Archive for Poseidon Adventure
Tonight on TCM: a program of films from one of my favorite cinematic subgenres: the sinking ship flick.
8:oopm (EST) The Poseidon Adventure (1972)
The first movie I ever saw in a cinema and my second favorite movie of all time. I’ve already written my thoughts about it here. I’ve probably seen it 20 times, most recently about a month ago, so I’ll likely skip the honor tonight. However, I most certainly will watch —
10:15pm (EST) Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979)
Believe it or not, I’ve NEVER seen this one (apart from a few minutes on television)! It tanked (pun intended) upon release and seldom gets shown. A brilliant producer, Irwin Allen was a terrible director, and this was during his period of hubris when he was doing both. (Have you seen The Swarm? It’s almost totally incoherent). At any rate the plot of this one has the crew of a tugboat jumping aboard the doomed ship to claim salvage rights, and a bunch of Greek medics (secretly looters) jumping aboard to “save lives”. Along the way they meet surviving crew and passengers of The Poseidon we never met in the first film: The cast includes Michael Caine, Telly Savalas, Sally Field, Karl Malden, Shirley Jones, Peter Boyle, Mark Harmon and Slim Pickens as a Texas millionaire! Wild seahorses couldn’t drag me away.
12:15am (EST) Juggernaut (1974)
This one doesn’t fit in the program at all — it’s not so much a ship disaster movie as a bomb disposal and defusing suspense thriller, and like most ticking time bomb movies, it’s a whopping bore. Richard Harris is the bomb expert, Anthony Hopkins a detective whose family just happens to be on board the ship, Omar Sharif the ship’s captain, and Ian Holm is the guy who runs the shipping company. All they do is sweat a lot and look real nervous for two hours. And I suppose this amounts to a spoiler, right? Because if the bombs sink the ship the movie wouldn’t be…a whopping bore, right?
2:15am (EST) A Night to Remember (1958)
This British film is the least best known of all the Titanic films nowadays, yet happens to be one of the best in quality, for it is quite true to Walter Lord’s incredible book of the same name. Naturally everyone knows James Cameron’s 1997 love story. Before that, the one Americans knew best (I think) was the 1953 film of the same name with Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb. At least that was one I knew best until then.
I never got to see A Night to Remember until about two years ago, when they screened it at Loew’s Jersey City on a double bill with The Poseidon Adventure. And it is indeed incredible. It’s told pretty much from the point of view of Second Officer Lightoller (Kenneth More), the most senior officer to survive the disaster. One bit I recall loving in the film, is a recurring shot of an old man sitting in a chair reading a book all through the ship’s last moments. His identity and the identity of the book are enigmatic. It’s just how he is choosing to spend his last minutes. Not with craziness, but with calm. You can be sure I’ll watch this one again. As I will this one:
4:30am (EST) The Last Voyage (1960)
This is an amazing movie! I had never heard of it til I saw it on TCM in 2010. It seems seminal to me, solving a lot of the technical and special effects problems that would later come into play in The Poseidon Adventure, Towering Inferno and Earthquake. Furthermore it was shot on a real ocean liner so it actually looks more realistic than the The Poseidon Adventure. (Yes, I know parts of TPA were shot on the Queen Mary, but the rest was done on Hollywood sound stages. ALL of this one was shot on a real ship)
The predicament: a fire breaks out on an ocean liner. The stubborn and foolish captain (George Sanders) scoffs at certain safety measures (like stopping so the crew can see to some things). Meanwhile some safety valves have fused shut, causing a boiler explosion that rips through several floors and puts a fatal hole in the hull. A woman (Dorothy Malone) is trapped under wreckage. Much of the film concerns the efforts of her husband Robert Stack to free her, aided by stoker Woody Strode, and later an engineer played by Edmund O’Brien (who spends most of the film trying to save the ship itself.) Malone and Stack’s daughter is a creepy-devil child…very strange casting.
Student film-makers! This movie teaches an interesting cinematic lesson. Sometimes realism is NOT the best solution. A case in point: Whereas, yes, in real life an explosion only takes a second, in a film, it has to be stretched out into several shots and take a little bit of time, otherwise it lacks drama. In this film the explosion only takes a second and thus seems underwhelming though the plot informs us that it’s really catastrophic. But otherwise there are so many amazing scenes in the film done right on the ship. It bears repeated viewing.
