Rearranging the Deckchairs

From newsreels to stereoscopic spectacles: a century of Titanic movies
by Leah Churner  posted February 24, 2010
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James Cameron plans to release a stereoscopic Titanic in 2011. Crass as it may seem to put on 3-D glasses to better "experience" a historic disaster, a tradition of sensory immersion—a mix of survivor guilt and showbiz—goes all the way back to the year the ship sank. At least one contemporary exhibitor of newsreels ran a promotion for Titanic catharsis, telling his local newspaper that every admission ticket would come with a free copy of the lyrics to "Nearer, My God, to Thee." At a climactic moment during the screening, he said, the audience would be prompted to sing.1

The RMS Titanic foundered on the morning of April 15, 1912, killing two thirds of its passengers and crew, a toll of more than 1,500 people. This was not the deadliest of 20th-century disasters to affect the United States (the Galveston Hurricane of 1900, for instance, claimed over 6,000 lives), but it remains the most famous, a perennial subject of songs, novels, poems, jokes, and motion pictures. Narrative cinema was still in its infancy when the ship sent its dying S.O.S., so the movies grew up around the story of the "floating palace" destroyed by nature, and all the legends that went with it: Benjamin Guggenheim's funereal wardrobe change, revelers mixing "iceberg cocktails" with shards from the collision, mink-laden women lowered in half-empty lifeboats.

The 1997 Titanic invited ridicule with its $200 million price tag, but many detractors walked out of the megaplex guiltily seduced. Likewise, the 20th Century-Fox Titanic of 1953 caused conflicted feelings; The New Yorker's critic John McCarten blasted it as "a bilious combination of brummagem melodrama and synthetic seascapes" but admitted, "Maybe I'm being a bit stringent about Titanic because the theme appeals to me so mightily." An amalgam of glamour and death, the story appeals to our materialism and our morbidity. Hence it is ripe for the movies. By the time television came around, the Titanic was no longer a wound, but an archetype amenable to genres from science fiction to boddice-ripping romance. In the 1980s, oceanographer Robert Ballard's discovery of the wreck, now a rusty habitat for sea creatures, prompted an avalanche of documentaries (30 and counting).

The history of cinema's Titanic begins with doctored newsreels. Days after the disaster, newsreel companies discovered that almost no motion picture footage of the ship existed. In spite of the tremendous publicity about the maiden voyage that had been drummed up by the world's major newspapers in advance of the ship's departure, her stops in Cherbourg, Queenstown, and Southampton had only been properly documented in still photographs. Making do, the newsreels substituted footage of the 1910 launch of Titanic's sister ship, with the words "RMS OLYMPIC" painted out of every frame.

The first movie dramatization of the event, Saved From the Titanic, premiered a month after the collision with the iceberg, on May 14, 1912. It starred a survivor, Dorothy Gibson, who was an actress with the Eclair Moving Picture Company of Fort Lee, New Jersey. Gibson played herself, recounting the experience to her family, while the sinking was reconstructed in flashbacks. Historian Frank Thompson, who has studied pertinent movie magazines and ephemera, explains that in spite of Saved's "incidental documentary features" (Gibson performs in the same dress she wore on the night of the disaster), the producer "opted to feature the wreck only as a plot point in a romance....well over half of this 10-minute-long film was taken up with simplistic romantic complication."2 All prints of the film are believed lost, but another title survives from a few months later. Titanic—In Nacht und Eis claimed to be "absolutely faultless" in its re-creation of the sinking. German director Mime Misu, used trick photography, a real ship, and a 26-foot model.3

These early entries set up a template for the next 40 years of Titanic movies: subsequent narratives would be either Nacht-style pseudo-documentaries with sophisticated special effects or Saved-style dramas with the catastrophe as a backdrop. Also, most would be produced in English- or German-speaking countries (even though the wreck claimed lives from all over Europe). The world's first multilingual talkie, Atlantic (1929), was a Titanic movie, directed in Great Britain by Berlin's E.A. Dupont and released simultaneously in German and English versions.4 By and large, nationality is unhelpful in explaining the different geographic iterations because the films' sources are all over the map. The British A Night to Remember illustrates the characteristic "stiff upper lip," but happens to be a faithful adaptation of an American book. One might expect James Cameron's sexed-up Titanic to have something in common with the Hollywood version of 1953, but its storyline is actually closer to the German release of 10 years prior.

