Flipper Meets the Creature from the Black Lagoon

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I enjoy reading and writing about the cinematic history of my adopted home state of Florida . From the silent era when Jacksonville almost became the center of the industry until now, Florida has served as an attractive location for film production.

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BROWNING AS THE CREATURE. ANOTHER ACTOR DONNED THE COSTUME FOR THE SCENES SHOT ON LAND, WHICH HAS CAUSED SOME BICKERING OVER THE YEARS.

One of the state’s biggest cinematic treasures has to be Ricou Browning, a director, writer, stuntman, and underwater cinematographer. While the handsome octogenarian remains active, movie fans will remember him as The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Browning was working as a professional swimmer at Weeki Wachee Springs when he was hired to portray the Creature for the underwater sequences in the original film. He also returned to the “lagoon” for the two sequels. In 1958, Browning was hired by Ivan Tors for stunt work on the television series Sea Hunt, which often filmed in Florida. Eventually, Tors hired him to shoot some of the underwater scenes for the series. With his experience in underwater cinematography as well as his expertise in swimming and diving, Browning developed a unique set of skills during his years with Sea Hunt and the Creature flicks.

In the early 1960s, Browning and his brother -in-law, Jack Cowden, collaborated on a story about a boy who befriends an injured dolphin. The pair had hoped for a book deal, but their proposals were rejected. When Ricou showed the story to Tors, the producer recognized its potential to be the kind of family entertainment he wanted to make. Browning and Tors joined together to produce the classic animal adventure Flipper, which airs on TCM this Saturday at noon, EST.

BROWNING WITH ONE OF HIS "ACTORS"

BROWNING WITH ONE OF HIS “ACTORS”

The first star cast for Flipper was the dolphin Mitzi (sometimes spelled “Mitzie”), who was no ordinary dolphin. Browning had decided against looking for a dolphin in Florida’s many marine parks, because they lacked the kind of experience with humans necessary for the story. While driving down Highway One through Grassy Key, Browning and Tors came across Santini’s Porpoise School (now the Dolphin Research Center). Owners Milton and Virginia Santini captured and trained dolphins for researchers and aquariums. It seems Mitzi was a part of their “staff.” It was her job to calm the newly captured dolphins and to show them the ropes. As soon as he locked eyes with Mitzi, Browning knew he had found their star.

HALPIN AND MITZI AFTER THEY PERFECTED THEIR TRICK.

HALPIN AND MITZI AFTER THEY PERFECTED THEIR TRICK.

Browning pioneered a method for training Mitzi that was counter to the methods used by marine parks. He knew that the dolphin was already accustomed to humans, so he decided to get into the water with her instead of issuing commands from the edge of a pool. Mitzi liked the interaction and was able to learn her tricks and routines quite quickly. In the story, the boy, played by Luke Halpin (a 1960s heartthrob for the teen set), hung onto Flipper’s back and rode along as the dolphin swam. Browning needed to figure out how to get Mitzi to accept this maneuver. Mitzi already knew how to fetch, so Browning decided to adjust the trick to see if she would “fetch” a human. He threw his son into the water like an object, and he gave the dolphin the signal to fetch. Mitzi quickly figured out the new game and grabbed the boy’s belt loop, towing him to Browning. The boy placed his arm around the dolphin as she pulled him along. After a bit of practice, she allowed the boy to hold onto her fin as she swam, enjoying the camaraderie and playfulness. Browning credited the research of Dr. John C. Lilly, who wanted to break down the communication barrier between humans and dolphins, in helping him with his approach to training. If the name sounds familiar, it might be because Lilly was also interested in expanding human consciousness, which he attempted to do with sensory deprivation tanks and LSD. Some of his work has been discredited.

CHUCK CONNORS AND LUKE HALPIN AS PORTER AND SANDY RICKS

CHUCK CONNORS AND LUKE HALPIN AS PORTER AND SANDY RICKS. CONTRARY TO CONNORS’ COSTUMES IN THIS FILM, NATIVE FLORIDIANS DO NOT GENERALLY GO SHIRTLESS ON A DAILY BASIS.

IN MEMORY OF MITZI

The location shooting for Flipper was done in the Bahamas, but the tricky underwater sequences were shot in Everglades City and in the Miami Seaquarium. Soundstage sequences were done at Tors’ production facility in North Miami, Ivan Tors Studios. Released in 1963, Flipper was a box office hit that summer, returning between $5 and $8 million dollars on a $500,000 investment. It led to a sequel, Flipper’s New Adventure, and a popular television show. Mitzi starred in the sequel but not the series.

ANIMAL LOVER IVAN TORS ALSO PRODUCED 'DAKTARI' AND 'GENTLE BEN.'

