A Proper Post on “The Poseidon Adventure”

50 years ago today marked the release date of the first movie I ever saw in a cinema, The Poseidon Adventure. I call this the “proper post”, because my previous one was sort of “back door”, I worked it into a review of the egregious 2006 remake Poseidon, then repurposed it for Travalanche back at a time when the focus of this blog hadn’t expanded to all of show business, though I had already written about several of the principals of the film (a couple of them had been in burlesque and vaudeville, for example). At this point, I have written about nearly everyone who speaks a line in the movie as well as many of the behind the scenes players. So this will be the omnibus trunk post that lays out the story, with links to more in depth posts about the various players in it. That is to say, a proper post.

The Poseidon Adventure is so important to me that I contemplated numerous different ways of celebrating it this year, including: a live show wherein myself and an actress would enact the screenplay performing all the parts; a live screening of the film which I would introduce with remarks (perhaps to take place on New Years Eve); a podcast talk or slideshow, or maybe a Youtube video. The last few approaches would involve lots of media and sharing of clips, which isn’t really my thing, and would involve rights issues. Hence the first option, the live show, probably came closest to fruition and I had several conversations with one of my favorite performers about a collaboration, and I even had a venue in mind, but ultimately I was irresolute about doing it on the grounds of tone. For camp is the natural way to approach it, and I have two major issues with the camp approach. A) It has been DONE. Many times. Starting with the Mad Magazine parody “The Poop-side Down Adventure.” There have been numerous camp stage productions of The Poseidon Adventure in recent years. The only new thing I could bring to it would be my own characterizations, and how much time do I want to devote to being a Poseidon Adventure Frank Gorshin? Issue B) is that, well, I kind of revere the movie. I often cite it as my second favorite movie after The Wizard of Oz. And while camp tributes usually come from a place of affection, it would be kind of nightmarish for me if I was somehow responsible for provoking gales of cruel laughter from an audience that assumed I was ridiculing the film as “bad”. I will always be able to see this movie, at least in part, with the eyes of a seven year old, and as someone who recalls a time when a movie like this was the last word in Hollywood magic.

Obviously, I “get” how younger people see it. This light first dawned for me around 20 years ago when, after not having seen the film in many years, I caught it on the short-lived Fox Movie Channel. It was almost like Adam seeing his own nakedness for the first time. By this stage, Hollywood cinema had undergone so many technological special effects breakthroughs, and so many big budget blockbusters had come and gone, that this former benchmark in the history of the industry now looked kind of cheap and cardboard. It almost looked like theatre to me, if you know what I mean. It’s so basic and static and analog. But to me that has become part of the charm. Incompleteness requires you to use your imagination, the same thing that makes the original King Kong still effective. Toy boat, meet bathtub!

Now, I’ll grant that some of the melodramatic dialogue has not aged well. A couple of my favorite clunkers are “Dr. Scott, the hot steam! It’s blocking our escape!” which sounds almost like it came out of an old comic book or a radio show…and then there’s an earlier moment in the script when Scott describes himself to a colleague as “The best kind [of preacher]. Angry, rebellious, critical…a renegade,” as though he were reading a review about his one man show and putting too much stock in it. And then there’s the casting, which I’m sure younger people find ridiculous, but I’ll defend to my dying day. In the ’70s, many of the biggest stars were people who had come up decades earlier. This was before the cut-throat culture of the ’80s emerged, where we now throw human beings away like Kleenex. So plenty of the marquee names at the time were balding, flabby, middle-aged, puffy, wrinkly — in other words, human. It’s what I want to see in a movie, not a bunch of generic catalog models. Anyway, the rest of my bitchfest about the modern approach to such stories is here.

