Recipe for Disaster: THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (20th Century-Fox 1972)

Although 1970’s AIRPORT is generally credited as the first “disaster movie”, it was 1972’s THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE that made the biggest splash for the genre. Producer Irwin Allen loaded up his cast with five- count ’em!- Academy Award winners, including the previous year’s winner Gene Hackman (THE FRENCH CONNECTION ). The special effects laden extravaganza wound up nominated for 9 Oscars, winning 2, and was the second highest grossing film of the year, behind only THE GODFATHER!

And unlike many of the “disasters” that followed in its wake, THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE holds up surprisingly well. The story serves as an instruction manual for all disaster movies to come. First, introduce your premise: The S.S. Poseidon is sailing on its final voyage, and Captain Leslie Nielsen is ordered by the new ownership to go full steam ahead, despite the ship no longer being in ship-shape. (You won’t be able to take Leslie too seriously if, like me, you’ve watched AIRPLANE! way too many times!)

Next, introduce your all-star cast: We’ve got Hackman as a rebellious priest having his dark night of the soul, Ernest Borgnine as a belligerent NYC cop and Stella Stevens as his ex-prostitute wife, Red Buttons as a lonely, health-food nut bachelor, Jack Albertson and Shelley Winters as an elderly Jewish couple sailing for Israel, Carol Lynley as a young, aspiring singer, and Roddy McDowell as a steward. Add youngsters Pamela Sue Martin and Eric Shea on their way to meet their parents in Greece for good measure.

Then, add your disaster: a sub sea earthquake that triggers a freak tsunami, hitting the Poseidon with devastating force on New Year’s Eve, right after the singing of “Auld Lang Syne”! The ship capsizes, and now in order to survive our stars must make their way to the bottom (which is now the top) of the ship and reach the engine room to be rescued or, like all the rest of the supporting players and extras, they’re doomed to die in the frigid waters of the Atlantic Ocean!!

Oh, and let’s add some conflict for dramatic effect: Hackman and Borgnine are constantly at odds, bellowing at each other like bull elephants. Winters is old and overweight; the others think she’ll drag them down. Lynley’s suffering from trauma because her brother was killed, MacDowell’s got a wounded leg, Shea’s an obnoxious little know-it-all. There’s enough suspense, thrills, and terror put before our ten heroes for three disaster flicks, and it all works thanks to the steady hand of  director Ronald Neame (who later helmed one of the worst in the disaster cycle, 1979’s METEOR ).

Let’s talk a moment about Shelley Winters’ performance as Mrs. Rosen. During the late 60’s and early 70’s, double Oscar winner Shelley (THE DIARY OF ANNE FRANK, A PATCH OF BLUE) began giving way-over-the-top performances in whatever she did, and was becoming more and more a parody of herself. Granted, she had recently suffered a nervous breakdown, and was taking roles beneath her considerable talents. Yet here Shelley toned down her act, giving a subtly emotional portrayal, and her bravery and self-sacrifice in saving Hackman’s life, especially after enduring all the cracks about her weight through the film, deservedly earned Winters an Oscar nomination (though she lost to Eileen Heckart for BUTTERFLIES ARE FREE). THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE may be just a big-budget popcorn movie, but it does have a heart and soul; its name is Shelley Winters.

Let’s also have a tidal wave of applause for the stunt crew, set designers, and special effects wizards who made THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE a visual delight… no CGI necessary! Veteran SPFX men L.B. Abbott and A.D. Flowers were given a Special Achievement Oscar for their fantastic technical work, and the film also won for what I consider one of the most annoying songs of the 70’s, the perennial soft-rock snoozer “The Morning After” (well, as Joe E. Brown said in SOME LIKE IT HOT, nobody’s perfect!). Despite that lame title tune, THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE is just as enjoyable today as it was upon first release,  an exciting, fun piece of Hollywood filmmaking that’s endured the storm-ravaged test of time!

Move over Keanu, it’s GAY PURR-EE (Warner Brothers 1962)

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Where else can you see Parisian pussycats dancing the Can-Can at the Mewlon Rouge but in GAY PURR-EE? This animated musical feature from UPA Studios was a bit more adult themed than it’s Disney counterparts, at least by 1962 standards. It’s the story of Mewsette, a country cat in 1890’s Provincial France who dreams of living the life of a big city kitty in Paris. One day she decides to chuck it all and hops on her mistress’s sister’s coach to head for the City of Lights. Her boyfriend, the mouse-catching Jaune-Tom, and his amusing little pal Robespierre, set out to find her and rescue her from the clutches of the scoundrel Meowrice, who together with Madame Rubens-Chatte plan to train Mewsette in the ways of the world and sell her off to a fat American cat.

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The vocal stars of GAY PURR-EE are Robert Goulet, fresh off his Broadway success in CAMELOT, and the one-and-only Judy Garland. Judy’s film career had been at a standstill since the box office failure of 1954’s A STAR IS BORN (now considered a classic), and she owed big bucks to the IRS. But her singing career was still going strong, and getting Garland to do an animated film was considered quite a coup. Judy had only one demand, though: she had the filmmakers hire Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg to write the songs, the duo responsible for the tunes in Garland’s greatest hit, THE WIZARD OF OZ, and her signature song “Over The Rainbow”.

Arlen and Harburg didn’t disappoint. The songs in GAY PURR-EE are Broadway quality, and Judy adds her own inimitable style to “Little Drops of Rain”, “Take My Hand, Paree”, and “Paris is a Lonely Town”. Goulet gets to show off his baritone on “Mewsette”, and even voice actor extraordinaire Paul Frees (Meowrice) sings two humorous tunes, “The Money Cat” and “The Horse Won’t Talk”.

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Red Buttons can be a bit annoying as comic relief cat Robespierre, but he’s there mainly for the kiddies (no, not kitties!). Hermione Gingold lends her unique voice to Madame Rubens-Chatte, and Man of 1000 Voices Mel Blanc shows up as a burly bulldog. Morey Amsterdam is the narrator, and a man on a ship shanghaied along with Jaune-Tom and Robespierre. Special shout-out to The Shadow Cats, Meowrice’s silent henchmen. Delineated all in black, with shifty yellow eyes, these bungling criminal cats add an amusing dimension to the nefarious doings of Meowrice.

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The movie is done in limited-animation style, colored in a gorgeous pastel palette. One scene that stands out is in the film’s middle, with Meowrice writing to American groom-to-be Mr. Henry Phtt about Mewsette’s progress. A series of portraits of the feline fatale are shown in the styles of painters Cezanne, Gauguin, Monet, Picasso, Renoir, Rousseau, and Toulouse-Lautrec, among others. The visuals here are outstanding, and the colors pop with vibrancy.

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Director Abe Levitow got his start working under Warner’s cartoon king Chuck Jones, and their styles are very similar. Jones himself wrote the screenplay with his wife Dorothy, and when Warner found out afterwards, they promptly fired him for breeching his exclusive contract with the studio. Chuck bounced back quicker than Wile E. Coyote, moving to MGM to take over their TOM AND JERRY shorts, with the TV classic HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS soon on the horizon.

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GAY PURR-EE is fun for film fans, an interesting experiment in animation that’s not quite a classic, but still very watchable today. The visuals are lovely to look at, the vocal talents delightful, and we get to hear Judy sing some wonderful Arlen and Harburg songs one more time. I’d give it two paws up!