Monday, April 16, 2012
Titanic - 1953
“Titanic” (1953) shows that the most successful storytelling is based on what your audience provides in imagination. Other versions of this tragic tale have provided more technically thorough stories. None are as empathetic in the telling, or draw such empathy from the audience, as this version.
One hundred years ago today people were waking up to the news that the RMS Titanic sank on its maiden voyage in the wee hours of the 15th.
The stark contrast between the sorrowful father, and that little boy, happy to be with him, confused me. I can remember asking an older sibling what was happening, what did this mean? I was told that the boy was going to drown along with his father, that he went back to the ship when he shouldn’t have, so now he was going to drown.
I think this scene captures the essence of this remarkable movie. It was filmed on a set, so we are not dazzled too much by technological wizardry. But we are drawn into the consequences of the Edwardian (yes, I know George V was on the throne, but eras do not have air brakes) era-cum-dawn of the 20th century, through the splendor, costumes, values and customs, which all lead to consequences.
One name they decided to drop literally was the “Unsinkable” Molly Brown. Her character here is played by Thelma Ritter with her customary earthy gusto, but the name is given as Maude Young.
We are given credit for knowing, too, about the era’s dignity, grace, inequity, and hypocrisy. After all, 41 years isn't even one lifespan, and not so much needs to be explained.
Look for Mae Marsh in a small role as the lady in the lifeboat to whom the boy, played by Harper Carter, gives up his seat.
The story and the tragedy is played out for us not so much in special effects but by two particular characters who carry with them the style and the consequences of the era. In a sense, Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb as the estranged couple have the entire story resting on their shoulders.
One of my favorite lines is when he puts down Stanwyck, “Twenty years ago I made the pardonable mistake of thinking I could civilize a girl who bought her hats out of the Sears Roebuck catalog.”
In one scene, after her confession of an adulterous tryst which resulted in the birth of her son, she drops her purse. Webb’s refusing to stoop to pick it up is his telegraphing to her, and to us, that she has dropped off the charts in respectability. If she were a lady, it would be beneath him not to pick it up. She is not a lady anymore. 1912 Etiquette 101.
Stanwyck’s part in this scene is also amazing. But perhaps the real credit should go to director Jean Negulesco. The husband and wife face off over his refusal to let her take his son back to the United States.
“No court, no power under heaven will force me to give up my son.”
In vengeance, he ignores his son for the remainder of the trip, hurting the boy who loves and admires him.
We are prepared by now to think him a monster, but we finally see a deeply courageous Clifton Webb, sensitive to the needs of others when the iceberg hits. It is such a turnabout transformation of his character, and yet, an extension of it. He is, after all, a gentleman. This is what a gentleman is supposed to do. When he learns the ship is sinking he hustles his family into life vests, not telling them of the real danger, keeping up a happy front. He gets them to the top deck.
Then he goes down to third class and hustles out the Basque family with whom he had boarded. The father of the family sold him his ticket, and Webb boarded the ship pretending to be this woman’s husband. He hustles them all into lifeboats, saving their lives. Then he helps others on the ship.
I have only one minor, petty complaint. When Robert Wagner and his pals sing college fight songs, one of which is about Lord Jeffrey Amherst and Amherst College -- please, the H in Amherst is not pronounced. I don’t know how Lord Jeff of French and Indian War fame pronounced his surname, but those of us in western Massachusetts, where Amherst College is located, do not say the H. Accent on the first syllable - AM-erst.
I suspect folks from Mackinac, Michigan, might protest at that pronunciation in this film, too.
This has been a public service announcement. (Yes, I’m kidding. I realize there are far more important historical inaccuracies with which to take umbrage.)
There are 12-year-old men, and there are 30-year-old boys.
And yet it is not maudlin. It is a simple statement of fact, like the line “I’m wearing long trousers.”
When I watch the movie now, I see that these characters standing on the deck of the doomed ship clearly are not waiting for rescue. They are awaiting death. It is devastating in its theatricality. I can never watch it without being reminded of the first time I saw it, and could not quite comprehend then what was happening. In a way I still can’t believe it. That is the power of film, and especially of this film.
Barbara Stanwyck recalled in this oft-repeated quote:
So powerful was this film that it inspired another young person, Edward S. Kamuda, who saw it in his family run theater, The Grand, in Indian Orchard, Massachusetts when it came out in 1953. Mr. Kamuda established the Titanic Historical Society, which is the home of a unique collection of artifacts from the RMS Titanic and from the decades of storytelling about this event. Please see my New England travels blog here for my original post on the Titanic museum and for update on the tribute to two Springfield, Massachusetts, victims of the Titanic.
Also, have a look here at this previous post on the recycling of the grand salon set of "Titanic". You’ve seen it before.
There are a couple of other recent posts on “Titanic” (1953) I recommend, this on the blog Book Talk and More, and this, a beginning of a series on Titanic movies, from Matthew Coniam over at Movetone News. Great reading.