As I spin the story and my observations about it, I will also talk about the original 1969 Paul Gallico novel, on which it was based. I first read the book in 1977. I remember the date, because I have a recollection of reading the book while Paul McCartney’s “With a Little Luck” was playing on the radio, and thinking that it would be a great tune to use in MY remake of the movie. For even then, in Junior High School, I was imagining movies in my head. I had also done it with The Wizard of Oz, in both cases imagining cinematic versions that were closer to the original books. The Poseidon Adventure was one of the first “grown up” books I ever read on my own, and it’s surely the novel I have re-read the most often, maybe a dozen times. It’s not a work of great literature , but its epic shape, its imagery, and its themes, suggest ways that it MIGHT have been great, in the hands of a more ambitious writer. I re-read it so frequently on account of the obvious fact that it’s an exciting potboiler. For much the same reason, I have returned more times than I can count to A Night to Remember, Walter Lord’s seminal book about the sinking of the Titanic. I’m kind of a disasters-at-sea junkie.

The premise of The Poseidon Adventure is that a once-fabulous sea-going vessel, the S.S. Poseidon is on its final voyage across the Mediterranean. Sea travel has fallen on hard times, so the ship carries both passengers and cargo, a fairly unthinkable concept nowadays. Can you imagine the same vessel fulfilling the same functions of the Princess Cruise Lines AND a container ship? (Well, actually there are still vessels that do both, or rather, you can still book passage on a cargo ship, though without all the luxuries and amenities you get on a cruise ship. There’s no shuffle board.) At any rate, in this story the ship is top heavy because cargo has been removed from the holds. A tsunami comes from out of nowhere and capsizes the ship. I’m guessing most will assume that this is a freak and rare thing, but there have been scores of such disasters since the age of sail. The most recent major one prior to Gallico’s book was the Andrea Doria in 1956, though that one was due to a collision, not a wave. This event gets mentioned in the movie version of The Poseidon Adventure, almost as a pre-emptive answer to skeptics. Still, the moment of the capsizing is stretched out in the film in an unrealistic but dreamlike way, milked for every moment of drama and excitement it can produce. There are indeed slow capsizings, but a rogue wave would just flip the tub over, one, two, boom. But that’s no fun. The idea reportedly came to Gallico when he was traveling on the Queen Mary, which had a couple of “near things” in the past. Later that same ship was used as a location for the film version of The Poseidon Adventure (the deck scenes). You can actually stay there now! It’s a hotel!

The disaster strikes during a New Year’s Eve Party, when those passengers who aren’t bedridden with seasickness are gathered together in the ship’s dining room for a party. For maximum sledgehammer dramatic impact it happens just at the stroke of midnight while the passengers are singing “Auld Lang Syne” and just minutes after the Captain has explained to us who the Greek God Poseidon is and joked about his legendarily wrathful character. In the wake of the accident, a handful of survivors ignore the instructions of the crew to stay put, and resolve to do what they can to save themselves by climbing from where they are in the center of the ship, up several decks to the engine room, which is now on top and the most likely site of any rescue attempt. Their journey comes in several memorable set pieces that involve climbing a giant ornamental Christmas tree, navigating a hazardous kitchen full of corpses, using a firehose to pull themselves up a staircase ceiling, ascending a wet ladder in the interior of one of the ship’s funnels during a series of explosions, and a last climactic climb up a mountain of twisted, tangled catwalks and machinery in the upturned engine room towards the area near the propellor shaft, where the hull is thinnest. Spoiler alert: not everyone makes it.

