Understanding Screenwriting #85: A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, The Women on the 6th Floor, The Sturges Project, & More

As longtime readers of this column know, I love shaggy dog stories.

Understanding Screenwriting #85: A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, The Women on the 6th Floor, The Sturges Project, & More
Photo: Warner Bros.

Coming Up In This Column: A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas, The Women on the 6th Floor, Feet First, The Great McGinty, Christmas in July, Bitter Rice, Creature From the Black Lagoon, Bend of the River, but first…

Fan Mail: David Ehrenstein pointed out that the model for Charlie in A Single Man (2009) was Iris Tree, who shows up in Steiner’s party in La Dolce Vita (1960). And she is much less a caricature there than the character is—in the film, at least—of A Single Man.

Just a small note that hardly warrants a full item, at least not yet. I recently learned that there is a new book out by Kim Hudson called The Virgin’s Promise: Writing Stories of Feminine Creative, Spiritual and Sexual Awakening. It’s apparently the women’s version of the Hero’s Journey, including such things as the “13 beats of the Virgin’s journey” and the “Virgin archetype.” That’s all fine and dandy, but what if, like say Anita Loos, you don’t want to write about dip-shit virgins and prefer to write about real women? As most people realize after they reach adulthood, even if they know they are not allowed to say it in public, virginity is vastly overrated.

A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas (2011. Written by Jon Hurwitz & Hayden Schlossberg, based on characters created by Jon Hurwitz & Hayden Schlossberg. 90 minutes.)

Maybe too early: As longtime readers of this column know, I love shaggy dog stories. So naturally I liked the first Harold & Kumar film, Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (2004), in which the boys have the munchies and are just trying to get a couple of burgers. Hurwitz & Schlossberg, who have written all three films, were Billy Wilder ruthless in finding obstacles to throw in their way. The second one, 2008’s Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, on the other hand, was a real dud. H&K were just stoners in the first one, and the humor was stoner humor. In the second, the writers tried to add a political dimension to the film, which simply does not fit with the characters of H&K. There was even some parody of George W. Bush that was well past its sell-by date. The H&K movies give us a lot of social comment, usually in throwaway jokes, but the political stuff in Guantanamo Bay is too heavy-handed to work in the H&K film universe.

Fortunately Hurwitz & Schlossberg are back on track in Christmas. H&K have not seen each other in a while. Kumar is still a stoner, but Harold has finally married Maria and is living in the suburbs. A mysterious package addressed to Harold is delivered to their old apartment, and Kumar takes it out to Harold’s house. Harold is setting up for Christmas, and his Latino father-in-law, Mr. Perez, who hates all Koreans (see what I mean about social comment), has brought a special Christmas tree. Kumar manages to burn it down and H&K go off to find another one while the Perez side of the family attend midnight mass. Well, what could possibly go wrong with that? The Billy Wilder ruthlessness is back at full power. And it is funny. I think I laughed harder at this film than I have any other one this year. Yes, the jokes are gross and borderline creepy, especially those involving Harold’s neighbor’s toddler who keeps getting stoned, but they just don’t stop, and they are often very surprising, which you don’t usually find in sequels and threequels. Two or three Christmas icons show up and are thoroughly trashed. Traditionally stoner comedies are very slowly paced, for obvious reasons, but this one moves like a house, or a Christmas tree, afire.

Normally I have a limited appetite for inside jokes, but there are some dandies here. As they get ready to go into a fancy party, one character says of Kumar, “We’ll tell them you work at the White House,” to which Kal Penn’s Kumar replies, “Yeah, like anybody will believe that.” Penn of course spent the last couple of years working in the Obama administration, not however in the war on drugs. Neil Patrick Harris is back as “himself.” He came out as gay in real life since the last film, and he and the writers have a wonderful time with that, ending with his waving goodbye to H&K, saying “See you guys in Number 4.”