Today is the birthday of the late Roddy McDowell (1928-1998), one of the few child performers to weather the career doldrums of adolescence and enjoy a successful career in adulthood. A second generation actor, he appeared in some films in his native Britain before the advent of WWII prompted his family to move to the U.S. Fame came early with his roles in How Green Was My Valley (1941), Lassie Come Home (1943) and My Friend Flicka (1943). During the fallow years he gained stage experience; a notable film role from this time was Malcolm in Orson Welles’ MacBeth (1948).
McDowell had a unique screen presence: lithe and lean and cat-like, with a voice in such a high register that it was more like a small boy’s than a woman’s. It was kind of like the whine of a dog; a perfect quality when he was later to portray a long series of talking simians. His eyes were large, warm and expressive: they would roll and pop and squint and dance — sort of like a magician’s sleight of hand to draw attention away from his rather homely physiognomy. Somehow, despite his strangeness, he was was very castable, ideal for dressing up large ensembles in costume dramas like Cleopatra (1963) and murder mysteries like Evil Under the Sun (1982). No one could be arch and insinuating and say “tsk, tsk, tsk” like Roddy McDowell. Those melodramatic chops made him ideal for television guest starring roles; I think of him especially as a murderous photographer in the 1972 Columbo episode “A Short Fuse”.
As it happens McDowell was one of the first actors I ever saw on a movie screen, in The Poseidon Adventure (1972), a formative experience for me.
More rarely he would get a lead role, as he did in another of my favorites the swinging psychedelic George Axelrod romp Lord Love a Duck (1966) where the nearly 40 McDowell plays a guy about half his age. And then of course the Planet of the Apes franchise (1968-1974), which kept him employed for many years. And on that topic, another post to follow in just a few minutes. Until then, an example of one of the many ways he “dined out” on Apes:
Today is the birthday of the stupendous, the colossal (quit it!) Shelley Winters (Shirley Schrift, 1920-2006). Her screen career has always held a lot of personal meaning for me, starring as she did in the first movie I ever saw in a cinema The Poseidon Adventure (1972). I’ve long considered it my second favorite film (behind The Wizard of Oz). Winter’s heroic martyrdom in the film hit me hard emotionally at the age of seven, and it still does every time I see the movie.
Unfortunately the role became sort of iconic, and it became the version of Winters that’s remained in everyone’s minds: fat, ugly, old, annoying, complaining. A pity because when she was young and just starting out (it may surprise you to learn) she was flipping GORGEOUS. In fact when she broke into pictures her experience consisted of a handful of acting classes, some small stage roles and modelling work. It was her LOOKS (and her earthy sexiness) that got her cast. Lest ye think I exaggerate:
I know the Duchess will forgive me for apparently getting carried away by all this Shelley Winters cheesecake. I’m hoping to erase from your mind what you think you already know about her (while looking at legs).
But there was more to Winters than good looks; she wanted to be a serious actress. After years of playing bit parts (usually as eye candy) she took Shakespeare classes with Charles Laughton and method acting at the Actor’s Studio. Then we begin to get her starring parts, often as a sexy but hapless “other woman” or “otherwise inconvenient woman” who must die for merely existing, as she played in The Great Gatsby (1949), A Place in the Sun (1951), Night of the Hunter (1955) and Lolita (1960). She was to remain beautiful if increasingly zaftig at least through the early 60s, but what made her castable was a quality of vulnerablity that could even be painful to watch. This was a quality she shared with Judy Garland and interestingly Charles Laughton, her teacher. Winters was willing to make herself ugly and embarrassing for a role, to go way out on a limb and this resulted in some truly memorable work.
