Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Burnin' Love

Every few posts here at The Underworld, I turn the focus to a 1970s disaster movie (a genre I am hopelessly obsessed with), but it’s only a matter of time until I run out of them because there were only so many made! It occurs to me that, though I did have an entire posting all about Faye Dunaway in The Towering Inferno and my fascination with her and her taupe chiffon evening gown, I never really took the time to ruminate on the rest of the film (easily one of my top five favorites), so I’ll do a little of that now.

Following the stunning success of The Poseidon Adventure in 1972, producer Irwin Allen sought to duplicate his good fortune by creating another all-star disaster spectacular. The country was experiencing a flourish of record-setting skyscrapers at this time. The World Trade Center was finished in 1973 and in 1974 The Sears Tower was opened, boasting 108 stories. Warner Brothers had already purchased the rights to a novel called The Tower when about two months later Allen (working with 20th Century Fox) bought the rights to a similar book, The Glass Inferno. Both novels featured a gallery of people caught up in tall office complexes during cataclysmic fires.

The two major film studios realized the futility and foolishness of trying to compete against each other in bringing two disaster movies, each about a burning high rise, to the screen at the same time. They did something completely unheard of. They pooled their resources and banded together, creating the very first feature film co-produced by two big time movie companies. Blending the names of the novels into one, the result was The Towering Inferno. Oscar-winning screenwriter Stirling Silliphant (who had written The Poseidon Adventure screenplay), gathered several characters from each book and crafted a combined storyline. The plot focused on a gleaming new 138 floor high rise that experiences a devastating fire during a gala grand opening party taking place on the 135th floor, while briefly highlighting several romantic relationships. A mounting sense of dread continues as avenue after avenue of escape is stymied.

Irwin Allen was, of course, the natural choice to produce the film and he utilized a lot of the same crewmembers he had enjoyed working with on Poseidon. He also peppered the cast with various folks who had been bit players or had supporting roles in Poseidon. Initially, Steve McQueen was offered the role of the architect who designed The Glass Tower, a gigantic San Francisco building made up of offices and residential units. He was to be paired with Ernest Borgnine as the fire chief in charge of extinguishing the blaze. McQueen, however, felt that the really heroic character was the chief, so he said that he would rather take that role (after some beefing up) if Allen could find an equally famous star to play the architect.

Paul Newman was contracted to play the architect (now named Doug Roberts), which created sparks of a different kind. McQueen had, for all of his time as an actor, had a competitive obsession with Newman. He had a bit part in Newman’s successful boxing bio Somebody Up There Likes Me and had made it a goal of his to someday best Newman with regards to fame (and billing.) McQueen demanded that Silliphant construct twenty more lines for him within the screenplay so that their roles could be exactly equal (McQueen’s character is a late arrival, having no need to be on the scene until the fire has broken out.) Then, in another first, the billing was done in a staggered manner in which Steve’s name was on the left, but Newman’s name, which was on the right, was somewhat higher.

No one knew what sort of pyrotechnics were going to occur between these two powerhouse stars, but as it turned out they were not only highly professional with one another, but they also managed to have a great deal of fun, occasionally cracking jokes and otherwise yukking it up here and there. Nevertheless, McQueen considered this the pinnacle of his own personal success as an actor (receiving billing over Newman and equal pay.) Sadly, for him, it was almost all going to be downhill after this due to a myriad of personal, health and substance problems while Newman continued to work steadily, gaining prestige with almost every picture and amassing several more Oscar nominations along with a win (and an honorary one!)
After considering Burt Lancaster for the role of James Duncan the builder of The Glass Tower, the role eventually went to William Holden. Holden, a once hot leading man himself, fought in vain for top-billing as well and was horribly dejected when he had to settle for third. It’s been said that he phoned in his performance as a result, but I have to disagree. His line readings are suave, charming, passionate and heartfelt throughout the movie. He had to have felt that he was up against two somewhat younger and more popular actors and needed to give it all he had in order to register. I find his character quite interesting, actually. A man who carelessly turns his back as those under him cut corners, he has to face the music when everything starts to go up in smoke. He really adds a lot to the film and if he’s hampered by anything, it’s those ever-present horned-rim glasses!

