Saturday, August 26, 2017

Down with the Ship

Films: Titanic (1953)
Format: DVD from Northern Illinois University Founders Memorial Library on rockin’ flatscreen.

When it comes to movies, Titanic typically means the 1997 James Cameron film. The 1953 film that covers the same ship sinking is pretty much forgotten these days despite its winning the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay that year. While this version doesn’t have the tremendous special effects of Cameron’s epic, it does have many of the same beats, and of course it also has a huge ship sinking in the northern Atlantic. It also does this in a spare 98 minutes, almost 100 fewer than Cameron’s film.

We’ll get to the ship sinking by the end of the movie, of course. Since we as the audience know that the ship is going down, it lends that same aura of tragedy and inevitability over everything else that happens. There’s one main drama aboard the ship and a few others that dip in now and then as minor distractions. That main drama concerns Julia Sturges (Barbara Stanwyck), who has boarded the ship with her daughter Annette (Audrey Dalton) and her young son Norman (Harper Carter). She meets a few friends as the ship boards who question why her husband is not traveling with them.

We find out soon enough. Richard Sturges (Clifton Webb) is suddenly desperate to board the ship, but there have been no tickets for a month. He finds a Basque family boarding in steerage, hoping to come to the United States to start a small winery in California. He offers to give them a substantial amount of money for one of their tickets, and the father agrees, planning on taking the next boat across. Richard boards, finds a friend to borrow some clothing, and keeps his presence on board a secret until he surprises his wife at dinner.

The upshot is that Julia is running away with the kids because she is tired of their life bouncing around Europe. She wants the kids to have some stability and, more than that, wants them to have a real life that isn’t all pretense and parties. He objects, naturally, wanting the children to have the life he wants for them. They decide that Annette is old enough to make her own decisions and she decides to return to Europe with her father. Julia insists on keeping Norman with her, something to which Richard continues to object until she tells him that Norman is not his son, but the product of a one-night stand during one of their many arguments.

Surrounding this are a few other stories. One concerns a young American college student named Giff Rogers (Robert Wagner), who becomes enamored of Annette from the first moment he sees her. She, having been trained by her father, is cold and distant to someone who is clearly below her social standing, but eventually falls for his charms. We also encounter Maude Young (Thelma Ritter), a wealthy woman of more humble origins along the lines of Molly Brown. A social climber named Earl Meeker (Allyn Joslyn) makes a nuisance of himself with the wealthy crowd. Finally, a defrocked alcoholic priest (Richard Basehart) shows up now and then to make boozy moral pronouncements.

Everything is pretty much concerned with these stories through much of the first parts of the film, with only the occasional reference to icebergs spotted by other ships coming to the captain (Brian Aherne), who summarily dismisses them until the moment when the iceberg strikes the ship. We’ll get a few romantic moments, some tearful pronouncements, a few acts of cowardice and a few more of bravery before the ship goes down. What we won’t get is a great deal of resolution on many of the stories.

That’s one of the problems with this version of Titanic. Almost everything except for the stories that directly concern the Sturges feel like they don’t get a great deal of play. Even here, the only stories that seem to matter are the battle between Julia and Richard and the suddenly strained relationship between Richard and Norman once Richard discovers that Norman is not really his son. The romance between Giff and Annette seems to be here simply because we expect it and not for any real reason. It’s not that there’s no chemistry between the actors, but that there is no real chemistry between the characters, or any reason beyond some mild physical attraction for them to be made into a couple.

The rest of the stories are almost completely ignored. We know virtually nothing about Maude Young, for instance, other than that she made a lot of money despite a simple upbringing and that she really likes to play bridge. That’s it—that’s her whole biography. About the other characters, we don’t get a great deal more.

Any movie about this ship is going to live or die with the sinking, of course. This is where this version of Titanic falls quite short. I don’t expect the same sort of spectacle that we got in Cameron’s film. Special effects came quite a long way in the four and a half decades between the two movies, so there were limitations that I expected. What I didn’t expect was for it to look as cheap as it does. I can live with the ship clearly being a model. What seems harder to forgive is how obviously the ice in the water around the lifeboats is Styrofoam.

