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Jun 12 2016

Irwin Allen "Master of Disaster" Centennial

Tim here.Today we celebrate the 100-year anniversary of the birth of producer-director-writer Irwin Allen,one of the great junk-food purveyors in Hollywood cinema.It's by no means true that Allen invented the disaster movie (a genre stretching back into the 1930s),nor even the uniquely '70s-style incarnation of the form,with an impressively well-stocked larder of overtalented,underpaid stars filling out the clichéd melodramas of addiction and marital strife that tend to form the plots of these movie (Airportgot there first).But it was under Allen's hand that disaster movies became the greatest,gaudiest spectacles of the decade.

Allen was not always a high-end schlockmeister.In fact,he began his career as an Oscar-winner,taking home a Best Documentary Feature award for 1953'sThe Sea Around Us,based on a Rachel L.Carson book.Curiously his first taste of the effects-driven spectacle that would typify his later films came in as a way of fleshing out his documentaries.One sequence of his 1956 filmThe Animal World,on dinosaurs,featured effects by the great Ray Harryhausen,and his very next film was his first all-star extravaganza,the cameo-packedThe Story of Mankind.


The Animal World (1956)

In 1961,Allen madeVoyage to the Bottom of the Sea,the dry run for the formula that he would turn into such success in the 1970s – disaster,torrid human affairs,washed-out actors like Peter Lorre rubbing elbows with awkward teenyboppers like Frankie Avalon – but the film's financial success paradoxically pushed him temporarily away from movies.Starting in 1964,Allen turned into a TV impresario,adaptingVoyageinto a four-season TV show,and subsequently overseeing the creation of cheerfully hokey genre fare likeThe Time TunnelandLost in Space,the latter pioneering the use of that low-budget effect where shaking a camera would look like a stationary space ship set being tossed back and forth.

Allen's reputation,however,lies on the pair of disaster epics he produced in the first half of the 1970s:The Poseidon Adventure(1972)andThe Towering Inferno(1974).Both were enormous hits,and the latter even managed to nab a Best Picture nomination over films includingA Woman Under the InfluenceandAlice Doesn't Live Here Anymore.In both cases,we watch as a hugely luxurious engineering marvel (a giant ocean liner;the tallest skyscraper in the world,cleverly built in San Francisco) plays host to a seemingly endless parade of famous faces,before a freak accident turns it into a death trap where everybody has to avoid jets of flame and jump over torn pieces of metal to escape.

When you have a shtick that works,you use it.

The Towering Inferno (1974)

They're notgoodfilms,of course;in fact,they're downright trashy.I am myself somewhat more partial toThe Poseidon Adventure,which feels less like a cartoon and has more plausible action sequences (directed by Allen himself,without credit),thoughThe Towering Infernohas the more star-studded cast.These are films with stories based on outlandish scenarios,characters who never earn more than a single adjective worth of personality,and an overwhelming tackiness in design and attitude that out-'70s the '70s.

But they are so very delightful as they bob along!Watching ace actors like Gene Hackman and Shelley Winters (inPoseidon) or Steve McQueen,Paul Newman,Faye Dunaway,andOscar-nominatedFred Astaire (inInferno) offers the expected campy pleasures,but it's not just hokiness that the films have to offer.This is passionately overstuffed spectacle done at a time when it took real planning and care to make something this mindlessly explosive.The modern blockbuster age has spoiled us for the deep-set sincerity of an Irwin Allen effects setpiece;when he has idiots put themselves in the way of a falling girder,there's a sense of joyful discovery that still gives the scenes a kick even if you can watch better action with more nuanced characters every night of the week on network television.

The Poseidon Adventure (1972)

The shocking thing about Allen's triumphant ascendancy to the level of super-producer on the back of those two hits is how short his stay was at the top.He followedThe Towering Infernowith a return to directing in 1978,making the killer bee movieThe Swarm,with a stacked cast of its own (Michael Caine!Katharine Ross!Lee Grant!Olivia de Havilland and Henry Fonda thoroughly embarrassing themselves!),and the worst script he'd ever sign off on.It's a baffling mixture of hysteria and confusing exposition,more of a tawdry '50s B-movie than a spectacular effects orgasm,and it'slong– the two-hour theatrical cut is dismal enough,but the directors' cut adds forty minutes that turn it into an outright dirge.Allen's last theatrical release tried to return to past glories: it's a sequel toThe Poseidon Adventure,a film that would seem to have blocked off any avenues for continuing its story.But 1979'sBeyond the Poseidon Adventuregrimly finds a way,bringing Caine in alongside Karl Malden and Sally Field (in the same year she won her Oscar forNorma Rae,no less!) to re-tread the beats of the original film,with a tacked-on terrorist subplot.It's hopeless,though there's spunk to it thatThe Swarmlacks.

