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Updated: March 25, 2006

Original Ricou Browning "Gill Man" mask from The Creature from the Black Lagoon. (UIP, 1954) The Gill Man, perhaps the most recognizable film monster of 1950s-era science-fiction and certainly the genre's most iconic figure, had its origins in a tall tale told by a South American director at a dinner party hosted by Orson Welles in the early 1950s. In attendance at the dinner was William Alland, who would become the producer of The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Alland, a member of Orson Welles famous Mercury Theater Stage Company, had ventured out to Hollywood with the venerable Welles to pursue a filmmaking career.

The story, as told by the South American director, was gripping. According to legend, deep in the jungles of the Amazon there existed a race of beings who lived underwater, and prowled the banks of the Amazon River. Human in shape, they had gills instead of ears, webbed hands and feet, and scaly, fishlike skin. A friend of the director had organized a small expedition to search the Amazon for these creatures - an expedition which never returned. Months passed before natives discovered and brought back to civilization a camera which had belonged to the explorers. The developed film revealed a seven-foot creature with all the fishlike characteristics described by the legend.

Alland was haunted by the story, and over the course of the next several months the idea took hold of him as the seed of a new horror film, perfect for the silver screen. He presented a rudimentary synopsis to the studio heads at Universal-International, and the film was born.

The star of the film, the Gill Man, required an elaborate costume that would be fabricated by the talented make-up effects department at Universal. Director Jack Arnold came up with the basic look for the Creature. He later recalled his struggle in conjuring up the basic design: "...what the hell was this guy going to look like? I had this little plaque from when I was nominated for the Academy Award - it had this little Oscar on it. I began to imagine what he would look like with a fish head and fins..." So, based on the Academy's revered statuette and Arnold's creative vision, the costume was sketched out on paper by Millicent Patrick, and fabricated by Jack Kevan under the direction of Bud Westmore. Reportedly, the head was sculpted over a bust of actress Ann Sheridan, because it was one of the few life masks in the Universal make-up department that had a neck, and it was especially important to producer William Alland that the Creature have gills on the throat that could be manipulated. According to Universal's publicity, the costume took about 8 1/2 months to research and develop, and was valued at $18,000.

Two versions of the costume were made - one for the out-of-water scenes, and another for the underwater sequences. The underwater costume and mask was designed for Ricou Browning, the actor assigned to portray the character in the underwater scenes and the first person to be cast in the Gill Man role. Browning was chosen because, according to Arnold, he could stay underwater for almost five minutes without taking a breath. (Later, actor Ben Chapman would be hired to play the Creature out of water, presumably because of his greater physical size). The underwater scenes - for which the film is most famous - were shot in Florida, primarily at Wakulla Springs. It was the Florida unit that would shoot the film's most memorable scene - the suspenseful yet beautiful sequence when, as the heroine takes a swim, the Creature lurks beneath her in the water, following her every movement in an eerie "underwater ballet".

The latex head and mask appliance offered here was made specifically for the underwater scenes. A full latex two-piece casting, it was painted in a greenish/yellow hue so that it would show up well on film. The paint was applied with a stippling action using a paint brush and/or sponge, and slight imperfections from the original casting can still be located on the mask. Although the mask is now slightly distorted from age and exhibits a few minor tears along the lower edges and on the bridge of the nose, it is in remarkable shape and can be easily stabilized and preserved.

The Gill Man costume was a triumph of the Universal-International makeup department, and the lasting impression it made on audiences forever changed the way people perceived the water, and the creatures that may (or may not!) reside in it. The Creature from the Black Lagoon was not only a major success at the box office, earning by the end of 1954 some $3 million, but has influenced countless other films and filmmakers in the 50+ years since its release. This vintage mask, made for Ricou Browning's use in the thrilling underwater scenes of the film, is the only Gill Man mask we've ever encountered, and is most likely the only original mask to have survived.

It is, without question, one of the most important science-fiction/horror artifacts ever made available to collectors, from perhaps the most recognizable creature in Hollywood history.

Note: This mask comes with signed letters of authenticity from both Ricou Browning, who played the "underwater" Gill Man, and Ben Chapman, who played the "walking" Gill Man in the film. This piece as also been authenticated as an original Gill Man mask by noted Hollywood prop authority Bob Burns.

Provenance: Ricou Browning, Millicent Patrick, Glen Loates, and Sotheby's Collectors Carousel, December 1989. Reference: Famous Monsters of Filmland

Value: $30,000 - $50,000

(*) Photos and info courtsey of Profiles in History!

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