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Allen, Irwin

Entry updated 12 September 2022. Tagged: Film, TV, People.

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(1916-1991) US film-maker long associated with sf subjects. He worked in radio during the 1940s; later, with the arrival of television, he created the first celebrity panel show. In 1951 he began producing films for RKO, and in 1953 won an Academy Award for The Sea Around Us, a pseudo-documentary which he wrote and directed. He then made a similar film for Warner Brothers, The Animal World (1956), which contained Dinosaur sequences animated by Willis H O'Brien and Ray Harryhausen. In 1957 he made The Story of Mankind, a bizarre potted history with a fantasy framework, and then turned to sf subjects: a bland remake of The Lost World (1960), Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961) and Five Weeks in a Balloon (1962).

In 1964 he returned to television and produced a series, Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-1968), based on the movie. Other sf television series followed: Lost in Space (1965-1968), The Time Tunnel (1966-1967) and Land of the Giants (1968-1970). A further television project, City Beneath the Sea, failed to generate the necessary interest and was abandoned, the pilot episode being released as a feature film (vt One Hour to Doomsday) in 1970. Ever resilient, Allen switched back to films. In 1972 he made the highly successful The Poseidon Adventure, which began the "disaster film" cycle of the 1970s, followed by the even more successful The Towering Inferno (1974). Theatrically, Allen's fortunes with disaster films began to founder with The Swarm (1978), based on the 1974 novel by Arthur Herzog about killer bees attacking Houston. Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979) and When Time Ran Out ... (1980; vt Earth's Final Fury) were similar to The Swarm in their absurdity and their parade of embarrassed star cameos; their box-office failure contributed significantly to the petering out of the borderline-sf disaster movie cycle. However, Allen had already transferred the essential formula – B-movie dramatics, spectacular (often secondhand) devastation footage, large casts – of the disaster movie to television with Flood! (1976), followed by the diminishing returns of Fire! (1977) and Cave-In (1979, transmitted 1983). Another made-for-tv movie by Allen (pilot for an unsold television series planned as a return to the themes of The Time Tunnel) was Time Travelers (1976), based on an unpublished story by Rod Serling; its use of stock footage as the story's centrepiece – here the fire from In Old Chicago (1937) – is an Allen trademark. Subsequently his sf/fantasy work for television has included The Return of Captain Nemo (1978), a three-part miniseries (based on Jules Verne's characters and themes recycled from Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea) which was edited into a feature film for release outside the USA, and a two-part Alice in Wonderland (1985) with second-string stars.

Throughout his career Allen has reworked a limited repertoire of basic formulae – the Verne/Doyle "expedition" drama, the juvenile sf-series format, the disaster scenario – invariably setting groups of lazily stereotyped characters against colourful, threatening, bizarre but somehow cheap backdrops. His productions are wholly contemptuous (or ignorant) of scientific accuracy or even plausibility. The only variation in tone and effect has been strictly budgetary, with Michael Caine and Paul Newman essentially no different from David Hedison and Gary Conway, and even the most earth-shattering cataclysm failing to disturb the tidy complacency of Allen's Poverty-Row worldview. In the end, his most interesting work might just have been The Story of Mankind, in which Harpo Marx played Isaac Newton. [JB/KN/PN]

see also: Disaster; Television.

Irwin Allen

born New York: 12 June 1916

died Santa Monica, California: 2 November 1991

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