If It’s A Disaster, This Must Be The Seventies

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The Towering Inferno was Jennifer Jones’s last picture.  Anyone remember Jennifer Jones?  She was a lovely, talented actress of the 1940s-1950s, appearing in some Big Films of her day—The Song of Bernadette, Duel in the Sun, Portrait of Jennie, Cluny Brown (one of the most delightful comedies ever made), Love is a Many Splendored Thing.  In The Towering Inferno—the Big Film of 1974—Jones played the film’s most sympathetic character, the one spectators are instinctively drawn to and root for.  And she’s wonderful.  I mean, you really like her—not just as a performer, but as a person.  The feeling from the audience for her was almost visceral.

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Which is why I’m glad The Towering Inferno was Jones’s last picture, and not the dreck she made some years before—trash like Angel, Angel, Down We Go, her role that of an ex-porn actress, something Jones did not deserve.  I’m happy she finished her career with an entertaining, crowd-pleasing, box-office smash, in which she played an authentic heroine.  A great send-off.

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But then, I like to think of The Towering Inferno as the ‘last’ picture for all its stars—not for any wish for ill fortune, but because I’d like to think of its A-List cast (a garland of Stars, a galaxy, a freakin’ universe) going out in an almost literal blaze of box-office glory.  Which, in this flick, Jones does.  Not a bad way to make an Exit.

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TTI was the part of that odd 1970s genre, the Disaster Film.  Do only boomers like me remember it?  The plots improbably bunched together a glut of Big Movie Names, all facing a gigantic natural or man-made disaster that, like a night at the Academy Awards, they struggle to survive.  The genre had lots of disasters—Earthquakes! Avalanches! Tidal Waves! Even Meteors!  It was Grand Hotel meets Godzilla, mustering within a two-hour running time More Stars Than Are In The Heavens, or anyplace else (a burning building, a falling airplane, a cleft in the earth).  The fun was in the Guessing Game:  Which Star was gonna make it, which was gonna not.  Looking back, I’m surprised scorecards were not handed out with tickets, to keep track of which Star got buried, burned, drowned, tossed, or squashed.  Wotta gimmick that would have been.

Even with all that money, gimmickry, and star glamour on display, however, the films were savvy enough to use their assets within the Greek rules of drama—unity of place, time, and action.  All those boffo Box Office Draws were squeezed onto one collapsing set, where we could watch them mingle, mob, and merge, from the safety and comfort of our theater seats—creating what Vincent Canby called “a vivid, completely safe nightmare”—gasping at each new onscreen calamity as we dipped into the popcorn and munchies.  Cinematically, the 1970s really knew how to put on a show.

But no matter how big the budget, the disaster, or the A-List (and they were plenty big), what all these films emitted, from beneath their glossy façades, was…a faint whiff of schlock.  Like, this stuff looks high-class, but we know we’re not here for that.  Was it the wowza special effects?  (This was the Sensurround decade.)  The preposterous cataclysms?  (Like…Rollercoasters or…Bees…)  Or was it seeing lots of Beautiful People get roped into spots that we in our own mundane lives would want never to get tied up in?  Maybe these films satisfied a psychic Schadenfreude—we may not be glitzy, high-priced celebrities, but at least an Avalanche ain’t about to fall on us.

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The film most credited with starting the disaster movie craze is 1970’s Airport.  Earlier, star-laden disaster flicks had been done, such as 1968’s Krakatoa, East of Java, starring a restless volcano and a cast boasting Maximilian Schell, Diane Baker, Sal Mineo, Brian Keith, and Rossano Brazzi (which I wrote about here).  However, Krakatoa was itself a disaster (see it and you’ll see why).  Whereas Airport—the one about a Bomb taking out an Airplane and everyone tries to stay Up—was a Humdinger.  It was a humongous hit, in which Everybody starred (Burt Lancaster, Dean Martin, Jean Seberg, Van Heflin, Jacqueline Bisset, George Kennedy, Maureen Stapleton, and consciously adorable Helen Hayes), and which Everybody went to see (including Me).  The flick was huge, showy, narratively simple, and, when seen today, surprisingly well done.  It also gave birth to three sequels and several parodies.  It was…phenomenal.

