Warning: Spoilers galore
My favorite part of our trip was in the evenings. When we were treated to a driving and walking tour of Los Angeles, Hollywood, to be specific. Of all the places we visited, I especially loved seeing Hollywood Boulevard. Hollywood Blvd. was always kind of tacky, but not to my utterly overwhelmed and enthralled eyes. In the early 1970s, it was still a place to go to see first-run movies, where premieres were held, and where they had their annual Christmas parade populated with actual movie stars you've heard of. Hollywood Blvd...all decked out in Christmas decorations, stars on the sidewalks, overflowing with one lit-up movie palace after another…to my eyes, it looked every bit as magical as Main Street in Disneyland.
Who Will Survive--In One Of The Greatest Escape Adventures Ever!
|Gene Hackman as Reverend Frank Scott|
|Ernest Borgnine as Mike Rogo|
|Stella Stevens as Linda Rogo|
All of the 1972 holiday movie releases were playing in the local theaters: Grauman's Chinese featured Streisand's Up The Sandbox, Diana Ross was at The Pantages in Lady Sings the Blues, the Cinerama Dome had the Patty Duke thriller You'll Like My Mother, the Pacific was showing The Getaway with Steve McQueen & Ali MacGraw, and Paul Newman was at the Hollywood (currently a Ripley's Believe It or Not museum) in The Life & Times of Judge Roy Bean.
Back then, movie theaters still went all out in the way of marketing gimmicks and displays, so every theater was bathed in colorful neon, aglow with bright and flashing lights, and everywhere you looked were banners, streamers, oversized posters, and colossal cardboard promotional cutouts for movies now playing or coming soon. My eyes were popping out of my head.
As we strolled along Hollywood Boulevard that night, what really stopped me in my tracks was when we came upon the opulent and enormous Egyptian Theater. There, towering at least two stories high above the theater's massive, winding marquee, was the poster art for a film I'd somehow not heard a single thing about: The Poseidon Adventure. The Egyptian, then every bit as glamorous as Grauman's Chinese, was in the middle of an exclusive run of The Poseidon Adventure after hosting the film's premiere a week prior. The remaining evidence of the event was the massive cast portraits adorning the sprawling marquee, taller-then-me cutout posters, hanging banners, production stills, posters, and lobby cards filling every inch of available display space. Suddenly I was surrounded by images of what looked like the most exciting film I'd never heard of.
|Shelley Winters as Belle Rosen|
|Jack Albertson as Manny Rosen|
|Red Buttons as James Martin|
|Carol Lynley as Nonnie Parry|
To understand how a dyed-in-the-wool film fan like myself managed not to hear a single advance word about a movie that became one of my all-time favorites but the second highest-grossing film of the year, it helps to know what kind of year for film 1972 was. In both fan magazines and the legitimate press, the lion's share of 1972 movie coverage/publicity centered around these high-profile titles: The Godfather (Brando's comeback!), Cabaret (Judy's daughter makes good!), Last Tango in Paris (Le Scandale!), Lady Sings the Blues (a Supreme film debut!), The Getaway (behind-the-scenes adultery!), and What's Up Doc? (Streisand meets New Hollywood wunderkind!).
With no nudity, sex, drug use, violent bloodshed, or profanity, The Poseidon Adventure, an old-fashioned throwback to the Grand Hotel-style "all-star cast" melodrama, couldn't really compete with the more daring, youth-oriented releases of the season, so it pitched itself more to the market largely ignored by the New Hollywood: families and the older demographic.
|Roddy McDowall as Acres|
|Pamela Sue Martin as Susan Shelby|
|Eric Shea as Robin Shelby|
|Leslie Nielsen as Captain Harrison|
|Arthur O'Connell as John, the ship's Chaplain|
The Poseidon Adventure opened on December 15th in Los Angeles and opened a week later back home in San Francisco, where I saw it on Friday the 22nd at the Alexandria Theater. I sat through The Poseidon Adventure twice that weekend and went back to see it two more times over the Christmas holiday. I absolutely loved the film, and it left its mark. For weeks afterward, I couldn't enter a classroom, library, store, or friend's home without imagining what it would look like upside down.
WHAT I LOVE ABOUT THIS MOVIE
It says a lot about the traditionalism of TV and studio-era films that by the time I was 15, I'd already grown pretty well-versed in recognizing movie clichés. While I'd not yet seen many of the films that established the familiar tropes from which so many '70s disaster movies would later draw (The High and the Mighty, Zero Hour!, The Last Voyage), I was familiar enough with combat movies (dangerous situation + dissimilar people from all walks of life + hero = everyone discovers what they're really made of); all-star ensemble flicks (the aforementioned Grand Hotel, Tales of Manhattan); and waterlogged melodramas (Lifeboat, A Night to Remember), for The Poseidon Adventure's high-concept upside-down ocean liner premise to seem intensely original yet reassuringly familiar.
|Reverend Scott, not looking exactly pleased to have someone besides himself talking.|
Far left is actress Frieda Rentie, sister of 227 actress Marla Gibbs
On New Year's Eve, the ocean liner S.S. Poseidon (significantly, at least in terms of ironic poignancy, making her final voyage before the scrap heap) is capsized by a tidal wave. While several passengers survive the breathtakingly entertaining catastrophe, only nine of the ship's most stock and photogenic passengers ultimately elect to follow the long-winded Reverend Scott (Hackman) on a perilous climb to safety by navigating their way up to the ship's bottom.