Gallico’s book was popular but it took the vision of producer Irwin Allen (whom we wrote at length about here) to bring it to the screen. Prior to The Poseidon Adventure and the disaster cycle that followed, Allen was probably best known as a TV impresario, responsible for Lost in Space and lesser sci fi fodder like The Time Tunnel and Land of the Giants. Composer John Williams had worked on those shows, and Allen hired him to create the haunting, unsettling score to The Poseidon Adventure, three years before Jaws truly put him on the map. A practiced ear will detect him working out some related musical ideas here, using strings to concretely evoke aquatic concepts like turbulent waves and submersion, danger from below, and striving upwards for safety. In point of fact, the early ’70s seems to have been the only time in Allen’s career when he was thinking really clearly and sensibly as a producer. It reminds me of that parallel moment in William Castle’s career when he very sensibly hired Roman Polanski to direct Rosemary’s Baby (1968), putting his own instincts as a schlockmeister aside and earning millions of dollars as a result. Very similar thing. Irwin Allen was above all a celebrity hound. His recipe for success throughout his career was to hire lots of stars. In earlier and later efforts, however, he gave short shrift to little things like script and direction. Here, he got Stirling Silliphant, known for dramas like In the Heat of the Night (1967) and Charly (1968) to pen the screenplay. Director Ronald Neame had started out as a cinematographer, and had directed in all genres, including dramas like The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969), but also comedies and musicals like the Alec Guinness vehicle The Horse’s Mouth (1958), I Could Go on Singing (1963) with Judy Garland, Prudence and the Pill (1968) and Scrooge (1970). Allen himself directed the special effects scenes, or claimed to, but I find the hiring of Silliphant and Neame for this project significant and a key to the film’s success. The usual mistake producers make (now, more than ever) is focusing on special effects and ignoring the human element (James Cameron’s Titanic being a notable and rare exception). The Poseidon Adventure and Allen’s next The Towering Inferno directed by Mark Robson, both get the drama right. T.I. has no comedy in it that I can recall, but The Poseidon Adventure is also full of comic relief that aids the tension, and I credit that to Neame.

Now for the cast. Click the links in the headings for posts on the actors.

Leslie Nielsen (Captain Harrison)

Of course Nielsen’s later casting in Airplane and other ZAZ joints has the potential to ruin The Poseidon Adventure for audiences nowadays, especially if you saw the later stuff first. Mofo went and poisoned the well. Obviously, I saw this movie first and will always retain that first impression. At the time Nielsen was best known for playing the title character on The Swamp Fox and similar things. Later he poked fun of his dead earnest line readings, but he sure as hell meant it when he originally delivered them. He gives some killer line readings in The Poseidon Adventure (“Oh. My. God.”). And (spoiler alert) we see far too little of him before he winds up in the drink. When I was a kid I was endlessly intrigued by the fact that a boy could be named Leslie.

Fred Sadoff (Lenarcos)

This gent (to the right of Nielsen in the photo above) usually falls through the cracks in discussions of this film. He has a key role in the drama, though unlike most of the cast, Sadoff wasn’t a famous star. Essentially, he’s the villain in the proceedings (on top of the bad weather and the earthquake which triggers the tidal wave.) In disaster movies, nature is usually assisted in its campaign of chaos by some malevolent greedy asshole who puts people’s live at risk in some way. In Titanic tellings it’s always the real life Bruce Ismay. Lenarcos is a representative of the Greek shipping company who overrides the Captain’s wishes to stop the ship and take on ballast (done by siphoning water into tanks in the hold). Refusing to do so results in the top-heavy boat turning over. Sadoff was mostly a stage actor prior to this, but afterwards he appeared in such films as Papillion (1973), Cinderella Liberty (1973), and The Terminal Man (1974), and lots of television. Sadly, he died of AIDS in 1994.

Eric Shea (Robin Shelby)

As a 7 year old, you can guess who my main point of identification was in this movie, my Virgil through this Inferno, if you will. Shea was 12 at the time The Poseidon Adventure came out, but kids grow fast. He was a small 11 when they shot it. His character, Robin (another girl’s name, or so I thought at the time) was precocious and bratty, and yet knows more about the ship they’re on than any of the adults, having studied every aspect of it during the voyage, as kids will do. Mentioning him in this post feels timely during this season: his brother Christopher, who sounded just like him, played Linus in A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965). Shea had the pleasure of delivering many of the biggest laugh lines in the movie, and much humor was derived from his troublesome character early in the film. Back then, kids weren’t supposed to act that way. Now they all do. In the book, the character of Robin gets lost at a certain point and is never seen again, an almost unbearable plot development, which no one would have stood for in a Hollywood movie back in those days.

Pamela Sue Martin (Susan Shelby)

Robin’s minder on the voyage is his older sister Susan, who appears to be somewhere in the 16-18 range. That seemed practically grown up to me at the time. I had many female cousins of about that age, and that’s who Pamela Sue Martin reminds me of when I watch the film now. A cousin of one of those cousins, our customary babysitter, whose name just happened to be Robin (!), was actually the one who brought me and my younger sister to see this movie. (“Heavy, Robin. Very heavy”). It was rated PG and not remotely appropriate for young children, but I think Robin’s philosophy in this case was “ask forgiveness, not permission”. At any rate, I’ve never regretted her theoretically bad decision.