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Airport also had the Stars.  I mean—Burt Lancaster! Holy Cow!, a Big star from his first picture, and with an Oscar to boot, and Dean Martin, a one-man singing-acting-comedy combo who survived Jerry Lewis and Frank Sinatra.  George Kennedy, Van Heflin, and Helen Hayes were also Oscar winners (Hayes would win her second statuette for this film), while Jean Seberg added the Exotic touch (she’d starred in foreign movies like Breathless, see), and Jacqueline Bisset was, like, totally gorgeous, and Maureen Stapleton supplied the acting chops (she brings real heart to her role).  Milling around in smaller parts were smaller fry, star-wise:  Dana Wynter, looking chic in her Edith Head-designed costumes, Barry Nelson, who I honestly don’t remember in this film, but who no doubt added name value (as he did years later in Kubrick’s The Shining), and old reliables like Lloyd Nolan, whose film credits were as long as the running time, and Barbara Hale, whom everyone knew from the old Perry Mason TV show.  It’s like recognizing old friends in your high-school yearbook—Hey!, I know that guy!  Glad to know he/she/they is/are still around!  (Along with me…)

And the film was great.  Not Great like Citizen-Kane great, but great in how it satisfied everyone’s old-fashioned-movie cravings.  Like a bride at a traditional wedding, the film was a perfect mix of something old (Hayes, Nolan, Heflin, the plot), something new (Bisset, special effects), something borrowed (Seberg, who seemed slightly detached from it all), and something blue (all the characters were having a schadenfreudenly satisfying Very Bad Day).  It was cinematic Comfort Food, the kind that sticks to your fingers (ready to lick off) as well as to your insides, bestowing a soothing sense of satiety.  All you hadda do was park your brain elsewhere and submerge yourself in its hokey plot, paper-thin characters, and manufactured, knuckle-gnawing disaster, and you came out at the end saying to yourself:  “Now that’s a movie!”

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Dean looks like he’s about to introduce a song…

Maybe the genre shoulda stopped there—with a box-office smash and no bad aftertaste.  But Airport was too big, too successful, too much of what worked, for producers to ignore.  It set the template for what was to come…and plenty was about to…

So in 1972 came The Poseidon Adventure—the one about the Tidal Wave upending an Ocean Liner and everyone has to crawl Up—which Everybody also went to see (I went with my parents), and which also starred Everybody.  It spawned a sequel (a very ‘ummmm’ affair), as well as a remake (tidal waves pull at the box office).  But the original TPA had the Big Cast:  Gene Hackman, Shelley Winters, Ernest Borgnine, Jack Albertson, Red Buttons—all Oscar-winners—as well as Roddy McDowell, Arthur O’Connell, and Stella Stevens and Carol Lynley, the latter two looking good when wet, a plus for a movie taking place underwater.  Even Leslie Nielsen was there, going down with the ship, before we discovered he could play Comedy (for real…).

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The star quotient was maybe a little less starry for TPA than for the earlier Airport, but it still had the comfort of familiar faces.  Gene Hackman, then cresting stardom’s wave (no pun meant) was not only a rising star, he was the Great Actor, who brought class and integrity to his roles.  In TPA he also brought gusto—he looked like he was having fun.  As did Shelley Winters, who did the I-gained-weight-for-my-art some eight years before Robert DeNiro did for Raging Bull.  Winters was also having fun, but that’s the great virtue of Shelley Winters in any film:  She’s always having a ball.  She also played the film’s most likable character, the one you really, really root for, and remember afterwards, only… (well, no spoilers here).

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But it was about this time, with the disaster genre set and thrumming on four-wheel drive, that you started to notice something about all these starry Stars crammed into all these films like rolled-up socks in a drawer.

And that was—a distinct hierarchy about them.

It’s not a hierarchy of which star survives, but of what kind of star.  Who were the biggies, who not so big.  Who was known for big-screen movies, who for small-screen TV.  Who was on the way up, who on the way down (and not just falling from a plane); who was there for the young ‘uns, who was there for Nostalgia.  But also—who wasn’t in the film.