The best gags are the 3D gags. Sorry, did I give you a heart attack there, given that you know my take on 3D? What makes them work is the attitude the film has toward 3D. There is none of the Jeffrey Katzenberg-James Cameron reverence for 3D here. It is a gimmick, the filmmakers recognize it as a gimmick, make references to the fact the film is in 3D and then throw everything they can think of at you. In keeping with the tone of the rest of the film, some of what pops out of the screen is just plain gross, as in a particular bit of Claymation. But the film also shows the limitations of 3D. Early on Kumar is blowing smoke from his joint out across the heads of the audience. You can see it but you just can’t smell it, dammit. So there, Katzenberg.

If, like me, you feel like you are drowning in Christmas hype as the season approaches, you may want to see this one as a relief. I am a bit surprised that Warners released it in early November. If it stays around until mid-December, you may need to see it.

The Women on the 6th Floor (2010. Written by Philippe Le Guay and Jérôme Tonnerre. 104 minutes.)

The Women on the 6th Floor

The Help, Parisian style: When I first saw this, I thought that I would probably not write about it for this column. It’s a funny, charming comedy about a Parisian stuffed shirt (Fabrice Luchini of course) who gets involved with the Spanish maids who live at the top of his apartment building. Then, as I was walking home, it occurred to me that the film is the French equivalent of The Help.

The time period is 1962. Jean-Louis and Suzanne are a very bourgeois married couple living in the same apartment building he has lived in since he was a child. He is an investor; she has gone from being a girl from the country to the epitome of an upscale French wife. One day, Jean-Louis learns that the toilet the maids use isn’t working, so he gets a plumber out to fix it. Then his long-time maid quits/is fired, and he ends up hiring Maria, the niece of Concepción, one of the older maids. Yes, Maria is attractive, but Jean-Louis is even more impressed that, unlike the previous maid, she follows his instructions on how to boil his morning egg. I don’t know what is written in the script as to Jean-Louis’s reaction when he first tastes her egg, but Luchini gives us about four or five reactions in one. You can tell that romance is going to bloom, but Le Guay (who also directed) and Tonnerre take their time. We spend a lot of time with all the maids and get a sense of their lives, especially in contrast to Suzanne and her hoity-toity friends. You can imagine the similarities here with Aibileen, Minny and that crowd. We don’t get these women telling stories so much as we see what they go through. We also get the romantic plot, or really subplot, with Jean-Louis and Maria, which ends well, although the last scene is more confusing than it might be as to how many children she has.

One thing that struck me in watching this film was, why is it set in 1962? There are some references to the period (De Gaulle, Franco), but nothing that requires that time period. I don’t know the social situation in France well enough to know if the maids are still immigrants from Spain, or are they now more from the Francophone former colonies in Africa? If the latter is the case, the lightness of touch of a contemporary version of the script would seem as condescending as some people think The Help is.

Feet First (1930. Scenario by Felix Adler Lex Neal, story by John Grey & Al Cohn & Clyde Bruckman, dialogue by Paul Girard Smith. 91 minutes.)

Feet First

What I said before, only more so: In US#3, back in the dark ages, I wrote an item about the transition from silent films to sound films. I was specifically talking about the silent and sound versions, both in 1929, of the Harold Lloyd film Welcome Danger. Lloyd was not adapting well to sound, since he added verbal prissiness to his visual prissiness, and the screenwriters, both for that sound film and for his 1932 film Movie Crazy, had not figured out how to write both funny and playable dialogue. Feet First comes between those two movies, and the dialogue problem is the same, not surprising, since Smith did the dialogue for both sound films.

Smith had first made a name for himself writing vaudeville acts, and wrote for the stage productions of the Ziegfield Follies in the ’20s, so he certainly should have known better how to write comedy dialogue. Maybe the fact that he came to Hollywood in the mid-’20s to work on silent comedies, including a couple for Buster Keaton, threw him off his stride. He certainly continued to work in films, and theatre, and early television after the Lloyd films, but nearly all of his film credits are B pictures.

