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Fox Home Entertainment
1953 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 98 min. / Street Date September 2, 2003 / 19.98
Starring Clifton Webb, Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Wagner, Audrey Dalton, Thelma Ritter, Brian Aherne, Richard Basehart
Cinematography Joseph MacDonald
Art Direction Maurice Ransford, Lyle R. Wheeler
Film Editor Louis R. Loeffler
Original Music Sol Kaplan
Written by Richard L. Breen, Walter Reisch and Charles Brackett
Produced by Charles Brackett
Directed by Jean Negulesco

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The definitive Titanic experience on film remains Roy Ward Baker's A Night to Remember. For Savant, second place still goes to this finely crafted soap opera put together by Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder's long-time writing partner. The historical and technical details are reduced to a minimum, but this 1953 saga was perhaps the first modern disaster movie - it uses the tragic sinking as a platform to tell the stories of a handful of ill-fated passengers. Considering what some might have felt was an exploitative concept, the tale was told with great respect. The sinking was only 40 years in the past at the time. Today almost any wrenching tragedy is considered fodder for a television movie capitalizing on crude sensationalism.

The 1953 Titanic won an Academy award for writing, and provided a plum lead part for Fox's Clifton Webb, a star who didn't fit all that many roles. Webb and the versatile Barbara Stanwyck play with a conviction that draws us into the melodrama, providing a powerful finish.


Elitist American Richard Ward Sturges (Clifton Webb) is a transplant to Europe separated from his wife Julia (Barbara Stanwyck). She moves to return her children Annette (Audrey Dalton) and Norman (Harper Carter) back to middle-class life in United States by booking passage on a brand-new super-liner. Sturges counters by sneaking aboard at the last minute and sabotaging Julia's relationship with her daughter. Annette is infuriated that a possible romance with royalty was thwarted, but becomes interested in a fresh college boy, Gifford Rogers (Robert Wagner). The domestic battle heightens when the spiteful Julia gives Richard some news she's saved to tell him for a long, long time. But their feuding is interrupted by history - "Iceberg, dead ahead!"

Charles Brackett found his plot hook for Titanic in the contrast between snooty Europeans and good 'old America. Probably intuiting that the patrician first class on the maiden voyage lacked appeal, the writers have given Barbara Stanwyck a sort of female Dodsworth character who defends middle-class values against her husband Webb's high-toned ideas of superiority. Webb's icy snob is accurate to the period and, like many of his characters, charming in reverse. The high concept drama allows both he and Stanwyck's bitter wife to go noble and redeem their characters when tragedy strikes. Seeing Webb turn from an emotional iceberg to a chivalrous swain hit the right heartstrings with audiences. For once, the drama of a disaster picture outweighs its spectacle. Titanic is a good show.

The supporting cast is excellent. Charming Audrey Dalton (Separate Tables, Mr. Sardonicus) melts at the sight of Rah-Rah college boy Robert Wagner and thus begins here re-conversion to a true Yankee. Thelma Ritter is called 'Maude Young', but it must be for legal reasons, for she's clearly meant to be Molly Brown of Unsinkable fame. Neither she nor name star Brian Aherne as the noble captain are given much screen time, but they make their proper impressions.

We really know we're watching the prototype for later disaster movies, when a side plot centers on an alcoholic, defrocked priest having a crisis of conscience and shame. Richard Basehart is fine in this briefly sketched role. It appears to have been his final contract obligation to Fox before skipping to Europe to act for Federico Fellini.

Historically speaking, there are a number of ideas unique to this version of the story. Just as the 2001 9.11 cataclysm marked the end of the 20th century, the sinking of the Titanic marked the end of the 19th, and specifically the end of the 'golden age' of a Europe where class distinctions were everything. 1953's Titanic doesn't seem to be particularly class conscious, except in the twisted perceptions of the Clifton Webb character. We are barely aware of the steerage passengers, most of which were denied access to lifeboats, male and female alike. Webb's redemptive act is to get the wife and children of the man whose ticket he bought at the last minute, into a lifeboat - acting as a surrogate father, if you will.

