Thursday, December 29, 2011

Clyde’s Movie Palace: Titanic (1953)


Directed by Jean Negulesco
Barbara Stanwyck
Clifton Webb
Audrey Dalton
Robert Wagner
Thelma Ritter
Richard Basehart
Harper Carter
Brian Aherne

The first that I had ever heard of the sinking of the Titanic was one Saturday evening when my family sat down to watch this particular film on the old NBC  Saturday Night at the Movies. I remember it well because I don't think we were planning on watching it at the time. As I recall, the only reason that we did so was because the neighbors kind of invited themselves over for their own personal viewing  since they didn't have a television of their own. They weren't part of the snobbish upper class like those of us fortunate to own one of these technological marvels known as television.  Just kidding of course.

The reason they didn't have a set wasn't because they couldn't afford one. It was because their religion didn't allow them to own one. Yeah, that's how it works sometimes. Pray on Sunday, watch the neighbor's TV on Saturday. What does this have to do with this movie? Not a damn thing. It's just one of those little anecdotes that I throw in to a review once in a while to entertain the swarming masses who flock to read my reviews every day and to prove I am not a figment of your imagination.

Since seeing this version back in the early sixties, I have read Walter Lord's book A Night To Remember, saw the movie version of that book, painfully sat through two terrible TV movies on the subject, was incredibly bored by the fictional book Raise the Titanic by Clive Cussler,  took a chance on the film version of that book to discover it was even worse, and finally was totally enthralled by James Cameron's version.

Then there were the documentaries on A&E and the History Channel. Not be outdone on anything Titanic, Cameron contributed even more to the Titanic phenomenon with his 3D film, Ghosts of the Abyss. And there are probably a lot more articles, books, and Titanic stuff I've read or watch but have since forgotten. I mean, how many times and in how many different ways are there to watch an ocean liner get up close and personal with a huge white popsicle which repays the favor by poking a hole in it's under belly?

But if you accept this 1953 movie on its own terms and remember that Hollywood had their own special way of fantasizing and romanticizing every thing when it came to historical events, then the movie is perfectly acceptable entertainment.

The film opens with a magnificent shot of ice breaking off, and falling into the sea. Okay, so the IMDB says that it's technically wrong and wouldn't happen that way.  I don't think that the viewers in 1953 cared a whole helluva lot. To be honest with you, this viewer in 2008 doesn't much give a crap either. It's just a cool thing to watch and is a great way to grab your attention quicker than a runaway booger.

Just as Cameron did 44 years later, this Titanic wraps its stern around a fictional story. Julia Sturges (Barbara Stanwyck) is taking her two kids Annette (Audrey Dalton) and Norman (Harper Carter) on The Titanic in order to get them away from her husband Richard (Clifton Webb). It seems she has decided that her kids have begun to lose their sense of values and feels a trip back to the United States will help them put their lives into the proper perspective.

Why have they lost their perspective? If you've seen the other two Titanic films or even just read my reviews than you should be aware by now that those in the elite class were a rather hoity-toity snobbish, nose stuck up in the air kind of crowd and Julia is just a down home Dolly Parton kind of piss ant country gal.

Well, as down home as you can be in Mackinac, Michigan. IMDB says it's pronounced Mackinaw although the spelling is correct. In the movie they pronounce it the way it is spelled but wouldn't you think that if anybody knew how to pronounce it Julia would?

Julia describes her daughter Annette to Richard as "having become an arrogant little prig.” Which is a little bit redundant since the word prig means arrogant. So in fact, Annette is an arrogant, arrogant. See, I can figure these things out just like the IMDB. I know because I looked it up in my Funky Wagnalls.

Another thing I figured out as I re-watched the film for this review is that it suddenly occurs to me that for all the snooty passengers in first class, there must have been three times as many stewards and bellhops as there were passengers. And no, I'm not going to count them to make sure.

When Julia's husband Richard discovers her plan at the last minute, and not having a ticket of his own, he entices a steerage passenger to sell him his ticket after he assures the trusting gentlemen  that he’ll see to it his wife and kids make the voyage okay. Richard is King of the hoity toity crowd. He's like Cal Hockley only older and with a nicer temperament. And money may not buy you love, but it’ll certainly book you passage on Titanic no matter how late of an arrival you may be.  I guess there wasn’t time for Richard to win his in a poker game just before the ship sailed.

Richard  wastes no time in confronting his wife, because he is not quite able to understand her reason for running off to slum around in the U.S. with the colonists.  But he is determined to take the kids back to England with him. And the best way to do that is by incorporating the old turn the kids against the spouse scenario. It works every time.

The battle of words continues throughout the film and it's a lot of fun just watching Webb and Stanwyck carry on their verbal sparring matches and finding new ways to one up the other in one scene after another. Give some credit also to screenwriters Walter Reisch, Charles Bracket and Richard Breen for giving the actors some sharp tongued words to chew on throughout the film.