The Swarm (1978)

Even if the heart of legacy consists of just two films and a TV series,Allen's work continues to echo,every time a filmmaker decides to make a buck or two million by blowing something up and cutting to a famous person grimacing in dismay.  The Allen formula has its descendants in everything fromIndependence DaytoImpendence Day: Resurgence,due out this very month.25 years after his death,Allen's lesson that audiences will flock to the peculiar marriage of soppy melodrama and mindless destruction will pay off;the pity is that so few of them have had his gusto,commitment,and mushy sincerity.

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Reader Comments (9)

Watching ol time movie stars meet sticky ends in Disaster films is a gulity pleasure of mine.

June 12,2016 | Unregistered Commentermark

Roland Emmerich and all of today's blockbuster filmmakers wish they could be Irwin Allen.

June 12,2016 | Unregistered CommenterSteven

I have to disagree about the characters in Inferno and especially Poseidon not having any depth.It may not be a tremendous amount but we do spend time with them before disaster strikes so we care about them once they're imperiled something that's lost on most modern disaster movie makers.Now you get five minutes of exposition and BAM all hell breaks loose and it just leads to a body count of faceless nobodies.

Those two along with Airport are pretty much the pinnacle,Irwin likewise got lost in the spectacle after them.But that duo remain entertaining to this day.

June 12,2016 | Unregistered Commenterjoel6

I will always have fond memories of Irwin Allen movies,they have all the right elements in them to make them guilty pleasures.Sometimes schlock is fun,my favourite was "The Towering Inferno".Anyone who can't enjoy these is just a film snob.

June 12,2016 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

Oh,I love Poseidon Adventure.And I also disagree about no character development.We spend about 40 minutes with them before the ship even flips over.We truly care about the outcome.I'm still mad certain characters kick the bucket!

P.S.Shout out to Jennifer Jones unfairly unnominated performance in Towering Inferno.Brookesboy and I just adore that performance.

PPS- Are we just going to forget about When Time Ran Out?That was Irwin's last movie and it is SSOOOO bad you just feel guilty watching it.

June 12,2016 | Unregistered Commentertom

I was terrified of THE SWARM and THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE as a kid and have never watched them since (crippling fear of bees into adulthood doesn't help).THE TOWERING INFERNO,however,I watched a few years ago and was not good.

June 12,2016 | Unregistered CommenterGlenn Dunks

i lovethe poseidon adventureand feel no guilt over the pleasure it gives me;the only way it could be better is if that annoying kid drowned early [...and often]

June 13,2016 | Unregistered Commenterpar

Seeing The Towering Inferno when I was a kid changed me forever.Never before had a movie affected me so profoundly.I fell in love with Jennifer Jones,and she remains my favorite actor of all time.Her character's fate shattered me,and for the very first time,I could attest to the emotional power movies could have over someone.Even after multiple viewings,her elegant yet earthy performance still touches me deeply.I agree with tom and joel that these movies,TTI and The Poseidon Adventure,simply do not work if you are not invested in the characters.And they do work.Because of their early influence on me,I will never probably be able to be objective about these two films.But I can safely say that both of these are classics and deserve to be remembered,especially TTI.It's simply terrific filmmaking that holds up.

June 14,2016 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

I saw the Tower of Inferno when i was a kid and was terrified of all those people falling off this very very tall building.Not so long ago i had it on dvd and was surprised just how much it dragged on.In particular the scene where Paul Newman a kid and his mom (if i recall correctly),have to cross a chasm between 2 broken stairwells.This whole sequence seemed to have lasted over 10 minutes toping off at 15 minutes,(i never timed it).That's where i stopped the dvd and sold it weeks off after.I love Mr.Allen but i got the feeling that he dragged that scene just to add time to would be epic in his mind.
Nevertheless,these movies are a product of their time along with his 4 tv series in the 60's that are a gem of a time capsule.

August 2,2016 | Unregistered CommenterJAsper Colby JOnes

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