Directed by Jean Negulesco
Written by Charles Brackett, Richard L. Breen and Walter Reisch
Starring Clifton Webb, Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Wagner, Audrey Dalton, Harper Carter, Thelma Ritter, Brian Ahern, and Richard Basehart
The R.M.S. Titanic has a rather interesting cinematic history. Direct depictions of its sinking appeared almost as soon as the ship went down, with Saved from the Titanic, starring an actual survivor, released on May 14, 1912, less than a month after the ship sank. To be fair, the film was only ten minutes long, so compared to other, epic-length film versions of the vents, this one could be done in a flash. Besides, they didn’t do releases of film in 1912 the same way they do today, where they go out on 3000+ screens. No, a release in those days could conceivably be just one print, in one theater.
Among the other movies to mine the disaster for drama include A Night To Remember, Cavalcade, The Unsinkable Molly Brown, and the TV movie Titanic, starring a pre-fame Catherine Zeta-Jones. Perhaps the most interesting extra-textual take on the events came in the 1943 version, Titanic, produced in the mist of WWII at the behest of Joseph Goebbels, intending the film as German propaganda. The production of this film was fraught, with Goebbels having the original director arrested and hung at one point, and attempted to make the murder look like a suicide. Production budgets spiraled out of control, and the resulting film left Goebbels underwhelmed. For many years the movie was basically unavailable, though it was eventually released uncut on DVD and video in the United States.
Perhaps in a future installment of this series we’ll have a look at other version of this story – A Night to Remember and the German version of Titanic would be ideal – to give an interesting parallel to this particular entry. But for today we look at the first truly English-language take on the subject, Jean Negulesco’s 1953 film, Titanic.
What’s It About?
Mrs. Sturges (Barbara Stanwyck) tries sneaking her children out of Europe aboard the Titanic so as to escape her husband. She views Mr. Sturges (Clifton Webb) as a frivolous, rootless man spoiled by wealth, and wants to avoid the same thing happening in her children. And Mr. Sturges is spoiled by his wealth, except he’s also wily and, before the ship can leave the harbor, he’s bought his way on board. Over the course of the next couple days, as the ship steams towards its rendezvous with disaster, the couple battles back and forth, in a very proper manner, over the type of life they want for their children. In the end, both husband and wife redeems themselves to the other – in a manner of speaking – even if that redemption is not enough to avert the tragic events for themselves.
How Was It?
Given the touchstone of this story for today’s viewers will always be James Cameron’s Oscar winning behemoth hybrid of Romeo and Juliet and The Towering Inferno, it’s only fair to make that our baseline for comparison. In the most general terms, Cameron’s Titanic is big, long, emotionally vibrant – sometimes to its detriment – and technically dazzling. The film is said to have a production budget that eventually topped $200 million, and while that may or may not be true, clearly no costs were spared, nor corners cut. And judging by what wound up onscreen, I’m inclined to believe that $200 million was spent on the movie, and spent well – it is nothing, if not opulent. And say what you want about some of the acting – both DiCaprio and Winslet are wobbly – and the script – it’s not good – the film never fails to entertain. Yes, it’s 195 minutes long, but it never feels like a long sit. Besides, for every wobbly performance in the film there are as many delicious ones to feast on, particularly those of David Warner, Frances Fisher, and the incomparable Billy Zane.
By comparison, the 1953 version of Titanic is small, short, emotionally stilted at times, and punctuated by effects that feel perfunctory. In short, comparing the 1953 version to the 1997 version reveals the earlier film as nothing more than a pale shadow of what was to come.
First and foremost, the sets of the 1953 film lack the appropriate opulence and grandeur of the subject. Where the Titanic was purported to be this unsinkable beauty, the sets in the film feel small and cheap. They feel like they’re made of plywood and the wood paneling that lined the walls of your grandfather’s study. Moreover, the sets feel claustrophobic, but not in terms of the visual aesthetic. This is not intentional claustrophobia by the filmmakers in a form-meets-function way, to emphasize how helpless and isolated the ship was. No, this is claustrophobia as a budgetary choice, to hold down the costs of production. What should seem luxurious instead looks cheap.
The effects of the film are largely uninspiring. The ship, in this case, when it sinks is clearly played by a model in a calm tank of water – the filmmakers obviously did not build a full-scale replica to sink. But the model looks like a model, and never feels like an actual ship. And when it’s to sink, the ship never looks like there’s actually anybody on the ship as it sinks – even from a distance the decks are decidedly bare of all life and the expected detritus. Because of this, the sinking is emotionally weightless and feels unthreatening. Perhaps if the actors had behaved in a more panicked way when they were facing their death this would have smoothed over the lousy effects, but as it was, it seems they mostly react without any emotion at all.
Perhaps the best to be said about the film is it is efficient – both in the script, and in the direction. With respect to the script, which won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, it compresses the events of several days into a neat little package and while it can be a bit obvious in how it doles out the facts of the sinking, and what led up to it, particularly with respect to the lack of binoculars onboard, and the ice warnings, it does not succumb to being a didactic recitation of facts. It does it’s best to tuck those items into the story, without being overly-intrusive, even if it could do a better job about it.
As for the directing, Jean Negulesco marshals the various elements as well as he could, considering what the elements are. Moreover, throughout the film he never fails to subtly remind us this film takes place on a ship, such as having the camera gently bobbing about, as if the ship is rocking slightly on the waves. Later, during the sinking, when the ship begins to slide under the water, he actually tilts the sets ever-so-slightly, so that we feel the reality of the sinking in those moments through the upwards, or downwards, angle of the actors as they move through the scenes. Where the direction goes wrong is that Negulesco never really turns the camera around to show us the expanse of water around the ship – it’s almost curious that whnever the film takes us into the open-air it’s always pointed at a wall.
In the end, the movie is basically unconvincing, but there is enough dramatic, and verbal, play between Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb as the Sturges’, plus a very young Robert Wagner as a boy interested in their daughter, to recommend it. Better, at barely 100 minutes long Titanic is basically bite-size, even if a bit perfunctory in some of its dramatic choices.
Clifton Webb plays Mr. Sturges as a superior, frivolous man, unrepentantly spoiled by his wealth. He is not exceptional here, but is fine in treading his way through material he could probably play in his sleep. Over the past few years I’ve enjoyed him in many films, particularly Laura, Cheaper by the Dozen, The Man Who Never Was, and Three Coins in the Fountain. Perhaps the most enjoyable thing I’ve seen Webb in was as Mr. Belvedere in Sitting Pretty, which I caught on FXM at some point in the past year. That film is about a slightly-mysterious stranger hired to play nanny to a young family, putting them at order in the process, and while the movie and Webb’s performance in it are a delight, there’s also some sadness with it because never again will I be able to discover it for the first time, meaning that I won’t get to enjoy that sense of wonder at uncovering a hidden gem. Part of me wishes I hadn’t seen it before, just so I could enjoy it with you. But even so, take my word for it – Sitting Pretty is a delight and you should seek it out.
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 The budget for the film reached the equivalent of $180 million in 2013 dollars. See http://www.timesofisrael.com/goebbels-titanic-cinematic-disaster-turns-70/.