This Teutonic Titanic (1943), directed by Herbert Selpin, has the curious distinction of being both a "banned German epic" (as the cover of the Kino DVD calls it) and a propaganda picture. Here, Anglo-capitalist fat cats laugh at iceberg warnings and bribe the captain to drive the engines faster—it's a conspiracy to raise the stock-market value of the shipping company by crossing the ocean in world-record time. The sole German, Officer Petersen (Hans Nielsen), begs Captain Smith to slow down, but his pleas go unheard in the din of decadence. Gypsies dirty-dance in steerage. First-class peeresses promenade in sequined gowns, yard-tall feather hats, and other magnificent (non-period) costumes. A priceless blue diamond is purloined from a stateroom and a man falsely accused of the crime. Petersen's romantic interest, a rich heiress, rejects him at first, but later proves her love and virtue after all the lifeboats have gone. The lovers perish, the villains get off scot-free, and the story ends with the postscript, "1,500 deaths remain unaccounted for as a result of England's quest for profit."

While the ship-of-fools scenario might seem tailor-made for the Third Reich (blending political lessons with spectacle and escapism), Joseph Goebbels chose not to release the film. In 1942, Goebbels hired Selpin to direct Titanic aboard a German liner docked in occupied Poland, a location that also served as a barracks for U-boat commanders. Officers barged into shots and absconded with actresses until Selpin lost his temper. (According to one source, he was overheard shouting something like, "Certainly they'll be decorated for the number of actresses seduced!") The scriptwriter reported this to Goebbels, who had him arrested for treason. The director refused to recant and was thrown in jail. The next morning, he was found hanged in his cell. Werner Klingler was hired to finish directing, and Goebbels ordered the negatives and prints to be put in storage. These were discovered in 1949, with a premiere held in Munich in honor of the late Selpin. In fact it was the Allies, not the Nazis, who ultimately banned Titanic, barring its exhibition within Germany from 1950 to 1955.5

In Hollywood, the "Ship of Dreams" sailed into screenplays before and after World War II, with a cameo in the 1933 adaptation of Noel Coward's Cavalcade and an uncredited role in Frank Borzage's 1937 History Is Made at Night (an updated boat-hits-berg story with a rescue ending). In 1938, David Selznick wanted Alfred Hitchcock's first American project to be a Titanic disaster movie on par with The Hurricane (1937) and In Old Chicago (1937). Hitchcock had no intention of going through with it (having set his sights on an adaptation of Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca), but he told the New York Post, "Oh yes, I've had experience with icebergs. Don't forget, I directed Madeleine Carroll!"

The leading lady of the Eisenhower-era Titanic (1953) was not an iceberg, but a fireball: Barbara Stanwyck. Directed by Jean Negulesco, this "brummagem" black-and-white seascape (one of the last Fox pictures not made in CinemaScope) is the most "psychological" of the Titanic narratives, a domestic drama about a family torn between two continents. After a period of "rootless, purposeless hotel life" in Paris, Julia (Stanwyck) plans to divorce her social-climbing husband, Richard (Clifton Webb), and take her children home to Michigan; Richard tries to foil her plan by sneaking onto the ship and turning the children against her. Because the film was released in the '50s, academics have interpreted it as a "gender lesson" borne of "Cold War repression," made to "inculcate middle-class values." These are flimsy claims, however. Titanic's stance on the institution of marriage is rather fatalistic—the only way Richard and Julia can possibly end their transatlantic tug-of-war is for him to drown halfway. In any case, the behind-the-scenes story is more pleasant than that of the Nazi version. Stanwyck started a hot affair with co-star Robert Wagner (23 years her junior) and the production shared a set with Howard Hawks's Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, also shot in the fall of 1952. In a famous exchange from that picture, two young men watch Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russell board an ocean liner. One says, "If the ship hits an iceberg, which one would you save?" His friend: "Those girls couldn't drown!"

