Thursday, April 12, 2012

The “Titanic” Disaster on Film


April 15, 2012 marks the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. One of the most famous and storied maritime disasters of all time, it’s no wonder Hollywood found the tale irresistible. Alfred Hitchcock reportedly wanted to direct a film based on Titanic, but the technology of the 1940s wasn’t advanced enough for the master of suspense and he abandoned the project.

Hollywood Discovers Titanic
It wasn’t until 1953’s Titanic that Hollywood first tackled the story. The British filmed Walter Lord’s nonfiction narrative, A Night to Remember, in 1958. And with movie-making technology breakthroughs, Hollywood took on the subject once again in 1997.
The first Hollywood film about the Titanic disaster

Titanic (1953) directed by Jean Negulesco is a fictional melodrama set aboard the famous luxury liner. Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck star as estranged husband and wife Richard and Julia Sturges, parents of two children (17-year-old-Annette and 10-year-old Norman), who, up until their journey on the “ship of dreams,” were being raised in Europe. Julia has decided that she wants to raise her children in the United States because, after all, they’re Americans. Richard objects to Julia’s plans, but when she tells Richard that Norman isn’t his son, he backs off. In the midst of all this turmoil, daughter Annette (Audrey Dalton) fails in love with Giff Rodgers (Robert Wagner), a 20-year-old college tennis player traveling with the Purdue University team. The romance between Annette and Giff foreshadows the romance between Rose DeWitt Bukater and Jack Dawson, in James Cameron’s Titanic, 44 years later.

After the ship hits the iceberg, the narrative speeds along and the film features some pretty impressive set pieces and special effects. As the disaster unfolds, Richard and Julia reconcile. In the confusion young Norman gives up his place in a lifeboat to a woman, while he goes in search of the man he believes is his father, who has taken his place with the men on Titanic’s deck. Both Richard and Norman go down with the ship; Julia, Annette, and Giff survive.

The accuracy of some of the details is questionable. The most glaring is the depiction of the ship hitting the iceberg on the port instead of the starboard side. In the DVD commentary, one film expert thought the negative may have been accidentally flipped, but there really is no good reason for the error. As melodrama though, Titanic is compelling and moving. In its 1953 review of the film, The New York Times said, “As a dramatization of an historic tragedy ‘Titanic’ is adult and restrained about fiction, heroism and history.” Stanwyck’s facial expression as the ship sinks is heartbreaking and captures the emotion of the moment.

This film is considered, by many, the best retelling
of the Titanic disaster.
A Sober Retelling
A Night to Remember, Lord’s sober account of the sinking of the Titanic is almost a documentary of the event. The disaster is seen through the eyes of Second Officer Charles Herbert Lightoller (Kenneth More), who remains steady and calm when the situation falls into chaos. The narrative is almost dispassionate, but it’s part of what makes the film so compelling. The circumstances are riveting enough; they don’t need to be embellished with the addition of fictional melodrama.

From a production standpoint, the film holds up very well. There is no attempt to dazzle us with special effects, but what we see seems real enough. As Lightoller, More gives a solid performance that anchors (no pun intended) the film. New York Times movie critic, Bosley Crowther said this about More’s performace: “His evidences of competence, compassion and unfailing bravery are in the best tradition of British seamanship.” Crowther also said of the production in his December 17, 1958 review that A Night to Remember is “as fine and convincing an enactment as anyone could wish—or expect.” The movie also stars Honor Blackman and features, future 1960s TV heartthrob, David McCallum  (The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) as assistant wireless operator Harold Bride, who survived the disaster.

With its attention to detail and straightforward narrative, A Night to Remember is considered, by many, to be the best movie about the Titanic ever filmed.

From joke to Best Picture
When director James Cameron set out to make a new film based on the Titanic disaster, many were skeptical that he could pull it off. The pre-publicity for the film was filled with news about cost overruns and trouble with the overall production. The movie cost a then-staggering $200,000,000. Many thought the movie would be a disaster of another kind. Due to the cost overruns, Cameron waived his salary, instead opting for a percentage of the gross, which seemed like a loosing proposition at the time. When the film opened December 21, 1997, it surprised critics and moviegoers with its meticulous recreation of Titanic.

Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet
were the tragic lovers aboard Titanic.
The movie included a predictable love triangle. Rose (Kate Winslet) a young woman sailing on Titanic with her possessive fiance (Billy Zane) who meets a destitute young artist named Jack (Leonardo DiCaprio). The love story between Jack and Rose captivated teenage moviegoers who saw the film multiple times. When DiCaprio appeared on screen, you could literally hear girls sighing.

What really made the movie memorable though was the extraordinary production. The recreation of the great ocean liner was impeccable. One really gets a sense of the grandeur of trans-Atlantic travel in the steamship era. The shots of the ship at sea from all angles are truly breathtaking. While the tragic romance of Jack and Rose is the main focus of the film, it takes a backseat once the ship hits the iceberg. When it sinks and breaks apart, the horror of the event is amazingly portrayed. Of the film, critic Janet Maslin said “‘Titanic’ is the first spectacle in decades that honestly invites comparison to ‘Gone With the Wind’.” As an epic, and Titanic is truly an epic, the comparison is a worthy one. Maslin also noted that Titanic was “the joke of the summer. Now it’s the movie of the year.” Titanic would go on to be the biggest grossing film in history (only to be surpassed by Cameron’s Avatar in 2009), winning 11 Academy Awards including one for Best Picture and Best Director.

With the re-release of the film in 3-D, we’ll see if its reputation will be burnished even more.

James Darren and Robert Colbert starred in Time Tunnel.
Not only has Titanic been the main attraction in several films, it’s been a character in many, including Cavalcade (1933), The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964), and Raise the Titanic (1980). The ship was also the subject of a costly TV miniseries, Titanic (1996) starring George C. Scott, Peter Gallagher, Catherine Zeta Jones, and Eva Marie Saint. A new Titanic miniseries from the producers of Downton Abbey makes its American debut on the 100th anniversary of the Titanic’s sinking. And we can be sure that more Titanic movies and TV miniseries will be forthcoming.


Titanic Movie and TV Trivia
Twentieth Century Fox spent a lot of money on the sets for the 1953 production of Titanic. The major set pieces were used again in Fox productions released later that year: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and Dangerous Crossing. In 1966, the TV show Time Tunnel used the sets once again when time travelers James Darren and Robert Colbert found themselves onboard the famous ship before it hit the iceberg.

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