Saturday, October 22, 2016


Rosa Moline is discontented and doesn’t care who knows it. Rosa (Bette Davis) is the bored and restless wife of dull-but-decent general practitioner Lewis Moline (Joseph Cotton), the only doctor in the small town of Loyalton, Wisconsin. Loyalton is a lumbering town, both literally and figuratively, whose local sawmill blasts heat and spews sawdust ceaselessly, fueling Rosa’s certainty that she is suffocating and being buried alive.
But if the local sawmill is the arrhythmic heartbeat of Loyalton, the only thing that can get Rosa’s pulse racing is when the train that goes to and from Chicago pulls into the station twice daily. A train whose chugging steam engine beckons (per the film’s portentous narration): “Come, Rosa. Come away before it’s too late. Chicago…Chicago…Chicago….”

Bette Davis as Rosa Moline
Joseph Cotten as Lewis Moline 
David Brian as Neil Latimer
Ruth Roman as Carol Lawson
Minor Watson as Moose Lawson
Dona Drake as Jenny
Fans of the overripe cinema of director King Vidor (Duel in the Sun, The Fountainhead, Ruby Gentry) and Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? will recognize Beyond the Forest as the film whose title George is stumped to recall when Martha mimics Bette Davis and utters the oft-parodied line “What a dump!” But for that bit of theatrical immortality bestowed upon this hotly contested post-war melodrama (plagued by censorship interference, it's a film Davis did only under protest, contributing to the end of her 18 years with Warner Bros) it’s unlikely many others could recall Beyond the Forest, either; a lesser entry in the Bette Davis canon that has nevertheless developed a devoted cult (and camp) following over the years.
"What a dump!"
Brandishing an emery board, that international symbol of the self-absorbed and aloof, Bette Davis utters what The American Film Institute voted #62 in its roster of 100 Most Memorable Movie Quotes

Joining the ranks of the many discontented housewives of great literature: Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, Flaubert’s Emma Bovary, Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, Carol Burnett’s Eunice Higgins…Rosa Moline is a woman who longs for more out of life. Feeling constrained and stifled by marriage and the conventional morality of small town life, Rosa not only wants more, but feels she deserves more. Though a Loyalton native, Rosa has always clung to the idea that she is somehow “different” from the other women in town; a grade above the ordinary and therefore meant for better things.
Which is why, rather than simply escaping Loyalton on her own and paving an independent path for herself in the big city—“What as…a telephone girl, a stenographer, waitress?”— Rosa sticks around, thumbing her nose at the low-rent aspirations of the townswomen ("You certainly go in for mass production, don't you?" she remarks to a local mom and her brood) and settling for a life of not-so-quiet desperation as a doctor’s wife in the town’s finest house (said aforementioned dump). 
A life of pitiful attempts at cultivating second-hand class (“I wanted venetian blinds...all the houses in magazines have venetian blinds!”), and of having her middle-class pretensions consistently deflated by the knowing insolence of her Native-American housekeeper. 
Jenny - "Do you want that Chicken a la King business served on toast?"
Rosa - "Well I showed you the picture in the magazine, didn't I?"
Jenny - "How can I see if there's toast under all that goo?"

But Rosa is a woman with a dream. Well, to be honest, more like a scheme. Not one to content herself with merely the best that Loyalton has to offer, Rosa sets her sights on wealthy Chicago businessman Neil Latimer, the owner of a nearby hunting lodge overseen by family friend Moose Lawson. After carrying on a torrid, year-long love affair with the bachelor industrialist practically under her husband’s saintly, overworked nose, Rosa plans on getting Neil to marry her and whisk her away with him to Chicago. Sure, she's already married, but what’s a little detail like that when woman has it in her mind to fulfill her destiny? And make no mistake, Rosa is a woman who wants the good life, has convinced herself she deserves the good life, and is so determined to acquire the good life for herself, she’s willing to do just about anything and everything to make sure that happens.
When Velma Takes The Stand