To play Newman’s magazine editor girlfriend, who finds herself torn between bucolic peacefulness with him in the mountains or life in the fast-paced publishing world, the producers went to Natalie Wood. She found the script mediocre and had the nerve to call the project tacky (and Meteor, which she made a few years later, wasn’t both of those things and more?!) It’s especially odd that she’d be so dismissive when her husband Robert Wagner had a featured role in it as well! It’s okay, though, because her refusal resulted in the casting of Faye Dunaway, an event that changed my life forever.

For the part of an aging con man who has come to The Glass Tower to bilk a rich widow out of some cash, the makers wanted David Niven and then Peter Ustinov, but when they didn’t work out Fred Astaire was cast. His impish charm and his character’s unexpected sense of decency won audiences over and he was honored with a Golden Globe Award (as well as a BAFTA) for Best Supporting Actor and even got an Oscar nomination (his first, though he’d been given an honorary one in 1950.)

Some of the names bandied about to play the widow were Olivia de Havilland (who turned the part down), Esther Williams (who claims that her then-husband Fernando Lamas didn’t want her to work) and Ginger Rogers (who the producers felt might seem too gimmicky against Astaire.) Finally Jennifer Jones (two decades Fred’s junior) was coaxed into doing the role. She, too, won over audiences hearts as a caring woman who risks her own safety to try to rescue a deaf woman and her two young children. She was in semi-retirement at the time and, in fact, never made another movie despite gaining mostly positive reviews for her work here. She got a Golden Globe nom, but nothing from Oscar, which may have soured her experience. She had a bit of a champion in costume designer Paul Zastupnevich, who was aghast at the condition of the dressing room she was given and hastily spruced it up before her arrival. She provided the very expensive silk that was used to make her gown in the film herself and he once recalled being terrified to cut it lest he make a mistake (there was a limited amount of it.)

Richard Chamberlain was cast as the shifty, selfish, cheating son-in-law of William Holden whose cost-cutting measures turn the massive high rise into a chamber of horrors for its occupants. Chamberlain most often played caring, forthright characters such as Dr. Kildare on his earlier TV series and so he relished the chance to be a major son of a bitch here.

Playing his put upon wife, the daughter of Holden’s character, was Susan Blakely, a former model who had only been in three previous films, but who established a loving screen relationship with Holden and a strained one with Chamberlain. Like a lot of the cast, she didn’t get a chance to do a whole lot of acting in the film, but she does get to deliver the sort of hooty line to Chamberlain, “Roger, if you’ve done anything to Dad’s building…”

Appearing as Jernigan, the chief of security for the building is someone who once was a great national hero and now is a full-on international embarrassment, O.J. Simpson. He was never a significant actor, but he was a genial presence at least and got to share several scenes with Paul Newman, even ordering him around at one point. He caught some heat from some of the snarkier viewers of the film because of his character’s saving of a cat when there are people dying in every direction. It is a corny scenario, but animals have always been used for cheap emotional manipulation in movies.

Robert Vaughn of The Man from U.N.C.L.E. fame, was cast as a Senator and somewhere along the line the decision was made to change him from a jerk to a good guy, but there was precious little for him to do, so the onetime Oscar nominee is just sort of there most of the time, occasionally commenting or pitching in with something.

One of the couples most vividly remembered from the film is that of Robert Wagner and Susan Flannery. As a businessman and his secretary, they have a very self-contained storyline and endure some memorably ghastly experiences with the fire. Poor R.J. does look a little silly with that wet 70s towel on his head as he tries to make a run for it, but Flannery managed to convey a gut-wrenching sense of fear in her small part, resulting in a Golden Globe win for best newcomer (she was new to films, but not acting! Allen had used her in eps of Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and The Time Tunnel and she’d been on Days of Our Lives for close to a decade by then. Her career in films never fully materialized, though and she’s been a fixture on The Bold and the Beautiful since day one in 1987.
The only substantial female role aside from the ones played by Dunaway, Blakely, Jones and Flannery was that of the mayor’s wife. Jack Collins, a sort of all-purpose TV actor, was cast as the mayor, whose job it was to cut the ribbon at the opening ceremony. To play his wife, Allen cast his girlfriend Sheila Matthews. Now if you think a powerhouse producer like Irwin Allen had some curvy bimbo as a trophy girlfriend, you’re mistaken! Matthews was a zaftig, mid-forties character actress who had worked on Allen’s sci-fi TV series and had played the suppository-wielding nurse in The Poseidon Adventure. Her roles in his projects got bigger every time, especially once he married her and she became Sheila Allen. For some reason in Inferno, rather than having her dressed in a demure color that might obscure some of her figure, she’s in shocking Pepto-Bismol pink! There once was a time when major films (and this was one) offered commemorative programs for sale in the theater lobby and it took some creative writing on the publicists’ part to try in vain to beef up her credits when stacked up against the other, often more experienced stars. It’s not so much that she’s bad. She just sort of sticks out as a “WHO??” amongst the other names.