As the film progresses, Julia begins to see that Richard has the upper hand but what Richard doesn't know is that Julia is carrying a naughty little secret which actually means she has the joker and the joker is wild. So finally, in a really terrific scene  between two greats, Julia reveals all by laying her cards on the table leaving Richard looking like someone who just had his three kings nipped by a full house.

Of course you'll have to watch the film to see that but if there is one thing this film does have going for it, it is some excellent performances by the cast from top to bottom. Sure it is all a bit soap operish and meant to tug at your heart strings, but in this film Director Jean Negulesco doesn't want to settle for a tug; he wants to wrap a rope around the old ticker and give the damn thing some good old fashioned hard yanks.

In Cameron’s 1997 film Titanic, he centered his story around a rich girl poor boy relationship and I'm not sure whether or not the idea came from a sub plot in this film but you'll see certain similarities.

This movie's version of Rose is Annette Sturges who meets poor boy Jack equivalent Gifford Rogers (Robert Wagner). Except Jack was a painter and Giff is an athlete so there will be no naughty painting scenes with Audrey Dalton. Really a shame too, because she is absolutely a knockout. And although Giff gets to dine in first class since he's traveling with the tennis team, we still know he's just a Midwestern ragamuffin because the P on his shirt stands for Purdue, not Princeton.

Initially, Annette spurns his advances, but later decides to dance one dance with him to please her mother with whom she had an argument. Julia wants Annette to start hanging around with average all-American fellows who have their varsity letters while Annette seems to be the type who would take a guy like Billy Zane's Cal and jump his bones since she seems to have been training all her life to be affiliated with the hoity toity set.

Ah, but Hollywood being what it is and scripts being what they are, we know that underneath that cool and cold exterior of Annette beats the heart of a commoner. It goes without saying that Giff will melt Annette’s frigid exterior because love aboard the Titanic is a many splendored thing. 

Thelma Ritter, one of the truly great character actors of all time, is also on hand as a card playing scene stealing no nonsense Maude Young. I guess she's supposed to like Molly Brown only skinnier. But she is great as she always was in practically every film she co-starred in which is why she may be the best character actress of the century.

A young Richard Basehart shows up in a small but edgy role as a priest questioning his faith. He is on his way home to tell his family that his services are on longer needed by the Catholic Church. It seems he has lost himself in the bottle because he's seen just one too many scenes of misery as a priest and can't handle it. It's a good performance by Basehart, and one would have hoped he would have gone on to do something besides commanding The Seaview in the series Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea.  Then again, since this ship ends up at the bottom of the Atlantic, it may have been good practice for commanding a submarine.

As for  details about the real life  passengers,  a few of them show up but most are fictional. The way I understand it, at the time this film was made many of the survivors were still alive or their direct descendants so there was some worry about being sued for using real identities, particularly by the family of of Bruce Ismay who decided to sit this trip out along with ship designer Thomas Andrews. But, there are a few passengers portrayed, such as Isador (Roy Gordon) and Ida Strauss (Hellen Van Tuyl) and their big scene where she refuses to leave her husband behind is heartbreaking. You'll also recognize the same scene from A Night to Remember. I think this scene was in Cameron's version at one time also but ended up on the cutting room floor as Special Edition DVD fodder. I do believe that the elderly couple lying in the bed together as Titanic is sinking in Cameron's version is supposed to be the Strauss's.

However, if you are looking for an accurate and realistic portrayal of the sinking of Titanic, you won’t find it in this film. It is very much Hollywoodized, and is filled with an over abundance of both factual and technical errors that may have been overlooked in 1953, but wouldn’t be in today’s age of film scrutiny. You can find an extended list of these errors at the IMDB and it's very entertaining, but those mistakes do not detract from the overall dramatic impact of the film. Just pretend you're Titanic ignorant and pretend there aren't mistakes. Because in the grand scheme of thing, it's the previously mentioned romanticizing and fantasizing that counts in this version and when that big baby hits the old ice bergarooni, all these stories have to come to a resolution in some form or fashion so get out the old White Star Liner official hanky or the Titanic Sized box of Kleenex and have at it.

While it will never be mentioned in the same breath as Cameron’s film, or even the 1958 film A Night to Remember, it is still a film well worth your time and effort to seek out if you haven’t ever done so. The performances are all top notch, and it is time that you got off your dead lazy asses and start watching some of these greats and appreciate the work and craftsmanship that went into them. In other words, don't be so hoity toity.  And if I have to give you that bit of advice, that means I have no choice but to give Titanic my grade of a B.

And this film is as good of a place as any to start. Heck, buy the DVD, it isn't that much and you can get it cheap enough so that you don't have to be one of the snobby upper class to be able to afford it. With special features such as commentary by Robert Wagner and Audrey Dalton, documentaries and newsreels you can't really go wrong.   And no, you don't need to wait for it to be colorized. But hey Fox, that would have been a cool idea for a 100th anniversary of the sinking!  Probably too late for that though..