Like many a film noir, Beyond the Forest is a tale told in flashback. When me first meet Rosa she is on trial for shooting a man, the who and why melodramatically divulged once the film proper kicks in and takes us back five months prior. Here, Rosa is revealed to be a crack shot with a lousy disposition (after using her rifle to take out a poor, defenseless porcupine minding its own business, her only explanation is "I don't like porkies...they irritate me."); the film conveniently supplying three likely targets for her trigger-happy temperament.
There's her goody-goody husband who is too nice to press his clients into paying their bills (those ankle-strap sandals aren't going to pay for themselves, y'know). Next, there's Moose, the town souse and Lewis' fishing buddy. Moose's only offense is he, like the character of Leroy in The Bad Seed, is one of the few people in town who sees right through Rosa. Their mutual antipathy (Moose- "You're something for the birds, Rosa. Something for the birds." Rosa - "You're something to make the corn grow tall!") isn't at all helped by the fact that Moose has a well-turned-out daughter (Ruth Roman) who's everything Rosa would like to be.
Lastly, there's rolling-in-dough Neil K. Latimer. Although he and Rosa share a passionate physical attraction and Rosa sees him more as a ticket out of purgatory than the love of her life; the monkey wrench in the works (and probable bullet to the body) is Rosa's nagging fear that he just doesn't think she's good enough for him.
I can't vouch for how 1949 audiences reacted to Beyond the Forest (we can all agree it wasn't particularly favorable), but I remember getting a huge kick out of watching DavisVampira wigged, low necklined, lumpy-figured, clomping about in Joan Crawford pumps and spitting out her campy dialogue in her best self-parodying, Bette Davis drag queen impersonationwhile trying to guess which one of these male clay pigeons would irritate her to the point of having to mete out a little "porcupine justice."
"If I don't get out of here I'll die. If I don't get out of here I hope I die!"

There’s no getting past the fact that Beyond the Forest’s single main attraction for me is the staggeringly miscast Bette Davis. Looking awkward, uncomfortable and unable to get even a remotely credible foothold on the type of bad-to-the-bone vexed vixen Gloria Grahame could play in her sleep; Davis (whom director King Vidor seemed intent on molding into a bad copy of Jennifer Jones' Dueling in the Sun hotpot in a peasant blouse) relies instead on a mannered (read: ludicrous) vamp posturing and broad-as-a-barn emoting.
And while I can fully understand why she campaigned enthusiastically to be replaced by Virginia Mayo in the part"She's good at these sorts of roles!" (which sounds like a generous compliment until you stop to think about it)I'm glad jack Warner held her to it, because Davis, in all her sublime awfulness, is the best thing in the film.
Rosa goes camping (with a capital CAMP)
"The trouble with you, Lew, is you don't get up here often enough."
Rosa - "He doesn't do ANYTHING enough!"

Beyond the Forest treads such familiar noir ground that even upon first viewing, I felt as though I’d seen it before. Certainly my having already encountered Joseph Cotten as Marilyn Monroe's nice-guy cuckold in Niagara (1953) and David Brian as Joan Crawford's hankered-after symbol of well-heeled respectability in Flamingo Road (1949) contributed to the déjà vu. Beyond the Forest's allusions to adultery, abortion, miscarriage, sexual dissatisfaction and (gasp!) the lead character’s blatant disdain for all the things postwar women were supposed to want, must have been pretty heady stuff back in the ‘40s, but watching it now only makes me aware of how—outside of a few stylistic touches in the cinematography and use of music—it’s all been done before and to better effect. The sole exception, thus supplying the film’s only spark of energy and interest, is the Bette Davis’ completely off the rails performance.
Rosa, literally trapped in a domestic cage

