Saturday, May 21, 1977: Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) / The Crimson Canary (1946)

Synopsis: Deep in the Amazon rain forest, paleontologist Carl Maia (Antonio Moreno) discovers a fossilized hand embedded in an ancient strata of rock. The hand appears to be almost human, but also has characteristics of an aquatic creature.

Returning to Manaus with a photograph of the hand, he consults with marine biologist David Reed (Richard Carlson) and his assistant / girlfriend Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams), who work at a maritime institute there. They all agree that they should try to convince the head of the institute Mark Williams (Richard Denning) to fund an expedition to dig out the rest of the Devonian-age fossil, which might prove to be an evolutionary link between humans and aquatic creatures.

Mark is excited at the prospect of such an important discovery — though he seems more interested in the publicity than the science — and the four of them along with Dr. Thompson (Whit Bissell) charter a boat called the Rita to take them upriver. There is considerable friction on the voyage between David and his boss Mark, who is nursing long-simmering jealousy over the beautiful Kay. Mark’s headstrong ways also run afoul of Lucas (Nestor Paiva), the generally easygoing boat captain, who responds to Mark’s bullying comments by pulling a knife.

When they reach the site of the find, Maia is surprised to find that the men he left to stand guard are nowhere to be found. Soon their bodies are discovered, horribly mangled. Lucas speculates that only a jaguar’s claws could have caused the kinds of wounds the men suffered.

The scientists dig far into the rock strata but don’t find the rest of the skeleton. David theorizes that part of the rock shelf might have broken loose and over hundreds or thousands of years been washed out to a lagoon a short distance away.

Lucas says he is familiar with the place, known by the locals as the Black Lagoon, which is rarely visited because a monster is rumored to live there. The Rita sails out to the lagoon, which proves to be an idyllic spot. David and Mark dive to the bottom to collect rock samples, but are observed by a man-like creature that lurks near the bottom.

Maia quickly determines that the rock samples match the strata where the hand was found, and the scientists are elated. Kay decides to go for a swim in the lagoon, but unknown to her, the creature is watching her closely, and is swimming only a few feet below her….

Comments: A latecomer to the Universal monster pantheon, Creature From the Black Lagoon hit theaters more than two decades after Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Invisible Man, and more than a decade after The Wolf Man. But while it lacks the gothic underpinnings of those earlier films, it’s a welcome addition to the club. Like the best monsters of classic horror, the titular creature is both fearsome and sympathetic, and Milicent Patrick’s iconic design of the creature helped to ensure that it would never be forgotten.

The monster is still a pop-culture phenom today, easily recognizable even by those who’ve never seen the movie; among other things it spawned one of the most popular pinball machines of the 20th century:

But the main reason for the movie’s enduring appeal is simply that it’s extremely well-written and executed. Jack Arnold’s direction proved that his success with It Came From Outer Space the previous year had been no fluke. Splendidly paced, the film deliciously pivots from the scientists hunting the creature to the creature hunting the scientists, and while the film does have the shopworn romantic triangle that seemed standard in movies from this era (along with ye olde dominance-establishing fistfight) it doesn’t hobble the narrative. The movie springs deftly from one set piece to the next, the danger ratcheting up progressively until the final scenes, and as in It Came From Outer Space the 3-D process isn’t overused.

Arnold got the most from his cast of Universal contract players. Richard Carlson had proven to be a capable leading man in It Came From Outer Space and he does just as well here, portraying a man who’s both tough and idealistic. Richard Denning’s hard-edged persona is a good counterpoint to David’s optimism and restraint, and their differing approaches to dealing with the creature creates great dramatic tension.

The part of Kay isn’t particularly well-written, but the beautiful Julie Adams and her white bathing suit became iconic; the scene in which she goes for a swim, attracting the attention of the lovelorn creature, is one of the film’s best and it is easy for us to believe that Kay can draw suitors from entirely different species just by showing up. For many years Adams seemed puzzled that so many fans and interviewers just wanted to talk about this movie, when she’d played so many other, better roles in her long career on stage and screen. But she seemed to embrace the movie later in life, and became a good-natured ambassador for the film on the convention circuit.

The creature itself was played by two people. Ben Chapman played the title role on land, while Ricou Browning donned the green suit for the expertly filmed underwater scenes, all of which were done by a second-unit team in Florida.

Nestor Paiva is charming and funny as Lucas, and he would be the only member of the cast to return for the first sequel, Revenge of the Creature.

