Pros: Story, Acting, Cinematography
Cons: Read the review
It was a midnight on the sea,
The band was playing, Nearer, my God, to Thee,
Fare thee, Titanic, Fare thee well! Leadbelly
Certain events have a way of working themselves into folklore (or pop culture) and the sinking of the RMS Titanic on her maiden voyage is certainly one of them. The sinking, on the night of April 15, 1912, has been the subject of story, song, plays, motion pictures, and television.
On such a well-known disaster, the ending is by default a foregone conclusion. Therefore, the various motion pictures have taken different points of view, some following the factual record closely while others have tried to make a human-interest story that had the sinking of the ship as an ancillary event. The Nazis even made a propaganda film, in 1943, indicating their contempt for the British whom they portrayed as class-conscious snobs, led by a foolhardy captain who accepted bribes to make all possible speed despite reports of ice along their northern route.
Titanic (1953) chose to pursue the human-interest angle way of telling the story, focusing on the Sturges family. It stars Clifton Webb ( Stars and Stripes Forever )as "Richard Sturges," a rich wastrel who would today be among the jet set. A twenty-year marriage to a beautiful plebian played by the luminous Barbara Stanwyck ( Double Indemnity ) has apparently irremediably foundered and Ms. Stanwyck is fleeing to America to raise her spoiled children in blissful obscurity. Webb somehow gets wind of their flight and manages to bribe his way onto the sold-out Titanic, obtaining a steerage-class ticket from the father of a family immigrating to the USA. While Webb is willing to get rid of his excess baggage, he is unwilling to part with his children; a worldly young woman and a boy of about 12. That is, until Stanwyck unloads her bombshell; the boy is NOT HIS (remember this was 1912). The shallow Webb is devastated and shuns the young feller who adores his dad and cannot understand the sudden cooling. To balance the story their daughter (Audrey Dalton) has a budding romance with a college student, a youthful Robert Wagner (Between Heaven and Hell).
Now, admittedly, all these artifices are just a way to tell the story and have no basis in recorded fact, but before the revisionists inevitably point out that "it just ain't so," at the time we did not know as much solid information as we're privy to today. More on that, later.
Just after Titanic was made Walter Lord published "A Night to Remember," a book representing twenty years of interviewing survivors and poring through records on the Titanic. The book, a runaway best seller, was immediately put on film by a British company and became to some the "definitive" Titanic story. I recommend you see both films and decide for yourself which you prefer. Back to Titanic (1953)...
The film has an Oscar-winning screenplay with verbal gems such as this:
May I bone your kipper, mademoiselle? Richard Sturges
"There is no time for us to catalog our regrets." Richard Sturges
"Are there men down there?" Reverend
"Yes, a few pinned under the rigs. For God's sake don't go down there!" Crewman
"For God's sake I must go down there!" Reverend
and many more - too many to count.
Some tremendous actors - Clifton Webb, Barbara Stanwyck, and Robert Wagner already mentioned, supported by Richard Basehart ( Moby Dick, The Brothers Karamazov), a defrocked priest going home in ignominy who finds his courage at last outside a bottle, and "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" played by consummate character actress Thelma Ritter (The Misfits, Birdman of Alcatraz) round out the main characters.
The special effects are good and convincing in those pre-CGI days with the terrifying sight of the huge leviathon disappearing beneath the waves. The music is entirely from the ship's orchestra, to maintain the illusion of reality.
Apart from the movie itself, the extras on the Fox DVD make the package well worth owning. A 90 minute feature "Beyond Titanic" details the many, many times the story has been retold since the 1912 disaster, including the 1997 blockbuster as well as the actual discovery and salvage of parts of the Titanic since 1988. This feature alone makes the DVD a must-see. But there is more: TWO full-length commentaries, one by film critic Richard Shickel, and another by surviving actors Robert Wagner, Audrey Dalton, and Cinematographer Michael Lonza are full of interesting tidbits you'll want to know. An audio essay by Titanic historian Silvia Stoddard completes the sterling package of extras. Subtitles in both English and Spanish are also included.
All in all, the film is a compelling version of the great disaster and should be seen by anyone who would like to know more about the "unsinkable" Titanic. Four stars.
Thanks for reading! Watch a good film tonight!