All involved—save for the resourceful reverend, who oozes so much self-reliance and leadership qualities he can't help but grow tiresome—are spectacularly ill-suited to the task. Still, any life-or-death struggle that begins with a ragtag group of "types" having to climb a big, tinselly Christmas tree to salvation is my kind of calamity. And so, armed with little more than pluck, guts, elderly body-shaming, and tight-fitting hot pants, our intrepid troupe begins their adventure.
Meet The Players / Character Shorthand
|He's a Rebel 'Cause He Never, Ever Does What He Should|
Rev. Scott--who's such a hip, throw-out-the-(Good) book type he wears a turtleneck instead of a clerical collar--assists in moving the plot along by actually listing his character aloud
In the 1972 shout-fest X, Y and Zee, Elizabeth Taylor has the line: "I may be the worst thing in the world, but I carry it in front where you can see it!" Well, if The Poseidon Adventure could speak, that would be its mantra. It's old-fashioned, schlocky, and loaded with what director Ronald Neame (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) labeled "cardboardy" characters; but the film carries it all out in front where you can see.
The Poseidon Adventure wears its corniness proudly on its sleeve. And as a 20th Century Fox production, its asserted broad-market, family-friendly appeal feels like a purposeful shift in direction from Fox's rather desperate previous attempts to court the youth market: Myra Breckinridge -1970, The Panic in Needle Park -1971, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.
The terrible remake (which Carol Lynley called "The biggest piece of shit I've ever seen") cost 32 times more and had CGI wizardry up the ass, but I never gave a whit about what happened to anyone in it, and cannot clearly recall a single scene. The Poseidon Adventure was ripped apart by many critics in its day, but it has aged remarkably well. What seemed corny in 1972 looks rather sweet today. And creators of today's largely disposable and indistinguishable action films could use a lesson on how The Poseidon Adventure takes the time to get us to know/care about the characters before the mayhem starts. The Poseidon Adventure is now 45 years old. Despite its well-earned reputation as a campy favorite, I can't help but think that in the realm of disaster movies, The Poseidon Adventure is some kind of a minor classic of the genre.
|As both Beyond The Poseidon Adventure and The Swarm proved, the result is a guaranteed disaster film any time Irwin Allen chooses to direct. The Poseidon Adventure is directed by Ronald Neame, with Allen on hand only to handle the action sequences|
One of the peculiarities of the disaster film genre is that things don't actually improve when "good" actors are cast. Due to the unique demands of a film dominated by fast plotting and special effects, personality tends to win out over performance. Nothing bogs a disaster movie down more than a so-called serious actor trying too hard. For example: for all their innate talent, you'd have to look to an Ed Wood movie to find performances worse than Olivia de Havilland in The Swarm, or Rock Hudson in Avalanche.
No, with the genre's emphasis on action and expediency, it's often a matter of finding actors with distinct, identifiable, almost over-emphatic screen personas, capable of projecting a level of conviction appropriate to the arch dialogue and bigger-than-life exploits.
Much in the manner that Vincent Price became the master of schlock horror sincerity, disaster film actors who take their roles too seriously come off as ridiculous. Meanwhile, the most compelling performances are often given by those who seem to operate on a level of magic realism that hovers somewhere between authentic and artificial.
The distinction I'm trying to make is that while the cast of The Poseidon Adventure may be quite accomplished actors in their own right, what they're called upon to do in the film doesn't require "good" acting so much as "effective" acting. To make material like this believable, it matters more to strike the right tone; in which case performances ranging from hammy to hoary can prove to be 100% on the money.
THE STUFF OF DREAMS
By no means all, but just a few of my favorite things:
|I don't care how dated the special effects are; the capsizing of The Poseidon is epic moviemaking|
(Gotta love Red Buttons during this part. That's not acting!)
|No one on the Poseidon faced a bigger challenge than these two trying to find the beat of the music|
|I love Mrs. Rosen|
|Even in 1972, the Hot Pants Under The Gown Reveal drew gasps and laughs.|
Loving Linda's reaction
The biggest shock of the film. It got laughs, applause, and cheers
|I love Linda Rogo|
The Poseidon Adventure is a favorite. You'll never hear me call it one of the best films ever made; I don't buy into revisionist assessments ranking it a genuine classic (it's great for what it is, but let's not forget what it is); nor do I harbor illusions about its depiction of women (save for Belle and her big moment, the men are all active while the women are reactive) and lack of people of color in the principal cast (Akers & Belle occupy the stereotypical roles of ethnics in action films: "first to die" and "noble sacrifice").
Yet there's no denying The Poseidon Adventure is one of those imperfect films that achieve a lightning-in-a-bottle kind of excellence. From script (dialogue, primarily) to characterizations, to outlandish (albeit exciting) premise; it shouldn't really work as beautifully as it does. But you'd have to look hard and long to find a disaster film that does it better. I've come to regard it with such fondness. I've noticed that over the years, my laughs of derision have turned into laughs of affection. Despite its flaws, I fully understand why it has endured and why so many people have taken it to their hearts.
In 1973 MAD magazine once again did a movie satire that hit the nail on the head. In "The Poopsidedown Adventure," the characters are named: Reverend Shout, Hammy & Bellow Roseman, Snoozin & Rotten, Mr. Martyr, Ninny, Mr. Rougho, Limber, and Apers.
Copyright © Ken Anderson 2009 - 2017