Anyway, things that I just took in stride in this movie as a kid, now seem odd. Like — who sends their kids, unchaperoned, on an ocean voyage? A plane trip, sure. That takes a few hours. But a cruise? That’s really weird. In the book, there actually were parents with them on the voyage, a couple of upper middle class suburban husks. The father is an auto exec in Detroit. They have marital problems. Here, they’re completely written out, probably to save money on the cast, but there’s a certain power to the choice. What but some sort of family problem — or neglect — could account for their traveling this way?

Two more changes from the book. A character named Miss Kinsale, a shy British bookkeeper is cut from the story, but a key character trait of hers is given to Susan Shelby: a crush on the Rev. Dr. Scott (below). It seemed perfectly natural as a kid, but now I look at then-already middle aged Gene Hackman and go “Huh?” Of course it’s a daddy issue. The other change? In the book, Susan gets raped by some sailor in the dark. In the book’s most dated and unforgiveable element, she likes that it happened to her and hopes she’ll be pregnant. Only a man, and one who hasn’t thought about it hard enough, would ever dream that such a thing would ever happen.

The Poseidon Adventure was one of Pamela Sue Martin’s first screen performances, and she does a terrific job in some very intense scenes. As we wrote here, she would go on to bigger things.

Ernie Orsatti (Terry)

Another unsung hero of the film, so when he passed away two years ago, I just had to sing him! Ernie Orsatti was mostly a stunt man, but he’s the star of the most famous shot in the movie, where he lets go of the cafe cable he has been clinging to (now where the ceiling should be ) and falls dozens of feet down, landing on a stained glass window below. Very dramatic. What I didn’t realize, or never put together until he was eulogized after his passing, was that he is the same guy who has been pursuing Susan Shelby romantically in earlier scenes. He has a couple of lines. he sits with the kids during on-deck church services, and later does some groovy dancing with Susan at the New Year’s Eve party. See photo above. A teenage age girl rejects THAT dude and is only interested in Gene Hackman? Does the Poseidon have a ship’s psychiatrist, by any chance?

Red Buttons (James Martin)

In the book, this character is a Harry Truman like, midwestern fellow, small but tough, and like Truman, a haberdasher. The filmmakers went in an interesting direction with it. Initially, they cast Gene Wilder in the role, but he dropped out in order to do things like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex and Were Afraid to Ask, and I’m glad he did, for all the reasons. Wilder was plenty midwestern, and had even appeared with Hackman in Bonnie and Clyde, but I sure do love him in the two movies he chose to do and for the life of me can’t imagine what he would have been like in The Poseidon Adventure. I’m picturing something more subdued and Quackser Fortune-like, which mode I’ve never felt was his forte (the fact that you probably don’t know the reference reinforces my point). So they went went with Red Buttons, who had also been in Allen’s earlier The Big Circus. Whereas Wilder was a brilliant comic actor who happened to be Jewish, Buttons was more a Jewish comedian who happened to be a brilliant actor. He started out with Minsky’s, but he also won an Oscar for his performance in Syonara (1957), and had done dramas like Harlow (1965) and They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1969). He had the chops to play this lonely, eccentric little man. His only truly comic bit is the first shot of him (above) as he jogs around the deck. His character is a health nut who takes vitamin tablets, a very topical reference back then. (Woody Allen’s character in Sleeper, the following year, runs a health food store, e.g.). The fact that Buttons’ character is single and takes a pill for “virility” makes me wonder if the producers are trying to imply that the sensitive little man is gay, in their clumsy 1970s way. Later he does pair off with Carol Lynley, but he seems pretty gentlemanly about it. Never kisses her or anything, which is usually, if implausibly, what happens in movies.