ANIMAL LOVER TORS ALSO PRODUCED ‘DAKTARI’ AND ‘GENTLE BEN.’

Tors produced a number of animal series and movies during the 1960s. He built an animal park in Palm Beach Gardens, where his animal actors were kept and trained. Browning was a principle member of the creative team for the Flipper television series, serving as writer, director, and stuntman. At one point, Tors appointed him president of his North Miami studio. Tors, Browning, and Jack Arnold, the director of The Creature of the Black Lagoon, reteamed in 1969 for the family comedy Hello Down There in which scientist Tony Randall and his family live in an underwater house as an experiment. Browning directed the underwater sequences, and Arnold directed the dialogue scenes.

After the Flipper adventures, Mitzi returned as a bona fide star to the Santinis’ facility, where she died in 1972. A sculpture of Mitzi dancing backward on her tail, a trademark move from the film and the series, still marks her grave. If you find yourself driving through the Florida Keys, stop by the Dolphin Research Center and pay your respects. Mitzi deserves it for introducing millions of land-locked kids, like myself, to the wonders of the sea.

11 Responses Flipper Meets the Creature from the Black Lagoon
Posted By robbushblog : September 12, 2016 6:42 pm

I have always loved dolphins, and Flipper (mainly the TV show) is to blame for that. I didn’t know that Ricou was involved with it. Very cool.

Posted By robbushblog : September 12, 2016 6:44 pm

Oh, and some people who work on the water do go shirtless often, but most of them aren’t as in shape as Chuck Connors.

Posted By Doug : September 12, 2016 9:59 pm

If you will allow me to resurrect an old joke,
“Naming a dolphin Flipper is like naming a kid ‘Arm’.”
Exactly right to call this ‘Family entertainment’. I enjoyed the show back in the day, though I was more drawn to ‘Lost In Space” and “Batman”.
“Flipper” was cool, though. I wasn’t aware that there was a feature film first-thank you, Susan, for another fine Florida post. I spent a month in Key West once, but the month was August so I roasted.

Posted By Pamela Porter : September 12, 2016 11:57 pm

I grew up in Jacksonville FL, and spent more than a few hours at Marineland. Flipper and Creature are fond childhood memories.

Posted By Lloyd : September 16, 2016 9:37 pm

Flipper was the very first movie I saw in a film theater. I guess that makes Mitzi my first screen icon, because I didn’t remember anyone else from the cast :)

Posted By Jenni Giesey : September 17, 2016 12:11 am

My husband’s paternal grandparents retired to FL, from MI, in the late 1950s. My husband spent a lot of his childhood visiting these grandparents. In 1964, when hubby was a baby, his older sister and brother got to go on a Dolphin excursion, I don’t know if it was at Marineland, and Sea World wasn’t in existance then, but kids got into saltwater and a dolphin would let the kids take hold of the dorsal fin and then pull the kids around for a ride. By the time my husband would have been old enough to do this, the state of FL had decreed such an attraction illegal, so my husband never got to go for this dolphin ride.

Posted By swac44 : September 19, 2016 5:18 pm

I used to see the feature version of Flipper on local TV movie matinee programs all the time. I guess it was family-friendly and fit the running time, so it would get programmed at least once a year. Enjoyed the TV show, and the myriad animal-starring spin-offs it led to, like Gentle Ben, Salty the Sea-Lion, George (about a St. Bernard) and, of course, Skippy, the Bush Kangaroo, which I’ve recently been rewatching for its Aussie camp value.

Posted By Juana Maria : September 23, 2016 8:20 pm

I have watched “The Creature of the Black Lagoon” and “Flipper” when I was little and many times since.

Posted By Everette Eats World : October 2, 2016 11:50 pm

Wuh? When I read the title I thought I was going to read an article on the movie, Day of the Dolphin, with George C. Scott. Imagine my surprise. You really meant Flipper?!

Posted By David Cooper : May 9, 2017 12:26 pm

Flipper was a wonderful show when I was a young man. One of the best of all animal shows; thank you Ivan Tors! I would like to see both Tommy Norden and Luke Halpin at the “Hollywood Collectors Show” here in Los Angeles. Tom, you really should come out and meet your fans; I would be absolutely more than ecstatic to communicate with you; you and Flipper were the true stars of the show.

Posted By J. Michael Lenninger : March 25, 2018 1:20 pm

Virginia Santini ran the “Porpoise Training School” as a tourist attraction. She lived directly across the canal from us on Yellowtail Drive. Mitzi died in her arms. Hugh Downs had a dolphin who performed there. She had one of the first commercial microwave ovens in her snack bar.

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