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Tagline: At midnight on New Year's Eve the S.S. Poseidon was struck by a 90 foot tidal wave and capsized.

Cool Dialogue: “You had a lot of guts, lady. A lot of guts.”

Pizza: Ameci Pizza

Preshow Entertainment: Movietone Newsreels 1934



I’ll never know why the cast of THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1972) took so long to get out of the capsized liner. All they had to do was walk through the gigantic hole they made from chewing the scenery. Even director Ronald Neame would later say he wished he’d tamed Ernest Borgnine and Gene Hackman down a bit. But he didn’t, and I for one and a half (I really need to diet) am glad for it. For I find the overacting to be part of what makes TPA such a great movie. Don’t believe that it’s a great movie?? Here’s some proof: after THE GODFATHER, it was 1972’s highest grossing film. Want more proof? When it was released, the critics hated it.

True, it wasn’t the first in the “Disaster Films With An All Star Cast” genre. That would be AIRPORT, released two years earlier. But it’s safe to say that TPA put disaster films on the map, and also helped spawn a slew of followers like EARTHQUAKE and THE TOWERING INFERNO (I remember when they were playing across the street from each other, the joke at school was calling it “Shake and Bake”). And then there was METEOR, which, in my opinion, brought an end to the (first wave of) disaster films. So huge was the genre that I remember this parody from National Lampoon (click pic at right), although I certainly didn’t remember the World Trade Center image.

Disaster films usually (or always?) have a bad guy, and in TPA it’s the rep from the ship’s new owner who orders the Poseidon full ahead, pushing it beyond its limits in a perilous storm. But the real villain here is water…water that, as the ship slowly sinks, follows the survivors up each level like a liquid stalker. But besides the bad guy from the company and the evil water, it’s the heated conflict between risk-taking Reverend Scott (Gene Hackman) and short-fused cop Rogo (Ernest Borgnine) that is most important.


Before the gigantic wave hits we are introduced to the characters; Rogo and his ex-hooker wife Linda (Stella Stevens, who I just bumped into 2 days ago in the appropriately named Studio City). Alte kakers the Rosens (the wonderful Jack Albertson and the wonderfuller Shelley Winters), the “angry, rebellious, critical…a renegade” Reverend Scott (Hackman’s high turtleneck is both funny and now iconic). Lonely bachelor Mr. Martin (Red Buttons). Sister and brother Susan and Robin (Pamela Sue Martin and Eric Shea). Lounge singer Nonnie (Carol Lynley). And Roddy McDowall as Acres, the ship’s ridiculously polite English waiter. Not all of them will make it. They even tell us in the opening titles - “There were only a handful of survivors. This is their story.” Yet the most amazing thing about the trapped passengers is that Red Buttons’s bowtie stays on for the entire treacherous journey.

It’s New Year’s Eve, and everyone is celebrating in the ballroom, holding hands as they sing Auld Lang Syne. But they all won’t be holding hands for long. Instead, there will be infighting, death and girls in short shorts.

The wave, described to The Captain as so - “I never saw anything like it…an enormous wall of water coming towards us” – breaks both the ship and the movie’s Act, and the metaphor of having your life turned upside down becomes literal as well. It all happens exactly at midnight. Sure, the odds of that are slim, but wow, what a brilliant piece of drama, having the passengers, drunk with happiness and champagne, count down to “1”, never knowing (though we know) they are counting down the seconds to their possible death.


Even though this is an ensemble cast (an awesome one at that), this is mostly the story of Reverend Scott. It’s a story of faith and not giving up, and finding the good in people. The story of a reverend, all but de-frocked, who’s seeking relocation in Africa so he can be freer with his progressive ideals. He’s a man in search of a mission, and he has just found the mother of them all. While shooting TPA, Hackman won an Oscar for THE FRENCH CONNECTION. In the 2000s, he quietly retired without any fanfare. I guess I’d quit show business too if I had just starred in WELCOME TO MOOSEPORT.


