TITANIC (1953)

James Cameron’s mega budget picture aside, the sinking of the  Titanic, first and foremost, is a human story. The sinking of the unsinkable has been filmed many times,  beginning in silent film to the definitive British production A NIGHT TO REMEMBER (1958).   Director Jean Negulesco’s  version of the story sits as a bridge to the British film with some surprises.

TITANIC (1953) can be characterized as a  soap opera style picture.  A one line summary I found said,  “People bicker about their lives, then the boat sinks.” Simplistic view; yes, but as I  have said before it is the execution of the idea that is important.

The cast is a  wonderful combination of characters from Clifton Webb as millionaire Richard Ward Sturges, who is determined to be on the Titanic to stop his wife Julia  (played  by Barbara Stanwyck) from taking their children to Europe.


The picture also features young Robert Wagner as college lothario Gifford “Giff” Rogers, who finds himself wooing  Sturge’s  daughter Annette, played by Audrey Dalton.     Richard  wants to spend time with his son  Norman (Harper Carter),  who still idolizes  him.  The family drama gave the epic story a  different look when in the opening moments Sturges tries to buy his way onto the ship only to find it is sold out, so he  finds offers money to a passenger in steerage class going with his family.


The immaculately groomed rich guy finds himself below deck with the people who carry their belongings in boxes.   They sing and dance  to simple music while the others dance and eat in the ballrooms above.   While walking on deck (he has to sneak up), Sturges meets an old friend who is surprised he is there and  gives him access  to his wardrobe.



Sturge’s daughter Annette  finds out about her mother’s  intentions of going to Europe to stay and rebels by seeing  good old college boy  Giff Rodgers and his  crazy friends. Wagner performs (not sure if voice was  dubbed) a silly song with his friends on the  deck to woo the standoffish Annette. Norman wants  to bond with his father  and the  two get involved in games as a team aboard ship. This gets  disrupted when Julia tells Richard  that Norman is not his son. Richard then snaps at him, ignores his requests, looks on him  sleeping with disdain, and wants nothing to do with him.

The crew of the ship is presented in  diligent fashion. Brian Aherne takes a bow as  Captain Edward Smith; a stiff officer to protocol and  duty yet with a human side to his officers.  One  gets to see  the boiler room  in all its steamy, brutal glory, of men shoveling coal and the other inner workings of the  ship in detail.

Richard Basehart is booze loving “Man of God’ George S. Healey who is returning home after quitting his studies. Basehart, whose hairstyle never changes in any picture, no matter the role, has some good moments as  he spouts philosophy to Julia while standing on deck against a rail.   Healey also tries to dictate a cable message  in the  signal room while morosely drunk, only to crash out in befuddlement.



Thelma Ritter had the role Maude  Young  especially written for her in the picture.  Young is a wise cracking, card playing  woman who smokes  rather then be  a  more sedate  woman.   The  role was  based on  Molly (Margaret) Brown who was a real life survivor of  the Titanic voyage  and later played by Debbie Reynolds in the musical THE UNSINKABLE  MOLLY BROWN (1964).

Icebergs  abound  and procedure is followed with precision  yet the inevitable happens.  “Women and  Children first!” is  the  cry on decks as Norman, in a poignant gesture, gives up his lifeboat seat  to a terrified older woman. That woman was  played by film veteran Mae Marsh, who was in  INTOLERANCE (1916) and BIRTH OF A NATION (1915). Samuel Goldwyn signed her for twenty five hundred dollars  a  week and  gave her the moniker “The Whim Girl.”  Marsh’s career was  a disappointment and  she retired in 1918. She had to return to screen as she was  financially wiped  out by the  crash of 1929.  Marsh found film work, usually in uncredited roles, in North America  and Europe.  She became  part of the John Ford company.  He was her favorite director, and she appeared in several of his films:  THE GRAPES OF WRATH (1940) , HOW GREEN WAS MY VALLEY, (1941) MY DARLING CLEMENTINE (1946) and  THE  QUIET MAN (1952).  She also had a role in the 1954 version of  A STAR IS BORN.

TITANIC (1953) has been criticized for it special effects  model work.   Many have said the work looks inadequate on screen,like a “Naval tragedy taking place in a  Central Park pond’.”  The effects work for the time, although the film does not show that the Titanic split in two when it sank. The split of the  ship  had  yet to be  proved as the  wreckage was  not discovered until 1985.

Barbara Stanwyck’s career was in transition during the fifties.  She began to grace  television more and more, even if she did play opposite Elvis Presley in ROUSTABOUT (1964).  She gives  a strong, sensitive performance; particularly when she  confesses  that Norman is not the couple’s  son.   Stanwyck was overcome by uncontrollable tears during filming as  she found looking into the faces of the actors as they stood on the set of the sinking ship tragic.   Robert Wagner also disclosed that the  two began a brief  affair after  filming was  over.



TITANIC (1953) handles itself  well for the time. Director Jean Negulesco  uses  sweeping camera movements,  tilted  angles and claustrophobic  sets in corridors  and rooms  to tell a  story of people put in this situation.   The story was based on facts that were later  discarded.  The picture  won the Academy Award  for  Best Original Screenplay and  was nominated for a  Directors Guild  award  in 1953.   TITANIC (1953) is a solid if historically inaccurate look at an event well familiar to the big screen.





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