Thursday, April 18, 2013

William Holden Gave His All Even "When Time Ran Out..."

I recently came across an interesting segment of "The Tonight Show" starring Johnny Carson from 1980 with Carson interviewing William Holden while he's on the show to promote his latest film "When Time Ran Out..." (1980), a terrible Irwin Allen-produced disaster film about tourists on a Pacific island fleeing in terror from an erupting volcano.  With shoddy special effects, mostly indifferent performances (especially by Paul Newman), slow pacing, and bad writing, "When Time Ran Out..." is the sort of film that makes people cynical about Hollywood filmmaking since it was produced as part of a deal Irwin Allen made with Warner Brothers to make a series of disaster movies that included "The Swarm" (1978), "Beyond the Poseidon Adventure" (1979) and countless made-for-TV movies.  My understanding is that Paul Newman and William Holden only appeared in the movie to fulfill their contractual obligation to do another disaster epic for Irwin Allen after making "The Towering Inferno" (1974) for him.  By the time "When Time Ran Out..." was made, the genre had run its course and Warner Brothers had become impatient with Allen to such a degree that they purportedly cut the budget of the movie in mid-production, thus explaining the threadbare production values and special effects.  I've read that Holden didn't like the film at all, particularly as he got billing below Paul Newman, as well as the fact that leading lady Jacqueline Bisset doesn't end up with his character at the end, but with Newman's.  I also recall reading in Bob Thomas' biography of William Holden that he drank heavily throughout the production of "When Time Ran Out..." and that that alarmed the filmmakers since the film entailed difficult stunts and locations.  As such, it was apparent that this was hardly one of Holden's proudest accomplishments as an actor.

Which is why I marveled at how charming and enthusiastic Holden was while being interviewed by Johnny Carson about the film.  After discussing his interest in African conservation and wildlife, and sharing an anecdote about making "Sunset Blvd" (1950), Holden finally gets around to discussing "When Time Ran Out..."  He describes his character and the storyline of the movie with great ease, and even goes so far as to say "It's quite exciting with a marvelous cast...good company and it's an exciting show" which I imagine must have taken a level of intestinal fortitude for Holden to say because anyone who has ever seen "When Time Ran Out..." knows that it's hardly an "exciting" movie.  Holden even jokes, when Johnny Carson points out that Mount Saint Helens had just erupted in real life, that "Irwin Allen plays long shots.  He makes this picture a year in-advance and then the day before the picture comes out Mount Saint Helens blows up.  You see, it's working...He made a picture, 'Poseidon Adventure' and I think it was the Queen Elizabeth turned over in the bay of Hong Kong.  And then we made 'Towering Inferno' and they were very obliging, the skyscraper in San Paulo, Brazil burned down."  Carson then jokes "You're not accusing anyone are you?" and Holden slyly responds "No, no..." as the two chuckle amongst themselves.  Nevertheless, I admired Holden's humility and professionalism to not denigrate the movie publicly the way so many movie stars and celebrities are apt to do these days.  Some people might say that he was being a hypocrite for not expressing his true feelings about the film, but I disagree.  Holden knew that he agreed to make "When Time Ran Out..." and that he took the money for it, and he was hardly a struggling actor trying to pay his bills at the time.  It would have been much more hypocritical, in my opinion, if he made the movie, got paid for it, and trashed it at the time of the release when the studio was still hoping to recoup its expenditures from it.  Years later, upon reflection, he would have been allowed to express his true feelings after the success or failure of the movie had already been determined by the marketplace.

