|Promotional image featuring Julia Adams
and the Gill-Man.
There were three feature films in the 1950’s that featured the monster referred to as the “Gill-Man”, a thing better known as the “Creature from the Black Lagoon”. In each film, the pursuit, capture and attempted destruction of the scaly sea-beast were the essential plot elements, and all three featured stereotypical 1950’s “cookie cutter” heroes of strength, nerves of steel and all the emotion of a trailer hitch. The actors were Richard Carlson, John Agar and Rex Reason – different men with equally different backgrounds, yet all forever linked by the enduring images of their sci-fi/horror movies, and especially linked by their association with the Gill-Man, the last of Universal Studios’ classic movie monsters.
The Gill-Man first appeared in 1954, a year that gave rise to many of filmdom’s most enduring sci-fi/horror images as Them!, the precursor to Starship Troopers, Eight Legged Freaks and all other giant insect films was released, and it was the first year a fictional Japan would be flattened by Godzilla (called “Gojira” by the Japanese) as the cinematic debut of Tokyo’s greatest nemesis came in Godzilla, King of the Monsters. Also in 1954, Universal Studios presented director Jack Arnold’s 3-D horror classic The Creature from the Black Lagoon, the story of a group of Amazon explorers seeking the fossil of a purported missing link between fish and man, who instead violently encounter a living sea creature, a scientifically inexplicable amphibious beast possessed of superior strength, a lascivious nature, and murderous rage. In a story that leaned heavily on the well-established “beauty and the beast” angle, the creature lustfully pursues the attractive Kay Lawrence (played by actress Julia Adams), a stunningly beautiful example of the female form who stole the monster’s heart as she swam about a lagoon in a relatively immodest (for the time) white bathing suit. After slaughtering several passengers on the riverboat Rita, the Gill-Man kidnaps Kay Lawrence and retreats with the captive beauty to his lair, with the intrepid Dr. David Reed (played coolly by Richard Carlson) in close pursuit. Reed, who tranquilized and captured the Gill-Man earlier in the film in addition to surviving a previous attack by the monster after its escape, shoots the creature and rescues the curvaceous target of the Gill-Man’s affection.
Portraying the hero of the film was Richard DuToit Carlson, a one-man renaissance who crossed the boundaries between acting, directing, writing and teaching. Born on April 29th, 1912, in Albert Lea, Minnesota, Carlson received an M.A. from the University of Minnesota and taught there briefly before moving to New York in pursuit of a career as an actor and director. He performed in a number of Broadway productions in the 1930’s, and he made his first film appearance in the David O. Selznick production of The Young in Heart (1938). Bitten by the Hollywood bug, Carlson moved to California in 1939 and appeared in a number of successful comedies and dramas including 1940’s The Howards of Virginia, Too Many Girls, and Ghost Breakers; 1941’s Back Street, Hold that Ghost, and The Little Foxes; 1942’s Highways by Night and White Cargo; and 1943’s Presenting Lily Mars.
Carlson’s career was interrupted by military service during World War II, and upon his return he found it difficult to resume his career as he landed relatively minor roles in So Well Remembered (1947), the horrendously awful The Amazing Mr. X (1948), and Behind Locked Doors (1948). His screen career would flounder until the 1950 release of King Solomon’s Mines, and would gain momentum with meaningful roles in films such as The Blue Veil and A Millionaire for Christy (both 1951) and the aircraft carrier-themed Flat Top (1952).
1953 was a pivotal year that saw Richard Carlson play the villainous Major Harlan Degan in the western Seminole, take the lead role in the dramatic spy television series I Led Three Lives (1953 – 1956), and more importantly to filmgoers, that single year saw Carlson’s truly memorable journeys into the sci-fi/horror genre with major roles in The Maze, The Magnetic Monster, and Carlson’s previous collaboration with director Jack Arnold, the paranoia-inducing classic It Came from Outer Space. But it would be 1954 and The Creature from the Black Lagoon that would solidify Carlson’s place in the curious realm of sci-fi/horror cult stardom.
Richard Carlson made his directorial debut in 1954 with Riders to the Stars, and he followed that in the same year by directing Four Guns to the Border. He would later direct 1958’s The Saga of Hemp Brown and Appointment with a Shadow, among other films. Additionally, he directed episodes of several television series (Thriller, The Detectives, and Men Into Space). 1958 also saw Carlson play the lead role of Colonel Ronald S. Mackenzie on television’s Mackenzie’s Raiders (1958 – 1959).
Following the box-office success of The Creature from the Black Lagoon, Carlson’s string of sci-fi/horror films was interrupted in 1953 with All I Desire, resumed with 1954’s Riders to the Stars, and was interrupted again by dramas, westerns, and other activities from 1955 through 1959, resuming in 1960 with the forgettable Tormented, and after staying away from the genre for years he was featured in 1969’s The Valley of Gwangi. Richard Carlson’s final film was the Elvis Presley vehicle Change of Habit (1969), and he retired from acting some time following an appearance on a 1973 episode of the detective series Cannon. He died on November 25th, 1977, at the age of 65, of a brain hemorrhage. He is buried in Los Angeles National Cemetery alongside his wife, Mona, who passed away on January 2nd, 1990.
|Promotional image with John Agar,
Helen Dobson and the Gill-Man.