The other problem with Feet First is that the visual gags are re-runs. Lloyd’s character Harold is on a ship coming from Hawaii (with the 1930 Westwood Village standing in for Hawaii in the opening scene) and since he has no ticket, he is avoiding the ship’s officers. In one scene they are chasing him around the ship. It is not unlike Keaton and the girl trying to find each other in The Navigator (1924), but without Keaton’s precision. Later in the film Harold is trying to deliver a envelope with some important papers, but he gets caught up in a painters rig that pulls him the side of a large building. Hmm, Lloyd on the side of a building. Where have we seen that before? Safety Last (1923), in case you never watch black-and-white movies. But in the earlier film Lloyd is specifically climbing to the top of the building. Here the painters keep raising and lowering the platform for no logical reason, and the scene just dithers away as you watch how much the downtown Los Angeles area has grown up since 1923.

The location details above are from the newest book by the great John Bengtson. Bengtson is a business lawyer (see, a few lawyers are good for something) who developed an interest in the locations used in silent films. His first book was 2000’s Silent Echoes, in which he tracked down locations used by Buster Keaton. I spent an afternoon driving around town with Bengtson’s book in my car looking at those sacred spaces. He followed that up with the 2006 book Silent Traces about Chaplin’s use of locations. I always think of Chaplin sticking to his backlot, but the book shows he used a lot of location work, especially in his earlier films.

Bengtson’s new book, out this year, is Silent Visions, and it’s about Lloyd and his locations. Lloyd’s studio in the late ’20s was only a couple of miles away from where I live, and many scenes in his pictures were shot in areas I drive by all the time. I obviously need to take this book out for a drive around the neighborhood.

The Great McGinty (1940. Written by Preston Sturges. 81 minutes.)

The Great McGinty

The Sturges Project, Take One: Last Christmas, one of Santa’s elves was very good to me. She gave me a DVD box set of seven films that Preston Sturges wrote and directed. Since I have dealt with box sets before (Budd Boetticher and Errol Flynn), and since I dealt a little with Sturges the writer before he became a director (Remember the Night [1940] in US#38), I thought it would be a great opportunity to go through the films for this column. I was intending to do that during the summer, but some family matters intervened. And then there was the start of the television season. There was some time before we get overloaded with the end of the year films for me at least to get started, so welcome aboard for a ride on Sturges’s cockeyed caravan.

The films are, in chronological order, The Great McGinty, Christmas in July (1940), The Lady Eve (1941), Sullivan’s Travels (1942), The Palm Beach Story (1942), Hail the Conquering Hero (1944), and The Great Moment (1944). Notice anything missing? Yeah, the box set does not include The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (1944), I suspect for reasons of the ownership of rights. However, Paramount (rather than Universal, which owns most of the Paramount pre-1948 films) released a now out-of-print DVD of Miracle that I have managed to get my hands on. So I will throw that in as a bonus at no extra cost to you. What I call the Sturges Project will continue over the next several columns until I have covered all eight of the films. The background information for the project comes from James Curtis’s excellent 1982 biography Between Flops and, even more helpfully, the 1985 collection Five Screenplays by Preston Sturges, edited with great introductory essays by Brian Henderson. Henderson followed that up in 1996 with Four More Screenplays by Preston Sturges, which covers the rest of the scripts I’ll be dealing with. The books have photocopied versions of the production scripts (although I am a bit dubious of one, which I will talk about later), so we can see what Sturges intended to shoot and how.

Sturges was born on August 29, 1898 and spent his youth flitting around Europe with his mother, a friend of Isadora Duncan. His stepfather was a stockbroker, and his mother started a cosmetics firm that Preston was running in his teens. So you can see Preston had a variety of experiences in his youth. Never underestimate the value of worldly experiences for a future screenwriter. Better than film school, truth be told. Sturges wrote plays for Broadway and then came to Hollywood in the early ’30s. The first script that brought him attention was The Power and the Glory (1933), the story of the rise and fall of a businessman, but told in non-chronological terms. It is considered very much the forerunner of Citizen Kane (1941), but it was a flop. After Power, Sturges began to think about directing, because he noted what William K. Howard had done and not done as the director. But this was the 1930s and no studio was about to let a writer direct. The studios had a very strict division of labor. You can see why they applied it to writers. Why let a writer spend a lot of time writing and directing one film, when you could have him write two or three scripts in the same time? Writers were too valuable to be allowed to direct. In 1936 he wound up at Paramount, where he wrote hits like Easy Living (1937) and If I Were King (1938). He kept bugging his boss at Paramount, William LeBaron, for a chance to direct. LeBaron had a weakness for talented writers, especially comic ones like W.C. Fields, Herman Mankiewicz, Mae West, and Brackett and Wilder. Finally LeBaron agreed to let Sturges direct. The film was finally titled The Great McGinty.

