An electrifying and underrated classic that spawned a new film genre
With New Year's Eve upon us, I thought I’d present “The Poseidon Adventure”, an enthralling classic which takes place on that holiday. Just because it’s a disaster film don’t be fooled into thinking it's simply fluff or camp. This film is visually exciting, moving, suspenseful, and one fantastic adventure. Featuring an all-star cast (including five Oscar winners) along with a first-rate script about faith, trust, and finding strength within, “The Poseidon Adventure” provides thrilling entertainment and thoughtful introspection - a great way to start any new year. Every time I’ve shown this film to first time viewers (and there have been many), they love it without exception. And if you’ve seen it long ago, I challenge you to watch it again, for it undoubtedly holds much more weight than you remember. “The Poseidon Adventure” was nominated for eight Academy Awards (winning one), in addition to being awarded a Special Achievement Academy Award for its visual effects.
The film opens with this prologue: “At midnight on New Year's Eve, the S. S. POSEIDON, enroute (sic) from New York to Athens, met with disaster and was lost. There were only a handful of survivors. This is their story…”. Basically, a sub-sea earthquake produces a tidal wave, creating havoc for the SS Poseidon, turning the film into a fight for survival as an unconventional priest leads a small group towards what he perceives as the only escape from the sinking ship. Also onboard is a more conventional priest who lives by prescription, and when disaster strikes he decides to stay in place and wait for help. The contrast of the two priests sets up a lingering question - is God outside or within. “The Poseidon Adventure” has been described as an allegory to “Dante’s Inferno”, “The Hero’s Journey”, and in part, the story of Christ. While I can appreciate those comparisons, I view “The Poseidon Adventure” as a parable about how action, an open mind, and faith in oneself can lead to survival in the face of adversity. The superb cast portray very distinct, fully-formed characters, each adding a different color and element to the journey and narrative.
One might not think a disaster film could be emotional and moving, but “The Poseidon Adventure” is the spectacle that proves it’s possible. Not only is it chock full of high-voltage action (the moment when the wave hits the ship is heart-stoppingly authentic), one can’t help but believe these are real individuals whose worlds are being turned upside down. Audiences hadn’t seen anything like it and the film became the second highest grossing of the year (behind “The Godfather”) and the catalyst for the disaster film becoming a viable genre. A disaster film centers around some type of disaster (natural or man-made) which puts its characters (usually an all-star cast) in a fight for survival. Two years prior, the first notable disaster film, “Airport”, was released - also a box-office sensation with an all-star cast. However, it was with the success of “The Poseidon Adventure” that the genre exploded, spawning subsequent films such as "Earthquake", "The Towering Inferno", "The Hindenburg", "The Swarm", a slew of "Airport" sequels, and many, many more films.
The man behind “The Poseidon Adventure” was film/TV producer and director, Irwin Allen, and his knack for producing fantasy and extravaganza certainly mark this film. His producing credits include the classic 1960s TV shows "Lost in Space", "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea", "The Time Tunnel", and "Land of the Giants”, and the films "Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea", "The Story of Mankind", and "The Lost World”. He also directed several of the titles mentioned, as well as the 1979 sequel to this film, "Beyond the Poseidon Adventure”. He won an Academy Award for Best Documentary for his 1953 film, “The Sea Around Us”, and was nominated as producer for a Best Picture Oscar for 1974’s disaster film, “The Towering Inferno”. “The Poseidon Adventure” was based on a book, and Allen was determined to make the film version. He hired screenwriter Stirling Silliphant (who won a Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award for the film “In the Heat of the Night" (film #12 on his blog) to flesh out the characters - which he did superbly. Two weeks before shooting, Allen faced his own personal disaster as 20th Century Fox pulled the plug on the film for financial reasons. True to his tenacious nature, Allen made a deal that he would finance half of the $5 million budget himself if Fox would finance the rest and keep the film in production. They accepted, which saved the film. The huge success of “The Poseidon Adventure” and his next, “The Towering Inferno”, made Irwin Allen’s name synonymous with disaster films, earning him the nickname, “The Master of Disaster”. Irwin Allen died in 1991 at the age of 75.
