The Man Who Spear-Gunned Flipper: A Dialogue with Ricou Browning

To spare (spear?) you the trouble of paging back, I’m going to reproduce my first letter to Mr. Browning here. He has not responded to my last letter, and I do not anticipate hearing any more from him.

Did he spear gun “Flipper”? You read the mail, consider the state of movie special effects in 1963 and be the judge.


Mr. Ricou Browning
Browning, Ricou & Fran
5221 SW 196th Ln
Southwest Ranches, FL 33332-1111

Feb. 20, 2019

Dear Mr. Browning,

I briefly met you once in 1971, I think, at the Miami Seaquarium. You were very busy fixing something that had sprung a leak, as I remember, and didn’t have much time to talk. I did remark upon your having played The Creature from the Black Lagoon,of course, which makes you immortal in the eyes of monster-lovers everywhere.

Another issue has cropped up, repeatedly, over the years regarding statements by Dr. John C. Lilly about how a dolphin named Pam was treated during the filming of “Flipper!”, the original 1963 movie. According to Lilly, the scenes where the dolphin is shot with a spear gun, and beaches itself, were actually filmed that way, with the dolphin impaled by a spear.

Lilly told me (not hearsay) that Pam was shot a total of 3 times in the peduncle to get the take. The first time, she swam back and allowed the spear to be removed. The second time, she couldn’t make up her mind what to do. The third time she headed for the high seas, had to be netted with the spear in her and returned to the beach to do the scenes with Luke Halpin and Katherine Maguire. Then, apparently, the spear was removed and the wound(s) treated.

Reportedly Pam was so traumatized by this she would not approach humans again. She was sold to Dr. Lilly who reportedly used her for LSD experiments, but that’s another story.

Lilly said “you” did this, but did it actually happen, and if so, what were the circumstances? Why couldn’t the effect have been done by an optical, or some other process? Were you directing the scene, or was somebody else? What really went on? And why was the dolphin left screaming on the beach during Halpin and Maguire’s scene? I just want to know the truth, and would like to get it from your lips. Lilly also told this story to David J. Brown, who included it in an interview with Lilly in his book Mavericks of the Mind,so the story is getting around.

I would like to know the truth, not only because I’m dedicated to it in my profession as a writer, but I would hate to see your reputation sullied because of it. It’s a nasty story, and I’m sure there must be some explanation for it; the film footage is there, unfortunately, to show that it happened, and I don’t think you had any animatronics that could do a scene like that in 1963.

Sincerely, Malcolm J. Brenner

RicouBrowning0002

Mr. Ricou Browning
Browning, Ricou & Fran
5221 SW 196th Ln
Southwest Ranches, FL 33332-1111

March 6, 2019

Dear Mr. Browning,

Thank you for responding to my letter of Feb. 20 with your information. Since the story has already been made public by David Jay Brown’s interview with Lilly in his book Mavericks of the Mind, do you mind if publish it, together with my letter inquiring about the incident? Putting them both together will allow me to rebut Lilly’s story.

However, I do mean to question you a little further, if you will indulge me. Please assume I am somewhat familiar with professional movie special effects. How exactly were the shots done of the beached dolphin with the spear sticking out of its side done? It’s thrashing around a lot, as I remember. Was this an early animatronic, a dummy, something like that? Do you remember who made it? I would appreciate knowing.

Finally, I think “a writer of any integrity” would check out the sources of all stories he/she heard and verify them before going public with them. Very often, he will have to explain things to an editor. Although I met Dr. Lilly and his wife Antoinette, attended a couple of his workshops (they mistook me for staff at one!) and interviewed him regarding his work with dolphins, I have no knowledge of where he got the story. However, in the spirit of open inquiry, I thought I’d ask as you are the last person who was there. I hope my boldness hasn’t offended you.

Sincerely yours, Malcolm J. Brenner

RicouBrowning0003

Dear Mr. Browning,

Thank you for your letter of March 20. Nothing you could tell me about Dr. Lilly (and very little about Ivan Tors) would surprise me. Lilly was widely known for both his abuse of dolphins and drugs.

What surprises me more is that you did not answer my question. You have responded satisfactorily about the scene where the dolphin was shot with a spear gun, but as to my question about the dolphin on the beach thrashing around with a spear in it while Luke Halpin and Kathleen Maguire are delivering their lines, no answer. You said, rather vaguely, that the scene was rendered by “special effects,” an all-inclusive term so vague as to be meaningless.

