Thoughts on Paul Gallico

Around the time I was in Junior High School, circa 1977, I bought a paperback copy of Paul Gallico’s 1969 The Poseidon Adventure.

The 1972 film adaptation was (and remains) one of my favorite movies, but in retrospect I’m wondering if I wasn’t triggered into seeking it out by news of the author’s then-recent death (he’d passed away just a few months before.) At any rate, this book was one of the first grown-up novels I read on my own initiative for pleasure, and I’m quite certain it is the novel I have read and re-read the most times. I don’t state it with pride. The book is a little trashy, a little best-sellery. But it’s full of cover-to-cover thrills (about a handful of passengers determined to escape a capsized ocean liner), and plenty of quirks, and lots of pleasant associations for me. It’s comfort food.

I have one very pleasant memory of lying on the couch reading it on a hot summer day with Paul McCartney’s hit song of the moment “With a Little Luck” playing on the radio, and ever since then I have paired the two: the novel and the song. I had an idea it would be a great theme song for a movie remake that was closer to the novel than the 1972 film, with its optimistic lyrics, and those adventure-soundtrack minor chords on the bridge. It was not dissimilar from “The Morning After”, related but unrelated to the plot. As with my other favorite book The Wizard of Oz, the original Poseidon Adventure novel was full of great stuff that I wanted to see in the movie, but didn’t make the cut: a drunk bounder nicknamed “the Beamer”, a cheerful Turkish oiler from the engine room, a soft millionaire playboy, a Julie Andrews-like English spinster. The two kids (on their own in the film) are accompanied by their parents, a couple of repressed upper middle-class people from Detroit. Unbearably, the boy Robin gets lost on the journey and is never found again. His sister Susan get raped. The unhinged Preacher who leads them Dr. Scott (Gene Hackman in the movie) might be gay. Because I read the book at such an impressionable age (about 12) it was far more influential on me as a human being than it had any right to be. You know how it is, quite randomly, your first literary experiences introduce you to new concepts, new vocabulary, new facts of life. So there are countless such that I can trace back to this book.

My 44 year old copy. Still readin’ it, periodically

And yet, with my more mature critical hat on, I go back and look at his writing and realize that he is one of the many that one would have to categorize as “almost great”. His background was in journalism. He liked to spin yarns, ranging from realism to fantasy, but he wasn’t really concerned with “deeper levels of meaning” or with poeticism. The Poseidon Adventure is a case in point. It comes within hailing distance of being an allegory about sinners on some kind of journey out of hell. Most of the characters are attached to some vice or character flaw, almost to the point of embodying it in some way. And the journey toward the top (bottom) of the ship reminds one of epic, of Virgil or Dante or The Pilgrim’s Progress. But Gallico steers away from the full ride that would have been, almost as if he would be embarrassed by such a self-conscious thing. The material so badly wants to be that, and his subconscious seems to as well, as it bubbles up latently throughout the book. But Gallico stops short of taking it all the way there. Knowing more about the writer illuminates why that may have been.

Paul Gallico (1897-1976) was the son of European parents. His mother was Austrian, his father an Italian classical musician. Soon after graduating from Columbia in 1919 he became a sportswriter for the New York Daily News, where he remained for almost 20 years, progressing to editing the sports page and being a popular columnist. To be a prominent sportswriter during the great age of sport that was the 1920s was to be smack dab in the middle of the Big Show. Decades before George Plimpton got famous for doing so, Gallico made a name for himself by putting HIMSELF in the sports stories, writing about what it was like to play with major athletes. His most famous stunt was sparring with, and getting k.o.’d by, Jack Dempsey.

But like Ring Lardner before him, Gallico had other stories to tell. In 1938 he retired from the paper and took the extraordinary step of moving to the English coast to concentrate on writing fiction. Who moved to England in 1938? It was clearly on the eve of war! Still, that is what he did. Now in his 40s, he seems not to have chosen to serve in uniform, although he did write some World War II themed stories. The most famous of these was his most critically-acclaimed work The Snow Goose (1941), about a disabled painter who lives in an abandoned lighthouse, and his friendship with a young girl. In a gimmick that was clearly appropriated by the 1965 film The Sandpiper, the pair bond by nursing an injuted snow goose back to health. Later, the man participates in the evacuation of Dunkirk and is lost, presumably dying heroically. It was made into an award-winning British TV movie in 1971 starring Richard Harris and Jenny Agutter. Another of Gallico’s writings of the period, The Adventures of Hiram Holliday (1939) was about a mild-mannered newspaper copy editor who, inspired by knights of old, travels to Austria and battles Nazis. This too clearly has a connection to his real life position at the time. Amusingly, this book was later turned into a 1957 TV sitcom starring Wally Cox! Another of his World War 2 stories, an espionage tale, became the 1942 movie Joe Smith, American, starring Robert Young. Still, Gallico did not entirely escape sports at this early juncture. His best known product of this time was the 1942 film Pride of the Yankees starring Gary Cooper, based on his biography of Lou Gehrig.

Gallico was prolific. Today, the best remembered of his many writings are those that were adopted for film and TV. After the war, he spent time in France, and so there emerged the stories that formed the basis for Assignment — Paris! (1952) with Dana Andrews, and Lili (1953) with Leslie Caron (which later was made into the 1961 musical Carnival!). His popular book Thomasina, the Cat Who Thought She Was God (1957) became the 1964 Disney movie The Three Lives of Thomasina with Patrick McGoohan (Gallico wrote several children’s books over the years, many of them about cats). Mrs. ‘Arris Goes to Paris (1958) was filmed in 1992 with Angela Lansbury. In 1953 he wrote a series of articles about the heartbreaking sinking of the MV Prince Victoria, a ferryboat on the route between Scotland and Northern Ireland. 135 were killed. This surely had been an early inspiration for what eventually became The Poseidon Adventure.

Here’s another Brownie point! In 1954 he saw Buster Keaton perform at Circus Metrano in Paris and wrote about it for Esquire magazine!

Gallico’s 1964 ESP thriller The Hand of Mary Constable became a 1969 ABC TV movie of the week called Daughter of the Mind with Ray Milland, Don Murray, and Gene Tierney. Late stuff included Matilda (1970) about a boxing kangaroo, which became a 1978 Disney movie with Elliot Gould; and The Zoo Gang (1971), a French-resistence-reunion story filmed for TV in 1974 with Barry Morse, Brian Keith, et al. He died before completing Beyond the Poseidon Adventure, but, true to form, Irwin Allen made a 1979 movie out of it nevertheless. Another posthumous disaster movie based on a Gallico story was A Fire in the Sky (1978), about a comet coming to earth, featuring Richard Crenna and Elizabeth Ashley (not to be confused with the UFO abduction movie with the same title starring DB Sweeney).

Paul Gallico wrote scores of other books and stories beyond these I’ve mentioned, and there were dozens of other screen adaptations (many of them made in other countries). He may not have given us great literature, but he sure made great popular entertainment.