The script was inspired by stories of politics in Chicago that Sturges heard in his youth. Sturges was particularly impressed with the tale of William “Old Bill” Sulzer, a Democratic politician who rose to be governor of Illinois. Then he started doing things the people wanted, which were not necessarily good for the Democratic machine. He was impeached for doing too much good for the people and not enough for the party. Sturges did the first draft screenplay in 1933, entitled The Vagrant. He saw it as a companion piece to The Power and the Glory, dealing with politics instead of business. After the flop of Power, nobody wanted it, and they certainly were not about to allow him to direct it. Over the years he changed the title several times, ending up with Down Went McGinty, the title the shooting script bears. As Henderson points out, there were considerable changes in the material from The Vagrant. McGinty still begins as a bum who surprises the politicians by managing to vote 37 times on election day, but he meets the Boss earlier in the script, which makes their relationship a lot closer and a lot more detailed. In The Vagrant, McGinty’s wife is a “renegade from the Purity Leauge” as Curtis describes her, but in McGinty she is McGinty’s secretary Catherine, with no other exposition when we first meet her. When the Boss suggests McGinty get married, he talks it over with Catherine, and she suggests they get married. This is a nice scene as written, since she seems to be doing everything to help out because she believes in McGinty’s reform ideas. One can imagine another director, oh, all right, Mitchell Leisen, turning it into a romantic scene, with us being clear that she has been in love with McGinty for a while. Sturges does not do that in his direction; the scene is played straight and much fresher for that. The Boss and Catherine are set up as the forces pulling on McGinty. When he gets to be Mayor of Chicago, Catherine encourages him to try to do some good. There is a great scene that was cut from the film where he tries to persuade the Boss to let him do good, and the Boss tells him all the reasons he can’t. Why was the scene dropped? I suspect that because shortly thereafter there is a similar scene after McGinty becomes governor, and that one is more crucial to the film. And the later one leads to McGinty telling Catherine that sweatshops for little kids are not that bad. He asks her if she ever worked in one. She says she didn’t. McGinty says, “Well, I did, see? When I was seven years old. Instead of playing on the street and learning dirty words I earned four dollars a week for my mother and it wasn’t dark and airless, it was very neat and clean…And I want to tell you something: we liked it!” (The ellipses here is mine. Sturges writes in several of his own—and the actors pay no attention to them at all.)

Although by now Sturges should have known better, he wrote in camera directions. As always happens, the director (Sturges) did not pay any attention, oh, well, some, but very little attention, to what the writer (Sturges) suggested. There are also cuts for budget reasons: the writer calls for the main titles over shots of “the harbor and waterfront of a banana republic,” but the titles are just cards. There are also cuts, probably for length. A scene of a farm boy talking to construction workers about the buildings the mayor is building is replaced by a simple ’30s construction montage. McGinty has a long, wonderful scene with Maxwell, who runs a bus company, in which he explains how the graft works, but very little of that remains in the film. In some cases the cuts were made during the shooting, as in speeches that are changed in single take scenes, and sometimes in the editing room.