As a fan of Patty Duke's Neely O'Hara and Faye Dunaway's Joan Crawford, I obviously have no real problem with unrestrained, bordering-absurd performances. When they enhance (rather than derail) a production, they shine like beacons of inadvertent genius. But in accessing the "Carol Burnett Show parody" level of Bette Davis's unsubtle take on the character of Rosa Moline in Beyond the Forest (which bears more than a passing resemblance to a supposed-to-be-awful screen test performance Davis gives in 1953's The Star), it doesn't seem fair to lay all the blame at the actress' ankle-strapped feet.
For example, I'm not sure who came up with Davis' almost goth girl appearance here, but you'd have to look to Joan Crawford's garish getup in Strait-Jacket (1964) to find a campier image of toxic sexuality. Another problem is Davis' age. Although only 40, Davis looks at least five years older, the resultant effect being that Rosa's desire to hightail it out of Loyalton comes off as half-hearted at best, at worst, an epic case of foot-dragging.
"Rosa...moving easily, freely, every man's admiring eye upon her."

She's not given much help by a screenplay (adapted from Stuart Engstrand's 1945 novel by Lenore J. Coffee, Warners' only woman screenwriter) which, perhaps in an effort to undercut audience sympathy and identification (who wouldn't want to get out of that hick town?), makes Rosa into an almost misogynist caricature of self-interest and greed. Though one can imagine any number of good reasons why a vital woman would feel stifled by small town life, the film sees fit to reduce all Rosa's desires to the material and superficial. The only time the movie comes close to granting her recognizably human emotions is when (tellingly) her spirit is broken by a particularly humiliating visit to Chicago. Otherwise she's depicted as little more than an overage Sadie Thompson spewing forth an unbroken stream of harsh invectives at anyone unfortunate enough to cross her path.
Pregnant, hair restrained, body covered, and (God forbid) wearing flat shoes; Rosa, now convinced of her ordinariness, is at last brought low. Is this return to traditional gender roles what people wanted from women in the postwar years?

I don't happen to find Beyond the Forest to be particularly persuasive as drama, but as arch melodrama, it can't be beat. Vidor ratchets up the excess to the point that everything about it feels satirical, even when it's in deadly earnest. The natural performances of the rest of the cast, Joseph Cotten especially, grounds the film just enough to provide Davis' over-the-moon emoting with a solid springboard from which to soar.
Case in point: my favorite sequence - Rosa's trip to Chicago. Set up as the film's dramatic centerpiece and given ample buildup by having the 1922 Fred Fisher song "Chicago (That Toddlin' Town)" chime in on the soundtrack every time Rosa gets that faraway look in her eyes; the sequence instead plays out like an early draft of Neil Simon's The Out of Towners.
All Dressed Up With Nowhere To Go
Fantasies vs Murphy's Law as Rosa's dream of Chicago turns into a nightmare

Rosa's escape to Chicago city is a comedy of errors which really couldn’t go much worse. List of mishaps:
She can’t get through to her lover on the phone.
She's kept waiting in his offices for hours.
He finally calls but she's so lost in thought ("I'm Rosa Moline!") she misses it.
They meet up and he greets her with wonderful news: he's getting married!
She gets kicked out of a bar for soliciting.
She gets propositioned by a slob in the middle of a monsoon.
In succession: she's heckled by a madwoman, startled by a drunk, terrorized by a newsboy.
Has to chase down a cab in her ankle straps.
No one ever had as miserable a time looking for a good time as Rosa Moline