Her willingness to be big in every sense of the word meant that by the 1970s she was to star in some other sorts of “classics” (in this she was no different than many another major movie star): horror and other related schlock, and so we cherish her doubly: for her true excellence…and for her…mm…zeal in acting in more…outre vehicles. This phase began with the title role in Roger Corman’s Bloody Mama (1970), in which she played lady bank robber Ma Barker; then continued with What’s the Matter with Helen (1971) by Henry Farrell, author of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?; then Whoever Slew Auntie Roo? (1972) also directed by Curtis Harrington for AIP. In 1973 she was in The Devil’s Daughter as well as the blaxploitation flick Cleopatra Jones. In 1977, she was in the Jaws rip-off Tentacles, in which at age 57 she played a woman who was clearly meant to be about 20 years younger than herself (whose child gets eaten by a killer octopus.) In 1978 she played the housemother of a satanic sorority in The Initiation of Sarah (1978). In 1979, the disaster movie City on Fire. She was also occasionally still in good stuff. King of the Gypsies (1978) was a terrific film, although Winters didn’t get many lines. In the 90s, she got some excellent valedictory moments in Portrait of a Lady (1996) and as Roseanne’s grandmother on Roseanne, some truly brilliant stunt casting.
Winters was also a famous pistol, an entertaining loose cannon in interviews and in her three tell-all autobiographies. She liked the attention that resulted from saying outrageous things. Here she is in 1996 on the Tom Snyder show:
To learn more about show business, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
And check out my new book: Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc
For someone of my age, Jack Albertson was VERY present in the early 1970s: Grandpa Joe in Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971, pictured above), Manny Rosen in The Poseidon Adventure (1972, the first movie I ever saw in a theatre) and Ed Brown in the hit tv series Chico and the Man (1974-78), which co-starred him with Freddy Prinze. The casting of the latter was a stroke of genius, juxtaposing as it did the new show business with the old.
Albertson had started out with a vaudeville dance act called the Dancing Verselle Sisters (one assumes he wasn’t one of the sisters). In burlesque and in the Catskills he partnered with Phil Silvers, and from there went on to Broadway, films and television. He is one of the few people to win a Tony, an Oscar and an Emmy. He is also one of the few people (George Burns was another) to enjoy his greatest fame as a senior citizen. He passed away in 1981.
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
I had a moving experience last night. The Countess and I went to Loews Jersey to see a double bill of A Night to Remember and The Poseidon Adventure. I’ll probably scribble a few notes about the former film here today or tomorrow, but in the meantime, a few remarks about the latter. It has always held a lot of meaning for me, being the first film I ever saw in a cinema (I was 7 when it came out). It turns 40 years old this year — rather a wake-up call. I’ll undoubtedly spill a bunch more on the topic this December when the actual anniversary rolls around, but in the meantime, I thought I’d share an article I wrote for Liberty magazine back in 2006 when the dreadful “remake” Poseidon came out:
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Let’s get one thing straight: Poseidon is in not a remake of the 1972 film The Poseidon Adventure. The only thing the two movies have in common is the situation of a luxury liner capsizing, compelling a group of passengers to make a dangerous climb to the upturned hull. If that is all that constitutes a remake, then all westerns are a remake of Gunfight at the OK Corral.
The other thing I must confess is that your reviewer is biased. I am a member of that rabid cult of Poseidon Adventure freaks who watch the film and re-read the novel on an annual basis with the reverence and regularity that some bestow on Christmas (make that New Year’s Eve).
Most of the critics who’ve trashed Wolfgang Petersen’s mislabeled remake have been fairly (or unfairly) dismissive of the original, an unfortunate lapse, because in every area where Poseidon fails, The Poseidon Adventure succeeds. There is no better way to talk about the poverty of contemporary Hollywood filmmaking – or of American culture in general – then to look at how low this ship has sunk in the intervening thirty-four years.
First, while it may be pulp, the film (and the book that inspired it), much like a lot of science fiction or the work of Ayn Rand (here comes the hate mail) is pulp that contains ideas.
