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The film begins with the following written statement: "At midnight on New Year's Eve, the S.S. Poseidon, enroute [sic] from New York to Athens, met with disaster and was lost. There were only a handful of survivors. This is their story...." The closing credits include the following written statement: "Portions of this picture filmed aboard the Queen Mary in Long Beach, California, with the cooperation of the City of Long Beach, California Museum of the Sea Foundation, Specialty Queen Mary Corporation and P.S.A. Hotels, Inc."
Paul Gallico's novel The Poseidon Adventure was published in 1969. As noted in studio press materials, the story was inspired by a trip he took on the R.M.S. Queen Mary ocean liner in 1937, during which the ship turned on its side in high waves. Filmfacts details the extensive research Gallico carried out to ensure that the disaster scenario was realistic and feasible. The film follows the same basic story of the novel, tracing a charismatic, rebellious preacher as he leads survivors of an overturned ocean liner toward the ship's hull. Unlike the film, however, the book includes additional characters, the character of "Robin Shelby" dies, "Reverend Scott" denounces God and commits suicide, and "Susan Shelby" is raped.
On March 26, 1969, Hollywood Reporter reported that Avco Embassy had purchased the novel. As noted in a June 1969 Daily Variety news item, producer Irwin Allen's production company, Kent Productions, signed a deal with Avco Embassy to produce three films, including The Poseidon Adventure. A June 24, 1969 Hollywood Reporter news item announced that the start of preproduction work and a finished script were due by October 1969. Although Sidney Marshall was credited as a script and story editor in a February 1970 Hollywood Reporter news item, he is listed onscreen as associate producer.
In July 1971, Hollywood Reporter announced that Allen would produce the film in collaboration with Twentieth Century-Fox rather than Avco Embassy. Allen noted in a December 1972 Variety article that he had first approached Fox with the idea of the film, turning to Avco after Fox turned him down. However, when Avco's new president canceled the production, Allen returned to Fox. An AMC documentary on the making of The Poseidon Adventure, included as extra material on the 2006 special edition DVD release, stated that the studio, hoping to cut costs, pulled out of the production just weeks before shooting began. Allen immediately persuaded Fox to provide half of the $5 million budget, then enlisted his friends Sherrill Corwin and Steve Broidy to match Fox's contribution. The film's first script was written by Wendell Mayes, but in November 1971, Hollywood trade papers noted that Stirling Silliphant had been hired as a writer. While the sources stated that Silliphant would rewrite the script completely, both he and Mayes received onscreen credit for the screenplay.
The following information was gleaned from press materials and extra materials on the DVD. The film, shot in sequence in order to follow the characters faithfully as they became more and more bedraggled, began production on location aboard the Queen Mary. The ship launched in 1934 as an ocean liner carrying up to 2,020 passengers. Upon its retirement in 1967 in Long Beach, CA, it was restored as a hotel and tourist attraction. For the storm sequence, Neame mounted cameras on gyros to create the illusion of a swaying ship. The scenes that occur after the ship overturns were shot on the Fox lot, where Neame and production designer William Creber used historical photographs and plans to build near-exact replicas of various areas of the ship. The dining room was built right-side-up, hoisted with a forklift so it tilted up to thirty degrees, then flipped upside-down, according to a 1997 AMC Magazine article. The filmmakers also constructed a miniature Queen Mary, measuring twenty-two feet long, that was photographed inside a studio tank. The replica now resides in the Los Angeles Maritime Museum in San Pedro, CA.
The stars personally performed most of the stunts for the film, and material on the DVD extras note that this was done by design as part of the studio's marketing plan. Much publicized was the fact that Shelley Winters gained thirty-five pounds to play the role of "Belle Rosen" and studied for weeks to learn to swim like a champion. According to a modern source, originally Scott was to send Belle on the underwater mission and then save her life, but Gene Hackman suggested that the situation be reversed. The scene in which the character of "Terry" falls from a table and crashes into the ballroom skylight has since become an iconic cinematic shock moment. Actor Ernie Orsatti was asked by the filmmakers to perform the fall himself, and despite his reluctance, recounted in modern sources, he went on to become a renowned stunt man.
The cast included multiple former Academy Awards winners, and during filming, Gene Hackman was awarded the 1971 Best Actor Oscar for his work in The French Connection. Modern sources state that Sally Kellerman was considered to play "Linda Rogo," Petula Clark was offered the role of "Nonnie" and Gene Wilder was originally cast as "James Martin." Modern sources add the following actors to the cast: Craig Barley, Todd Bartlett, Craig Chudy, Orwin C. Harvey, Larry Holt, Marco Lpez, Victor Paul, Allen Pinson, Bobby Porter, Lance Rimmer, David Sharpe and Tom Steele.
As noted in the AMC documentary, Allen and Neame planned for the film's final shot to be an aerial view of the sinking ship, but budget constraints forced them to drop the shot.
The Poseidon Adventure proved a critical success and was the top grossing film of 1972, at which point it had earned almost $100 million. The picture's success initiated a spate of disaster films, many produced by Allen, and is considered to be one of the genre's finest. The film received an Academy Award for Best Song and a Special Achievement Award in Visual Effects (L. B. Abbott and A. D. Flowers), as well as nominations for Best Supporting Actress (Winters), Art Direction (Creber and Raphael Bretton), Cinematography (Harold E. Stine), Costume Design (Paul Zastupnevich), Film Editing (Harold F. Kress), Sound (Theodore Soderberg and Herman Lewis) and Music, Original Dramatic Score (John Williams).
The film's theme song was officially entitled "The Song from The Poseidon Adventure," but became more widely known as "The Morning After." Although contemporary articles stated that Carol Lynley sang the song during the film, the voice heard was actually stand-in singer Renee Armand. A July 1973 Hollywood Reporter article stated that Armand had turned down the opportunity to sing the single, which was released by Maureen McGovern simultaneously with the picture. After composers Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn won the Academy Award in the spring of 1973, it was re-released and became a number-one hit.
Allen was a writer, director and producer who began his film career making spectacle films such as 1961's Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (see below), then worked in television on such series as Lost in Space. The Poseidon Adventure marked his first film in ten years. The success of The Poseidon Adventure and his next film, 1974's Towering Inferno (see below), earned him the nickname "Master of Disaster."
Since its release, The Poseidon Adventure has gained a huge fan following, several fan clubs and has inspired myriad pop-culture parodies. When ABC bought the television rights to the film in 1973, as noted in a November 1973 Los Angeles Times news item, the network paid a then-record $3.2 million for one showing. One sequel was produced in 1979 entitled Beyond the Poseidon Adventure starring Michael Caine and Sally Field which followed a different group of survivors from the ship. In addition, a 2005 TV movie produced by Hallmark Presentations called The Poseidon Adventure starred Adam Baldwin, Rutger Hauer and Steve Guttenberg, and in 2006 a remake, produced by Irwin Allen Productions and Warner Bros., was released entitled Poseidon. That film was directed by Wolfgang Peterson and starred Kurt Russell, Josh Lucas and Richard Dreyfuss.