I grew up in a house with four sisters, so I can attest to the fact that the femme fatales of '40s film noir and the sadder-but-wiser fallen women of the '40s "woman's picture" were every bit the vicarious thrill for them as I found those movies where geeky guys like Tom Ewell and Tommy Noonan wound up with incredible women like Jayne Mansfield and Marilyn Monroe.
These films were the kind of wish-fulfillment fantasies that gave wings to our adolescent ids (only in my fantasies, geeky me always wound up with Frank Converse or Steve McQueen). But unlike the myriad male-centric films devised to reassure unexceptional men that the world actually favored them; the women in the film noirs and women's pictures always paid a price for their freedom. A woman's desire to exert power over her fate was rarely, if ever, depicted as a healthy drive, but rather associated with some form of pathology or moral lack. The fun we had watching the "bad girls" (who always dressed better, had the best lines, and moved the plot forward) was always undercut by the knowledge that no matter how much havoc was wreaked, before fade-out, order in the form of gender-role normalcy would be restored to the universe.
Beyond the Forest is too overwrought for me to take seriously, but if well-crafted camp can be considered a legitimate genre (and since we all know how difficult it is to pull off, maybe it should be) it's one of the best of its kind.
A film that can be enjoyed on many levels (I've read of many Bette Davis fans who actually think it's one of her better performances), what I love about it is that the essentially camp drag queen sensibility that makes Davis' Rosa Moline such a hoot of a to watch, is matched scene-for-scene with an unconsciously gay sensibility that makes Rosa's plight relatable and sympathetic.
Rosa, channeling her inner fabulousness
Gay men of my generation traditionally grew up in towns and environments where they felt "different" and out of step with others. Unable to relate to peers who only wanted to get married and start a family, a common reaction and survival tactic was to embrace that which made them not fit in. To take pride and revel in one's uniqueness, and to learn (like Rosa) to express oneself by looking, dressing, and behaving in ways more attuned to how one saw oneself—not with how society said you ought to be.

My partner grew up in a small town and tells me that in spite of having a very happy childhood devoid of bullying or harassment, he never for one moment entertained the thought of remaining there once he came of age. The quiet sameness of the town fostering in him an appetite for big city life; the unspoken dominance of conformity assuring him that he could never truly be himself there. The parallels to be found in the early lives of gay men (I hope they are only the early lives) and Rosa Moline's bristling at the life she's supposed to want as a woman in a small town, is, I believe, an intractable part of where Beyond the Forest's gay cult appreciation is rooted.
It's a fact of life that we often have to leave somewhere in order to find ourselves and discover what it is we really want. Happily, for most of us the road to self-actualization doesn't involve firearms.

Hard as it is to believe, Bette Davis doesn't give Beyond The Forest's worst performance. That dubious honor goes to actress Dona Drake. Admittedly it can't be easy doing anything under that dreadful fright wig and three pounds of Max Factor's Dark Egyptian #5, but as Rosa's just-not-into-it maid, Drake gives (to quote The New York Times): "A fine high-school performance."
Drake's offscreen acting must have been considerably more convincing, for the lovely African-American actress/singer/dancer/bandleader spent her entire career passing as Mexican-American. Going by several different names, among them Rita Rio and Rita Novello, Drake was wed to famed costume designer William Travilla (Valley of the Dolls, Marilyn Monroe) in what is rumored to be an arranged marriage (studio guarding her ethnicity, his bi/homosexuality). She appeared in many films, usually as an "exotic."
You can read more about Drake's life and history:
Travilla's Legacy
Little Known Black History
The Lady Dances
Dona Drake as Rita Rio in the 1936 Eddie Cantor feature Strike Me Pink
She's rather adorable in this musical number which fans of Yellow Submarine (1968) will recognize as having segments rotoscoped for "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds".
Watch it on YouTube HERE

Copyright © Ken Anderson

Saturday, October 8, 2016


"Did you leave a cigarette burning?"

Here in L.A. one of our tallest downtown skyscrapers has an attraction which allows visitors to travel from the 70th to 69th floor by way of a clear glass slide attached to the outside of the building. In other words, one has to pay for the privilege of crapping one’s pants 1,000 feet in the air.