The film looks and feels like a lot of ’30s newspaper comedies. It certainly has the cheerful cynicism of those films. It is slower than most, since a lot of the scenes are talky, but not yet with the wonderful use of language that will show up in later Sturges films. There is more conventional ’30s slang. Brian Donlevy and Akim Tamiroff are fine as McGinty and the Boss, but they are not quite up to the level of later Sturges stars. There are some Sturges touches in the casting. The Boss’s bodyguard is played by a wimpy looking actor (that casting does not work out; he’s too bland) and his chauffeur is played by an ex-boxer, so his short speech on why he and his girlfriend broke up is funnier. What Sturges needed to find was the kind of character actors who could populate his world. In one case he was on the right track. For the Politician, an underling of the Boss, Sturges considered character actors who usually played those types: Grant Mitchell and Sidney Toler. In the end he settled on William Demarest, who was born to read Sturges’s dialogue. We will catch up with him in later films.

Christmas in July (1940. Written by Preston Sturges. 68 minutes.)

Christmas in July

The Sturges Project, Take Two: In January 1940, McGinty was still filming, but LeBaron already knew what he had and asked Sturges what he wanted to do for his second film. Sturges figured that if he whipped out a second one quickly, at least one of them ought to be a hit. He needn’t have worried. Both were hits, and McGinty won the Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay for 1940, beating out Foreign Correspondent and The Great Dictator, among others. I don’t think McGinty is anywhere close to Sturges’s best script, but its win certainly helped open the floodgates for all the other writers who wanted to direct. Huston, Wilder, and everyone who came later owe it a lot.

Since he wanted to do something fast, Sturges went back to his trunk and dug out A Cup of Coffee. It started as a stage play in 1931, and after three previous flops nobody wanted to produce it. It tells the story of James Macdonald, who works at Baxter Coffee as a salesman. He had entered a contest for a new slogan at Maxwell House Coffee. At the end of the first act, he gets a notice he has won. In the second act, he has been promoted at Baxter, but at the end of the act, he learns that he has not won the contest. The winner was another James Macdonald. In Act Three, the company finds out he did not win the contest, and the company now must decide if they will give him his regular job back. Jimmy’s girlfriend Tulip convinces the bosses to give Jimmy the contract they were originally going to give him, but without pay so that he will have to prove himself. At the end a representative from Maxwell House shows up and says Jimmy did win after all.

In late 1934, Sturges adapted the play into a screenplay of the same name. He realized it could be made on a limited budget, even if he expanded the three sets of the play. He hoped to make it his first directorial effort while at Universal. They said no, but kept the rights when he went off to Paramount. In 1940, Sturges got LeBaron to obtain the rights, Sturges slapped a new title page on the 1935 script and gave it to the producer assigned to him on McGinty, Paul Jones, who had produced Bob Hope movies and was not intimidated by Sturges. Sturges worked on revising the screenplay from February through May as McGinty was in post-production. First of all, he made Jimmy a more consistent character than he was in play, where he was an outgoing salesman type in Act I and a genuinely nice guy in Acts II and III. Second, he changed the details about the contest. Three co-workers hear him talking on the phone about the contest, and they send him a phony telegram telling him he is the winner. Events escalate from there, and they finally confess. Third, Sturges expanded the locations. In the play all three sets are in Baxter offices. Jimmy at one point sends out for some presents for his office co-workers and they are sent to the office. In the screenplay Jimmy and Betty (thank God she got renamed from Tulip; well, Sturges wasn’t quite ready for the Kockenlockers) go on a shopping expedition for presents for everybody on his block. The big slapstick sequence, on the street in front of the houses, is the arrival of the presents and the department store people who want them back. There was no big slapstick scene in McGinty, just a minor fight between McGinty and the Boss. The scene with the presents is described in considerable detail, but it is much shorter in the film. It’s also clearer in the film; Sturges as director is good at focusing on what he needs to in the scene.

Sturges also shows us the radio show with the contest and the activities at the sponsor’s office (Maxwell House in the play, Parker House in the script, and Maxford House in the film). He was not only expanding the locations, but expanding the characters. He was beginning to gather around him the stock company of character actors that would appear in most, if not all, of the eight films we will be discussing. William Demarest is back as Bildocker, the head of the jury judging the contest. Late in the film he has an argument with Dr. Parker, the head of the company. Parker is played by Raymond Walburn, who would appear in two more Sturges films. When Demarest and Walburn get up a full head of steam, we have a scene that could only have come in a film written and directed by Preston Sturges. And you remember the chauffeur in McGinty? He was Frank Moran, and he appears here as Patrolman Murphy, a role his ex-boxer’s mug is perfect for. Al Bridge is the jewelry salesman Mr. Hillbeiner, whom Sturges gives a great scene with Jimmy and Betty. Bridge goes through a whole range of expressions, depending on how legitimate he suspects Jimmy’s money is. Bridge appears in the remaining six films we will be discussing.