But it’s not entirely Reverend Scott’s movie. Shelley Winters, you’d have to agree, often steals the show. Plus, she’s got the most memorable moment. It’s the swimming scene, where they all have to go underwater to get to the next area. Winters insisted on doing this herself (the entire cast did a lot of their own stunts, but this was truly above and beyond). In interviews, Winters claimed Johnny Weissmuller (Tarzan) taught her how to swim. Winters got around.

The trapped survivors in THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, which my dad, who never got titles right (BRIGHT LIGHTS BIG BUILDINGS, THE PURPLE COLOR) called THE POISDEN AFFAIR, provide oodles of treacly moments while simultaneously trying to avoid fires, floating corpses and rising waters. And all the while they still manage to find plenty of time to argue with each other. Like water seeking its level, the characters show who they really are. The meek Mr. Martin, for example, turns out to have more logic than anyone. He also plays the diplomat when things get heated between the others, as well as taking on the task of helping the shell-shocked Nonnie. Robin turns out to be a boy wonder, with his extreme knowledge of the inner workings of the Poseidon.

Though much of the plot points are from the bestselling book of the same name by Paul Gallico, we must also credit Oscar nominated screenwriter Wendell Mayes (ANATOMY OF A MURDER) and Oscar winner Stirling Silliphant (IN THE HEAT OF THE NIGHT). Besides writing a billion episodes for TV, Silliphant created (with Herbert Leonard, whoever the hell he was) the show ROUTE 66 which I coincidentally just watched an episode of yesterday. It featured, get this - Boris Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr. and Peter Lorre. What I wouldn’t give to have had those three badasses on the S.S. Poseidon. Anyway…


There are scenes in TPA that are so memorable that decades later, people can still call them up...like the Christmas tree! Yes, long before a drunken Kiefer Sutherland did it in 2006, our adventurers used the tree as a ladder to climb up (or was it down?) and escape to higher ground. In this sequence, we also get the Greedy Event - too many people going at once, forcing the tree to topple. It’s repeated in TPA’s follow-up, THE TOWERING INFERNO, when the trapped and panicked partygoers make a mad rush for one tiny outdoor elevator. Both films also had people willfully placing others in danger just to save money (POSEIDON) or embezzle it (INFERNO).

One thing people often forget is that The Captain is played by Leslie Nielsen. After seeing AIRPLANE! a thousand times, it’s so hard to take him seriously. Even Carol Lynley, Stella Stevens and Pamela Sue Martin agree on the DVD’s commentary. But a funny thing happens. You do forget he’s Leslie Nielson. When he looks at the wave in his binoculars and says “Oh my God,” it’s a bit thrilling. Of course if it came out today it would be less thrilling, with The Captain saying “OMG!”


It’s no secret the real captain of the S. S. Poseidon was producer Irwin Allen, whose rep as creator of sci-fi shows THE TIME TUNNEL, VOYAGE TO THE BOTTOM OF THE SEA, LOST IN SPACE and LAND OF THE GIANTS would morph, thanks to TPA, into the moniker of “Master of Disaster.” After TPA, Allen made THE TOWERING INFERNO (both great movies, but I can never decide which is better), and a slew of others (though mostly on TV). I’ll have to get around to seeing THE SWARM one of these days.

Director Ronald Neame, who managed to do a commentary for the DVD when he was in his 90s, was a softie in contrast to producer Irwin Allen’s brashness (Allen also directed the action sequences). Neame’s camera pitches and rolls, sometimes subtly, sometimes not, but always keeping us swaying. Likewise, moments can be subtle (when they come across another group of survivors walking silently to what they don’t know is their doom, it’s eerily lit from beneath as if they’re already ghosts) or not (as Borgnine hangs off a railing, he loses it, screaming at Hackman while flames dance behind him). And besides the Shelley Winters scene I mentioned earlier (she was nominated for an Oscar for this role), everyone remembers when the guy falls down (up?) through the skylight.