So, ultimately, the story is good, but moves far too quickly. The sinking, which should be the centerpiece of the film, comes across as a bit shoddy. I imagine it was a lot more impressive before 1997, but today, it doesn’t hold up. Still, it’s hard for me to be entirely disappointed in anything Barbara Stanwyck ever did on the screen.

Why to watch Titanic: A big ship sinks. That’s always compelling.
Why not to watch: The special effects were done in someone’s bathtub.


  1. I have a soft spot for this version because when I was a kid it was one of the very first films I remember showing on “The Movie of the Week” series. It’s just what it sounds, one of the UHF channels (when such things existed) would show one film a week three times a day every day. Great if you liked the film, not so much if you didn’t, and I did like this one. It’s what first sparked my interest in the Titanic story and lead me to read A Night to Remember and seek out other books and films on the tragedy.

    Now there’s no question that the Cameron version is the technical benchmark but despite the excellence of Kate Winslet and Gloria Stuart the basic romantic story is so much emotional hogwash. In 1912 that easy moving from class to class would never have happened and most of the writing and character definition is, to be generous, very superficial (if Billy Zane’s character had a moustache he would have surely twirled it!)

    In this version the side stories might not be looked at with too much depth but the central relationship, as well as Annette & Giff’s, feels very real. Richard & Julia Sturges seem like a long time couple in a troubled marriage. A great deal of that is due to Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck-both customarily excellent and very simpatico, but their problems feel real given the characters as presented. It doesn’t seem unlikely that there could have been passengers on the ship with this set of issues. They make sense and their parting full of bittersweet regret as he puts them into the lifeboat, as well as his scene later with Norman, are a thing of beauty. Since at the time this was made many of the survivors or their families were still living, which would explain why Molly Brown morphed into Thelma Ritter’s Maude Young (the role might not be a challenge for her but she’s great fun), a fictitious group of people were presented.

    Even if the supporting characters aren’t too detailed it’s a terrific group of actors. There is one small role in particular that strikes me whenever I watch. When the lifeboat is being lowered and stops at one of the decks a woman runs up to get in but is turned away because the boat is full (I found out later that was a fallacy of course) she asks where another boat is and the sailor tells her to try aft, silently she turns and looks so bereft and lost. It made such an impression on me when I was young I always remembered and later found out the woman was silent star Mae Marsh by this time reduced to bits but it made sense that she was able to convey so much wordlessly once I knew.

    So I guess if they could have captured the emotional resonance of this and the technical marvels of the 90’s version it would have been a near perfect film for me. But to be fair the filmmakers in the 50’s surely used the best available elements of the time. Even the five years that elapsed between this and A Night to Remember brought improved special effects so I just roll with the antiquated look. Even though it had finished the story it was tell I will say the ending does seem rather abrupt.

    1. Film length is something that I comment on from time to time because length actually matters in a lot of cases. The Titanic that everyone knows is too long. Snip out the framing story and I'm willing to go with it, cardboard cutout characters and all, because of the spectacle. This Titanic could have stood an additional 20 minutes or so to give us a more satisfying ending and to give us a little bit more characterization of some of these people.

      But I agree about Webb and Stanwyck. Their relationship feels like one that has built up a huge amount of resentment and problems over the years, and they feel like a real married couple on the brink of collapse. In that respect, this one really is superior.

      The technical marvels of the 1990s version probably means we won't get another Titanic for a very long time, which is a shame. There's a lot of potential story here. Perhaps someone could make a very similar film about Lusitania. There'd be a lot of the same potential drama, a lot of famous and infamous people on board, lots of drama in the sinking, plus a war for additional drama.

      It also might be that today's audiences are less willing to accept a broken romance that ends tragically than they are the emotional moments of Kate & Leo standing on the front of the ship.

    2. That last paragraph just makes me sad probably since there is so much truth in it. Myself I'd rather see the couple who realize they have both made foolish mistakes and come at the last to a reconciliation and awareness of what their lives together have meant than a couple of lovesick puppies acting like seagulls.

    3. I'm with you on that. I've always preferred my romances to be of the darker variety. It's why a film like In the Mood for Love is a romance I have nothing but respect for.