Irwin Allen: Mover of Worlds

It’s shocking to me to realize that I haven’t done a proper tribute to visionary producer/ director Irwin Allen (1916-1991) prior to now. Allen’s film and television productions dominated my entire childhood, influenced and inspired the hell out of me. Though he has been virtually synonymous with the genre he brought into being, the disaster movie, since the 1970s, he actually made his mark in many genres, across both film and tv, making his mark in science fiction/ fantasy, and nature documentaries, and he even played a significant role in the later career of the Marx Brothers. He is at the center of so much that I love. He was an old school impresario, the principal heir to Cecil B. DeMille, and yet there are undeniable similarities to William Castle, Roger Corman, and even Ed Wood. Somehow he was both Big Budget and Low Budget, sometimes at the same time.

Allen’s origins are surprising, yet they make a great deal of sense. Originally, he went to City College, then transferred to the Columbia School of Journalism. Though he had to drop out due to financial difficulties (it was the Great Depression) his education allowed him to get a job editing a magazine in Los Angeles in the late 30s. This led to his making his mark in celebrity journalism, a natural springboard for the remainder of his career — stars would always be central to his oeuvre. From 1941 through 1952 he produced The Irwin Allen Show on local Hollywood radio, later renamed Hollywood Merry-Go-Round. He also had a syndicated newspaper column under the latter name, as well as a television edition, which ran from 1949 through 1951, with no less than Steve Allen as the announcer. This got him in on the ground floor of the new medium. He also ran an advertising agency, a very useful muscle for the career on which he was about to embark. He became an expert at assembling all the necessary pieces to make deals happen: signing authors, stars, and properties that could attract backers.

To break into movies he served a brief apprenticeship with a gent named Irving Cummings, first with a 1950 noir thriller called Where Danger Lives with Robert Mitchum, Claude Rains, and Faith Domergue. But next comes the Marx Brothers connection! For Allen was involved in Groucho’s last two starring vehicles and the last film to contain all three Marx Brothers. He co-produced Double Dynamite (1951) and A Girl in Every Port (1952) with Cummings. And he produced The Story of Mankind (1957), featuring Groucho, Harpo and Chico, and dozens of other stars — we’ll return to that one in a second.

Note the killer eel

But first — nature documentaries?! Yes, nature documentaries. Believe it or not, he won an Oscar for his 1952 adaptation of Rachel Carson’s book The Sea Around Us. In 1956, he made The Animal World. But even in these purportedly educational films, Allen’s hacky instincts were already coming to the fore. Both films relied extensively on stock footage (hence the comparison to Ed Wood above). The Sea Around Us was full of sensationalism, including an extended bloody sequence of whales being slaughtered. And The Animal World featured a nine minute stop-motion dinosaur section animated by Ray Harryhausen. But something else is notable. The Sea Around Us establishes Allen’s fascination with the power and majesty and terror of the oceans and nature in general, a theme he would return to again and again.

We next come to the brief phase when Allen was most overtly like DeMille. As we blogged here, The Story of Mankind has echoes of DeMille’s The Ten Commandments, which had been released the year before with an all-star cast, including some actors in common (e..g., Vincent Price). Yet it was done on the cheap, with huge portions of the film consisting of obvious stock footage from previous Biblical and Roman epics. In 1959 he made The Big Circus, an obvious rip-off of DeMille’s The Greatest Show on Earth. 

Next comes his sci-fi fantasy phase (presaged by that Harryhausen section in The Animal World). In 1960 he remade the 1925 classic The Lost World (based on the Conan Doyle novel), starring Michael Rennie, Claude Rains and Jill St. John. Then came Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961) with Walter Pidgeon, Joan Fontaine, Peter Lorre, Barbara Eden, Michael Ansara and Frankie Avalon (with theme song sung by Avalon). Then Jules Verne’s Five Weeks in a Balloon (1962), again, loaded with stars: Red Buttons, Fabian, Eden again, Lorre again, Cedrick Hardwicke, Herbert Marshall, Reginald Owen, Henry Daniell and Billy Gilbert. 

He next moved into television where he was able to keep old school sci-fi vital long after it had wilted at the box office. The best remembered of these shows was the classic Lost in Space (1965-1968), probably what he is best remembered for (after his disaster movies) due to its big success in syndication. But there was also the tv version of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-1968), The Time Tunnel (1966-1967), Land of the Giants (1968-1970), and City Beneath the Sea (1971, a pilot for an unsold series). During the sixties at least, Allen was actually a much more successful producer of tv science fiction than Gene Roddenberry.