A few other folks of note pop up in little roles. Dabney Coleman, that master of comedic jerkery best known as the boss in 9 to 5, plays a curt deputy fire chief. Mike Lookinland, forever known as Bobby on The Brady Bunch, portrays one of the deaf woman’s children and sports a hilarious set of radio headphones, complete with antennae. Jennifer Jones has an amusing moment at one point after Lookinland has been pulled from a smoky, burning room. She’s clearly supposed to wait for him to say a line (“Where’s Angela?”), but he’s too busy Sarah Bernhardt-ing his way through his coughs to get to the line and you can see her struggling with how to proceed or at least trying to get him to say his line!

Another notable cast member was Paul Newman’s son Scott. Scott Newman attempted an acting career, but was frequently haunted by the immense success of his father. He was given the small featured role of a fireman wary of heights who has to take some attitude from McQueen. Despite the opportunity of being in a hot film, it was still a little demeaning to have to be called out as a bit of a coward by his father’s rival, though fortunately the scene ended with some mutual respect. Scott developed a serious drug problem, resulting in his death, and eventually inspiring The Newmans to create a foundation named after him.

Ernie Orsatti was the tan, tuxedo-clad young man who danced with Pamela Sue Martin in Poseidon and eventually did the memorable fall from the top of the overturned dining room into the large, decorative light panel. Here, he was utilized as a fireman, the one who rides in the glass elevator when it makes its perilous last descent after the power has gone out. Once again, he fell a great distance, but this time with a happier result. Then there’s Miss Maureen McGovern, future Broadway fixture, who shows up only long enough to sing the Oscar-winning love theme We May Never Love Like This Again, a portentous title that turns out to be true for all but one couple!

Many of the stars in this picture had worked together before, but, oddly, this time, a lot of them are rarely if ever seen together. Holden and Jones has starred in the smash romantic drama Love is a Many Splendored Thing (on which it is rumored that they didn’t hit it off), McQueen and Vaughn had done Bullitt together. Astaire had played Wagner’s father three times on the TV series It Takes a Thief and McQueen and Dunaway had costarred in The Thomas Crown Affair. Collins had portrayed Lookinland's father's boss on The Brady Bunch several times. None of these folks had any substantial interaction with each other. At least Newman had some brief time with his old Harper and Winning costar Wagner and Dunaway had a moment or two with Chamberlain who had worked in The Three/Four Musketeers with her. Not long after this, Holden and Dunaway (who clashed here over her tardiness) would go on to give memorable performances in Network, where they buried the hatchet.

Many reviewers (and some of the actors) remarked that the real star of the film was the fire (and perhaps they were right. Of the fifty-seven sets built for the movie, only eight remained standing at the end of filming after the combination of flames, explosions and the climactic watery deluge.) Just look at this, literal, towering inferno! Can you imagine? All scenes involved real fire as this was made long before CGI. Still, most of the performers turn in committed performances of more depth than they are often given credit for, especially considering the slender roles they’ve been enlisted to play.

I have two favorite Paul Newman moments. One is when he witnesses the horrendous burning of a colleague and makes an expression that demonstrates the stomach-churning sight he’s just witnessed. The other is shortly after on the telephone when he’s speaking to a resistant William Holden and exclaims in a very high-pitched tone, “We’ve got a FIRE here!” Later, McQueen, who has to go talk to Holden himself, gets to say the immortal line, “It’s a fire, Mister, and all fires are bad.”

