Film History 101 (Part 11): The “Tent Pole” Becomes the Norm

When we last left off, we were discussing how “Jaws” and a certain other film from the 1970s had completely redrawn the Hollywood landscape.   These movies proved that a studio didn’t have to turn out a series of successful films to make gobs of money.   All you needed was one, and you could maintain a healthy bottom line for years to come.    “Jaws” may have broken records, but the film which followed it in 1977  solidified the concept of the “tent pole” film.   That’s a movie  so popular that EVERYONE has to see it.

Here are some more clues about the 1977 film we’re talking about:

  • It sold more tickets in San Francisco than there were people living in San Francisco.
  • It’s still the third highest grossing release in film history.
  • It was released by 20th Century Fox.   Within 3 weeks of it’s opening, the stock price of the studio more than doubled.
  • The profits for 20th Century Fox in 1977 were more than twice that of any other year in its history.
  • It was so popular, it was re-released in 1978, 1979, 1981, 1982, and 1997.  In 1997, it was still one of the biggest money-makers of the year, despite having been available on home video for nearly a decade.
  • It was the first film to prove that movie merchandising could be just as profitable as the ticket sales themselves.

If you have an even casual interest in Film History, you know we’re talking about Star Wars.

But we don’t want to make it seem like “Star Wars” was the only decent film made in the 1970s.  As we’ve mentioned before, the decade proved to be exceedingly fertile ground for both movie makers and movie goers.   And we didn’t want to leave this segment of Film History 101 without touching on some of our other favorite films from that era.  Most you’ve seen.  But hopefully we’ve thrown in a few you may not have heard of:

The Godfather Part II. You know the old saying that sequels are never as good as the original? Here’s the exception that proves the rule.  Coppola took an instant American classic, and simultaneously created a prequel and sequel.  The early parts detailing Don Corleone’s rise as the Godfather are good, but it’s the second story that really hits home.   Watching Michael Corleone lose his soul is one of the most emotionally shattering experiences ever put on film.  A superb script, great performances, dazzling cinematography, and a searing story you can’t get out of your head make this a leading contender for the best film ever made.  One of our all time favorite film experiences, even after dozens of viewings.   (No exaggeration).

The Exorcist.  William Friedkin followed up The French Connection with a movie that still holds up in the scares department some 45 years later.  And just to show you how Film History 101 is interconnected, check out this earlier posting.   Friedkin said he learned how to make movies by watching Val Lewton films while growing up in Chicago in the 1940s.  Specifically, how to scare the pants off an audience.  An intelligent script, sharply constructed shots, silence, creepy sound effects,  and knowing exactly when to pull the trigger are all Lewton trademarks.  However,  the spinning head and pea soup mixed with oatmeal  were Friedkin’s own unique contributions to Film History 101.

The Poseidon Adventure. 1972’s second highest grossing film (after “The Godfather”) and the film that launched a mini-genre of “disaster movies.”   The action sequences are still top-notch, but we always liked the film for it’s underlying themes of fate and predestination.   In a life or death situation, does your ability to survive depend on sheer luck, or your own actions?   Of course, the main attraction in the film is the sequence where the ship capsizes.   It’s still pretty spectacular, especially the rotating shot where the grand piano slides down the length of the floor and crashes into the ceiling.   But perhaps the most iconic image from the film occurs when Ernie Orsatti the stuntman falls from the upside down table now located in the ceiling into a bank of lights.   That’s an actual stunt you see on film.  In fact, if you look closely, you can watch Ernie mouth the following words to the cameraman right before he lets go:  “I’m going to get you for this.”   In real life, the fall knocked Ernie unconscious, and put him in the hospital with a concussion for three days.  All this, and we haven’t even mentioned Shelley Winter’s swimming  abilities.

The Towering Inferno.    “The Poseidon Adventure” proved to be so popular that no expense was spared for this follow-on extravaganza from Irwin Allen .    It’s one of the few times in Hollywood history that two separate studios (20th Century Fox and Warner Bros.)  combined their talent and resources to co-produce a single film.   It even had two directors:  John Guillerman handled all the dialogue sequences, while Allen focused on the shots where something was on fire.   The model for the burning skyscraper was created on the backlot and stood over 100 feet tall.  These days the movie is definitely a guilty pleasure.   We can’t help but chuckle at Leonard Maltin’s review of the film.  To paraphrase:   “All star idiocy about a burning building.  It purports to pay tribute to firefighters, but is  more interested in depicting grisly ways for people to die.”.   We can’t argue with that assessment, but it’s still grand entertainment.  (And it made even more money than “The Poseidon Adventure”).

Chinatown.  Another winner from Roman Polanski, and the film that solidified Robert Towne’s reputation as one of Hollywood’s greatest screenwriters.  An excellent modern example of Film Noir.  (Look for Polanski’s cameo as a  knife-wielding hood).

Harold and Maude. Cult classic about a young man Bud Cort)  obsessed with death.  Until he meets certified free spirit Ruth Gordon.   The elderly woman teaches him about the gift of life in the most unexpected ways.   The movie is famous for all of Bud’s fake “suicide” attempts in the early part of the movie, but finds its heart in the latter half.   It also put Colin Higgins on the map as a big time director.

Silver Streak.   Another Colin Higgins films and one of those rare films that does a great job balancing comedy and suspense.   We’re still a big fan of the finale when the train crashes into the station.  After this film, some went so far as to call Higgins the new “Hitchcock”.  He went on to make Foul Play before his career completely derailed with The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.  No one has seen him since.

Cabaret. Before Liza Minelli became tabloid fodder, she sure could belt them out.  (Musical numbers that is, not her husbands).