Shelley Winters (Belle Rosen)

I hope no one will be terribly offended if I refer to the Rosen characters as “My First Jews”. I mean, I didn’t know what that was at the time, but I was intrigued by the characters’ exchange about their voyage to Israel to visit their little grandson and the Chai necklace Belle wants the child to have. The Hebrew Chai symbol means “living, alive” (the toast, “L’chaim” means “to life!”). It’s an important theme in the film. But honestly a kid knows nothing about stuff like this, or the doctrines and history that have divided and defined Christians and Jews for centuries. I just knew that I liked the way these people talk, and I have continued to do so all my life. It drew me to New York like the smell of blintzes. If that kind of sentimentality turns your stomach, I don’t care. I wrote a book about vaudeville! Romanticizing ethnic groups is my thing!

As I wrote here, as far as I’m concerned, Shelley Winters is the hero in this movie, the whole point of it. An elderly and overweight woman, she rises to the occasion and finds the inner resources to do her part in helping them all reach safety. Furthermore, Winters did all her own stunts — that’s really her doing that underwater swimming scene! She claimed to have been taught by Johnny Weissmuller. The lore is that Esther Williams was originally approached for the role but her then-husband Fernando Lamas discouraged her. From one perspective that would have been magical, but on the other hand, we would have lost some of authenticity of cultural identity, Esther Williams being a WASP and all. People love to ridicule Winters for this performance in particular, probably because it’s all about her weight and her whining, but honestly her career had turned a corner about five years earlier, and The Poseidon Adventure was actually one of the more respectable films of her late period, containing one of her best performances. Man oh man, you could program an amazingly “out there” and bizarre Shelley Winters Film Festival. You’d have enough films to hold a week of screenings (find some here and here and here) — and it wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) include The Poseidon Adventure.

Jack Albertson (Manny Rosen)

I tell you without shame that I named my first dog “Manny” after this character. No special significance (it was an Alaskan husky); I just liked the name. Like Red Buttons, Albertson had been a burlesque comic, but he was also a pretty lovable screen actor. Just prior to this, he had been in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (so he got to act with Gene Wilder anyway), and that was enough to make a kid love him. Directly after this, he co-starred on Chico and the Man opposite Freddie Prinze. His character is not so comic here (aside from the sight gag of him seeming smaller than Winters). His main role is to prop up his wife. But I loved the music of how the part was written, knowing nothing as I said, about Jews, let alone Yiddish, at the time. I don’t think he speaks any Yiddish in the movie, but the lines have the melodic lilt, “You’re going someplace I’m not going?”, “My wife, she has this illusion, always thinking she’s too fat!” Is it stereotyped? That’s not for me to decide, and it’s becoming increasingly hard to know what will offend somebody, especially young people. If it does, I’ll respect that. However, as I hope I’ve made clear, these characters set me on a lifelong path of Philosemitism.

Gene Hackman (Rev. Dr. Scott)

Haha, only now do we come to the character most people consider the lead role in the film. (I’m attempting to go “in order of appearance” from memory.) This Dr. Scott character lies at the crux of the story’s more thought-provoking elements. For one thing; he’s really ambiguous, as a lot of charismatic Protestantism can be. The role climaxes in a Christ-like martyrdom, but the backdrop in which he does it is hellish. Throughout the film he comes across as an impatient, profane, insensitive, macho, belligerent hard-ass, throwing off enough sexual energy to attract the notice of more than one female character. In the book, he’s also an ex-football player and gay. In both the book and the film, we learn that he has been defrocked for improprieties of some kind, and is being exiled to missionary work in some tropical place. As I’ve mentioned hither and yon I was a pretty religious kid, I spent a lot of time reading about the “Holy Lands”, which I’m sure I would have connected to Belle Rosen’s talk of Israel without realizing that the place has very different meaning for Jews and Christians. The film has a tension, though. On one level it seems a conflict between a small band of followers who believe their leader makes good sense vs. the masses of people attached to rules and procedure and authority and can’t see what’s right in front of them. Seems like the Gospels, in other words. But by the same token, Scott and many of the people who follow him seem morally compromised in some way, and he possesses something of the lunacy of a cult leader. Yet, again, isn’t it the point of Christianity that redemption is available to everyone, no matter their past or character? Is this a trip to hell, or upwards to heaven? For the most part, this is all sort of latently there, to be read (within reason) by those who want to see it. There’s no need to take it to a Room 237 place. I mean this is Irwin Allen, not some auteur. But things do bubble out of the subconscious, like oil bubbles in a tank of sea water.