That’s the quality that I think inspires such irrational devotion from its followers. A powerful metaphor is at work. A group of ordinary people are thrust into the unknown. Everything they’ve ever known has literally been turned upside-down. They can either stay where they are, cling to the past, and die…or they can make the difficult and painful climb up to life, which “always matters very much”. The terrain of their many layered journey resembles Dante’s Inferno in reverse. Furthermore, they are led by a vaguely Mephistophelean preacher (Gene Hackman) who spouts Christian heresies that most libertarians would recognize as equal parts Walt Whitman, Ayn Rand and Neitzsche. “Don’t pray to God,” he says at one point, “Pray to that part of God within you.” Unlike a Catholic priest (Arthur O’Connell) who elects to remain behind to die with the dead, the wounded and the weak-willed majority, Hackman’s credo is a variation of Poor Richard’s: “The Lord Helps Those Who Help Themselves.” What makes him very American, and what makes the film inspirational, is that Hackman’s preacher (unlike, say, a Rand character) doesn’t just want to save his own neck. He makes it a point of pride – a mania, really – to convince as many people as possible to join him. Then he proceeds to kick their asses, morally, spiritually and physically, in a word inspiring them to save themselves. It is a victory of reason over blind faith and a most generous, humane application of “selfishness.” Hackman’s character is a Christ-like anti-Christ, whose greatest sorrow is the loss of a fat old lady (Shelley Winters) whom he helped transform from a whining lump into the highest type of hero. In retrospect, I’m certain that the philosophy of this Darwinian Preacher character, whispered into my impressionable six-year old ear during a Saturday matinee, was my first step on the journey to libertarianism.
So: the original Poseidon Adventure, an inspirational, emotionally affecting suspense picture. Now let’s look at Poseidon. As we know from Das Boot and A Perfect Storm, Wolfgang Peterson is an expert at photographing sinking tubs and the people who drown in them. Unlike those more successful, earlier outings however, this time Peterson forgot to put any people on the boat. If you made a silent movie about rats trapped in an upside down model sailboat (say, Stuart Little’s) and the rats managed to scramble somehow to the top of the boat, the results would be exactly like Poseidon. It is as though Petersen decided to take the last five minutes of A Perfect Storm and expand it to two hours. It may very well be that Petersen has done his science homework and a capsized ocean liner only has minutes before it goes down. That would be all very well and good in a documentary. But a fiction film needs air pockets if we’re to form any attachment to the characters…and we ought to form attachments to the characters if the film is going to have any meaning…and a film should have meaning, shouldn’t it? Poseidon is a large screen video game, less important to us than the accompanying popcorn. We neither know nor care anything about the little band of anonymous ciphers who inhabit this story beyond their names and occupational and familial titles. They are no more important to us than the hundreds of extras who are ritually drowned, crushed, shattered, burned and electrocuted in this mildly violent ballet of death.
And the little we know, we don’t like. Josh Lucas is a cynical gambler and former Navy SEAL who resembles a catalog model. Kurt Russell is a former Mayor of New Yorkand former New Yorkfireman with a really good tan. Emmy Rossum is his pretty daughter who resembles a fashion model. There’s another 6 or 8 like this but it hardly matters; none of them are members of the human race as you or I know it. The original film was about a group of highly imperfect people, people you might not peg as survivors or team players, summoning the strength and the character to go on. They were played by such sex symbols as Shelly Winters, Jack Albertson, Red Buttons and Ernest Borgnine (Marty, for god’s sake). Along the way, you got to know these vulnerable people, like them, and consequently, root for them. Lately modern Hollywood repeatedly makes the mistake of thinking we want to root for invulnerable people, and I hope to God they’re wrong because the technical name for that philosophy is fascism. The modern hero is a vigilante on steroids dispatching dozens of bad guys with an AK-47 (or in the case of Poseidon it’s Josh Lucas leaping 100 feet through a burning oil slick into the water beneath in order to rig a special rescue device with a fire hose). But in my book, if the hero is superman the stakes are zero. And why on earth is Kurt Russell a former New York Mayor? It is as though the creators, perceiving that they could not write any characters we could like, opted to replace them with symbolic shorthand for concepts with high Q score. It scans more like a football playbook than what you would call a script. But, contrary to popular belief, you need a script. Without one, all sorts of moral questions go unasked. Stay or go? Live or die? Help the hopeless or save myself? At one point in Poseidon, Richard Dreyfus, as a gay millionaire, is forced to shake off a man who is clinging to his legs for dear life over a burning precipice. Once accomplished, this action, which would be traumatic for any person with a conscience, is never referred to in the film again. This is not good. In these treacherous times, the cinema – all culture – has a role to play in helping us process new realities, and in helping us as citizens of a presumably democratic nation to think and decide the questions of the day. Questions with life-and-death implications for all of us. In light of this, the question on everyone’s lips should not be, “Are we ready for Flight 93?” (we undoubtedly are), but “Are we still able to stomach Poseidon?” Me, I was puking over the rail.