It took Hollywood 40 years to get around to making a movie about the Titanic ... and even then it was less interested in the disaster per se than in using it as a dramatic backdrop for a typical piece of Tinsel Town melodrama.
Released in 1953, Titanic (not to be confused with the James Cameron megahit of the same name that dominated the world box office 45 years later) is really two movies.
For an hour it’s a sort of domestic drama – albeit one that is played out on the decks and in the salons of a luxury liner instead of a private home.
Then, for the last 40 minutes, it’s a disaster movie.
More than a few critics have noted that this Titanic never quite comes to life until people start dying.
Julia Sturges (Barbara Stanwyk) and her two children – debutante Annette (Audrey Dalton) and little brother Norman (Harper Carter) – have boarded the Titanic at Southhampton to return to her home in America.
Julia is bailing from a failing marriage to Richard Sturges (Clifton Webb), one of those starchy, stuffy examples of British manhood who seems incapable of opening up emotionally.
But Richard isn’t about to let his family slip away in the night. He follows them to the port and, unable to get passage on the sold-out ship, buys a third-class berth from an Italian husband and father planning to start a vineyard in California.
Once aboard, Richard quickly ascends to the first-class deck and starts mending fences with his children and especially the disillusioned Julia.
Daughter Annette, meanwhile, is striking up a shipboard romance with a hunky American college athlete (Robert Wagner, at the time only 22 years old), in whose presence she sheds her rich-girl pretensions.
(Ironically, the real love affair to come out of the film was that between Wagner and Stanwyk. In his 2008 memoir, Pieces of My Heart, Wagner reveals that he fell in love with Stanwyck on the set. He was unattached and she was divorced from actor Robert Taylor. The affair lasted several years but their 23-year age difference eventually broke up the relationship. Wagner went on to marry star Natalie Wood.)
There’s also a wealthy-but-down-home American gal who stays up all night playing cards with Richard and other gambling gentlemen. She’s played by Thelma Ritter in her trademark straight-talking style, and though the character is identified as Maude Young she’s clearly based on the famous “unsinkable” Molly Brown.
For fans of Titanic history, the film is something of a letdown. The scenes set aboard the liner have a perfunctory studio quality ... visually there’s nothing here to set Titanic apart from the countless other black-and-white shipboard romances churned out with regularity.
There are some very sloppy moments. We see the Titanic colliding with the iceberg on its starboard side, but when the view cuts to an underwater shot, the damage is being inflicted on the port side.
Scenes of the sinking were shot using a 30-foot model of the Titanic floating in a tank on the 20th Century Fox back lot. This was, of course, decades before computer generated special effects, and everything had to be done in-camera.
Even with the ship going down, though, the Oscar-winning screenplay (by Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch and Richard Breen) continues to focus on the Sturges family. Richard and Julia make up before they are separated (as a woman, she and daughter Annette have a place in a lifeboat ... along with Wagner’s young jock, who falls into the icy water trying to free a jammed boat and is pulled aboard to live another day).
The real lump-in-the-throat moment comes when Richard realizes his son Norman has given his place in a boat to a woman. Together father and son stand side by side, singing “Nearer, My God, to Thee” as the big ship shudders and goes down.
It was thanks largely to this movie that so many of us believe the ship’s orchestra played “Nearer, My God, to Thee” in those final moments. Actually the band is believed to have been playing a song called “Autumn.” Moreover, the version of “Nearer, My God...” played in this film is the American one. The version popular in Britain (the musicians were British, after all) had the same lyrics but was set to an entirely different melody.
Titanic was directed by Jean Negulesco, a Romanian-born filmmaker who for 30 years found a home in Hollywood. None of his movies can be considered great, but he proved himself adept at many genres, especially musicals (Daddy Long Legs, How to Marry a Millionaire), drama (Johnny Belinda), romance (Three Coins in a Fountain, Humoresque), and melodrama (The Rains of Ranchipur, The Mask of Dimitrios).
Other films in the series “Women and Children First”
Mondays at 6:30 p.m.:
- April 2: Titanic (1953) Not rated
- April 9: The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964) Not rated
- April 16: Raise the Titanic (1980) Rated PG
- April 23: Ghosts of the Abyss (2003) Rated G
- April 30: A Night to Remember (1958) Not rated
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.