Unfortunately, Holden never had that chance to be candid about "When Time Ran Out..." because he unexpectedly died a year and a half later from an accidental head injury sustained at his home in Los Angeles.  As such, "When Time Ran Out..." ended up being the penultimate performance of a talented and charismatic actor who graced some of the finest movies Hollywood has ever made.  I've always liked William Holden for his charm and warmth on-screen.  Like James Stewart, he had the courage to play unsympathetic characters that went against his natural screen image.  He was never afraid to show the sleazy and corruptible side to his characters, but we still cared about them because his innate charm still came through.  I also liked him for the fact that he grew up in South Pasadena, California--not far from where I grew up--and that knowledge gave me hope that talent and initiative might someday get me out of the San Gabriel Valley (and it has).  Nevertheless, Holden needn't make any excuses for "When Time Ran Out..." because, even though it's a terrible movie, Holden still gives it his all.  While no one in the film could be accused of giving their best performances in it, Holden still does fine work, and has about three or four scenes that allow him to demonstrate what he was capable of as an actor.  That's more than can be said for top-billed star Paul Newman, who sleepwalks his way through the movie, barely able to contain his obvious contempt for the material.

There's a scene at the beginning of the movie, where the jet carrying Holden and Jacqueline Bisset is about to land on the tropical Pacific island where Holden's character, a hotel magnate named Shelby Gilmore, has built his latest resort hotel.  He is there to inspect it while accompanied by his public relations manager, Kay Kirby, played by Bisset.  In the backstory of the movie, Holden's character is deeply in love with Bisset, but she is still in love with oil wildcatter Paul Newman, who she met and was romantically involved with while on an earlier visit to the island.  The pilot tells them that they are making their "final approach" to the island, which inspires Holden to make his "final approach" with Bisset.  He takes out a ringbox and asks her to marry him.  She tells him she can't and that he knows it is because she's still in love with Paul Newman's character.  Holden responds, "But he's not the marrying kind."  Bisset chuckles and tries to change the subject and make light of the situation by commenting that the same can't be said about Holden's much-married, and much-divorced, character.  Bisset muses aloud whether she would be his fifth, sixth or even seventh wife if she were to marry him.  Holden looks at Bisset intently and simply says "The last."  It's a simple line of dialogue, but Holden proved that he still possessed enough romantic sex appeal in this scene so that he delivers it with the requisite amount of love and sincerity.  Because of the fine work between Bisset, a real trouper and sincere professional if there ever was one, and Holden in this scene, you sense how Kay Kirby has affected Shelby Gilmore in ways that his earlier wives had not, and that he sincerely knows that she is the love of his life.  Even though the years of drinking have caused Holden to look much older than he was at the time, Holden still has enough presence to give Paul Newman's character a run for his money while competing for Bisset's hand in marriage.

Later in the film, Holden's character confronts his hotel general manager and business partner, Bob Spangler, played by James Franciscus.  Holden tells Franciscus that he has concerns about the safety of the tourists on the island due to alarming reports about the volcano's stability.  Holden angrily tells him, "Bob, I'm in the partner business.  I can't be in 64 resorts at the same time.  I have to rely on what my partner's tell me.  Up to a point.  And if I come to feel they're lying, I call in the cards."  Franciscus' character bluffs and calls his geologist, who tells him that the volcano is unstable and can erupt any moment and that they better evacuate the island immediately.  The smug and sleazy Franciscus hands the phone over to Holden, in an act of defiance to challenge Holden's authority over him.  Holden takes the phone, looks at Franciscus intently and responds "As I said before, I trust my partners.  Up to a point."  Holden then hangs up the phone and walks out.  Holden's character realizes that Franciscus is bluffing him, and that taking the call would be pointless because he already knows what the truth is.  You can tell that he's not going to waste another minute on Franciscus.  Holden establishes his character as a tough, no-nonsense businessman who doesn't suffer fools gladly.  Even though the role was hardly up to his standards as an actor, Holden still brings a sense of authority and gravitas to establish that Shelby Gilmore is a man who won't tolerate Franciscus' foolishness any longer.