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Hollywood usually jams its big-budget products with stars as box-office insurance, but disaster-genre casting heavily depended on just-past-their-prime Stars.  Those aging actors who still had box office clout, but who were not Right-Now hot.  Take Airport and its star quotient.  Lancaster and Martin, who’d begun their careers in the 1940s, were still popular in 1970; but were they, by Airport’s release, the blazing novas in the box office heavens?  The big Box Office lure that year would probably have been Barbra Streisand, who had carried, by sheer moxie, her then-latest film, Hello Dolly, an overblown dud, to high box-office numbers.  Isn’t that what defines Movie Star—dragging a film’s carcass after you, no matter how much it’s a washout?  And though I would have dearly loved to watch Barbra land an airplane all by herself, at her height she didn’t need big-budget schlock packed with fading box-office sardines to make a buck.  But if Airport had been a dud, would Lancaster and Martin have been able to haul it through?

Though that wasn’t the issue with the next disaster opus, which was The Big One—no, not Earthquake, but The Towering Inferno.  The one about the burning Skyscraper in which everyone has to climb Down.  Talk about big.  TTI was the King-Kong-size-budgeted-and-box office champ of 1974-75 (the year’s highest grosser).  I saw it when it came out, and I wasn’t alone.  Everybody saw it.  How could you not?  Everybody was in it.  For me, the attraction was Steve McQueen, whom I had been in love with since age 12, when I saw him in a TV broadcast of The Great Escape.  There was also Paul Newman, William Holden, Faye Dunaway, Robert Wagner, Fred Astaire, the aforementioned Jones, plus Susan Blakely, Robert Vaughn, and Richard Chamberlain.  Even O.J. Simpson, of later crime infamy, was in it.  I bet he wishes he still was.

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TTI’s main attraction, outside its fiery pyrotechnics, was the pairing of McQueen and Newman, the latter’s twinkly baby blues versus the former’s stone-cold sapphires.  William Holden was angry at not being top-billed, but producer Irwin Allen was right to do so.  Holden here looks old; he wears glasses and grumbles like an old man.  Whereas McQueen and Newman were still bona fide stars, with box-office mojo and salaries to match.  Astaire and Jones brought Nostalgia value, Dunaway brought drop-dead glam, while Wagner and Chamberlain (who looked as pretty as Dunaway) were television guys.  No, the real blazers (along with the building) were McQueen and Newman.  A disgruntled Newman thought he was outshone by McQueen, who chose to play what seemed a supporting role, that of the fire chief (Ernest Borgnine was first considered).  It’s the George Kennedy working-class-schlub part; but McQueen made a savvy choice:  In a film about a burning building, who else but the fireman will be the hero?  McQueen also gets the film’s final word, telling Newman to call him.  Dang—McQueen ruled.

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TTI may have been the disaster genre’s towering crown.  Other movies, both disaster- and star-wise, were starting to thin out.  Earthquake, which had Everyone falling Down or climbing Up, featured, along with George Kennedy (again!), Lorne Greene (strictly TV), Barry Sullivan (Nostalgia), and Marjoe Gortner (who?), Charlton Heston and Ava Gardner.  Like Lancaster, these two were big stars in earlier decades, but what were they by the 1970s, box-office wise?  Older stars such as Heston, Gardner, Holden, and Lancaster were the stardust memories of the parents of the then-current (1970s) movie-going crop, who were ogling the likes of Dunaway, Burt Reynolds, Dustin Hoffman, Robert Redford, and Jack Nicholson.  Like Streisand, Nicholson didn’t need a disaster flick on his resume; he was too busy garnering Oscar nominations.  But did Heston and Gardner still have such status?  Maybe not, or they wouldn’t be in a movie that essentially starred a special-effects tremor.

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Maybe the up-and-down Star casting was losing its novelty.  But Budget also mattered, as was shown—or rather, not shown—in 1978’s Avalanche, which stinted on both star power and socko effects.  The thing was produced by Roger Corman, the uncrowned King of The Cheapies and Rip-Offs, taking advantage of the disaster craze; but he chopped costs (even before filming started), and the result was a lemon.  The stars were big Rock Hudson, looking tired and paunchy, tiny Mia Farrow, looking gaunt and spotty (she should have sued the cameraman), and—Styrofoam Snow.  And that did show.  The movie looked as bare and fake as a combover, and deservedly flopped (audiences laughed at the blatantly fake Flakes).  If that teaches us anything about disaster flicks, it’s that you need to splurge on the budget and show it on screen.  Cost-cutting doesn’t hack it when depicting Ma Nature in a snit.