Of course a movie of this undertaking had its share of real problems. The production was almost shut down, even as the sets were being built, when Fox pulled the plug on the big budget ($5 million) movie. Fox was struggling at that time, bleeding from loser movies. Allen ended up raising half the budget himself in the 11th hour, though it’s unclear if they actually used this money. Running low on funds by the end of the sequentially shot movie, they were unable to shoot a huge finale. SPOILER SENTENCES: That’s why there aren’t 1000 ships and 500 aircraft there for the rescue. Just a lone helicopter. But I say because of this the ending is better. It’s about the characters and their struggles, not about how many people rescue them. So what if they had to shoot low and into the sky so you wouldn’t see the buildings on the Fox lot? By the way, problems weren’t limited to financial ones. They also had Shelley Winters calling “cut!” because she saw a piece of paper on the floor (a floor that wasn’t even in the shot).

The Queen Mary doubled for the Poseidon’s exterior when they weren’t using a model (which is currently on display at Los Angeles Maritime Museum). The interior sets and art direction were nothing short of fantastic. An upside down cruise ship? Think of the fun. Not fun, however, were the movie’s sequel (okay, okay, I haven’t seen it, but I’m pretty sure it’s terrible) called BEYOND THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, and not one but two remakes oddly released within seven months of each other; a 2005 TV 2-parter so forgettable I swear to you that I forgot I had seen it, and the 2006 theatrically released POSEIDON.

THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE is one of those movies that means a lot to a lot of people. Poseidonists have seen the movie dozens of times, and to this day attend screenings that often include appearances by cast members. It’s so prevalent in pop culture that in 2002, a musical parody show played in L.A. It was one of the funniest things I’d ever seen on stage; wall to wall laughter from Rogo’s non-stop larynx-losing screams of “Lin-daaaah!!!!!,” to the 3-girl “Greek Chorus” called The Posirens, to the floating turtleneck sweater. And in 2006, Netflix teamed up with The Alamo Drafthouse and held a screening on the Queen Mary.

TPA drowns in a wave of schmaltz, treads in corniness, and is sometimes funny when not meant to be. Plus it has a cheesy theme song called THE SONG FROM THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (though you know it as THE MORNING AFTER). Yet, in spite of, or perhaps because of this, it’s a really fun movie. It’s an important movie in film history. And it’s a movie that holds up much better than the ship did.

Rogo helps (himself to) Nonnie

Preshow Entertainment: Movietone Newsreels 1934


Every now and then we screen a year of old newsreels. This time, 1934, which featured:

  • The end of Prohibition.
  • The Quints. In Canada, “the Five Modern Wonders of the World” were born, which begat a tremendous amount of publicity. So huge was this story that they were referenced in everything from Marx Brothers movies to a song in DUMBO, and more recently, in a Sondheim song and an episode of SOUTH PARK. All five babies survived, which was rare and perhaps unheard of back then. The newsreel’s fun narration called them “These tiny mites of humanity…” I just checked, and two of the quints are still alive today.
  • The Dust Bowl. Sad footage of the plight that ravaged farms of America. Interviews included this South Dakota farmer: “I’ve been farming for 50 years and this is the worst I’ve ever seen.”
  • Sylvester Harris, a black man who called Roosevelt to help him get his farm out of foreclosure. (Roosevelt did.)
  • Roosevelt’s New Deal. The Civilian Conservation Corp, which put half a million men to work (many on rockpiles), building things like the highway across Death Valley. The TVA, building flood control and irrigation for the Norris Dam and Wheeler Dam using ten thousand men.
  • The takedown of John Dillinger, as told to us by an eyewitness.
  • Anti-gangster NYC Mayor La Guardia smashing slot machines and dumping them in the water for the newsreels to see. That means that somewhere on the bottom of the river are hundreds of slot machines.
  • The arrest of Bruno Hauptmann, who (supposedly) kidnapped the Lindbergh baby. I’m sure we’ll see a story about his execution in the 1936 newsreel.
  • The assassination of King Alexander of Yugoslavia in France by Croatian terrorist Vlado Chernosemski. This was maybe the first assassination caught on film, though the actual moment of the shooting wasn’t captured on camera. Also murdered, Foreign Minister Barthou of France, and the King’s Chauffer. Chernosemski died later, from wounds sustained after the crowd beat him.

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