Annie Hall. Quite possibly Woody Allen’s best movie ever.  (And he’s made a lot of them).

Apocalypse Now.  Another great film from Francis Ford Coppola.  But the production problems literally almost killed the director and star Martin Sheen.  Too bad the last half hour is so anti-climactic.  Almost all of the scenes with Marlon Brando were ad-libbed.   The reason you never get a good look at him is because he showed up on the set grossly overweight.   But the film is still worth your time.   Another great Coppola movie from the 70s we can recommend is The Conversation.   Its look at electronic eavesdropping, invasion of privacy, and the manipulation of technology becomes more and more relevant with each passing year.

Blazing Saddles.  Our vote for Mel Brooks’ funniest movie.   Full of lots of stuff that just wouldn’t fly today.   But Young Frankenstein is up there too.  And don’t forget Silent Movie.

The Kentucky Fried Movie.   Before Airplane, the Zucker Brothers teamed up with John Landis to make this.   Raw, offensive, and rough around the edges….but oh so funny.

Animal House.   Another John Landis film which gets our vote for one of the funniest movies ever made…despite  scores of imitations.

Little Big Man.   Finally, a movie that had the courage to show American history from the Indian’s point of view.  By depicting Custer as a narcissistic psycho, (as he almost certainly was) it shows that history never stops judging one by their actions.  Even 100 years after the fact.

Days of Heaven. For Hollywood cinematographers,  there’s a term called “The Golden Hour.”   It’s the time at the end of every day when the sun just dips over the horizon and before the light disappears.  Everything is bathed in a warm, gold glow for only about 10 to 20 minutes.   Most cameramen dream of shooting during this  span of time every day.   But this was the first (and so far only) attempt to shoot an entire film during this window of time.  Rolling film only 15 minutes or so a day took a year to complete the project…and the plot ain’t much to talk about.   But the final product is oh so beautiful to look at.

Deliverance. As someone else once pointed out, Bill McKinney and Herbert Coward might just be the most frightening pair of villains in screen history.  Everyone remembers the scene we’re talking about.  Which is too bad.  Because the rest of the movie is terrific too.

Going in Style. George Burns, Art Carney and Lee Strasberg all sparkle as old men sitting on a park bench in New York who decide to spice up their life by robbing a bank.   Maybe the best movie ever made about aging, it’s sad and funny in equal doses.  With more than a touch of reality thrown in to make it worth your while.  And way more poignant than the recent remake.

Alien.  Another triumph from the “less is more” school of horror.   When the film was screened for the White House in 1979, Rosslyn Carter reportedly ran out of the room during the infamous chest bursting scene.  The movie is  actually a remake of a 1950s film called “It: the Terror From Beyond Space.”  “Alien” is better.  Trust us.

The Black Hole. At the time, this was the most expensive film Walt Disney studios ever produced.   It’s got a lot to recommend it:  great special effects, a larger than life plot, a wonderful soundtrack and some chilling visuals.   But the entire effort is almost sunk by a couple of silly robots thrown in to attract a younger audience.

Vanishing Point.   Barry Newman decides (for no reason) to drive a 1970 Dodge Challenger from Denver to San Francisco in record time.  With an entire cadre of state troopers in pursuit.  The first film to combine music with top notch racing action, the film is (justifiably) famous with car enthusiasts.

And two more you may have never heard of:

The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane.  Jodie foster is a young teenager who apparently lives alone in a house in New England.  Or does she?  Martin Sheen plays a pedophile who seems to have Foster right where he wants her.  Meanwhile Scott Jacoby (anyone remember Bad Ronald?) plays a crippled teen who develops a relationship with Jodie.   A truly original film with a great script.

The Silent Partner.  Elliott Gould plays a mild-mannered bank teller who gets tipped off that he’s about to be robbed.   So, he stuffs $300,000 into a duffel bag.  When the thief (Christopher Plummer) robs the bank, everyone thinks he’s the one who took the missing money.   Everyone except Plummer, who turns out to be a sadistic psychopath that now wants the rest of the loot.  So begins the cat and mouse game in which the shy bank teller appears to be seriously over-matched.   But not for long.  An addictive movie for the lucky viewer…right up until the perfect ending.

There are lots of other films from the 1970s we won’t hesitate to recommend.   Like we mentioned before, the decade was rich with just one great film after another:

Airport, Black Sunday, The Boys From Brazil, Carrie, A Clockwork Orange, Dawn of the Dead, Death Wish, The Deer Hunter, Diamonds Are Forever, Dirty Harry, Eraserhead, Halloween, Live and Let Die, The Longest Yard, Mad Max, Magnum Force, Marathon Man, Midnight Express, Network, The Omega Man, The Omen, Patton, The Pink Panther Strikes Again, Saturday Night Fever, Shampoo, The Sting, Straw Dogs, The Taking of Pelham 123, That’s Entertainment, Three Days of the Condor, Up in Smoke, The Warriors, and What’s Up Doc.

We could go on, but for the sake of space, that should be enough to get you started if you want to further explore film history in the 1970s.

After the success of Star Wars, the 1980s saw a definite shift in the kind of product that Hollywood produced.   Films were geared toward a younger market, as all the movie studios tried to recapture the magic of “The Force.”   As a result, there was a definite drop off in quality.   Out of the American Film Institutes top 100 films of all time, only 8 were made during the 1980s.   It’s the lowest total of the entire sound era.

But that doesn’t mean that there weren’t good films made in that timeframe.   Some were classics in their own right.  It just goes to show that there’s no stopping innovation, even when money grubbing is involved.   We’ll take a look at some of them in the next installment of Film History 101.


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