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Even before Avalanche, though, the genre was declining.  The films were making money, but the calamities, along with the stars, started repeating themselves.  Because what now flooded from the gates were the Sequels…

Blame it again on Airport.  It moved from being the genre’s initiating film into its defining franchise.  All those Airport sequels, one after another…damn, it was like the Energizer Bunny.  They just kept on going and going, throughout the 1970s, pouring out like Styrofoam peanuts.  I ask you:  How many airplane-disaster movies can be done?  (And wouldn’t the image-conscious airline industry have complained?)  But, since the 1970 original made a gazillion bucks and had people queuing up all over America, no doubt the Great Minds behind the original Airport felt there was no choice but to make a sequel.  Couldn’t they hear the public wallets clamoring for it?  Sure…

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Hence came Airport 1975, which again relied on the old/young, known/not-so-known formula of stars, scattering them like a gambler spreading his bets.  We got stiff, glum Charlton Heston miscast as a randy playboy, in which he’s about as convincing as the Energizer Bunny in the title role of Harvey, but I guess Warren Beatty (then a Really Big Star) wasn’t available.  On hand were Karen Black, an actress as much of the 1970s as were disaster movies; and Gloria Swanson and Myrna Loy for the Nostalgia crowd—Gloria plays herself, no, really, she’s ‘Gloria Swanson’ (and looks terrific); while Myrna plays a lady who keeps knocking back boilermakers the way Nora Charles did martinis.  Tucked in there were Dana Andrews, Sid Caesar, and George Kennedy (what, again!); as well as Linda Blair as a sick child saintly suffering through pain, and Helen Reddy, a popular singer, as a singing nun, gawd help us, who acts with perpetually wide eyes, as if she’d swallowed that damn Bunny and couldn’t wind down.  Helen also sings a song to little Linda, for which the Devil should have leaped out of Linda and thrown Helen off the plane; but no such luck.

You’d’ve thought a strumming nun would have persuaded the Great Minds to tamp down the sequel flood, closing the gates and calling it a day, but (again) no such luck…

AP77By now the franchise’s seams were cracking, like a plane snapping apart from metal fatigue.  With Airport ’77 the quotient of aging, fading, not-quite-there, never-got-there Stars seemed cast just to add names to the advertising poster.  There’s James Stewart (Nostalgia), Olivia de Havilland and Joseph Cotten (more Nostalgia), Christopher Lee (Niche star, horror style), Lee Grant (Oscar-winner), Brenda Vaccaro (never-quite-there, but deserved better), and Jack Lemmon (Box Office insurance).  Plus George Kennedy (now waitaminit…!), and TV royalty like Darren McGavin, Robert Foxworth, and Monte Markham.  The dumb story has the plane crashing into, Wouldn’t You Know It!, the Bermuda Triangle.  With such a location, the plot could’ve gone anywhere—like, do the passengers encounter extraterrestrials?  Discover the lost continent of Atlantis?  Meet a Plesiosaurus or two?  I mean…let’s have some fun…  Instead, some people panic, some stiff-upper-lip it, and Lemmon gets to play Hero as he swims to the surface and signals for help.  I’d have preferred a Plesiosaurus, but the Great Minds didn’t ask me.

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The last in the series, The Concorde…Airport ‘79, was so bad, you could hear its carcass, like an extinct Pleisoraur, dragging across the tarmac.  Which Great Mind decided to make George Kennedy the Star?  Yes, patient George, in all the Airport films as working-class stiff Joe Patroni, first on runway detail, then vice-president, then consultant, and now a Concorde pilot.  I wish I had his resume.  The other stars, in a plot that must’ve been blown out of the cockpit with Van Heflin’s used bomb, included Alain Delon, a big star in France but in America, who cares?, Robert Wagner and Susan Blakely, who had both been roasted in the Inferno of The Towering, and lovely Bibi Andersson as a hooker who beds George Kennedy, a scene NOT to be inflicted on innocent bystanders.  Nostalgia came from Eddie Albert, Cicely Tyson, and Martha Raye, as well as, for reasons known only to the Great Minds, Charo (anyone remember her?).  She pops up for about thirty seconds, and I’ve no idea why, other than for audiences to gasp, Oh, looky, it’s Charo; but it might’ve worked better had she been sighted in the Bermuda Triangle.  That at least would’ve made sense.

