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.