This April marks the 100th anniversary of the RMS Titanic disaster. As most people know, the RMS Titanic was a state-of-the-art ocean liner that struck an iceberg, and in two and half hours, sunk into the icy Atlantic waters, taking 1,514 lives. My life-long fascination with Titanic came about because my mother’s art teacher at Grover Cleveland High School in Queens, New York was Marshall Drew, a titanic survivor. Mr. Drew was very friendly, a great teacher, but reticent about talking about the sinking. He was eight when the Titanic sunk, and his uncle was a Titanic victim. After my mother’s graduation from high school in 1942, Mr. Drew became a life-long friend of our family. This meant in our household, films about the Titanic were always sought after. Here is a run-down of the history of Titanic in cinema.
Saved From The Titanic (1912), a presumed lost nine minute film made a month after the Titanic sinking, which stars Dorothy Gibson, who was an actual Titanic survivor. In the film, which she co-wrote, Ms. Gibson even wears the same dress she wore when she boarded Titanic’s first lifeboat. A marriage in 1917 led her to quit acting.
Atlantic (1929) An early British talkie only partially based on the Titanic disaster, directed by German expressionistic director E. A. Dupont. It’s obvious use of miniatures is sub-par for 1929 movie technology. Madeleine Carroll and sometimes Hitchcock villain Donald Calthrop star. After the release of the James Cameron Titanic, Atlantic was re-released on home video as Titanic: Disaster In The Atlantic.
Cavalcade (1933) This epic about historic British events affecting a wealthy family during the first part of the 20th. Century features a well-staged scene aboard the Titanic. This is a fairly good adaptation of a Noel Coward play, but it’s not great. Cavalcade strangely won a Best Picture Oscar, beating out that year’s King Kong, Dinner At Eight and 42nd. Street.
S.O.S Titanic (1943) Yes, the Nazis made a Titanic movie! This German production, made during Hitler’s rule, has some impressive special effects (Some of the shots from this film were used in A Night To Remember.) The film-makers mess it up by keeping a pro-German/anti-British slant, which messes up many Titanic facts. As the ship is sinking, Titanic’s Captain Smith actually says “See if you can find any German people on board. They’ll know how to save the ship.” During the Titanic inquest after the sinking, the disaster is blamed on capitalism. I’m not making this up.
Titanic (1953) This first serious filming of the disaster is passable at best. Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck are rich folks aboard the doomed liner. Directed by Jean Negulesco, who gave us Johnny Belinda and How To Marry A Millionaire.
A Night To Remember (1958) Still the best film version of the Titanic disaster. This film basically follows the facts like a documentary, and keeps us glued to the human element. Kenneth More, normally a screen comic, is all-serious as Lightoller, one of the ship’s officers who was instrumental in saving many lives. Michael Goodliffe is amazingly rigid as Andrews, the ship’s perfectionist architect. Music is used sparingly here, letting the eerie sound effects of the ship creaking and breaking apart claw into you. Brilliant direction by Roy Ward Baker, who later directed some fine horror films for Hammer Studios. On March 27th, Criterion gives us a Blu-Ray release of this film.
Titanic (Made for TV, 1996) To cash in on the anticipation of James Cameron’s monstrously budgeted film, this just-add-water, inaccurate version made it to TV. Stars Catherine Zeta-Jones and Peter Gallagher. The worst part of this film involves Tim Curry as a serial rapist running amok as the ship sinks. An earlier Titanic TV-Movie made in 1978 starring David Warner (who was in the James Cameron film) is the much better TV Movie bet, and it stays with the facts. It doesn’t have Dr. Frank-N-Futter runnin’ about the place!
Titanic (1997) One of the most famous films ever made. While I find A Night To Remember the better film, Titanic gives us a terrifying feel of what it was like to perish in those cold waters. Nevertheless, the film holds your interest all through its three-hour running time. Leonardo Di Caprio is a very likeable fictionalized “stowaway” who wins the heart of super-rich Kate Winslet on board the liner. Because the realtionship between DiCaprio and Winslet works so well here, I find Titanic works better on the small screen rather than the large screen, where some of the early CGI effects display problems. Billy Zane is excellent as the snobbish rich guy Winslet is to marry. (Zane’s first-time handling a loaded gun is a great, hidden gem here. He shoots like a little rich boy!) I was shocked to overhear teenage girls leaving the theatre ask each other if this film was based on an actual sinking. The film’s final shot, where the camera creeps along the sunken ship to discover Titanic ghosts, is a carbon copy of a scene from the 1960 Japanese film, I Bombed Pearl Harbor, where the camera prowls a sunken Japanese ship and comes upon the victims.
Titanic survivor Marshall Drew remained in contact with our family until his death in 1986, often sending us Christmas and Easter Cards. Here is his recollection of the disaster printed in various venues:
“I am always annoyed at artists’ depictions of the sinking of ‘Titanic’. I’ve never seen one that came anywhere near the truth. There might have been the slightest ocean swell but it was dead calm. Stars there may have been, but the blackness of the night was so intense one could not see anything like a horizon. As row by row of the porthole lights of the ‘Titanic’ sank into the sea this was about all one could see. When the ‘Titanic’ upended to sink, all was blacked out until the tons of machinery crashed to the bow. This sounded like an explosion, which of course it was not. As this happened hundreds of people were thrown into the sea. It isn’t likely I shall ever forget the screams of those people as they perished in the water said to be 28 degrees.”