TITANIC - DVD review

...a good motion picture despite its shallow, often sentimental overtones.

John J. Puccio's picture
John J.

As hard as it may be to believe, there were movies about the sinking of the Titanic before James Cameron's 1997 Academy Award winner. I've even heard tell there was an actual ship called the Titanic that went down in 1912 about four hundred miles south of Newfoundland, but this was probably just a rumor spread by Cameron and his crew to publicize their picture. In any case, among the better Titanic movies to come along in the cinema besides Cameron's epic were "A Night to Remember" (1958) and the subject of our review today, "Titanic" (1953).

The older "Titanic" was an Oscar winner in its own right, taking the statuette for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay (Charles Brachett, Walter Reisch, and Richard L. Breen) and nominated for Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, Black and White (Lyle R. Wheeler, Maurice Ransford, and Stuart A. Reiss). In honor of a popular old film, Fox studios have given it their "Studio Classics" treatment with a fresh new transfer and a passel of extras.

This "Titanic," like its newer counterpart, uses the sinking of the luxury liner as a backdrop for the personal drama of its fictional central characters. Instead of a pair of young lovers, however, we have a middle-aged couple whose marriage is breaking up. Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck star as the couple in question, he snooty and snobbish with apparently unlimited assets and she bored and unhappy. The wife has up and left him, taking their two children, Annette and Norman, with her. She's leaving on the Titanic.

The husband, Richard Ward Sturges, follows in hot pursuit, determined to bring the family back together. He books passage on the doomed liner as well. The plot follows their tribulations until the ship hits the iceberg, and the rest is history, as they say.

Webb was an actor who didn't hit his stride until middle age, in the suspense thriller "Laura," and thereafter was typecast as just the sort of character we find him playing here. Sturges is a guy who thinks he buy anything, and whose impeccable taste must at all times be satisfied in all matters, from knowing the right people to staying in the right hotels to sitting at the right tables. Richard is an insufferable prig, the consummate stuffed shirt. Fortunately, Webb was good at portraying such characters and enacts a formidable realization that both repels yet strangely attracts, especially by the end of the movie. Stanwyck's performance is oddly muted, the put-upon wife with whom we must commiserate but for whom we feel distanced. It's not much of a story for either character, really, but like the lovers in Cameron's later version it allows the viewer to care about someone who may be lost in the disaster, thus making the film's final scenes more dramatically compelling. Nonetheless, fewer suds and more substance would have been nice.

Subplots involve (1) the Sturges's rich, spoiled daughter, played by Audrey Dalton, gradually falling for a clean-cut but not-so-rich college boy, Gifford Rogers, played by Robert Wagner; (2) the ever-strained relationship between Mr. Sturges and his son, played by Harper Carter; (3) some business about a drunk with a mysterious past, George Healey, played by Richard Basehart; and (4) a thinly disguised representation of Molly Brown (of "Unsinkable" fame), here named Maude Young, who owns a lead mine in Montana and is played by Thelma Ritter. Mostly more suds.

Despite the soap-opera melodrama, the dialogue and the acting are good enough to keep the script afloat before the big catastrophe happens, and then the film turns into a fairly exciting and engrossing adventure. In other words, expect the movie to get off to a slow start emotionally, but once it gets underway, it's worth the wait. Director Jean Negulesco ("Johnny Belinda," "Three Coins in the Fountain," "Daddy Long Legs") keeps things running along at a healthy clip. The film is never boring; you just wish it had more meat on its bones, more dimension to its characters.

The film is prefaced by the proclamation that "all navigational details of this film--conversations, incidents and general data--are taken verbatim from the published reports of inquiries held in 1912 by the Congress of the United States and the British Board of Trade." This may be so, but Cameron had the special effects department to back him up, making his later "Titanic" more thrilling to watch in terms of sheer spectacle. Yet it's this earlier "Titanic" that touched me most at the end. Frankly, I didn't care much about whether Leonardo DiCaprio lived or died in Cameron's movie, but this earlier interpretation was enough to make me a bit tearful (no small feat).