The IMDb data base does not list a special effects person in the crew of “Flipper,” and there is no credit given for special effects. (However, Dr. Lilly is listed as a consultant; TCM lists him as a “scientific advisor.”) It would be uncommon not to list such a credit, wouldn’t it?

Mr. Browning, it’s really a very simple question: If, as you say, a dummy, model or animatronic dolphin was used in the beach scenes, who built it? What person or shop in Hollywood? There were only so many people at the time who could do this and pull it off. The dolphin on the beach looks amazingly realistic to me, so whoever it was must have been good!

Over the years, you’ve made a lot of money off dolphins. I don’t begrudge you that, but I’d like to know the truth of what happened during the making of “Flipper.” I think you owe it to the dolphins. We now know they are creatures who name themselves, who recognize themselves in a mirror, who are arguably non-human persons. The truth is very simple to recognize, there’s no hiding it. You are being evasive and trying to divert me by bringing up Lilly. Please answer the question, and truthfully. Thank you.

Malcolm J. Brenner

 

August 8, 2019

Mr. Browning,

I apologize for not concluding this business sooner, but I have had an illness and also moved. Please note the new address, above, if you choose to reply.

This will be my last letter to you on the making of “Flipper” and whether the stunt dolphin was shot with a spear gun or not. Since you did not respond to my previous letter questioning the veracity of your claim that the shots on the rocks were done with undefined “special effects,” I presume you refuse to speak any further on the subject. Am I right?

Just let me finish by telling you that I bought “Flipper” from Amazon and watched it. And I thought that, at the time, it was very sympathetic to Florida families, what with the red tide, the hurricane and all. I guess it made Ivan Tors, or somebody, a lot of money.

However, regarding the subject of this letter: In the scene where the dolphin is spear gunned, the dolphin is hit on the left side of the peduncle with the spear, and immediately flexes sideways in that direction reflexively, it appears. Then, in the next scene, it changes direction, heading back where it came from and dragging the spear gun behind it. The spear gun lodges in some rocks.

(I regret I can’t capture some frames here for you to view, but I’ve had difficulty with Amazon letting me find the right frames.)

If, as you say, the spear’s pronged head had been replaced with a hypodermic needle, it seems to me it would have bent, broken off or been dislodged from the force of that flexion, not to mention the spear gun getting stuck in the rocks.

I will give you that you probably used a model for the distant scenes of the dolphin on the rocks. They were taken from such a distance I couldn’t tell.

However, when we come to the closeups of Luke Halpin with the dolphin on the rocks, with only apparently seaweed for padding, what I see looks like a very drugged dolphin. It isn’t flopping around, it isn’t trying to get off the rocks, and it sure as hell isn’t a motorized model or the primitive sort animatronics they had in 1963. It breathes most convincingly, just like a real dolphin.

As you know, drugging dolphins is very dangerous, because they have no breathing reflex, something our friend Dr. Lilly discovered at Marineland in the mid-50’s, much to the disgust of veterinarian Forrest Wood.

The titles for the movie, both opening and closing, bear no mention of who might have done the “special effects” you claim were used, or who might have built the prop dolphin.

I can only conclude that not only did you shoot a real dolphin with a spear gun (you have admitted as much yourself, except you say you used a hypodermic needle instead of the pronged head) but that you drugged that dolphin afterward to enable it to withstand the pain while you filmed on the rocks with Halpin. I’d contact Halpin, but I hear he has Alzheimer’s.

As I said, Mr. Browning, this is my last letter. I intend to post all our correspondence to my blog, malcolmbrenner.com/news, to make it available to anybody who wants to read it. I will, of course, include whatever answer you decide to make to this letter.

Not only have you admitted to spear-gunning the dolphin (and I doubt your explanation), but I now also accuse you of drugging that dolphin and failing to remove the spear from it in a timely manner. In short, you knowingly abused and tortured it to get the shots you wanted because you didn’t have the budget to do anything else (hire a special effects man, build a dummy).

Kind of subverts the whole premise of “Flipper,” doesn’t it? When you torture an animal to make a movie about a kid who has fun with animals, what does that say about you as a person? I think it’s hypocritical and debased and sadistic. You objectified a creature that is much like a human being, pretending it didn’t have feelings so you could get your shot and make your movie. And if you did it to them, you can do it to me, or anyone.

Care to convince me otherwise? – Malcolm J. Brenner



(Addendum: I can find no mention in Google’s database of “Eva Rinseya,” the French actress mentioned in Browning’s second letter.  If anybody knows anything about her, please contact me.)