“The Poseidon Adventure” was directed by Ronald Neame, a British film producer, director, cinematographer, and screenwriter. He does a sublime job turning a disaster story into a chillingly real ride, conjuring electrifying action and stirring performances. Neame began directing in 1947, and some of the notable films he directed include "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie", "The Odessa File ", "Scrooge", "Gambit", "Meteor", and "I Could Go On Singing" with Judy Garland (which I mention briefly in “The Wizard of Oz” post). He was nominated for two Best Screenplay Academy Awards, for the classics “Great Expectations” in 1946, and “Brief Encounter” in 1945. He was also nominated for a Best Special Effects Oscar for the 1942 film “One of Our Aircraft is Missing”. Described as a quiet force, Neame always seemed to extract fantastic performances from his cast (including this cast). Richard Neame died in 2010 at the age of 99.
For the all-star cast, Allen decided to hire mostly seasoned pros rather than current movie stars. The one exception was the film’s star, Gene Hackman. Hackman had just appeared as the lead in the classic 1971 film, “The French Connection”, winning the Best Actor Academy Award for it, making him an official movie star and leading man. “The Poseidon Adventure” soon followed, and he stars as “Reverend Frank Scott”, a questioning and rebellious priest who finds faith from within. He radically believes prayers aren’t enough - that action must be taken, for God is within each of us. Hackman is perfect as the driving force behind the story, bringing passion, strength, and vulnerability. Gene Hackman is one of cinema’s most talented and versatile actors, with a career full of interesting films and parts. Early on he studied acting at the Pasadena Playhouse, where he and fellow misfit (and future Oscar winning actor) Dustin Hoffman were both voted "Least Likely to Succeed". Hackman was later thrown out of the school after receiving the lowest grades ever given. But with his “I’ll show you” attitude, he persevered and moved to New York in 1958 where he roomed with Hoffman and another future Oscar winning actor, Robert Duvall. In 1961 Hackman began appearing in bit parts in TV and films. His first important role came in the 1964 film, “Lilith”, starring Warren Beatty. His breakthrough came, also working the Beatty, in the classic 1967 film, “Bonnie and Clyde”, for which Hackman earned his first of five Oscar nominations, this one for Best Supporting Actor. He would gain his second Best Supporting Actor nomination for the 1971 film, “I Never Sang for My Father”, followed by his Best Actor Academy Award win for “The French Connection”. Hackman would be nominated twice more, for Best Actor for the 1988 film, “Mississippi Burning” and for Best Supporting Actor for the 1992 western, “Unforgiven” (which he won). He has 100 credits to his name, including other prestigious films such as "The Conversation", "Young Frankenstein", "Scarecrow", "Superman", "Another Woman", "The Birdcage", "The Royal Tenenbaums", and his last film, "Welcome to Mooseport" in 2004. He also competed in auto-racing, and co-authored three novels with Daniel Lenihan. He was married twice, currently still married to his second wife. On January 20, 2021, Gene Hackman will turn 91 years old. I met him briefly and was surprised to find him so tall (he is 6’2”). He is an actor I revere!