Not to hear Gene Hackman tell it though. He spoke pretty disparagingly of the lines he had to speak, and considered this movie junk, which he was entitled to do, I guess, since he appeared in it right after winning a Best Actor Oscar for The French Connection, and just prior to critically acclaimed films like Scarecrow (1973) and The Conversation (1974). Pro that he was, he never showed his disdain in his performance, which appears fully committed and has some very moving scenes.

Arthur O’Connell (Father John, ship’s chaplain)

As a kid I disliked this character, but I have come to appreciate his point of view. The script actually gets a kind of wonderful Catholic vs. Calvinist Protestant debate going. The Hackman character is about ass-kicking, being “cruel to be kind” in order to save the few he can save. The Arthur O’Connell character is just about being kind, without the cruelty. It’s debatable how much good he’s doing — he’s just there to give comfort to the afflicted and those too blind or dumb to take the sensible path. He’s content to die there with them. After all, even the people who escape will also die — eventually. It is a laudable, even necessary part that he plays in the scheme of things, though the opposite message is constantly dunned into us throughout the movie. “God wants winners. God loves triers!” preaches Scott “Life always matters very much”. There is something almost profane about throwing away the life you have been given. Yet those who do so need compassion too. The Poseidon Adventure was one of the very last films of Arthur O’Connell, whose screen career had begun in 1938.

Ernest Borgnine (Mike Rogo)

It’s only indicated by the couple of times he crosses himself in the film, and inferred by his Italian surname, but Ernest Borgnine’s “Rogo” is another Catholic character in the story. A vacationing New York cop (in the age of Serpico, remember), he’s a pretty unpleasant character, always beefing and grousing, and preferring to do things “by the book”. He’s brave and good-hearted at bottom, but also not very bright and accustomed to getting his way by bullying people. It’s clear he wouldn’t have chosen to join this group of contrarians, but for his shrill wife’s badgering. Borgnine, with his bulldog countenance, is well cast in the role, more Marty than McHale, but with an edge as ugly as his kisser. I mean, you can’t pretend Borgnine was any great thinker, but he turned in excellent performances. There’s always something going inside that thick skull emotionally. There’s always subtext, he turns stuff over in his brain before he reacts. And he has a terrific grief scene in this film, just a big weeping animal. He’d have been great in The Hairy Ape.

Stella Stevens (Linda Rogo)

This is a bit of stunt casting. The part is described in the book as a “starlet”, a minor actress who sleeps around to get roles, as opposed to a common streetwalker (reformed) as she is presented in the film. I can’t speak to to whom Stella Stevens ever slept with, but she could certainly be described as a starlet, and a sexy one at that. Sally Kellerman was originally considered for that role, but that would have been silly. Kellerman read as posh and finished. Stella Stevens has a trailer park edge that suits the part well. (No undue shade on poor Southern white folks, I come from that stock myself) . One aspect of the film that’s gotten lost, I think is that swearing in films was new in 1972. I can recall the amused hoots and guffaws at the mere utterance of things like “son of a bitch” and “goddamn it” provoked from the audiences in those days. Almost all of the characters swear a blue streak in this movie, seemingly gleeful that standards now allowed it. A tidal wave of profanity. Even Robin yells “Shove it” (short for “shove it up your ass!”) to his sister. The profanity prize has to go to Stella Stevens’ Linda Rogo character, though. She’s a bit of a harpy in the film, and could do with some shading. The character is all brass, with very little “whore with a heart of gold” on tap, but maybe that’s to the good. Amusingly, this is just one of several movies Stevens appeared in with Shelley Winters around this time, the others being The Mad Room (1969) and Cleopatra Jones and the Casino of Gold (1975)

Roddy McDowell (Acres)

These were years when I’m sure Roddy McDowell was greatly relieved to be acting in anything where he didn’t have to wear an ape costume, though hilariously, this movie had to be a lateral move in terms of physical ordeal. Many of his scenes involve hopping around on one foot, and like the entire cast, he was subjected to long periods of being uncomfortable, wet, dirty and cold. That’s show biz! Here he is a Scottish waiter named Acres who is able to help the survivors — for a while.