The student played by Robert Wagner has to be in a different passenger class than snippy Audrey Dalton, but he has no problem mingling with the carriage trade up on the top decks. The utter chaos and waste of the sinking are greatly simplified from the Night to Remember version, where lifeboats rowed away half empty and many men were permitted access into some, but held off at gunpoint from taking seats in others. This accounts for one man (a surrogate for the company owner, Ismay, who took a lifeboat seat?) putting on a woman's dress to escape. His 'exceptional cowardice' gives us the idea that the 'women and children only' rule was strictly enforced, and that the passengers left behind waited to die nobly and peacefully. (spoiler) Knowing that their audience wasn't ready for a tragedy between the ingenue leads. The writers arrange for Wagner to accidentally fall into the water while trying to free a snarled line, which is a convenient mishap because 20 seconds later he's a lucky guy in a lifeboat. By contrast, the newlyweds in A Night to Remember boldly take to the water, only to be crushed by a falling smokestack.

Other technical details are odd as well. Although the slicing of Titanic's compartments by the iceberg is accurate, to avoid the 'berg an officer yells, 'Steer to starboard!' (Right), and we see the model boat make an opposite turn to the Left (Port). Blame for the accident is pinned on the Captain's decision to assume there was only one iceberg in the ship's path, because an earlier warning had mentioned only one. All the other possible reasons - Ismay goading the Captain to go faster, fumbled wireless communications, general incompetence - are left by the wayside. Since the film was made before the major research on the sinking came out, this is all understandable. This Titanic stays centered on the anguish of one family's reaction, to good effect.

The really unsinkable personality here is Barbara Stanwyck, who always distinguished herself no matter what show she's in. The key scene when Julia Sturges drops her bombshell revelation on Webb is her moment, through and through - even though it ends on an extended shot of an empty doorway, while her dumbstruck husband slowly absorbs her words.

The miniature views of the Titanic under steam look rather fake at the beginning, with the boat emitting badly scaled smoke, but the effects visuals set at night improve greatly, with the composites near the end looking very impressive. The sets are nowhere near as elaborate as those in other versions (the now-famous ballroom staircase looks like something in a Woolworth's) but the exterior sets of the side of the ship with the boats being lowered, etc, are full-scale and convincing.

Fox's Studio Classics DVD of Titanic is a fine presentation, with few scratches or instances of dirt. The audio is also without noticeable flaws. There's an awkward cut between a few seconds of iceberg footage and the film's main title, but I'm guessing that the iceberg prologue was perhaps a last-minute addition to the film.

At the forefront of the extras is a long overview of the history of the Titanic phenomenon commissioned to promote the 1997 remake. It's padded out with irrelevant footage charting the progress of the 20th Century, but has lots of rare film footage from forgotten and obscure versions. The wildest is the 1943 Nazi propaganda version, which makes English arrogance responsible for the collision, and invents a German 2nd officer to represent sanity and humanistic reason among a boatload of priggish, insensitive Englanders. The movie starred Sybille Schmitz of the legendary Vampyr, although I didn't see her in any of the clips. The docu doesn't say that a main subplot in the Nazi version concerned a character chained below decks for some reason ... an idea perhaps purloined by the King of Purloiners himself for the overblown remake.

The docu uses scenes from this version of Titanic and includes a huge spoiler, so watch the movie first.

There is a newsreel of a premiere, and a trailer, and an odd audio-only 'essay' by one Silvia Stoddard, a Titanic expert who just rattles off details about how intense the panic on board must have been. There are two feature commentaries, one by the laconic and measured Richard Schickel, and another not-very-rewarding experience. Ms. Stoddard is back for more talk, accompanied by cameraman Michael Lonza. He jumps in every time a model boat turns up, explaining the miniature shooting in unnecessary detail. Stars Robert Wagner and Audrey Dalton come in occasionally to relate their memories of the film, but waiting (or wading) for them is no easy task.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Titanic rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Commentary by film critic Richard Schickel, Commentary by Robert Wagner, Audrey Dalton, and cinematographer Michael Lonza, Beyond Titanic documentary, Movietone newsreels, Audio essay by historian Silvia Stoddard, Still gallery
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: August 30, 2003

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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