The ever-malleable Titanic soon reemerged as a political symbol. In his 1955 nonfiction novel based on survivor interviews, A Night to Remember, Walter Lord described the architecture of the ship as a microcosm of Edwardian society (with passengers organized in three rigid class compartments) and framed the sinking as the first event of the anxious 20th century, when technology becomes a threat to human civilization (i.e., the Titanic is a harbinger of the bomb). William MacQuitty of the Rank Organisation bought the rights to the book, and adapted it into the 1958 film of the same title. MacQuitty insisted upon utmost historical accuracy in costumes, settings, and dialogue. The film's trailer stressed realism ("No work of fiction could ever contain such incredible twists of fate....No writer of thrillers could ever achieve such agonizing suspense!") but director Ray Ward Barker maximized the suspense with an arsenal of illusions à la Nacht und Eis: a fleet of electric miniature ships, motorized women-and-children figurines that "rowed" tiny lifeboats, and a giant set built on a gimbal system, slowly canted to an angle.

In the '60s, the Titanic broke free of its monochrome moorings, steering into the realm of fantasy and television. Irwin Allen, the "Master of Disaster," gave the ship a starring role in the first episode of his 1966 ABC show The Time Tunnel. (This program, about a contraption that haphazardly shoots scientists into history, may have been the first time the Titanic appeared onscreen in color.) Supernatural rumors about the sinking provided thrills in anthology series such as One Step Beyond (ABC, 1959) and Rod Serling's Night Gallery (NBC, 1971). In made-for-TV movies, it became a love boat: SOS Titanic (1979), Danielle Steel's No Greater Love (1996), and the CBS Titanic of 1996, wherein Peter Gallagher tangos with Catherine Zeta-Jones, while Tim Curry goes on a rampage of rape, larceny, and blackmail.

Meanwhile on the big screen, a few features riffed on A Night to Remember, including Andrew L. Stone's The Last Voyage (1960), with its exhaustive, pre-destruction interior-design tour, and Irwin Allen and Ronald Neame's The Poseidon Adventure (1972), another transatlantic-liner-as-social-microcosm. Yet the big-screen disaster boom of 1970s produced no literal Titanic, as the genre called for a present-day setting. Soon, however, the real-life hunt for the wreck began in earnest, and American movie iterations shifted to a contemporary, archeological, focus. In an impressive feat of pre-CGI cinematography, the 1980 spy film Raise the Titanic staged a resurrection of the ship. Directed by disaster-film veteran Jerry Jameson (Airport '77, Heat Wave!, Terror on the 40th Floor), and adapted from a Clive Cussler novel, the movie centers on a race against the Soviets to retrieve a radioactive mineral called Byzantium from the cargo hull of the Titanic. When the underwater expedition goes awry, the heroes (no lesser men than Jason Robards and M. Emmet Walsh) pump the sunken ship full of super-buoyant yellow foam and bring it to the surface.

Meanwhile, documentary filmmakers turned to Titanic. One of the earliest and least appreciated is the independently produced Search for the Titanic (1980). In 1979, Jack Grimm, a West Texas oilman, teamed up with filmmaker Mike Harris to find and film the famous shipwreck. Grimm, a self-described romantic and "intrepid investor," had previously sponsored missions to find the Loch Ness Monster, Noah's Ark, the Abominable Snowman, and the Sasquatch. In pre-production, the Texan hired the William Morris Agency to publicize the adventure, then assembled several million dollars, one team of scientists, and one monkey mascot, "Titan." After a press conference at the Explorers' Club in New York City, the crew set out to sea. The ensuing fiasco fills two hours of their bizarre Search. Plagued by hurricanes, defective instruments, and a tailgating Russian submarine, the daring seafarers scoured 300 miles of seafloor using sonar and giant magnets. In spite of a promising theme song ("We're gonna find Titanic!") and the legitimizing presence of host-narrator Orson Welles (in a fetching black cravat), Grimm and company failed to locate the wreck.