But back in the ‘70s those of us in search of less first-hand high-rise thrills were happy to content ourselves with The Towering Inferno: producer/director Irwin Allen’s $14 million follow-up to his wildly successful The Poseidon Adventure (1972). It was 1974 and the disaster film craze was in full swing. October saw the release of Airport ’75 (“The stewardess is flying the plane!”); Earthquake (“In Sensurround!”) followed in November; and December brought The Towering Inferno.
Everything about The Towering Inferno was a one-upsmanship of the standard disaster film. It was adapted from not one but two novels (The Tower by Richard Martin Stern & The Glass Inferno by Thomas N. Scortia and Frank M. Robinson); boasted two directors (John Guillermin for the acting, Irwin Allen for the action); and was so massive an undertaking it brought about the historic collaboration between Warner Bros. and 20th Century-Fox (preventing a replay of the "Dueling Harlows" situation of 1965 when competing studios raced to release two films on the same subject at the same time). The Towering Inferno was Hollywood's heavily hyped holiday season release which promised to be the ultimate “Big, Bigger, Biggest!” cherry atop the disaster film catastrophe cake.

And, as it turns out, The Towering Infernogarnering eight Academy Award nominations and one of the highest-grossing films of the yeardid indeed come to represent the genre at its peak. Its sheer scope, star-wattage, and pull-out-the-stops excesses signifying perhaps the most to which the genre could ever reasonably aspire. Its ambitious scale and overall professional (albeit, old-fashioned) competency standing as something of a bellwether for the genre’s eventual decline into oversaturation, mediocrity, and unintentional self-parody.
"It's out of control and it's coming your way!"