There is still something early-’30s about the film as Jimmy, the little guy, triumphs. But Sturges the writer is undercutting the sentimentality that Riskin and Capra would have brought to the material. Those guys assume that it is only natural that the little guy triumph in America. Jimmy’s manager at Baxter’s is a little more skeptical, in the tradition of the “sweatshop” speech in McGinty. He tells Jimmy that he one day realized that he was never going to have $25,000 (the contest prize), and then later he realized, “I’m not a failure. I’m a success. You see, ambition is all right if it works, but no system could be right where only half of one per cent were successes and all the rest were failures. That wouldn’t be right. I’m not a failure, I’m a success, and so are you, if you earn your living and pay your bills and look the world in the eye.” Sturges slips that in as a throwaway speech rather than making a big deal of. It’s not given to the star, but to a minor character. Written in 1940, it is something for us in the 99% group to keep in mind.

Bitter Rice (1949. Screenplay by Giuseppe De Santis, Carlo Lizzani, Mario Monicelli (uncredited), Gianni Puccini; story by Giuseppe De Santis, Carlo Lizzani, Gianni Puccini; dialogue Franco Monicelli, (uncredited); writers: Corrado Alvaro, Carlo Musso, Ivo Perilli. 108 minutes.)

Bitter Rice

Lust! Murder! Crane shots! Neorealism?: This film has always been the black sheep of the Neorealist family. After all, Neorealism was supposed to tell stories of real people in real settings and deal with social problems of the time: the Nazis, poverty, more poverty. After the white telephone movies of the Mussolini era, the Neorealist films were above all serious, especially about society. And they were done with the most primitive filmmaking technology. Ah, not quite. The legend is that Rossellini shot Rome, Open City (1945) with what are called “short ends,” bits of film from film magazines not used in other productions. Oops, the recent restoration of the film shows that only four different film stocks were used, not unusual in a feature. And also, what is that rear projection shot doing in the truck scene in Bicycle Thief (1947)?

So Bitter Rice shows up in 1949 with a veneer of Neorealism. It is about women who go out into the rice paddies of the Po River valley in Northern Italy, the same area where Rossellini shot Paisan (1946). The women come out from their regular jobs for a short season of planting and harvesting rice. OK, poor people, that’s good. But the story only indirectly focuses on their social condition. It begins with a thief, Walter, and his moll, Francesca, escaping from the cops. Walter sends her on a train with the women going out to the paddies. Francesca befriends Silvana, and they begin to envy each other’s lifestyle. Walter shows up and Silvana gets the hots for him. He figures out a way to steal the rice before it gets to market. He tricks her into opening the dikes to flood the rice paddies while he loads up the truck. She discovers it, gunshots are fired.

I suppose you could write a piece now on how Bitter Rice is a pre-feminist piece, but in its day it was sensational in every sense. The camera (yes, there are crane shots, which do seem out of place in a Neorealist film) follows, to the point of ogling, the women, barefoot, in their rolled-up pants, as they wade into the fields. Even if you have never seen the film, you may well have seen the most famous still from it: Silvana Mangano, who plays Silvana, up to her bare calves in the paddies wearing a very tight sweater. That still, and the film, made Mangano an international star, even though her performance is one of the worst in the film. The picture was a huge success, not only in Italy, where it outgrossed all the other Neorealist classics, but all over the world.

And now it is considered respectable. The UCLA film archive recently ran a retrospective of classic Neorealist films and included Bitter Rice. The catalogue entry described it as “Giuseppe De Santis’ scorching crime drama set against a portrait of rural labor and exploitation.” Yeah, but as a studio head we will meet a couple of columns on would put it, “And a little sex.”