Director Jack Arnold and the Gill-Man returned in 1955 with Revenge of the Creature and the result was a typically substandard Hollywood sequel. In this 3-D movie, scientists convinced that the Gill-Man survived the gunshot it suffered in the original film travel to the Amazon to capture the beast. Failing to capture it with – of all things – a net, they resort to using dynamite to depth-charge the lagoon. Amazingly, the tactic works and the unconscious Gill-Man floats to the surface and into captivity. The monster is then transported to a marine park in Florida for study, yet despite its well-known strength, ferocity and a resilience that allowed it survive both a gunshot and explosive force, the scientists secure it to the bottom of a pool with just one chain attached to one of the monster’s legs. With the use of a sort of cattle prod, scientists Helen Dobson (Lori Nelson) and Professor Clete Ferguson (played by John Agar) repeatedly perform behavioral response tests on the captive Gill-Man, angering it ever more with every shock they administer. Despite this, the monster again becomes enamored with a human female, this time in the form of scientist Lori Nelson though she didn’t have the face, figure, or striking bathing suit of her predecessor. (It’s a sequel, so nothing – and I mean nothing – stands up to the quality of the original.) Predictably, the Gill-Man breaks free, causes sheer chaos in the park, and escapes into the sea. From there the movie again walks familiar ground as the monster kidnaps the female scientist only to be pursued and shot by the film’s protagonist. (Yawn. Roll credits, please.)
Born in Chicago, Illinois, on January 31st, 1921, John George Agar, Jr. played the second man to face and thwart the Gill-Man. In what is reportedly a quirk of fate, the Chicago native was invited to be an escort for 15 year old child star Shirley Temple and the two – for lack of a better term – fell in love. (That last sentence hurt to write. Agar was well over 21, but Shirley Temple was jail bait. Not that I am hurling accusations here, but the words “statutory rape” are ringing in my ears as I write this.) After a whirlwind “courtship” (I find it hard to use that word when one of those involved was a minor at the start), Agar and a Temple married in 1945, just a few months after she turned 17.
In 1948, after serving three years as in the U.S. Army Air Corps (the predecessor to the U.S. Air Force), Agar signed a seven-year contract with David O. Selznick. (Note: I could find no record that indicated if Agar ever met Richard Carlson through their mutual association with Selznick.) Agar’s first film role came in the 1948 John Wayne film Fort Apache, which also featured Temple. Good things seemed to be on the horizon for Agar as the film debuted the next year and Temple gave birth to a daughter, but their marriage disintegrated a mere eighteen months after the delivery. In an event that was at best odd and at worst scandalous, Agar married his second wife, Loretta, just a year after splitting from Temple.
Agar’s early career was akin to a shooting star: it burned bright and quick, then faded into the night. He was a notoriously hard drinker and partier, and stories of his wild ways made their way into the press. Another incident that marred his career occurred in 1951 when Agar was hauled off to jail for driving under the influence, and the arrest validated newspaper accounts of his drunken binges and derailed his big-budget (A-list) film career. The incident birthed the career of the John Agar most familiar to moviegoers, the 1950’s cult hero and pop icon who starred in many of Hollywood’s sci-fi/horror B-movies.
Some of the films of John Agar are the stuff of legend to sci-fi/horror buffs, with movies such as The Rocket Man (1954), Tarantula (1955, directed by Jack Arnold), The Mole People (1956), Daughter of Dr. Jekyll (1957), The Brain from Planet Arous (1957), Attack of the Puppet People (1958), Invisible Invaders (1959), Destination Space (1959), Journey to the Seventh Planet (1962), Hand of Death (1962), Women of the Prehistoric Planet (1966), and Night Fright (1967, not to be confused with 1985’s Fright Night starring Roddy McDowall).
Though remembered mostly for his work in sci-fi/horror films, Agar actually made about 57 feature films in total. He acted in about as many westerns as he did sci-fi/horror movies, and he purportedly became lifelong friends with the “Duke”, John Wayne. His career made its way onto television where he made approximately 25 guest appearances on various programs and made about eight made-for-TV movies.
John Agar’s final film was the B-movie parody Attack of the B-Movie Monster (2002). He passed away on April 7, 2002, at the age of 81, of emphysema. He is buried in California’s Riverside National Cemetery alongside his wife, Loretta, who passed away on January 27th, 2000.
|Theatrical poster with Rex Reason,
Leigh Snowden and the Gill-Man.