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The genre’s decline wasn’t all Sequelitis, however.  Coming near the cycle’s end in 1979 was Meteor, in which the real disaster was the movie.  The title character is a bit of broken asteroid scheduled to smack into planet Earth unless, er…Something Is Done.  You got the feeling producers were running out of not only disasters but movie stars:  There’s aging Sean Connery and really nobody else.  Yes, there’s Natalie Wood, but she was no longer top box office (and she had little to do here; it was one of her last films).  Plus elderly Trevor Howard, seen only on a computer screen (what, no flesh?), non-star Karl Malden, whose nose looked almost as big as that asteroid, and TV guys Brian Keith and Martin Landau.  Oh, wait, there is Henry Fonda as ‘The President,’ coming on for a coupla scenes to act presidential and then disappear.  If you nodded off, you might’ve missed him.  The film looked cheap and lacked thrills; its only suspense was watching a SFX space station, armed with slim, sperm-shaped missiles, prepare to launch its load at the vaguely ovum-shaped meteor.  The footage looked amusingly like a high-tech sex hygiene instruction film and didn’t any of the Great Minds notice?  It all ended with a big boom, folks.  Natch.

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Fittingly, the decade’s cycle petered out in 1980 with the aptly titled When Time Ran Out…  Yessir, after this flop, the genre was finished, kaput, done; the disaster should have been to stick in a fork.  Starring, in the loosest way possible, were leftovers from earlier, better disaster films:  Paul Newman, Jacqueline Bisset, Ernest Borgnine, Red Buttons, and William Holden, grumbling once more at being low-billed after Newman, though the smart move would’ve been to call himself Alan Smithee.  Newman and Borgnine were contractually obligated to star, but what excuse did the others—including Burgess Meredith, James Franciscus, and Valentina Cortese—have besides masochism?  The incoherent plot rambles on about a volcano trashing a tropical resort, but the most memorable sequence has the cast crossing a lava-filled gorge that, due to the cheesy SFX, looks like a vat of boiling salsa.  Supposedly Newman used his paycheck to launch his ‘Newman’s Own’ enterprise; did this sequence give him the idea?  The film didn’t end so much as just waffle, then fade (like the stars), with survivors waiting for rescue and no one figuring out a finish.

Maybe the Great Minds should’ve brought on the Battery-Operated Bunny.  Or even George…

But, honest, I’m not complaining.  I really do like those 1970s Disaster films.  I like their over-the-top SFX, I like how the scripts come up with wilder and woolier reasons to display them, I like how their narratives manipulate the audience.  And I enjoy watching the Big-Name Stars weave in and out of the contrived thrills and corny plots, keeping a straight face throughout (earning those paychecks).

Jeez, I like the cheese.

And all these old disaster films…they now do to me what many of their even-then outdated casts probably did to their audiences fifty-odd years ago—they fill me with Nostalgia.  Of another time, when I was younger and less, shall we say, cynical about films and their stars.  I like to think that all those way-back-when Big Names were enjoying themselves as they reacted to miniature effects, clay models, garish mattes, and even just vivid imagination.  There’s an innocence to these films, a sense that their makers, ultimately, just wanted to entertain us.  While they also gave their maturing stars another chance to make an entrance, make a grand impression, then make an exit, in a blaze of celluloid glory, before our star-dazzled eyes.

Still a great way to go.