The Crimson Canary

Synopsis: Danny Brooks (Noah Beery, Jr.) plays the trumpet with a jazz band that tours steadily but is still looking for its big break. Singer and manipulative goodtime girl Anita Lane (Claudia Drake) has been trying to worm her way into the band, but Danny tells her she’s been sowing dissension between the guys — implying that she’s been sleeping with more than one of them — and is not welcome. Anita then tells him that she and drummer Johnny (Danny Morton) are engaged. Danny insists that he won’t allow her to travel with the band, regardless of who she is or isn’t engaged to. She replies that she might call Danny’s girlfriend Jean (Lois Collier) and tell her some old “bedtime stories” about her and Danny. Angry, Danny walks out. As a result of this snub, Anita gives Johnny the cold shoulder, which greatly upsets him. Johnny goes to the bar at the club and begins drinking heavily.

During their set at the club, Danny’s trumpet gets a stuck valve, and he goes to the back room to get a replacement. He resumes playing, but Johnny is soon so drunk he can’t carry on, and staggers off to the back room by himself.

When the band finishes their set, they find Johnny unconscious in the back room, and Anita dead a few feet away, bludgeoned to death by Danny’s trumpet. Unsure of what to do, the band decides to leave immediately for their next tour date and pretend they never saw the body.

A jazz-loving homicide detective (John Litel) is assigned to the case, and he immediately suspects that Danny’s band was involved. The band finds their tour dates have been preemptively cancelled. Johnny decides to turn himself in to the authorities, but Danny argues that someone at the club that night committed the murder and is trying to let Johnny take the fall. He also believes that he knows how to prove that no one in the band was the guilty party….

Comments: Universal’s ambivalence about The Crimson Canary’s subject matter is plain to see on the poster: below the lurid promise of “Rhythm Cults Exposed!” is a blandishment for jazz stars Coleman Hawkins and Oscar Pettiford, as well as guitarist Josh White, all of whom are featured in musical numbers during the film.

Big band and swing had been the popular music forms of the war years, but now that the war was over things were changing. Small groups were in fashion, and they were playing new styles of jazz. Bebop was a more challenging, less accessible form of music, pioneered by Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and others. Jump blues borrowed riffs and hooks from the traditional blues. These forms of jazz were fast-paced and full of nervous energy, well-suited to a nation that was eager to move on after the war years.

The establishment wasn’t ready for these new styles of jazz, just as it wouldn’t be ready for rock n’ roll a decade later. The provocative rhythms and the permissive lifestyles of those who partook in them were seen as suspect. Like rock n’ roll, the racial makeup of the trend-setting artists were problematic as well.

“Race records”, as they were called, had limited appeal to white audiences, and for that reason the black faces delivering the new sound would inevitably be pushed aside by the record companies in favor of white ones. It shouldn’t surprise us, then, that in The Crimson Canary Danny Brooks and his jazz musician friends are all white — in fact, we never see any black musicians or patrons in the club they work at. It is only in later scenes, when they are on the lam and stop at a jazz club in a different city, that they watch the performances of the black jazz musicians promoted on the movie poster. But these scenes are carefully quarantined from the movie’s plot, presumably so they could be excised from prints playing in the American south — a frequent practice at the time.

The jazz performances from Coleman Hawkins, Oscar Pettiford and Josh White are decent, though not of stellar quality; but their music is much better than that recorded for Danny’s band. While I don’t know much about jazz, these numbers aren’t really bebop, sounding more like Dixieland. In any case, it isn’t great music, and the actors don’t try very hard to synch their fingering with the music, presuming they tried at all.

As to the plot — well, Danny’s crew runs from the scene of the crime and then wanders around, wondering what to do. They sneak up to the hotel room of the detective who’s been assigned to the case (Johnny is going to confess) but hear through the door the sound of the very number they recorded live the night of the murder. This gives Danny an idea that the record they made can exonerate them, but their plan comes to nothing when Danny drops the record and breaks it.

There’s a lot of this sort of running around to little effect, and it’s apparently meant to eat up time. It’s not much of a mystery, as it turns out, but Noah Beery, Jr., whom we last saw in the similarly-titled The Cat Creeps, is quite likable as Danny. This is a rare starring role for him, and he makes the most of it, playing Danny as a guy whose first love has always been music, and who never quite grew up. Beery later found fame as Jim Rockford’s dad in the 1970s series The Rockford Files.

Lois Collier also appeared in The Cat Creeps (her seductive pout in the posters of both movies looks quite similar, in fact) and she isn’t any more memorable here than she was in that film.

Claudia Drake is convincing enough as a lure for the guys in Danny’s band, but her obsession with them doesn’t make sense. Why would a relatively sophisticated woman work so hard to worm her way into the good graces of a struggling bunch of jazz musicians? Why not seduce some successful artists instead?

Well, I don’t know much about music, and even less about love. But I do know a little about horror films, and this barely qualifies; but it’s passable fare, and I imagine that the viewers who tuned in to Horror Incorporated on that July night all those years ago were pretty happy with what they saw.

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