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.

This movie was released some 41 years after the sinking of the RMS Titanic. Coincidentally, it was probably 41 years ago that I first saw this movie. I can’t be sure of the exact year but it’s a pretty good guess. I was a child, knowing nothing about the history of the story I was watching, and what I remember most vividly was the very last scene. Clifton Webb stood on the deck of the ship along the rail with many other men, all staring blankly out at the ocean. There were tears in Webb’s eyes. A little boy, his son, stood next to him on the deck. The son had all the energy and confidence of youth. He was probably only a little older than me.

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 I must have assumed that at the last minute another boat would save them, so this news that their deaths were inevitable shocked me. More shocking was that this smiling boy’s fate was sealed by his eagerness. I wondered then if he knew he was going to die? His demeanor did not seem to indicate that he knew. He suggested to his father that they might swim for it.

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.

We have a little name-dropping. There are Guggenheims among the passenger list and of course, John Jacob Astor. He is played here by William Johnstone, whom you might remember as the radio voice of the Shadow, replacing Orson Welles. His wife is played by the lovely Frances Bergen, the wife of ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and mother of actress Candice Bergen.

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.

A big, beautiful ship filled with beautiful people. We are given a hint as to what it’s like to travel in steerage, but we are not hammered too much on the injustices of third class travel. We are given credit for knowing - we or our parents likely traveled to America that way. 

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.

We are shown Richard Basehart as a recently defrocked priest returning home to America in disgrace because of his alcoholism. When the disaster happens, he redeems himself. Conversely, we are given Allyn Joslyn as the inevitable human being who disregards his humanity in the very human desire to live.

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.

She is an American woman returning to her Middle West roots after years of an unhappy marriage in Europe. She brings their teenage daughter and young son to the US because she does not want them to grow up to share the same meaningless, empty, shallow life which her dandy husband Clifton Webb pursues was such self superior conceit. Both Miss Stanwyck and Mr. Webb are fantastic in this movie. Stanwyck convincingly conveys the dual quality of this woman, one who was able to feel cowed under her husband’s superior birth and social set, and yet still have the mettle to want to save her children. Her Gibson girl hairstyle is very becoming to her in this movie. She wears her costumes well. Stanwyck always did look good in period pieces.

Clifton Webb is a marvel. One might chalk up his work here as standard Clifton Webb material, a fastidious man, the intellectual giant disdainful of all the lesser creatures around him. He played it well.  But there's more to him here, and he undergoes the greatest change of any character in this movie.

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.

But there are two sides to the coin, and Webb also shows a man deeply wounded. It is a devastating scene, his pride and his conceit shattered when he learns that the son of whom he is so proud is not his.

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.”

“He’s not your son.” She replies in the most eerily calm manner, shocking in its very everyday tone of voice almost as if she had said, “it’s time for dinner.”

The camera shows her turn around and walk out of the stateroom. We see her back and his back. We don’t need to see his expression.

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.

A young Robert Wagner plays a callow college student who is sweet on their daughter played by Audrey Dalton. And oh, the scores of extras. I love me a movie with lots of extras. One of them is Bert Stevens, Barbara Stanwyck’s brother.

Though we have these back stories, this is a movie of about greater things. Larger issues and devastatingly small details. Captain Brian Aherne conducts the Sunday services in the grand salon. A drunken Richard Basehart tries unsuccessfully to send a telegram home of explanation to his family. The crisp, crackling dialogue between Webb and Stanwyck in this most literate script.

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.)

The movie does not attempt to shock us or surprise us, rather just as it expects us to understand the mores and conventions of 1912, it also expects us to remember every moment that we are on a collision course with death.  We start the film with a shot of the iceberg.  We have a brief foreshadowing when Robert Wagner, cheered by the prospect of Audrey Dalton’s companionship, throws his soft cap into the ocean. It lands among chunks of ice floating by.

The band plays, first the Londonderry Air - better known to some of us as “Danny Boy”. And eventually we get around to “Nearer, My God, to Thee”. It has never been confirmed absolutely that this was played when the Titanic sank, but the legend has grown partly because of this movie.

Young Harper Carter scrambles out of the lifeboat to give his seat to Mae Marsh and joins his father on the deck because after all, he is now wearing long pants and so he is a man. This is what gentlemen do, give their seats to ladies and risk death. His explanation to his father as to why he returned to the ship is simply, “I’m wearing long trousers.”

Neither did that need to be explained to us in 1953, but I wonder if it might in 2012. I don’t mean just about boys wearing shorts and not wearing long trousers until they’re in their teens. I mean that essence of manhood that comes when one decides to be a man, i.e., to take responsibility. Steinbeck wrote, “A boy becomes a man when a man is needed.”

There are 12-year-old men, and there are 30-year-old boys.

Clifton Webb, heart breaking for his son and especially that he had ever denied his son, puts his arm around him and with tears in his eyes addresses the ocean waves “Whatever happens, I love you very much. I’ve been proud of you every day of your life. Never more than at this moment. I feel tall as a mountain.”