Probably Holden's most touching moments in the film are with Veronica Hamel, who plays Nikki Spangler, the wife of James Franciscus' character.  In the storyline, we learn that Nikki is the goddaughter of Holden's character, and that he loves her deeply as if she were his own child.  We also learn that Franciscus' character only married Nikki in order to get to Holden's character to convince him to build a resort on that island.  When Holden and Hamel's character are reunited at the beginning of the film, and he tells her that he just saw her mother recently and that she's becoming almost as beautiful as she is, there's a warmth and familiarity emanating between the two actors which convinces you that they really are like family.  Later in the film, after the volcano has erupted, and Paul Newman's character has proposed evacuating the resort and moving everyone to higher ground on the other side of the island, Holden's character goes to Nikki's suite.  She had fallen off her horse and sprained her ankle when the volcano erupted and is resting.  Holden urgently tells her to get dressed and that they're leaving for the other side of the island.  When Hamel's character learns that her husband doesn't want anyone to evacuate the resort, she tells Holden that if her husband feels that way, he must be right and that they are safe at the resort.

Holden tells her, "I don't care what he says.  You're my responsibility and I'm taking you with me."  Hamel's character responds, "Shelby, you know my place is with him.  Right or wrong."  Holden tries to reason with Hamel, telling her, "We'll argue about that later.  Now, are you coming or do I have to carry you?"  When Hamel again refuses to leave, Holden grabs Hamel and bluntly tells her "Don't you understand?  He only married you so he could get to me!"  Hamel tearfully tells him she doesn't believe him and that "I'm not going to go with you!" as she wrests herself away from him.  Holden becomes frustrated that he can't make Hamel see the truth, and that he's lost her forever.  Before he walks out the door, Holden turns around, looks intently at Hamel, and quietly says with gravitas and sadness, "Goodbye Nikki."  Flush with anger from arguing with her, Holden's character calms down and regains his composure as he realizes that this is the last time he will ever see her again.  Holden and Hamel's performances bring a surprising level of poignancy to this subplot that make it one of the better scenes in the movie. 

Throughout "When Time Ran Out...", William Holden rises above the cliched and hackneyed storyline of the movie to make Shelby Gilmore a sympathetic and intelligent character, with strength and resolve.  His presence never becomes campy or foolish in the course of the story.  Despite his wealth and power, he remains a heroic and admirable character, one who is concerned about the safety of others rather than his own personal comfort and security.  At the end of the film, after the rag-tag group of survivors have witnessed the destruction of the resort by the volcano, Holden has a quiet moment listening to Burgess Meredith's character grieve for his wife.  Holden listens with compassion and sympathy, but we realize that he is also grieving at that moment for his goddaughter, Nikki.  Holden is subtle in that scene and allows those expressive eyes and his handsome face to convey his feelings of sadness to the audience.  In contrast, Paul Newman makes absolutely no effort to bring any feeling or depth to his character.  It's clear that Newman is on autopilot throughout "When Time Ran Out..." and, if it's true that Holden was annoyed that Newman got top-billing and won the girl in the end, I can't honestly blame him considering how he still delivered the goods despite the bad script he had to contend with, and his own personal issues at the time.  Holden's fine performance brings to "When Time Ran Out..." a few nicely acted little vignettes that stand out from the rest of the movie surrounding it.  Time may have sadly run out in William Holden's life when he made this film, but his talent, screen presence, and professionalism continue to live on.


  1. Good commentary on the high points of a disappointing film and the integrity of William Holden's performance.

  2. It's one of my favorite movies... because it was campy. It was also a huge improvement over the silly dialogue in Beyond the Poseidon Adventure and The Swarm. If Irwin Allen had made When Time Ran Out first, he would have had a hit.

  3. Very good article. The same could be said of Joan Crawford in 'Strait Jacket', 'Trog' (especially the last scene where she turns her back on the killing of the monster); Elaine Rothschild (Films in Review)'s review of Crawford's Strait Jacket, "...I am full of admiration for Joan Crawford, for even in drek like this she gives a performance."

    I think the same could be said for the cast of 'Airport 77'; Maureen Stapleton/Lauren Bacall in 'The Fan'; Geraldine Fitzgerald/Julian Beck/Will Sampson in 'Poltergeist II'; Clare Higgins 'Hellraiser 1/2'; and Lois Chiles in 'Creepshow 2.'

  4. Excellent article, thank you.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.