The Good Guys Don't Always Win: Reflections on the Seventies Disaster Movie, The Towering Inferno

The Good Guys Don't Always Win:  Reflections on the Seventies Disaster Movie, The Towering Inferno

I remember my Dad taking my brothers and me to see the movie Earthquake and hearing the sirens from The Towering Inferno in the adjoining theater. Remember those seventies disaster movies? I wonder why they were so popular at that time, but when one thinks how they were made before the days of computerized digital special effects, the time and effort that went into making them is awe-inspiring. 



Focusing on The Towering Inferno, which I bought recently on DVD, what I noticed was a cast of Hollywood archetypes garnered from, at that time, new and old movie stars. I purposely use the term movie stars, because, despite the demise by that time of the studio system that basically owned the stars and the movies they made, the cast was still marketed as stars. In fact, all the disaster movies appealed to audiences because they presented a type of “grand hotel”of stars that multiple generations could identify with. 


Cast of The Towering Inferno

Now, I won't get into the plot (you can get that from IMDB, or you can probably watch the movie on youtube somewhere), but what strikes me is the presence of two heterosexual god-heroes, Paul Newman and Steve McQueen, in equal billing (rumor has it they insisted on that; instead of divas, there are now divos)! Their relationship is central: Newman being the architect who built the building that proved to be fire trap (not Newman's fault, but the fault of the young [and secretly gay in his personal life] Richard Chamberlain) and McQueen as the fireman who put out that fire. At the end, they both realize they've bonded, and the bond will end up saving lives because they will work together to build safer buildings. It's like going back to those old Westerns or swashbucklers where a type of brotherly code of honor between men was paramount. 


Steve McQueen and Paul Newman


So, at this point in our cast of Hollywood archetypes, we got two solid masculine heroes.


But there are more male figures that aren't as godlike. William Holden toward the end of his career, who owns the building that burned down (and supposedly approved cost-cutting measures that may have caused the fire), fits the archetype of the socially and economically powerful patriarch, ostensibly respectable and mindful of the code that with aristocracy comes responsibility (he asks one of the waitresses how her family is at one point during the fateful party in the Promenade Room).

But his wealth and power obviously have come at a price, that price (besides the destruction of the building) being his daughter, married to a smarmy, skirt-chasing young alcoholic played by a beautiful-looking Richard Chamberlain. His character, Simmons, did tamper with the building's electrical system to cut costs. He gets his just desserts (more on that later). Here we have another archetype: disturbed sociopathic young man who boozes and womanizes and meets an untimely end. Even the love of a pure woman, his wife, can't save him, though she tries. 

There's an older version of Simmons' archetype, but one capable of redemption. These 1970s movies always featured older actors from the golden age of Hollywood in “character parts.” In this case, Fred Astaire (who dances a bit in the party scene, and wonderfully) plays Harlee Claiborne, an aging hustler who tries to sell the dowager Mrs. Mueller (played by Jennifer Jones) phony stock certificates. Jones doesn't play Mueller as a decadent jeweled “psychobiddy,” but as a kind of older version of the saintly Bernadette that won her an Oscar, rescuing the children she babysits for and redeeming Harlee by seeing through his schemes (and admitting that she does love him). 

Steve McQueen and Paul Newman


Faye Dunaway plays Newman's girlfriend in a kind of nothing role. She was cast obviously for star power, but all she does is do a brief sex scene with Newman, wring her hands, hug frightened woman and children, say how much she loves him, tries to stay with him but ends up almost getting killed when the scenic elevator collapses (see the movie!), all the while looking stunning in an evening gown. I guess you could say her disaster movie archetype is lead woman in a romantic role, but in this case, the romance gets burned up, literally, in the more interesting and edgy relationships of the other characters. 


Now, what seems to us from our perspective as condescending and racist, two other archetypes show up in the film: non-Caucasian servants. O.J. Simpson in his youthful glory plays a security officer who saves women and children and Jennifer Jones' cat (of course, there's got to be a cute animal somewhere). He's a bit feisty when McQueen asks him for a list of all the tenants, but submits down to reason and authority. And he's the one who first notices the fire and wonders why it didn't set off an alarm. There's also a Hispanic bartender, Carlos, who appreciates and benefits from Holden's patriarchal generosity, but does get killed in the end. 


Steve McQueen and Paul Newman

So, one takes all these archetypes, put them in a disastrous situation, and what should happen? Does good triumph over evil? Does the guy get the girl? In The Towering Inferno, one sees the heroism and the chivalry, but the movie understands that the basic physical nature of the disaster, a quick-moving violent fire, is what really drives its plot and character dynamic. Mrs. Mueller, who of all people should have survived according to the old Hollywood code of ethics, falls out of the scenic elevator. Firemen (not main characters though) suffer and die. A helicopter that tries to land on the roof of the building blows up, killing both the pilots, in front of the women and children. The mayor (whose wife survives; they play a touching scene when they have to leave each other) dies in the rigged (by Newman and McQueen) explosion of water tanks that ends up being the only way to stop the inferno. 

Yet the children (one of whom is Mike Lookinland, aka Bobby Brady) survive after much peril, Faye Dunaway is reunited with Paul Newman, and Fred Astaire gets Mrs. Mueller's cat from O.J. Simpson. But, more true to that Hollywood code, the reprehensible Richard Chamberlain plummets to his death when he tries to push other guys off a breeches buoy attached to a helicopter that was used to evacuate the party guests. Given his previous selfish behavior, it actually seems more consistent with his character than forcing his ignominious end into a system where the bad guys always pay. 

Does the deadly, seemingly unstoppable fire in this movie take place in the world where many members of the audience, who saw values changing so quickly and radically in the era of Watergate, the energy crisis, and gay and women's liberation, felt like they were living in the middle of a disaster? That's the easy explanation, but I would prefer to think that the movies show more the challenge of trying to act selflessly and heroically in a world where socially normative archetypes don't necessarily apply, and that bad things can and do happen to good people.

This blog is part of an unofficial series on retro sixties and seventies popular culture. 

Rate this blog entry:
Look, but Don't Touch!
Famous Porn Stars of the Past: Focus on Jon King

Related Posts



No comments made yet. Be the first to submit a comment

Contact Us | 800-932-7111 | Join our email list

Go to top