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!

Boldly Going Indeed! : PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW (MGM 1971)

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Gene Roddenberry’s post-STAR TREK career  had pretty much gone down the tubes. The sci-fi series had been a money loser, and Roddenberry wasn’t getting many offers. Not wanting to be pigeonholed in the science fiction ghetto, he produced and wrote the screenplay for PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW, a black comedy skewering the sexual revolution, with French New Wave director Roger Vadim making his first American movie. The result was an uneven yet entertaining film that would never get the green light today with its theme of horny teachers having sex with horny high school students!

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All-American hunk Rock Hudson was in the middle of a career crisis himself. After spending years as Doris Day’s paramour in a series of fluffy comedies, his box office clout was at an all-time low. Taking the role of Tiger McGrew, the guidance counselor/football coach whose dalliances with the cheerleading squad leads to murder, Rock goes way out of his comfort zone portraying a sexual predator and gives one of his best screen performances. Tiger’s a family man, Masters level psychologist, and first class scoundrel not above killing the girls he seduces when they get too close, and Rock gets to show off his acting chops to good advantage.

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A subplot involves John David Carson making his debut as Ponce de Leon Harper, a student with sexual hangups who’s taken under the wing (and covers!) of substitute teacher Miss Smith, played by Angie Dickinson . Angie is always good, but Carson’s kind of stiff as the kid with a perpetual hard-on (pun intended!), which is a shame, because the character’s central to the film. His career never really took off, and he was relegated to mainly low-budget schlock like EMPIRE OF THE ANTS and CREATURE FROM BLACK LAKE after this.

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The cast is peppered with Familiar Faces, such as Telly Savalas as a police detective out to solve the high school murder spree, Roddy McDowell as the school’s principal, Keenan Wynn as a bumbling local cop, and STAR TREK’s James Doohan as Telly’s assistant. Barbara Leigh, best known for almost starring in a Hammer movie adaptation of the horror comic VAMPIRELLA (which sadly never got off the ground), plays Tiger’s loving but unsuspecting wife. Another STAR TREK vet William Campbell appears, as does funny Susan Tolsky (of TV’s HERE COME THE BRIDES). The “Pretty Maids” are all pretty hot, including cult actress Joy Bang, Gretchen Burrell, Aimee Eccles, JoAnna Cameron (later Saturday morning superhero Isis!), Brenda Sykes, Topo Swope (daughter of Dorothy McGuire, now a top talent agent), and Gene’s daughter Dawn Roddenberry.

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There are underlying themes of oppression, non-conformity, and even racism in the film, but let’s be honest, it’s basically about sex! There’s lots of nudity, befitting a 70’s flick, and some may find it creepy seeing Rock Hudson getting down with all these nubile young chicks. As I said earlier, the film couldn’t be made in today’s repressive climate, but back then it was anything goes. I don’t know how you feel about it, all I can tell you if I was a horny 17-year-old back then, I’d have screwed Angie Dickinson’s brains out, too!

PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW didn’t do well at the box office, and Roddenberry returned to TV and sci-fi, supplementing his income with talking about STAR TREK on the college lecture circuit. The show had developed a cult following by then due to its popularity in syndication, and by the end of the decade STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE hit the big screen. The voyages of the Starship Enterprise will always be Roddenberry’s lasting legacy, but if you’ve got a taste for black comedy, check out his twisted PRETTY MAIDS ALL IN A ROW.