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:

"The night we were making the scene of the dying ship in the outdoor tank at Twentieth, it was bitter cold. I was 47 feet up in the air in a lifeboat swinging on the davits. The water below was agitated into a heavy rolling mass and it was thick with other lifeboats full of women and children. I looked down and thought: If one of these ropes snaps now, it's goodbye for you. Then I looked up at the faces lined along the rail - those left behind to die with the ship. I thought of the men and women who had been through this thing in our time. We were re-creating an actual tragedy and I burst into tears. I shook with great racking sobs and couldn't stop."

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.


Fred said...

We went to see the 3D version of Titanic yesterday, on the 100th anniversary of its sinking. First time that I saw the movie in a theater; first time that Bridget had seen the movie. After reading your review, now I must get a copy of the 1953 version.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Hi, Fred. Cameron's version of "Titanic" has a lot going for it with some amazing special effects(though still has some bothersome historical inaccuracies), but I think this 1953 version has more heart.

Caftan Woman said...

I have yet to see the 1997 movie and I think it is because I don't believe any retelling could touch my heart the way the 1953 film does. Like you, I was quite young when I saw it for the first time and was convinced my heart was breaking.

I love your line about eras not having air brakes. I get overly peeved at folks who compartmentalize history in too stringent a manner.

You might find this look at a Titanic survivor's story of interest:

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thanks for the link, CW. Slayter's story is interesting particularly because I don't there are many 2nd class passenger accounts. (The movies about Titanic don't seem to cover them.) Sounds like a a great show.

One good thing about the 1997 Titanic is that it invites us to look back at previous versions, and so I think the 1953 film has gotten more attention because of it.

Kimberly J.M. Wilson said...

I really like this picture. Of course, I like just about anything Stanwyck is in. It is a powerful film. BTW, loved that reflection by Stanwyck about shooting that final scene. I could hear her inner-voice saying "If one of these ropes snaps now, it's goodbye for you." And her crying fit doesn't surprise me at all, either.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Hi, Kim. It bothered me I couldn't find the original source for that quote by "press time". I'll keep looking. It's just been reprinted so much. Maybe a reader knows and can tell us.

Kevin Deany said...

I like this one a lot, and really can't add anything to what you've already written here.

I find all the Titanic movies fascinating and they all have their good points. As much as I like Cameron's movie, it is very melodramatic and nothing in it touched me as much as the final scene in the 1953 version between Webb and his son. (A very underrated Clifton Webb performance by the way, and one of his best.)

It's the moments of human compassion that tend to choke me up when I'm watching a Titanic movie. In Cameron's its the elderly couple holding each other in bed deciding to die together.

In "A Night to Remember" it's the elderly purser who takes under his wing the little boy who has lost his mother and stays with him as the water approaches their deck.

In this one, it's that incredibly moving scene at the end with Webb and his son.

BTW, many thanks for the Amherst pronunciation. I never knew the "h" was silent. I'll remember that.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Kevin, I love those scenes you've described. You hit the nail on the head with each one. I also agree that this was probably Webb's finest performance, and quite underrated.

America's a big place full of everybody mispronouncing everybody else's hometowns.

Silver Screenings said...

For some reason, I've never cared to see Titanic movies but you've made me want to see this one! I especially liked your impressions of the movie when you saw it as a child. Thanks for posting this thoughtful review.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

I can understand someone's reticence to see these movies, given the grim tragedy, but this movie is not your typical "disaster" movie. It's a character study, with great dialogue, like a drawing room drama on stage. Except they're on a ship. That's going to sink.

I hope you can see the movie soon. I'd like to know what you think.

Grand Old Movies said...

Just a beautiful piece of writing on this film - you evoke so well both the historical time period of the movie and of yourself remembering as a small child watching it - thanks so much!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Thank you very much. As we can see by the other commenters, it's just the kind of movie that evokes an emotional response.

Yvette said...

Oh Jacqueline, I love this post! I am tearing up just reading it. What a great film. Clifton Webb has never been better - this is so much more affecting than the newer film now re-released in 3D. Talk about hubris.

I love the quote from Steinbeck, "A boy becomes a man when a man is needed."

Yes indeed, back then, gentlemen did the right thing simply because they were gentle men.

A fabulous and very VERY moving film. Thank you for writing about it in such a fine way.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Your comments touch me deeply, Yvette. I agree Clifton Webb was at his finest in this movie.

I think one of the problems with filming a story about a long-ago time is we tend to approach that era with our modern cynicism. If we really want a film to be "real istic" - a term at which I tend to laugh - we need to approach an era with an eye to its sensibilities, not just our own. You can get all the realistic costuming, etc., but if you don't also exhibit a sense of the attitude of that time, you're missing the point.

Ivan G Shreve Jr said...

My mother refuses to watch the 1997 (Gigantic, as I call it) version...this one's her favorite and in her opinion, the best.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Well, you know what they say - mother knows best.

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