Dunaway, who had been waffling over whether to chuck her magazine career in order to reside with Newman, has the great line, “If you asked me to go to the North Pole or to the cliffs of Mendocino, I’d go” to which Newman wryly responds, “How ‘bout I ask you tomorrow?” She has so little to say once the fire commences, but imbues every line with a detached elegance.

The parts I could watch on an endless loop are the scenes depicting the Promende Room's windows being knocked out, the failed rooftop rescue (marred only by a stuntwoman showing her snow white kneepads under her gown!) and the glass elevator sequence. All three of these display Faye's flimsy dress being whipped around by the wind. Susan Blakely gets an honorable mention for her crossing in the breeches buoy which gives her dress what for as well and trashes her neatly coiffed hairdo.

One thing this film has which almost none of the 1990s cycle of disaster flicks (save Titanic) had is a feeling of elegance and glamour. It's just not quite the same to see Helen Hunt's tank top get dirty in Twister as it is to see a blue ruffled tux shirt suffer the same fate! Sometime, in a future post, I’ll have to list all the similarities between this film and Jurassic Park. It’s surprising how many there are, though they aren’t all readily obvious. In Hollywood, though, formulas are rarely changed too much.

When the 70s disaster genre ran its course, it became immediately fashionable (especially in the wake of Airplane! in 1980) to downplay all their success and overlook any of their good qualities. Also, because of some late-entry duds, it seemed like all of them were shoddy, silly affairs. This film is in many ways the crown jewel of them all. It cost $14 million to make, which was a lot of money in 1974, but it brought in $116 million at the box office. Think about that! It was also nominated for eight Academy Awards including Best Picture, winning for its Cinematography, its Editing and the Original Song. As with Poseidon, John Williams provided a rousing score.

On a personal level, it began a lifelong love affair with billowing fabric and glass elevators. Several years ago, I went to the restaurant of a casino located about an hour from my home and the dining room was unbelievably similar in layout, design and even color to The Promenade Room, complete with central gazebo! This was no easy feat since the color scheme of the film’s room was the fairly garish combination of kelly green, teal blue and white! Nonetheless, there it was in a casino built around 2000! Sadly, the place underwent a slight redecoration about two years ago and is no longer as close as it was, so I can’t wad up the used tablecloths and utter, “Put these where they can get to them easily” or place numbered chits into a large brandy snifter to play “high rise roulette” the way Faye does!


AK said...

I absolutely agree with you on this one-it seems to get lumped in with all the really lame disaster films that surrounded it (and even the lame ones have their fun moments! "Earthquake", anyone?). Not only is there some real talent associated with "Towering" but there's some well-spent money showing, production-wise. And, embarrasing as it is to say, I was HORRIFIED at Ms. Flannery's death scene! That's just wrong;1st her boyfriend bites the dust, then she gets SUCKED out a window at 20,000 feet? And spot on about Faye Dunaway-there's some people it's just a pleasure to LOOK at, and she's definitely one of them!

FelixInHollywood said...

Kind of a shame though that a little dribble of that production budget couldn't have paid for the fabric in Joneses gown!

Poseidon3 said...

Rob - I agree with you about Susie and her demise, but I have to mention one thing. When I saw the movie on the bigscreen and even when I see it now, it CREEPS ME OUT that when RJ tells her that no help is coming, she closes her eyes and you can still see her eyeballs darting around under them! Weird!!

Felix - The budget would have covered some sort of dress, but JJ, having been offscreen for 5 years and determined to appear at her best, offered to supply the expensive silk fabric. It was (in 1974!!) $175/yard. (Frankly, I don't see why, but I never claimed to have any taste.) She was married to a millionaire, so that was pocket change to her, of course!

normadesmond said...

i must've seen it in the theatre back then, but don't recall. i'll have to see it again.

soyons-suave said...

I think I am in love with your blog...

Poseidon3 said...

Norma, I highly recommend the special edition DVD, complete with all sorts of featurettes, vintage material and even small lobby cards (and it's not very expensive.) But even just watching the film alone affords a nice gander at all those stars, many of whom are no longer with us.

soyons-suave, welcome and thanks for reading!!