater sequences. Salter handled the horror music duties.

One of the things that sets this score apart is the Creature’s theme. It is played virtually every time that the Creature appears. The other aspect of the score that resonates is that due to the large number of underwater sequences, music was used to avoid long stretches of silence.

Reception and Legacy

The Creature from the Black Lagoon was shot for 3D presentation. However, by the time the movie was released, the 3D fad was on its last legs. Because of this, it was primarily shown in 2D in theatres. Only large cinemas in downtown metropolitan areas were actually projecting it in the 3D format.

Prior to the movie’s initial release in March 1954, Gill-Man made an appearance on The Colgate Comedy Hour a month earlier. In this promotional appearance, he tormented Lou Costello of Abbott & Costello fame.

The Creature from the Black Lagoon was well received by audiences and is considered to be the only great Universal monster movie released after the 1940s. Gill-Man continues to be an iconic movie character that is just as identifiable as Dracula and Frankenstein, nearly 70 years after its release.

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