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Bonus Clip:  Ok—I hadda watch it, and now so do you:  Courtesy of the great YouTube channel Porfle Popnecker, George Kennedy gets his Big Night of Romance (and seems a bit baffled by it) in the last and least of the Airport sequels.  Watch and, uh, enjoy…


For your Big Disaster-Movie Night:  You can watch the following movies on YouTube:  Airport (buy or rent); Airport 1975 (buy or rent); Airport ’77 (buy or rent); The Concorde…Airport ’79 (zero bucks while available; why not?); The Poseidon Adventure (back to buy or rent); The Towering Inferno (same); Earthquake (ditto); Avalanche (this one’s a freebie, so take advantage while available); Meteor (don’t hafta pay nuthin’).  The only YouTube version of When Time Ran Out… I could find is, although free, dubbed in Spanish; seems not even YouTube’s Buy/Rent service would touch this one.

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10 Comments

  1. Susan Beth Pfeffer

     /  July 14, 2022

    I love the ’70s disaster movies (although I haven’t been able to watch Towering Inferno since 9/11), but I have a personal reason to be grateful to them. Many years ago, when I had a Saturday afternoon to kill, I watched Meteor on cable, even though I’d seen it before and knew it was pretty bad. When the movie ended, I asked myself what it would be like to be a teenager living through a worldwide disaster. That inspired me to write a YA novel, Life As We Knew It, where the important issues like how do you get your laundry done when the world is coming to an end get focused on. The book won a number of awards, is in its 34th printing in the US, and has been translated into 8 languages, thus proving Meteor was good for something after all.

    Reply
    • Wow, I’m glad Meteor proved such an inspiration to you – congratulations on your success with your novel! And thanks for sharing.

      Reply
  2. Brian Schuck

     /  July 14, 2022

    Great survey of the Golden Age of disaster movies! During the pandemic lockdown I binged on the Airport movies – I reserved the complete set from the local library and it was delivered curbside of course! Good comfort viewing. Later on, my wife decided she was in the mood for a “bug” movie, so we streamed Irwin Allen’s The Swarm. Yikes! I’ve not seen When Time Ran Out, but The Swarm was an incredible epic of bad acting, bad effects and unintentional hilarity. Allen kept trying to copy his successes with The Towering Inferno and Poseidon, with decidedly diminishing returns!

    Reply
    • If you enjoy bad disaster flicks, then I definitely recommend When Time Ran Out – sheer incoherence of plot and writing, on top of bad acting, really awful effects and poor production design. And I agree, The Swarm is AWESOMELY bad, and one of the funniest movies I’ve ever seen – don’t know how Michael Caine lives down this stuff! When I rewatched the original Airport film, I thought it was surprisingly well done, but the sequels are something else. Airport 75 and 77 are hilarious and over the top, but the Concord 79 one is unwatchable. Meteor and Avalanche are just dull, unfortunately. But all these disaster films certainly made for an interesting decade!

      Reply
  3. rozsaphile

     /  July 15, 2022

    “The Swarm” is awful, but Jerry Goldsmith’s score is terrific, including a motif on B-E-E! And let’s not forget that John Williams became the “master of disaster” for scoring “Poseidon,” “Earthquake,” and “inferno” in the years leading up to his big breakthrough on “Jaws.”

    Reply
  4. Mike T.

     /  July 17, 2022

    Gorgeous article, as usual. Yours is one of my favorite go-tos for lively commentary about movies Grand, Old, or Not-So-Grand or Old.

    But regarding William Holden using a pseudonym: it’s “George(ina) Spelvin” for actors, “Alan (or, one assumes, Alanna) Smithee” for directors.

    Reply
    • Thanks for the tip (I’d always assumed Georgina Spelvin was the actress’s actual name and not a pseudonym!). Glad you enjoyed my post!

      Reply
      • Mike T.

         /  July 17, 2022

        P.S. I just saw “Angel Angel Down We Go” (aka “Cult of the Damned”).

        Uhhhhhhh…….

        Could not agree with you more, especially regarding the legacy of the lovely Jennifer Jones.

      • Oh my, you managed to survive watching that thing! (like a 1970s disaster film…) The film really is awful, and why Jones took the role is baffling to me, unless she thought it a career ‘stretch.’ I’m glad she was able to make The Towering Inferno, in which she looked so beautiful. To this day I can recall the feeling of warmth from the audience towards her whenever she appeared on screen; and I remember the loud audible gasp of dismay from everyone in the theater when her character fell. You really sensed how everyone just adored her.

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