A very tall disaster

In the 1970s, he shifted gears and enjoyed his biggest success. As I blogged here, The Poseidon Adventure (1972) was the first film I ever saw in a cinema. It made a major impact on me and remains one of my favorite films. Seen from the perspective of time, Allen’s producing of this film at this juncture, and the fashion in which he did it, is not unlike William Castle’s decision to make Rosemary’s Baby in 1969. He saw that cinema was changing, and he disciplined himself to create a big-budget blockbuster that spoke to those changes (although, without a doubt 20th Century Fox had a major hand in keeping Allen to that discipline). His next film 1974’s The Towering Inferno (which I blogged about here) extended the magic yet again on an even larger scale, although it does contain some warning signs that he would revert to form as soon as was given the opportunity.

But next — a forgotten gem, but one I haven’t forgotten, because I was a big fan of it. In 1975 and 1976 he produced his next TV series The Swiss Family Robinson starring Adam 12’s Martin Milner, Cameron Mitchell, a young Helen Hunt, and Willie Aames (who would soon go on to bigger stardom in Eight is Enough). The Swiss Family Robinson had been the obvious inspiration for Lost in Space. The new version went back to the original children’s classic and was excellent family entertainment.  Ditto his 1978 minseries The Return of Captain Nemo, with Jose Ferrer in the title role. If Allen’s career had ended here it would have ended on a high note.

“I want the letters on the logo to resemble the cracking wall of a dam!”

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, depending on your point of view), his career did NOT end there. The terrific financial success of The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno gave Allen lots of power and influence. Not just because of his own films, but many imitations showed he was the inventor of a sure-fire genre. Earthquake (1974) rivaled Towering Inferno at the box office, and several sequels to 1970’s Airport were clearly made in response to the phenomenon. Even Roger Corman got in on the action with Avalanche (1978).

And now suddenly Allen had all of the power of DeMille, but was still imbued with many of the bottom feedings instincts of Corman, Castle and Wood. He chose to exercise his newfound power by making the campy dreck with which his name has been associated ever since. He made eight more disaster films in four years. Five of them were for television — with television budgets and production values. He may have been inspired to transfer the genre to TV by the 1974 telefilm Hurricane, which for years I assumed was an Allen production, but was not. But Allen followed its template anyway with Flood! (1976), Fire! (1977), Hanging by a Thread (1979), The Night the Bridge Fell Down (1979), and Cave-in! (1979).

And he made three more films for theatrical release. Because he had directed the action sequences of Poseidon and Inferno he made the grave error of thinking he ought to direct now as well as produce. He decided to helm The Swarm (1978) and Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979) himself, and great sprawling, hilarious messes they are.

The Swarm was clearly a response to Steven Spielberg’s Jaws (1975), but Allen was clearly out of his element. Spielberg, a cinematic genius, had now set the bar of quality impossibly high. (Although Spielberg and Allen shared one important thing in common: an appreciation for the genius of composer John Williams. Williams had written the music for Lost in Space, Land of the Giants, The Poseidon Adventure and The Towering Inferno prior to beginning his long association with Spielberg). At all events, compared to New Hollywood mavericks like Spielberg, Allen now seemed by comparison old-fashioned, irrelevant, and quite simply, stinky. He got someone else to direct his volcano movie When Time Ran Out (1980), but that one was no less a sprawling, hilarious mess than his other two recent pictures.

Allen was not yet through, however. In 1981 and 1982, he produced the series Code Red about a family of Los Angeles fire fighters, close to the disaster genre, but also close to the procedurals (e.g., Emergency!) that were then still popular.

The Lion and the Unicorn. Beau Bridges as the latter; Ernest Borgnine as the former.

In 1985 he produced his astoundingly awful all-star mini-series version of Alice in Wonderland, a masterpiece of terribleness, not to be believed. It has about 100 recognizable names in it — some of them respected ones. Even the name “Irwin Allen’s Alice in Wonderland” makes me laugh heartily. It’s like something from SCTV. It’s a certainty that I’ll be blogging further in much more depth about this debacle and all of the Allen projects I have not yet done posts about. Maybe I’ll get to some of them later today.

Allen’s last credit was the highly uncharacteristic Outrage (1986), a tv movie about a lawyer having to defend an unsympathetic client.  After this, health problems prevented further output.

I joke, as everybody does, about Allen’s foibles and missteps, but where I may differ from most (ill-informed) others is in my level of overall respect. For he did leave a legacy. Obviously, the disaster movie has made a comeback in the last couple of decades. Frankly I don’t like any of them as much as I like Allen’s, including Allen’s bad ones, although they certainly owe him a debt. Roland Emmerich is his most obvious heir, both in terms of special effects, and in terms of cramming your vehicle with stars. I think anyone in the stunt or special effects field can tell you how groundbreaking and influential he was. They had to solve new problems to make films like Poseidon and Inferno — I’m sure they are still using solutions devised by Allen’s team. And as a promoter and producer he is to be idolized. Frankly, it’s how it’s done. I admire his ballyhoo to no end.

 

 

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