The disaster brings out all the best, and the worst, in people, as 1502 passengers died in the biggest disaster in recorded maritime history. The too-few lifeboats saved only 705 persons. The situation in the movie becomes ever more gripping as the passengers, and our heroes and heroines, must come to recognize their fate. Reports differ as to what the remaining passengers sang as the ship went down, but the traditional American treatment of "Nearer My God To Thee" is close enough for Hollywood history, and while the singing may seem corny to some viewers, it's actually quite moving.

"Titanic" was a grand product of the old studio system, Fox lavishing a good deal of time and money on its production, which looks almost as good in its interior detail and costumes as Cameron's newer, far more costly rendition. I wouldn't go so far as to call this "Titanic" a classic as the Fox people do, but it's a good motion picture despite its shallow, often sentimental overtones.

The picture is presented in close to its original 1.37:1 black-and-white Academy Standard aspect ratio, and very well presented it is. There is no indication on the packaging that the print has been digitally remastered, so I'm assuming Fox obtained a very good, well-preserved print from their vaults. The transfer is quite clean, displaying very little grain, and the picture shows practically no signs of age--few or no specks, lines, or scratches of any appreciable sort. The video quality is very slightly soft and faded on occasion, and there are wavering lines to be noted, especially evident in things like door louvres and checkered coats and hats. Otherwise, the transfer displays a fine B&W image throughout.

In English the audio options are Dolby Digital two-channel stereo or two-channel monaural. The stereo helps to spread out the sound more across the front speakers, but in both stereo and mono the sound is rather bright and sometimes edgy. Sol Kaplan's musical score, appropriately stately and dignified and owing something to Richard Wagner, comes across as somewhat brassy in this circumstance. Voices are certainly clear, but they can be biting and hard, too. Overall, it's a decent audio reproduction of what we today would term mediocre sonics.

This is one of those discs where the quality of the extra materials surpasses that of the film itself. To begin with, the disc boasts two full-length audio commentaries, the first with film critic Richard Shickel and the second with co-stars Robert Wagner and Audrey Dalton, cinematographer and historian Michael Lonza, and historian Sylvia Stoddard. In the case of the group effort, it appears that they did their parts separately because in the segments I listened to there was no interaction among them. One person comes on and does his or her say, and then the next person speaks to a new subject. In any case, their comments are well worth hearing. After that, there is a superb, ninety-minute documentary, "Beyond Titanic," made by Fox Films and the A&E Entertainment Network. It provides a fascinating history of the ill-fated ship as well as a history of the ship in film, in literature, on television, and on stage. Finally, there are two, brief MovieTone newsreels, an eleven-minute audio essay by historian Sylvia Stoddard, a still gallery, twenty-five scene selections, and a theatrical trailer. English and Spanish are offered for spoken languages and subtitles.

Parting Thoughts:
According to the documentary, the 1953 "Titanic" is but one in a long line of "Titanic" screen accounts, starting in 1912 with the lost silent film "Saved From the Titanic." Among other films dealing directly or indirectly with the ship and in an approximate chronological order are "Night and Ice," "Atlantis," "Atlantic," "Cavalcade," "Titanic" (German), "Titanic" (American), "A Night to Remember" (perhaps the definitive movie version), TV episodes of "One Step Beyond" and "The Time Tunnel," "The Unsinkable Molly Brown," "The Poseidon Adventure," "Raise the Titanic," Hallmark's "Titanic," and, of course, Cameron's "Titanic." There was even a musical stage version of "Titanic" a few years ago.

Whatever, this 1953 "Titanic" is not so much a documentary retelling of the sinking of the great ship as it is a human drama with the sinking as a convenient background setting. As I've said, in this regard it doesn't differ a lot from Cameron's treatment of the subject; it just isn't as elaborate in its special effects. What the older "Titanic" loses in visual splendor it makes up for in its acting, which is really better than the script deserves. Whatever else is said about the film, I was ultimately moved by it, and without a doubt the disc's accompanying supplements are alone worth the price of the package. Fair value in my book.


Film Value