Jimmy Cross (Acres’ nameless dining room colleague)

Poor Jimmy Cross has quite a decent role in the film as Acres’ Strauss waltzloving colleague, though the character doesn’t get a name. Most of the minor characters in this film are like the “red jerseys” on Star Trek. They get two scenes. First scene: we meet them. Second scene: we meet their corpse. This waiter character I believe, shows up subsequently, scalded to death in the kitchen from overturned soup pots, or burnt by gas fire. Cross had been a bit player in Hollywood since 1945, with nearly 100 credits, many in rather famous films and tv shows. His biggest claim to fame was being the first husband of Peggy Ryan. He was of course a different Jimmy Cross from the one in Stump and Stumpy. The Poseidon Adventure was one of his last films.

Carol Lynley (Nonny)

As the shipboard entertainer, Lynley gets to lip sync the hopeful song that went to #1 on the charts a few months after the film’s release, “The Morning After”. It was actually sung by Maureen McGovern, who went on to sing similar songs in The Towering Inferno and Gold in 1974, and the theme song to the sitcom Angie. In the book, Nonny is an English chorus girl, a somewhat different idea. Apparently Allen tried to get Petula Clark to play the part in the film, and this may be the hugest “coulda been” regret I’ve heard thus far, for I think that would have been a much stronger choice in the overall architecture of the production. Can you imagine? Instead, the producers went with a fictional rock group and cast Lynley, best known for Bunny Lake is Missing and the other version of Harlow (the one without Red Buttons) as the mini-skirt and go-go boots sporting character. Her character’s purpose is to be timid and require help, which Buttons character steps in to provide. She cannot swim, a distinct handicap when one is in a foundering boat in the middle of a body of water. This very same year, Lynley was in the tv movie/pilot for The Night Stalker.

Bob Hastings (M.C.)

A small but flashy part for this familiar radio and TV veteran. He’s the M.C. at the New Year’s Eve party, who gets to count down…to disaster! Hastings had been on McHale’s Navy with Borgnine and was also in Disney‘s The Boatniks (1970). Always with the boats, this guy! Around this time, he also played Kelsey the bartender on All in the Family.

There were hundreds of others of course in the cast as well. Many of the extras seem to have popped up on the internet and fan conventions, especially in the years since most of the principals have passed away. There were sundry other characters with lines whom I haven’t written about and probably won’t have occasion to. Byron Webster plays the Purser (whom Scott shockingly calls a “pompous ass” in a memorable moment), Jan Arvan, a Hollywood veteran with over 200 screen credits, plays the ship’s doctor, whose initial concern is rampant seasickness and who later leads a group of survivors in the wrong direction. His funny nurse is played by Irwin Allen’s wife Sheila Matthews, who had also acted in several of his tv shows. John Crawford who plays the crusty Chief Engineer would appear with Hackman in Night Moves three years later and was also in The Towering Inferno. Erik L. Nelson, who has a couple of memorable scenes as the bridge officer Mr. Tinkham, was in The Towering Inferno, as well.

There were a couple of interesting characters in the novel that were cut from the movie, beyond the Shelby parents and Miss Kinsale, whom we’ve already mentioned. A rich, soft layabout named Hubie (one of the main characters actually), as well as a drunk stockbroker nicknamed “The Beamer” and his girlfriend, and a Turkish engine room oiler named Kemal. Hubie and the Beamer seem present in altered form in the 2006 remake, played by Richard Dreyfus and Kevin Dillon respectively.