Another actor who is a personal favorite, is Ernest Borgnine, who portrays “Detective Lieutenant Mike Rogo”. An actor of tremendous depth, he is explosive as a cop married to a former prostitute. The bickering with his wife, “Linda”, provides much of the film’s humor, while underneath there is recognizable love for one another. Not a risk-taker, “Rogo” constantly challenges “Reverend Scott”, following him only at the urging of “Linda”. Even with all of “Rogo’s" anger, Borgnine is very genuine and moving. Ernest Borgnine is another of the Oscar winners appearing in “The Poseidon Adventure” . After serving in the Navy for almost ten years before and during WWII, he worked in a factory. Wanting to do something different, his mother suggested he become a stage actor (isn't that a twist on the norm), which she thought would suit his large, outgoing personality. He took her up on it and began to get parts, making it to Broadway in 1949. Come 1950, he began to appear in television and films. His career took an upswing with his role in the classic 1953 film, “From Here to Eternity”. Borgnine continued to appear mostly in dramas and westerns, and in 1955, he gave an outstanding and emotional performance as the lead in the classic, “Marty”, for which he won a Best Actor Academy Award (his only win or nomination). He would appear in over 200 films and TV shows, often as the heavy or boisterous villain, including such classics as “The Wild Bunch”, "The Dirty Dozen", “Bad Day at Black Rock”, “Escape from New York”, "The Flight of the Phoenix", "Ice Station Zebra", "The Catered Affair", and as the lead in the classic 1960s TV Series, "McHale's Navy”. His performances were always first-rate (in comedy and drama), and always with sensitivity. He had a long and prolific career, with his final role as the voice of "Mermaid Man” in the animated TV series, "SpongeBob SquarePants". He was married five times, including his marriage to actress Katy Jurado (who I wrote about in the “High Noon” post), and his marriage to actress and Broadway legend, Ethel Merman (which only lasted about six months). Ernest Borgnine died in 2012 at the age of 95. I had the honor of meeting him at the Oscars a few years before his death. We had a lengthy chat and he was incredibly sweet. He even mentioned he was fluent in Spanish. I was in awe that I was actually speaking to Ernest Borgnine.
Red Buttons who plays “James Martin”, is yet another Oscar winning cast member. “Mr. Martin”, a brave soul, who rises to the occasion, brings calm, sensitivity, and level-headedness to all the havoc. Red Buttons was a comedian, actor and singer. He inherited his name when working as a singing bellhop in New York, because of his red hair and the large buttons on his uniform. He began as a singer, then a comic, and eventually ended up on Broadway. In 1944 he appeared in his first film, “Winged Victory”, in which he reprised his Broadway role. By the mid-1950s, he had his own popular TV variety show, “The Red Buttons Show”, which ran for several years. After the show ended he appeared in his first dramatic film role in 1957’s “Sayonara”, opposite Marlon Brando, for which Buttons won a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award (his only win or nomination). He would continue to appear mostly in television (and some films) up until his last role as “Jules 'Ruby' Rubadoux” on the TV show, “ER”, for which he received a Guest Actor Emmy nomination. Some of his notable films include "The Longest Day", "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?", "Pete's Dragon", and the 1980 disaster film, "When Time Ran Out…". He was best known for his comedy and quick wit, and appeared in Las Vegas for years. He was married three times. Red Buttons died in 2006 at the age of 87.
Carol Lynley appears as “Nonnie Parry”, the singer onboard who becomes one of the more traumatized passengers. She is filled with fear and sadness, and is constantly challenged in her fight to survive. Her character sings the Oscar winning song, “The Morning After”, but Lynley’s singing was dubbed by Renee Amand. Carol Lynley began as a child model, making it to Broadway when she was 13 years old. She began appearing on television in 1956, and in films in 1959, with the height of her popularity occurring in the late 1950s and early 1960s. She worked up until her retirement in 2006. Lynley has just over 100 credits (mostly television) with appearances in films such as "Holiday for Lovers", "Return to Peyton Place", "Bunny Lake Is Missing", "The Pleasure Seekers", "Under the Yum Yum Tree", and as Jean Harlow in the trashy (and inaccurate) biopic, "Harlow". Lynley is best remembered for her role in “The Poseidon Adventure”. She was married and divorced once. Carol Lynley died in 2019 at the age of 77.