The Gill-Man returned in 1956 with The Creature Walks Among Us, the only entry in the trilogy not filmed in 3-D. In this waste of otherwise good film, a surgeon leads a team of scientists on an expedition to capture the Gill-Man, whom they find in a Florida river. The monster is tranquilized and captured (yet again!), but critically injured when kerosene is spilled onto it and ignited. The inferno burns off most of its scales and destroys its gills, leaving the Gill-Man dying of suffocation. The scientists discover that the Gill-Man actually has a dormant pair of lungs, and through an emergency tracheotomy they convert the sea creature into an air breather. Bereft of its scales, the creature appears almost human (and suddenly gains the build of a hulking pro wrestler), and the scientists clothe the even more man-like beast in tattered sailcloth and place it in an enclosure. Of the scientists, Dr. Thomas Morgan (played by Rex Reason) merely wants to study it, but the murderous Dr. William Barton (Jeff Morrow) wants to use it as the ultimate test subject for his outlandish biological theories. The villainous Dr. Barton later kills a coworker and blames the creature for the deed, pumping a bullet into the former Gill-Man to make it appear as though the deceased fought in vain to survive. Wounded and enraged, the monster breaks free, kills the evil Dr. Barton, and disappears into the ocean unaware that breathing water will now be fatal to it. Moviegoers in 1957 expected yet another film featuring the Gill-Man, but Universal Studios ended the series with this third film in 1956, meaning that the monster was presumably dead.
The actor who played the last hero to face the Gill-Man was baritone-voiced Rex Reason. Born in 1928, Reason grew up in Los Angeles along with his younger brother, fellow actor Rhodes Reason. Following his honorable discharge from the U.S. Army in the late 1940’s, he developed an interest in acting, joined the Pasadena Playhouse, and performed in community theater.
After working for Columbia Pictures in the early 1950’s, Reason was signed by Universal Studios in late 1953. During his time there he starred in both The Creature Walks Among Us and his signature film, This Island Earth (1955, with Jeff Morrow, Faith Domergue and Russell Johnson). The dark tale of Reason’s Dr. Cal Meacham on and against the doomed fictional planet Metaluna stands as his most recognizable work.
Reason continued acting in dramas and westerns well into the 1960’s, but he eventually grew weary of performing and he went into real estate, as did John Agar. Today, the still vibrant Rex Reason occasionally appears at autograph conventions. I am also happy to report that it appears his brother, Rhodes Reason (“Daddy Warbucks” of Broadway’s Annie), is also still living as of this writing in 2011.
8/12/2016 Update: I am sad to report that Rex Reason and his brother, Rhodes Reason, are no longer with us. Rex passed away on November 19th, 2015. Rhodes passed away on December 16th, 2014. At this time I am unable to locate where they now rest.
Finally, despite the increasingly bad sequels and the ending of third movie, the Gill-Man itself isn’t quite dead yet. According to IMDB.com (the Internet Movie Database website), there is a remake in the works slated for release in 2013. It is unknown at this time if the Gill-Man will return as his old, salacious self or if he’s gained political correctness and a respectful, hands-off approach to dealing with the female sex. What is known is that theaters from coast to coast will once again be filled with viewers following the exploits of the Gill-Man and the people trying to stop him.
Creature Feature: 50 Years of the Gill-Man (trailer)
Sources:The Creature from the Black Lagoon / Richard Carlson:
- Brian’s Drive-In Theater: Richard Carlson. http://www.briansdriveintheater.com/richardcarlson.html Accessed July 11, 2011 at 9:45 PM.
- Classic-Horror: Creature from the Black Lagoon. http://classic-horror.com/reviews/blacklagoon.shtml Accessed July 11, 2011 at 10:10 PM.
- Find A Grave Cemetery Records: Richard Carlson. http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=6268552&pt=Richard%20Carlson Accessed July 11, 2011 at 11:00 PM.
- Internet Movie Database Inc.: Creature from the Black Lagoon. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0046876/ Accessed July 11, 2011 at 9:30 PM.
- Scheib, Richard. Moria: Science Fiction, Horror and Fantasy Film Review: The Creature from the Black Lagoon. http://moria.co.nz/sciencefiction/creaturefromtheblacklagoon1954.htm Accessed July 11, 2011 at 9:05 PM.
- Brian’s Drive-In Theater: John Agar. http://www.briansdriveintheater.com/johnagar.html Accessed July 12, 2011 at 9:15 PM.
- Classic-Horror: Creature from the Black Lagoon. http://classic-horror.com/reviews/blacklagoon.shtml Accessed July 12, 2011 at 10:10 PM.
- Classic Images: The Extraordinary Career of John Agar. http://www.classicimages.com/1998/april98/johnagar.html Accessed July 12, 2011 at 10:00 PM.
- Find A Grave Cemetery Records: John Agar. http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=6521308&pt=John%20Agar Accessed July 12, 2011 at 10:45 PM.
- The Official John Agar Website. http://www.johnagar.com/ Accessed July 12, 2011 at 10:30 PM.
- Brian’s Drive-In Theater: Rex Reason. http://www.briansdriveintheater.com/rexreason.html Accessed July 13, 2011 at 11:15 PM.
- Classic-Horror: Creature from the Black Lagoon. http://classic-horror.com/reviews/blacklagoon.shtml Accessed July 13, 2011 at 10:10 PM.
- Internet Movie Database Inc.: Creature Walks Among Us, The. http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0049103/ Accessed July 13, 2011 at 9:30 PM.