Truer words were never spoken. On the evening of the gala dedication ceremony for The Glass Tower—San Francisco’s newest skyscraper and the tallest building in the world—an electrical fire breaks out in a utility room (Building developer: "You’re not familiar with the many modern safety systems we have designed into this building”); faster than you can say “Titanic” all hell breaks loose…literally. To quote the film’s ad copy “One tiny spark becomes a night of blazing suspense” as 300 well-heeled revelers in highly flammable ‘70s synthetics become trapped on the building’s top floor with nothing but Maureen McGovern for entertainment, and ever-diminishing options for escape and rescue. What to do? What to do?
Panic at the Disco
Well, what The Towering Inferno does (and very well, thank you) is to let this open-flame potboiler play out in a manner not dissimilar to that of an old Busby Berkeley musical. The tried-and-true pattern for those films was to introduce the players, hastily establish their superficial-to-inconsequential interrelationships and conflicts, then pretty much spend the rest of the movie interspersing the formulaic narrative complications and resolutions between musical numbers of intensifying extravagance and excess. A little plot, a musical number; a little more plot, a slightly bigger musical number, etc.; …all leading to a big, splashy finale featuring lots and lots of people until, finally, all ends well with a romantic clinch at fade-out.
The Towering Inferno follows this pattern pretty closely…only with explosions, falls from great heights, and gruesome, fiery deaths taking the place of production numbers. The result is a disaster film clocking in at over 2 ½ hours that, while occasionally getting bogged down in technical dialog and repetition (sometimes it feels like we’re shown all 138 stories of stairwell footage), moves at a surprisingly brisk and exciting pace.
Since the title already clues us in that the building is going to go up like a matchstick, the film doesn’t waste any time trying to build false suspense by pretending to be about anything else. We’re introduced to the setting, The Glass Tower: a near-literal imposing erection jutting phallically from the testicular San Francisco hills. A building whose façade is shimmering gold and whose interior is an eye-strain symphony of ‘70s game-show orange. Residents occupy the floors above the 81st, lower floors are devoted to commercial tenants (including the building’s developer, Duncan Enterprises—they of the Starship Enterprise interior design and bedroom-equipped executive offices). With the “where” established, The Towering Inferno moves on to introducing the “who” by means of cinema shorthand: aka clichés.
Paul Newman as Doug Roberts - "The Architect"
First, we get the hero architect (Newman). We know he’s the hero because while everyone else wears suits and ties, he’s the lone maverick in orange and swede. Cut from the same iconoclastic mold as those confrontational individualists in the Winston cigarette ads of the day (“I don’t smoke to be like everybody else,” was typical ad copy) Newman is a sun-bronzed Thoreau ready to say goodbye to his lucrative career so he can live the simple life in Mendocino County and “Sleep like a winner.”
Faye Dunaway as Susan Franklin "The Girlfriend"
The curvy speedbump preventing Newman from beating as hasty a retreat to the good life as he’d like, is magazine editor Faye Dunaway. The movie poster identifies her as “the girlfriend” and that’s precisely the breadth, scope, and function of her role in the film. Randy Paul Newman wants to runaway with Dunaway to a place where their hypothetical children “…can run around and grow and be free,” but post-afternoon delight, career-minded Dunaway informs him that she's just been offered a much longed-for promotion (“That’s nice…,” is his invalidating response). Newman wants her to be with him (and do what? we ask ourselves) but Dunaway, perhaps anticipating what lie in store for her in Network, is not keen to give her executive promotion the kiss-off so soon. Guess which one of the two isn’t placed in the position of having to make a decision?
William Holden as James Duncan "The Builder"
The tempter to Newman’s antagonist is boss William Holden. He tries to persuade Newman to stay so together they can build bigger and better firetraps—I mean, skyscrapers…all over the world. Holden is a man of questionable integrity who has dollar signs in his eyes. Something we can all observe for ourselves thanks to his ginormous eyeglasses.
Steve McQueen as Michael O'Hallorhan "The Fire Chief"
Once things start to heat up, good guy fireman Steve McQueen arrives on the scene as the film’s moral mentor. His duty is to deliver common-sense, life-saving fire safety advice, and the occasional big prick to Newman’s vulnerable, exposed, quivering conscience.
Richard Chamberlain as Roger Simmons "The Son-In-Law"
The villain of the piece is electrical contractor Richard Chamberlain. The big tipoff being that within minutes of his entrance he’s given a Neely O’Hara-ish speech about not needing God’s or anybody else's help, and how he didn’t get through life on a pass because of his good cheekbones and damn classy looks (although in truth, Chamberlain’s snare-drum-tight face has been pulled so taut, his cheekbones genuinely look in danger of cutting straight through the flesh). Chamberlain’s character is written as such an unrelentingly rotten ol’ meanie, at any moment one expects him to materialize in a cape and top hat, twirling a mustache.
Susan Blakely as Patty Simmons "The Wife"
To make him seem even meaner, Chamberlain is given a Good Woman (Susan Blakely); an unaccountably loyal spouse given to hurt looks, aqueous glances, and a knack for saying precisely the wrong thing at the wrong time. That she also happens to be the boss’s daughter adds a backstory of guile and purpose-fucking to Chamberlain’s already slimy resume.
Now we come to the supporting characters. The ones who exist primarily to drum up additional human-interest, boost the potential body count, and attract the ancillary demographics necessary to make a movie this costly into a hit. 
O.J. Simpson as Jernigan "The Murderer" oops! I mean "The Security Man"
For ethnic appeal and to draw the athletics supporters, there’s football player, would-be Hertz pitchman, and future felon O.J. Simpson as the tower’s chief of security. On the plus side, at least he’s not one of those noble, first-to-die African-American characters Hollywood holds so dear. On the minus, the man gives a performance of kindling-level woodenness. 
Jennifer Jones as Lisolette Mueller "The Widow"
Fred Astaire as Harlee Claiborne "The Con Man"
For the classic Hollywood fans, we have Golden Years love interests Fred Astaire and Jennifer Jones as an adorable, twinkly-wrinkly couple combining the charming chicanery of Airport’s Ada Quonset (Helen Hayes) and the selfless sympathy factor of The Poseidon Adventure’s Belle Rosen (Shelley Winters). 
Robert Wagner as Dan Bigelow "The Publicity Man"
Susan Flannery as Lorrie "The Secretary"
And what would a disaster film be without a dose of sex=death guilt retribution? Overemployed non-entity Robert Wagner plays an executive who goes to great (read: fatal) pains to conceal the far from earth shattering fact that he's boffing his secretary (Days of Our Lives star Susan Flannery). Given that neither wears a wedding ring, it's the sexual revolution '70s, and Wagner's company obliges by outfitting his office with a big ol' bedroom, one would think they'd simply put the overtime on their time cards.
Rounding out the The Towering Inferno's parade of possibly soon-to-be-incinerated stars is the equally-innocuous Robert Vaughn (far right) as a senator, and, balancing a tower of her own, Irwin Allen’s paramour of 14-years (and soon to be Mrs. Allen) Sheila Mathews as the mayor’s way-too-many-close-ups-for-the-size-of-her-role wife.
Did I mention there are also children and a cat? Yes, children and animals are as inevitable in disaster movies as Oscar-bait theme songs (this film’s “We May Never Love Like This Again” actually hooked the prize). As the pet in need of rescue we have Elke the cat, and as what appear to be the only children in the entire building, there's Bobby Brady (Mike Lookinland) and a little girl who has trouble not looking into the camera lens (Carlena Gower). (But I must say I owe a debt of thanks to the latter. Had Jennifer Jones not been obliged to hoist that kid around on her hip in take after take, the late Miss Jones wouldn’t have developed the enduring lower back problems that necessitated her seeking out my services as a personal trainer in the '90s. Her back ultimately improved, and I got to know one of my favorite stars. So…thanks, kid!)
Once the cast and conflicts are assembled—honorable mention going to the two buddy cops and Carlos, the bartender who never takes a break (Sanford & Sons' Gregory Sierra)—it’s just a matter of rolling out the catastrophes and conflagrations. Something The Towering Inferno manages rather spectacularly and as regularly as clockwork.

