Carol Lynley: ‘The Poseidon Adventure’ & underrated ‘Bunny Lake Is Missing’ actress also seen in landmark teen pregnancy drama
An appealing, great-looking, and, under the right guiding hand, compelling performer, Carol Lynley never became the major star she should have been. Good roles and good – and/or financially successful – movies were scarce. Awards season recognition was all but nonexistent.
Yet she persisted: Lynley’s acting career spanned nearly half a century, encompassing 36 features, among them the blockbuster disaster epic The Poseidon Adventure; dozens of television credits, including The Night Stalker, one of the most widely watched made-for-TV movies ever; and three Broadway plays, one of which was the landmark teen pregnancy/abortion drama Blue Denim.
Two of her best-known big-screen efforts, Philip Dunne’s bowdlerized Blue Denim adaptation and Otto Preminger’s bleak psychological mystery drama Bunny Lake Is Missing, are being presented this evening on Turner Classic Movies.
As it happens, TCM’s pre-planned Carol Lynley double bill has been turned into an homage to the actress, who died unexpectedly five days ago (Sept. 3) after suffering a heart attack at age 77 while at her home in the posh Los Angeles suburb of Pacific Palisades.
‘Blue Denim’ on Broadway: Abortion as an illegal option
Born Carole Ann Jones in New York City on Feb. 13, 1942, Carol Lynley – as Carolyn Lee – began modeling at a young age. At 13, she made her professional acting debut as a member of the national touring company of Jerome Chodorov and Joseph Fields’ Broadway hit comedy Anniversary Waltz.
Back in New York, in 1957 she made her Broadway debut as Carol Lynley, playing Robert Flemyng and Sybil Thorndike’s daughter in Graham Greene’s psychological/family drama The Potting Shed. The Tony Award-nominated play ran for 143 performances, earning her a Theatre World Award as one of the most promising newcomers of the 1956–1957 season.
The Potting Shed was followed by the female lead in James Leo Herlihy and William Noble’s Blue Denim (1958), with the 16-year-old Lynley in the part of a pregnant adolescent considering having an abortion – in the United States an illegal procedure in those pre-Roe v. Wade days and, more than six decades later, still a polarizing topic. If anything, the controversial subject matter enhanced the play’s appeal, as Blue Denim ran for 166 performances.
‘Blue Denim’ – the movie: Appeasing censors & pleasing crowds
The same year Blue Denim opened on Broadway, Carol Lynley made her big-screen debut in Walt Disney Productions’ period adventure drama The Light in the Forest, cast as a girl who falls for a white boy (James MacArthur) raised by Native Americans in 18th-century Pennsylvania. The minor role would earn her a Golden Globe nomination for Most Promising Female Newcomer.
Next, she got to reprise her Blue Denim role in 20th Century Fox’s 1959 movie version, directed by Fox veteran and two-time Oscar-nominated screenwriter Philip Dunne (How Green Was My Valley, 1941; David and Bathsheba, 1951), who also co-wrote the adaptation with Edith Sommer, known for the 1955 adolescent angst play A Roomful of Roses (transferred to the screen the following year as Teenage Rebel).
Although increasingly toothless, the Production Code would remain in effect for nearly another decade; that meant several radical changes had to be made to the teen pregnancy storyline. For starters, the word “abortion” had to be hush-hushed, while the ending was altered not only to appease censors but also to please infantilized moviegoers.
Young actress keeps on promising
Despite Blue Denim’s modest budget ($980,000), producer Charles Brackett – Billy Wilder’s former screenwriting partner and three-time Oscar co-winner (The Lost Weekend, 1945; Sunset Blvd., 1950; Titanic, 1953) – managed to enlist some top behind-the-scenes talent.
In addition to Dunne, contributing to the film were composer and frequent Alfred Hitchcock collaborator Bernard Herrmann (Vertigo, Psycho), two-time Oscar-nominated cinematographer Leo Tover (Hold Back the Dawn, 1941; The Heiress, 1949), and future two-time Oscar-winning editor William Reynolds (The Sound of Music, 1965; The Sting, 1973).
The investment was certainly worthwhile. Blue Denim earned Fox a reported $2.5 million in rentals (the share of the box office gross that goes to the distributor) while Carol Lynley, apparently still perceived as a neophyte, went on to receive her second consecutive Most Promising Female Newcomer Golden Globe nod. Ironically, that turned out to be the last noteworthy awards season mention of her career.