As we mentioned, one of the frustrations of both the book and movie is that they introduce all of these profound religious themes, but only go so far towards exploring them. Judaism, Catholicism and Calvinism are all brought up, even foregrounded. Paganism is there too: Christmas/New Year’s Eve was the Pagan season of renewal and light long before Christianity was introduced. And (the sea elephant in the room) there is the wrath of the pagan god Poseidon to contend with, which has echoes of The Odyssey. Scott and his followers seem to echo Christ and his Disciples (whose ranks had also included a fallen woman and a tax collector, just as hated and seemingly irredeemable as New York City cops). Yet at the same time, one suspects some relationship to the Seven Deadly Sins, especially in the book: with Belle as gluttony, Hubie as sloth, and with pride, greed, wrath, envy, lust attributable to the other characters in various justifiable ways. You can scoff at this, “It’s just a disaster movie”, but then, why is the stuff there? Because the power of very old mythological themes are being harnessed. And at the same time, the country was changing, moving in a hedonistic new direction that on some level was making its conservative, pious soul uncomfortable. (Another hot movie from this era that taps into this anxiety is 1973’s The Exorcist). The Bible, with its floods, earthquakes, Armageddon and The Wrath of God is the original disaster movie. Gallico and Silliphant and Allen (who had earlier made the entirely germane The Story of Mankind) totally know this on a conscious level so they use it, but only to a degree. I embrace this aspect of the story, it’s what lends it emotional meaning, which its sequel and remakes manifestly do not possess. My only gripe is that it needs sharpening.

Anyway, you can not IMAGINE the impact this film had on me, who had never seen a movie in a cinema before, in 1972: a tidal wave, a capsizing ship, people being burned, scalded, drowned, broken to bits. I’ve been obsessed with disasters, both real and fictional, ever since. The broader public was affected by the film in the same way, and so came the ’70s cycle of disaster movies, to rival the ’30s cycle of monster movies. Earthquake (1974) proved to be the grandaddy of them all, and there was the entire sub-sub-genre of airplane disaster movies. Allen went on to make The Towering Inferno, his own peak, but then followed it up with a descent into self parody that also included Flood! (1976), Fire! (1977), The Swarm (1978), Hanging by a Thread (1979), The Night the Bridge Fell Down (1979), and Cave-in! (1979).

Perhaps worst, and the unkindest cut of all is his sequel Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979), one of the worst movies of all time. THAT’s the one that deserves a campy stage production and cruel laughter, though, like the films of Ed Wood, or The Room or Showgirls, it requires no assistance to be a figure of fun. It merits a post of its own here sometime, which I am sure to do. I will take this opportunity though to tell you the cast of this mess includes Michael Caine, Sally Field, Karl Malden, Telly Savalas, Shirley Knight, Shirley Jones, Jack Warden, Slim Pickens, Peter Boyle, Angela Cartwright, Mark Harmon, and Veronia Hamel of Hill Street Blues, and you will find references to the film at some of their biographical posts at the links.

I have given Wolfgang Petersen’s 2006 remake Poseidon no fewer than three chances to show me any redeeming qualities, but so far none have emerged, and I’m unlikely to be so generous towards it ever again. Even worse is the 2005 made-for-tv remake The Poseidon Adventure, which I watched once and will never bother with again. That one features Adam Baldwin, Rutger Hauer, Steve Guttenberg, Bryan Brown, C. Thomas Howell, Peter Weller, and Alex Kingston.

The overarching lesson of all the failed attempts to replicate The Poseidon Adventure’s success is that special effects and stars are not enough to make us care. There must be a powerful screenplay for the actors to work with. Otherwise it’s just a bunch of rats on a sinking ship.

Oh, and for the lovers of older show biz history who read this blog. I first saw The Poseidon Adventure at the Campus Cinema in Wakefield, Rhode Island. Originally known as Wright’s Hall, it was built circa 1882, and was used for social dancing initially. In 1888 it became the Wakefield Opera House which hosted traveling stock companies and minstrel shows and the like. Then came movies. The “Campus” reference in its later name has do with the relative proximity of the University of Rhode Island. This cinema was literally a one minute walk from my house. Sadly it closed for good in 2003. I wrote about some other impactful early movie experiences in this post, including several other pictures I saw at this cinema. To some of us, movies ain’t just movies.