The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954, Screenplay by Harry Essex and Arthur A. Ross, story by Maurice Zimm, idea by William Alland. 79 minutes.) and Bend of the River (1952. Screenplay by Borden Chase, based on the novel Bend of the Snake by Bill Gulik. 91 minutes.)

The Creature from the Black Lagoon

Bend of the River

Orson and Gaby and William and Julie and Borden: According to film historian Alan K. Rode, early in the ’40s Orson Welles had a dinner party that included the great Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa. Gaby, as he was known to his friends, told the story of a creature in Mexico that stole young women unless there was a sacrifice to him. Everybody laughed, even though Gaby said he had pictures of it. One person who paid attention to the story was William Alland, who played Thompson the reporter in Citizen Kane (1941). A decade later Alland was a producer at Universal. There had just been a successful re-release of the 1933 version of King Kong, and Alland jotted down an idea for a rip-off in which Figueroa’s beast takes a blonde woman. The story and script were developed, and The Creature From the Black Lagoon was released in 1954 in 3D.

Fortunately sanity prevailed, and instead of a blonde, they cast a beautiful brunette contract player at Universal named Julie Adams. Her swimming scenes, in a stunning white bathing suit, have enthralled young boys of all ages ever since. (The copies of the swimsuit made for the film have all been lost, or else they would be worth a fortune on EBay.) Adams later said that over her long career she “could act her heart out and still only be remembered” for Creature. She never became a big star, but she has worked steadily in film, television and on the stage, and is still going strong in her eighties. She has also written her memoirs, The Lucky Southern Star: Reflections from the Black Lagoon. So in late October, the Larry Edmunds Bookshop and the American Cinemateque had a tribute/book signing at the Egyptian Theatre. I talked to her briefly as I was getting my copy of her book signed. I mentioned I had enjoyed a lot of her work over the years from Bend of the River to Murder, She Wrote. She looked a bit startled and said she hoped I had managed to stay awake through some of them. She is just as charming and down-to-earth off-screen as she is on. The evening included screenings of both Creature and her earlier film Bend of the River. Creature was even shown in 3D! And much as I generally hate contemporary 3D, the underwater shots in Creature are great at giving you a sense of the space involved.

The story of Creature is about as simple as they come: scientists discover a piece of a skeleton that suggests a creature and mount a full-scale (well, as full-scale as you can get on a B picture budget and not going off the Universal backlot) expedition. The Creature kills people and becomes entranced by Kay (Adams) swimming. Part of the Creature’s appeal to young men is that he is in the long line of ugly guys with the hots for beautiful women. See for example, in their many forms, Beauty and the Beast, Phantom of the Opera, Hunchback of Notre Dame, King Kong, and three-quarters of the horny teenager movies of the ’80s. The extras and those down the cast list die and the top-billed actors live, and we don’t know if the Creature is dead at the end. He wasn’t and ended up doing two sequels, but none of them had the appeal of the first one. Mainly because they didn’t have Adams and her swimstuit. And, at the risk of destroying all your illusions, Adams’s swimming double, Ginger Stanley. All the underwater shots were done in Florida with Stanley, and any shots done with Kay’s head above water were done at Universal with Adams.

Bend of the River is a much better picture, a terrific western shot in Technicolor in Oregon. The screenplay is by Borden Chase, who a few years before had written the story and co-written the screenplay for the classic 1948 Red River. Red River, as nearly everybody knows, is Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) on a cattle drive. I don’t know how much of this is from the novel that Chase worked from on Bend, but in the second half it turns into another variation on Mutiny on the Bounty, this time with a wagon train on its way to deliver supplies to some settlers. Adams is the daughter of the leader of the settlers and ends up driving one of the wagons on the trek. It is a stuntman who doubles her taking the wagon across a river. But it’s her in the closeups.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

Tom Stempel

Tom Stempel is an American film scholar and critic. He is a professor emeritus in film at Los Angeles City College, where he taught from 1971 to 2011.

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