Also in the Blue Denim cast: Shane’s hero-worshipping little boy Brandon De Wilde, now all grown up and the father of the fetus; Warren Berlinger, recreating his stage role as a friend of the young couple; and, as De Wilde’s parents, Macdonald Carey and veteran Marsha Hunt (The Affairs of Martha, Raw Deal) in one of her rare post-1949, post-Hollywood blacklist movie appearances.
‘Bunny Lake Is Missing’: Carol Lynley tour de force
Based on a 1957 novel by Merriam Modell (under the pen name Evelyn Piper), director-producer Otto Preminger’s Bunny Lake Is Missing (1965) is a gripping, capably acted, and shamefully underappreciated mix of mystery thriller and psychological study – with emphasis on the latter.
Once again breaking social conventions, Carol Lynley, who had previously worked with Preminger on The Cardinal (1963), stars as a young American single mother searching for her missing daughter through the streets of gloomily black-and-white London. But does the girl really exist?
Playwright/screenwriter John Mortimer (A Voyage Round My Father) and his wife, novelist Penelope Mortimer (The Pumpkin Eater), penned the adaptation (after Ira Levin and Truman Capote had taken a stab at it), along the way wholly revamping Modell’s book, including the addition of a major character, the formulation of a new ending, and the transfer of the action from New York City to London, where Preminger enjoyed working.
Whether or not you can solve the missing girl mystery from the get-go, the journey will be well worth your while, as Preminger creates in Bunny Lake Is Missing a chillier, more sinister atmosphere than the one enveloping his best-known classic, the more audience-friendly 1944 film noir Laura. Lynley, for her part, delivers a first-rate performance as the desperate young woman who, one fears, even if she isn’t crazy at the beginning of the story, will most likely cross that line before the final credits start rolling.
‘Bunny Lake Is Missing’ top-notch cast & crew
Besides Carol Lynley, the Bunny Lake Is Missing cast includes:
- Future 2001: A Space Odyssey actor Keir Dullea as her brother (absent from the book). Decades later, Dullea would tell Otto Preminger biographer Foster Hirsch, “I don’t hate [the notoriously bullying Preminger]; it’s too long ago. But the experience was the most unpleasant I ever had.”
- West End legend and Best Actor Oscar winner Laurence Olivier (Hamlet, 1948) as the police officer investigating the case.
- Veteran Martita Hunt – Miss Havisham in David Lean’s Great Expectations – in a fantastic extended cameo.
Other notable British cinema and stage luminaries pop up during the course of the film, among them Lucie Mannheim (the unlucky spy in Hitchcock’s The 39 Steps) and, as Lynley’s creepily fey landlord, actor-playwright Noël Coward (Brief Encounter).
Denys N. Coop provided the aptly noirish cinematography, while Peter Thornton and Saul Bass were responsible for, respectively, the taut editing and the eerie title sequence.
Carol Lynley ‘The Poseidon Adventure’: Box office peak
Bunny Lake Is Missing is quite possibly the professional highlight of Carol Lynley’s career. Yet her best-remembered effort is easily Ronald Neame’s $4.7 million-budget disaster spectacle The Poseidon Adventure (1972), a reminder of both the insignificance of human life in the larger scheme of things and the seemingly unending box office allure of death and mayhem.
In fact, The Poseidon Adventure remains one of the biggest – and surely one of the most profitable – blockbusters ever made: $84.5 million (approximately $495 million in 2019 dollars) in the U.S. and Canada alone.
Set on New Year’s Eve, the 20th Century Fox release features Lynley as one a group of stars – Gene Hackman, Shelley Winters, Stella Stevens, Ernest Borgnine, Roddy McDowall, etc. – literally going through hell and high water in an attempt to reach safety after a tsunami wave capsizes a packed luxury liner on what was supposed to be, in reverse-Titanic fashion, its final crossing.
Scream Princess in ‘the movie that refuses to die’
Shelley Winters was the sole The Poseidon Adventure cast member to receive an Academy Award nomination (as Best Supporting Actress).