Roddy McDowall plays “Acres”, the waiter familiar with the ship's layout. Born in England, McDowall was a child actor who began appearing in British films when he was about nine years old. With WWII, his family moved to the US, and he began appearing in Hollywood films with 1941’s “Man Hunt”. That same year, with his third US film, the Oscar winning classic “How Green Was My Valley”, he became a full-blown child star, known to be able to cry on cue. McDowall would work for different studios, and in the 1950s, would turn to television and stage, winning a Tony Award for his performance in 1960 for “The Fighting Cock”. He would continue working mostly on television, accumulating well over 250 credits. In 1968 he appeared as the ape, “Cornelius”, in the original sci-fi classic film, “Planet of the Apes”, for which he is most remembered. He would appear in three sequels, and the 1974 TV series based on the films. Other films in which he appears include "Lassie Come Home", "The Keys of the Kingdom", "Macbeth", "Midnight Lace", "The Longest Day", "Bedknobs and Broomsticks”, “Cleopatra", and "Funny Lady”. He was also an avid photographer, and had many celebrity friends. Years ago at The Hollywood History Museum, I saw McDowall’s front-hall powder room on display (including the sink and counter), complete with his collection of wall-to-wall photographs, many featuring his celebrity pals. It was a strange but fascinating exhibit! He never married, and it was an open secret that he was gay. Roddy McDowall died in 1998 at the age of 70.
Stella Stevens plays “Linda Rogo”, the outgoing former prostitute now married to “Detective Lieutenant Rogo”. Stevens has great banter with Borgnine, and the two play off each other impeccably well. She makes the flamboyant “Linda” completely endearing, never losing sight that this woman was previously a hooker. Stella Stevens was an actress who worked in film, television, on stage, and as a model. She made her film debut in 1959 in the Bing Crosby musical, “Say One for Me”, followed by a role in "Li'l Abner” the same year. She was quickly labeled a “sexpot”, and at the height of her film career in the 1960’s, appearing in such films as "The Nutty Professor", "The Courtship of Eddie's Father", "The Secret of My Success”, “Where Angels Go, Trouble Follows”, and “Girls! Girls! Girls!” opposite Elvis Presley. She modeled throughout the 1950s and 60s and became one of the most photographed women of the 1960s. Stevens was also Playboy’s “Playmate of the Month” in the January 1960 issue, appearing twice more in the publication before the decade’s end. She mostly worked on television from the 1970s onward in well over 100 roles, including recurring characters on TV shows such as "Flamingo Road", "Santa Barbara", and “General Hospital”. By the time she was 17 she was married and divorced with a child, which was her only marriage. As of the writing of this post, Stella Stevens is alive at 82 years old, sadly suffering from Alzheimers.
One of the highlights of “The Poseidon Adventure” is without a doubt the performance by Shelley Winters as “Belle Rosen”. “Belle” is a woman who radiates love and cares about people. She is aboard the S.S. Poseidon with her husband “Manny”, on their way to Israel to meet their grandson for the first time. Winters gives such an emotional performance, one can’t help but be moved by her throughout the film. Shelley Winters was one of cinema’s great character actors, and I wrote more about her in the “A Place in the Sun” post. Being the method actress that she was, to play former swimming champ turned fat lady "Belle”, she gained much weight for the role and trained with a swimming instructor in order to look like a former swimmer and extend her underwater breath capacity for her swimming scene. For her bedazzling performance, Winters earned her fourth and final Academy Award nomination (after having won two Best Supporting Actress Oscars). “Belle” has become one of her most iconic roles, and many who know her only from this film don’t realize she began her career as a sexy “blonde bombshell”.
Like Borgnine, Buttons, and Winters, Jack Albertson was an Academy Award winning veteran actor. He gives a gentle, loving and sincere performance as “Manny Rosen”, the husband of “Belle”. Together they round out the cast, infusing it with humanity. Jack Albertson began as a dancer in vaudeville, and would appear on Broadway, radio, film and TV. His first film appearances were both uncredited, in the 1940 musical “Strike Up the Band”, and the classic 1947 film “Miracle on 34th Street”. He first appeared on television in 1950, where the bulk of his work would remain. Out of his nearly 200 film and TV credits, over two dozen are films, including "Son of Flubber”, "The Subject Was Roses" (for which he won a Best Supporting Actor Oscar - his only win or nomination), and most famously as "Grandpa Joe" in the 1971 classic, "Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory". He appeared in countless TV shows, most iconically as the lead in the classic 1970s show “Chico and the Man” opposite Freddie Prinze (for which Albertson won one of his two Emmy Awards). He was also a Tony Award winner. He was married once, for nearly thirty years until his death. Jack Albertson died in 1981 at the age of 74. He was the brother of actress Mabel Albertson, who you will see in a future film on this blog.