Grimm continued to sponsor fruitless searches until the younger and more telegenic Robert Ballard found it in 1985. The next year, he dove to the scene in a deep-sea submersible equipped with motion picture cameras and produced the National Geographic documentary Secrets of the Titanic, which TBS aired on Christmas Day, 1986. It was not until recently, however, that Ballard revealed the biggest "secret," that a covert Titanic-Cold War connection actually did exist. As he told National Geographic in 2008, he made a deal: in exchange for Navy funding for his Titanic search, he would first use his robotic submarine technology to find two sunken nuclear warships, U.S.S. Thresher and U.S.S. Scorpion, and determine if they'd been torpedoed by the Soviets. Most of all, the Navy wanted to know if the ocean floor might be a good place to dispose of nuclear materials. And so life imitated the Clive Cussler story—except the U.S. was more interested in submerging radioactive substances than in dredging them up.

In the '90s, James Cameron took over as star Titanic explorer, making 12 deep trips in 1995. "I made the movie Titanic because I thought I could talk the studio into letting me dive and film the real ship," he later told Wired magazine. As with other Cameron films, the 1997 mega-blockbuster exhibits a split personality, having both a documentary streak (incorporating wreck footage, a subplot about artifact recovery, and new scientific evidence about the physics of the sinking) and deliberate ahistorical flourishes that serve little narrative purpose (as when Pablo Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon goes down with the ship, wreaking havoc on Cubism.) In 2003, Cameron returned to the wreckage to make a documentary sequel, Ghosts of the Abyss, the first movie-mission to "penetrate" the wreck with camera-robots and view the interior. (Worth seeing: a claustrophobic Bill Paxton participates in the dive; chattering about his panic attacks and bladder problems, he enters the submarine much as a cat enters a bathtub.) Shot in 3-D HD and blown up to IMAX, Ghosts was also the first three-dimensional Titanic movie. And it was an R&D expedition for Avatar. With a budget of around $13 million, the director and a team of engineers had a chance to tinker with HD stereoscopic cameras. They returned to Hollywood with the spoils of market research: yes, young audiences are willing to watch 3-D movies (about humans driving remote-operated vehicles in inhospitable atmospheres).

Avatar's champions say digital 3-D is the next film frontier. Like it or not, the Titanic will be there. As the 100th anniversary of the disaster approaches, the ship persists in a pop-cultural loop: sailing, sinking, and monstrously coming back to life. A sinking luxury liner cannot help but be cinematic. Consider the gradual list, the rising waters, chairs sliding down the slope of an empty ballroom, a tower of ice, glowing portholes, white rockets, black water. A soundtrack of explosions, shattering china, and the ship's band playing to the end. The final gulp into the abyss is a self-contained vanishing act that leaves no smoking rubble behind. Perhaps Lawrence Beesley, writing shortly after the sinking, said it best: "The whole conditions were dramatic enough in all their bare simplicity, without the addition of any high coloring."

1. Michael Wedel, "Early German Cinema and the Modern Media Event," in Tim Bergfelder and Sarah Street, eds. The Titanic in Myth and Memory. I.B. Tauris, 2004.

2. Thompson, Frank. "Lost At Sea" Film Comment, May 1994; 30, 3. pg. 2

3. Wedel.

4. "Multiple-language version" films of the early sound era were not post-dubbed, but separate productions with separate casts.

5. See Jacobs, Benjamin and Eugene Pool. The 100-Year Secret: Britain's Hidden WWII Massacre. Lyons, New York, 2004 and Malone, Paul. "Goebbels Runs Aground: The Nazi Titanic Film." in Tim Bergfelder and Sarah Street, eds. The Titanic in Myth and Memory. I.B. Tauris, New York, 2004. 


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The Criterion Collection
A Night to Remember, directed by Roy Ward Baker (1958)


Hollywood  |  Titanic  |  disaster film  |  documentary  |  historical film  |  3-D film


Leah Churner is a film/video archivist and curator. She curated the series "Hollywood Musicals of the 1970s and 1980s" at Anthology Film Archives.

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