The bulk of The Towering Inferno is comprised of variations on the following:
1. Hey! There’s a fire!
2. Deny, deny, deny.
3. Get those people outta there!
4. No, not that way!
5. Boom!
6. Is it me, or is it really hot in here?
7. Climb, climb, climb!
8. Whoops! There goes the stairwell/elevator/helicopter/breeches buoy.
9. Faye Dunaway consoling terrified guests by making sure their heads are turned well away from the camera.
"There, there...I won't let that nasty old cameraman get at you." 

“For those who like that sort of thing, that is the sort of thing they like.” 
The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie 

Amended: If you like disaster movies, The Towering Inferno is one of the best examples of the genre you're likely to find. Thank you, Miss Brodie.
If asked to pick the disaster move I get the biggest kick out of, The Poseidon Adventure gets my vote for pure entertainment and camp value—it's like the Valley of the Dolls of disaster films. But when it comes to genuine drama, breathtaking stunts, spectacular effects, and the kind of larger-than-life scale that makes you feel like a kid oohing and ahhing over the sheer magnitude of the undertaking; The Towering Inferno really delivers the goods. 
Seeing it now, it's a good deal talkier, tin-eared, and over-infatuated with the detailed minutiae of firefighting than I remember; but its clear-cut objective is so simple there's almost a purity to it. It simply wants to be the one of the biggest, most exciting, star-studded, thrill-a-minute adventure spectacles ever committed to film. And it succeeds!

In the cynical, serious, often dark, frequently downright bizarre atmosphere of New Hollywood '70s cinema, you have no idea what a breath of fresh air these mindless disaster movies were. They were Hollywood at its most formulaic and old-fashioned, and that's exactly what I loved about them. Being a San Francisco kid (teen, actually), I was especially excited about the release of The Towering Inferno because news of its production came out about a year after the completion of the controversial Transamerica Pyramid, then, at 48-stories, the tallest building in the city. The San Francisco skyline was changing—The Embarcadero also had a 45-story high-rise and more on the way—and there was great concern as to the soundness of so many tall buildings in a city as earthquake-prone as S.F. (I remember a local radio station promoted itself with the slogan "The city that waits to die listens to...." Yikes! That always bothered the hell out of me).
Like a great many films that achieve success by striking just the right chord of anxiety at the right time, The Towering Inferno had the feel of immediacy about it. A feeling I latched onto and ran with.
I was so taken with this movie I made a point of making sure I’d read BOTH novels before the film came out; I tacked up homemade posters promoting the film on the bulletin board in my high school's library; I bought every movie magazine that had even the smallest article or photo about it: and when I walked home from school I always went the route that took me by the movie theater with the advance posters and lobby cards on display.