Even so, at the very least the movie allowed Lynley to show that she looked great in tight shorts, was an adept lip-synching performer (while “singing” – with Renee Armand’s voice – the Oscar-winning song “The Morning After”), and possessed vocal cords strong enough to impress even Scream Queen Fay Wray.
Referring to The Poseidon Adventure as “the movie that refuses to die,” Lynley would tell the San Francisco Chronicle in 2000:
“I was in 52 movies [that number apparently includes her TV-movie work] …. I have other things to do besides sit home and watch myself in them, like Gloria Swanson. But the one I will watch is Poseidon, to see how it holds up. Every time I look at it, I go, ‘OK, it still works.’”
See below TCM’s Carol Lynley movie schedule; further below is Joan Crawford introducing the Blue Denim trailer.
Carol Lynley movies: TCM Sept. 8 schedule (EDT)
8:00 PM BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING (1965). Dir.: Otto Preminger. Cast: Carol Lynley. Laurence Olivier. Keir Dullea. Martita Hunt. Anna Massey. Clive Revill. Finlay Currie. Lucie Mannheim. Noël Coward. The Zombies. Adrienne Corri. Megs Jenkins. Victor Maddern. Cameo: Oliver Reed. B&W-107 mins
10:00 PM BLUE DENIM (1959). Dir.: Philip Dunne. Cast: Carol Lynley. Brandon De Wilde. MacDonald Carey. Marsha Hunt. Warren Berlinger. B&W-89m.
“Carol Lynley: The Poseidon Adventure & Bunny Lake Is Missing + Landmark Teen Pregnancy Drama” follow-up post: “Actress Carol Lynley: Dazzling Girl-Next-Door Willing & Able to Break Social Conventions.”
‘Blue Denim’ Broadway cast + Merriam Modell x 2
 On Broadway, Blue Denim featured newcomer Burt Brinckerhoff as Carol Lynley’s boyfriend, and veterans Chester Morris (Alibi) and June Walker (War Nurse) as his parents. Joshua Logan (Picnic, Sayonara) handled the proceedings.
Also with a London setting, the Seth Holt-directed thriller/psychological drama The Nanny stars Bette Davis in the title role, plus Wendy Craig (who a few years earlier had had a brief affair with Bunny Lake Is Missing co-screenwriter John Mortimer), Jill Bennett, William Dix, and Pamela Franklin.
* Her name is spelled “Marryam Modell” on the IMDb.
Familiar ‘Bunny Lake Is Missing’ premise
Earlier this century, for instance, Jodie Foster went looking for her missing daughter – but does the girl really exist? – in Robert Schwentke’s thriller Flightplan (2005), while Julianne Moore set out to find evidence proving the (former) existence of her presumably dead son in Joseph Ruben’s The Forgotten (2004).
Also worth noting, Best Actress Oscar winner Reese Witherspoon (Walk the Line, 2005) was to have starred in a 2007 remake of Bunny Lake Is Missing to be directed by Joe Carnahan (The A-Team). The project, however, failed to come to fruition.
‘The Poseidon Adventure’ adjusted box office
 The Poseidon Adventure’s budget doesn’t take into account marketing and distribution expenses; its inflation-adjusted figure was calculated in accordance with the National Association of Theater Owners’ estimates of average annual domestic movie ticket prices (via Boxofficemojo.com). These are not directly correlated to the Consumer Price Index.
Though a more accurate reflection of a film’s success with audiences (i.e., its number of tickets sold), such estimates should be taken with caution.
Blue Denim and The Poseidon Adventure budget figures via Aubrey Solomon’s Twentieth Century-Fox: A Corporate and Financial History.
Keir Dullea quote: Foster Hirsch’s Otto Preminger: The Man Who Would Be King.
A brief history of “The Morning After” – including Irwin Allen’s Barbra Streisand suggestion – can be found in Fred Bronson’s The Billboard Book of Number One Hits.
Brandon De Wilde, Warren Berlinger, and Carol Lynley Blue Denim image: 20th Century Fox, via TCM.
Carol Lynley Bunny Lake Is Missing image: Columbia Pictures, via TCM.
Carol Lynley The Poseidon Adventure image: 20th Century Fox.
Turner Classic Movies website.
“Carol Lynley: The Poseidon Adventure & Bunny Lake Is Missing + Landmark Teen Pregnancy Drama” last updated in September 2019.