Pamela Sue Martin plays “Susan Shelby”, a young girl who has faith (and attraction) in "Reverend Scott”. In part, because “Susan” cares so much about “Reverend Scott”, so do we. She and her brother, “Robin” are 1970s hip, with their lingo and style. Pamela Sue Martin began as a teenage model, and “The Poseidon Adventure” was her second film. In 1977 she would gain fame as “Nancy Drew” on the TV series “The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries”, and again in the ever popular 1980s TV series “Dynasty”, as "Fallon Carrington Colby". While appearing mostly on TV, she has also appeared on stage, and in a few films, including “Buster and Billie”. She has been married and divorced four times. Pamela Sue Martin will turn 68 on January 5, 2021.
Leslie Nielsen plays “Captain Harrison”. His performance is brief but memorable, as he delivers the classic line, “Oh, my God”, which starts the film’s action. I wrote about Nielsen recently in the “Forbidden Planet” post. Check it out to find out more about him.
The film’s score is by one of cinema’s most renowned composers (and possibly its greatest), John Williams. His score for “The Poseidon Adventure” is exquisite, and memorably underscores the emotion and action in the film. With it, he earned his fifth or sixth Academy Award nomination - depending on how you count it (he was nominated for Best Original Score for two films that year - the other being “Images”). As of the writing of this entry, he has been nominated for 51 Academy Awards (for both songs and scores), and has won five. He has composed music for almost 150 films and TV shows, including many of the films of Steven Spielberg, and has written some of the most famous scores in movie history, including those for the “Star Wars” films, "Jaws", "Superman", "Saving Private Ryan", "Harry Potter", "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial", "Close Encounters of the Third Kind", "Indiana Jones", "Jurassic Park", and one of my favorites, "Schindler's List". He began scoring in 1958, and continues to work today. He was married twice (once widowed, currently married to his second wife). As of the writing of this post, John Williams is 88 years old.
Joel Hirschhorn and Al Kasha won a Best Original Song Academy Award for "The Song from The Poseidon Adventure”, the film's only Oscar win. After the film came out, 20th Century Fox wanted to record the song for a single and airplay, and found an unknown singer named Maureen McGovern. It would be her first professional recording. The song’s name was changed to “The Morning After”, and after the song won the Oscar, McGovern’s recording jumped to #1 in the music charts, and has remained a classic ever since.
In addition to the three Oscar nominations mentioned above, “The Poseidon Adventure” received nominations for art direction (which I’ll mention in the TO READ AFTER VIEWING section), costume design, sound, cinematography, and editing.
An iconic film that was a phenomenon when first released, this week’s film is a rollercoaster ride of life, death and finding strength from within. It is a fun film you don’t want to miss. Enjoy “The Poseidon Adventure”!
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TO READ AFTER VIEWING (contains spoilers):
As you now know after viewing the film, the USS Poseidon capsizes, and the people onboard have to work their way up to the bottom of the ship. The famous scene where the ship capsizes was created by large miniatures of the boat in the water, along with very well planned live action shots of the cast performing on a tilting set.
Very inventive upside-down sets were used for the rest of the film, all earning William J. Creber and Raphael Bretton their Academy Award nomination for Best Art Direction. The non-upside down scenes were shot on the Queen Mary, a luxury liner docked in Long Beach, California. Even today this film looks incredibly authentic. And don't forget it was made before computer graphics.
“The Poseidon Adventure” was a physically difficult shoot for the cast, as they had to constantly deal with water, explosions, fire, and more. Many of them did their own stunts when possible. No one was hurt during this shoot, which boggles my mind when I see a piano falling on people, or a Christmas Tree. The filmmakers truly made it all look so real.