The Towering Inferno had its West Coast premiere at San Francisco's Alexandria Theater, and a friend and I desperately wanted to go to gawk from the sidelines (Lights! Music! Stars! Celebrities! Television! Radio!), but that idea was nixed because it was a school night. I eventually saw The Towering Inferno during its opening weekend and was absolutely floored. Even then there was no mistaking it for a great film or anything, but it was one of those eye-popping "event" movie experiences I'll always remember. I saw the film at least four times over that Christmas holiday, and for many years after I kept the souvenir program I'd purchased at the first screening.
When people get prickly over criticism of their favorite disaster movies, a typical defense is that no one goes to these movies to see great acting. Well, that's not altogether true. You may not go expecting Sarah Bernhardt-level emoting, but you do rely on a certain level of competent credibility in the acting to better draw you into the narrative. In the same way that believable stunts and convincing special effects enhance a film's thrill factor, actors who are able to make sketchily-drawn characters seem real enough to care about are an invaluable asset. If you don't think so, take a look at Irwin Allen's The Swarm sometime.
For my money, Faye Dunaway stands out as the most overqualified for her role, Steve McQueen the most compelling, and Paul Newman just a pleasure to look at...period. But by and large I think everyone in the film acquits themselves nicely, with Academy Award-nominated Fred Astaire being a sentimental favorite.

As big a fan of the genre as I was in the '70s, disaster movies hold a curious place for me now. When I'm not enjoying them purely for their camp and/or nostalgia value, I'm struck by how quickly they went from being entertaining action/adventure films to being these somewhat morbid "body count" spectacles. Latter films in the played-out genre seemed to exist solely to showcase how a significant number of people could be dispatched in the most elaborate and gruesome ways possible.
On a purely personal, subjective note, one of my favorite things about The Towering Inferno is its setting. The tower itself is genuinely impressive, what with all those flames shooting out of it at dazzlingly photogenic angles, and the interior decor is so hideous it's actually a pleasure to see it go up in flames. The glam-fan in me loves that this high-rise catastrophe  takes place during a formal function, the result: the film is a virtual symphony of billowing chiffon, feather boas, clunky platform disco shoes, and towering hair sculptures.
Given a nothing role, Faye Dunaway and her legendary bone structure (and that
amazing dress) still effortlessly managed to upstage everything else
From a film buff's perspective, it's also a great deal of fun seeing if you catch and count which stars in the film have worked with each other in the past (one hint: Love is a Many Splendored Thing) or would again in the future (one hint: Airport '79).
The Towering Inferno endures for me as the last of the genre to be sincere enough to play it straight and attempt to balance the human drama with the spectacular action

The Towering Inferno - 1974
Angel, Angel, Down We Go -1969
A regular reader of this blog (Thanks, Wille!) brought it to my attention that the gown Jennifer Jones wears in The Towering Inferno (top image) is very similar to an outfit she wears in 1969's Angel, Angel, Down We Go (bottom image). Jones' Towering Inferno gown was designed by longtime Irwin Allen costume designer Paul Zastupnevich. The outfit she wears in the lower photo is actually an evening pants suit with a tunic top designed by five-time Oscar nominated costume designer Renie (pronounced Renay...wouldn't you know it?). You can see costume sketches for The Towering Inferno by clicking on the link to The Irwin Allen News network, below.

For those interested in reading about the production, the rivalries, and all manner of behind-the-scenes trivia regarding The Towering Inferno, the internet offers a wealth of sources.
Poseidon's Underworld: The Towering Inferno
Burn, Baby, Burn
Gotta love that this movie inspired the 1976 disco classic Disco Inferno by The Trammps
Copyright © Ken Anderson