We all know the story. Big boat leaves England with lots of important people aboard. Somehow none of the 2,224 passengers see the mountainous block of ice floating in the ocean- boat collides with said ice- chaos ensues- band plays on- a tragic footnote in world history and the inspiration for countless Hollywood film adaptations is born.
Long before Leonardo DiCaprio painted Kate Winslet in the nude, director Jean Negulesco brought to life the story of the doomed luxury liner in 1953. While modern technology allowed for James Cameron to produce what is considered the gold standard in Titanic films (Titanic, 1997), Negulesco was still able to craft an engaging watch around the well known narrative.
What truly struck me is how similar this film feels in comparison to Cameron’s. Yes, I realize the basis of the story is the same once Titanic meets its icy destiny, but Negulesco manages to capture a similar tone of anxiousness while writers Charles Brackett, Richard Breen and Walter Reisch design a well thought out fictional narrative amidst the true to life events. Even with the limitations of 1953, this film perfectly captures the look and feel on-board the Titanic, often appearing eerily similar to Cameron’s version. The decks, the staterooms, the dining hall, the inner staircase- all felt as if they served as inspiration to Cameron’s eventual vision. It’s a testament to the level of careful detail Negulesco and his crew took in crafting this film.
While Cameron front loaded his film with a lengthy, star-crossed lovers of destiny story, this earlier version of Titanic also dabbles in the realm of human relationships. Richard Sturges (Clifton Webb) and his wife Julia (Barbara Stanwyck) board the fateful voyage harboring a relationship that is just as doomed as the vessel that carries them. Julia, tired of Richard’s snobbish, bourgeois European lifestyle, is bringing their children back to her childhood home in Michigan in hopes of giving them a more normal upbringing. Richard buys his passage aboard Titanic from an immigrant traveling with his family in search of a better life in the colonies. And much like Cameron’s film, half of Titanic is over before we get to the fateful moment that alters the course of the story.
For the first half of the film we have to deal with Richard and Julia’s prickly confrontations. Wrapped in the middle of their failing marriage are their children, Norman (Harper Carter) and Annette (Audrey Dalton). There are sprinklings of other notable characters throughout, however, the lean 98 minute run time does not allow for any in depth character explorations. Little mind is paid to constructing any sort of context around the class hierarchy of the passengers or in developing any real sense of impending demise once the ship hits the iceberg. Everything just seems too calm given the circumstances.
It’s in the final moments of the film, as Titanic begins to embrace its watery tomb, that the effects limitations of 1953 really show. Some concessions must be made in criticizing the film too harshly, but when the ultimate sinking of Titanic is reminiscent of submerging a boat made of Popsicle sticks in a bathtub, it certainly makes you appreciate the era of cinema we occupy today.
The Blu Ray transfer looks about as good as a sixty year old film is going to look. It’s shown in its original black and white CinemaScope format, so it maintains that classic look, albeit much clearer.
Even though viewing this film today might seem like a step backward, Titanic is a decent enough watch and a must own for Titanic connoisseurs. Everything about it- the effects- the acting- scream 1953, and if you are a fan of the Golden Age of cinema you should get plenty of mileage out of this film.
Commentary 1: Director Jean Negulesco passed in 1993, so the commentary track is handled by film critic Richard Schickel, who offers a unique perspective on the film. While he is always respectful, he is also willing to share his opinion on what works and doesn’t work in the film. It’s refreshing to get an unbiased viewpoint rather than just the token self indulgence from a director that typically won’t share any presumed failings in the final product.
Commentary 2: An additional commentary track is provided by cinematographer Michael Lonzo, actress Audrey Dalton and actor Robert Wagner, who also provide some interesting tidbits on the challenges of shooting the film.
Titanic Aftermath: A short audio essay from Titanic historian Sylvia Stoddard provides in interesting look into some of the real life occurrences of the Titanic disaster, culled from survivor testimonies and eyewitness accounts.
Movie Tone News: Two brief news reel clippings, one from the Titanic premiere and another highlighting the Oscar win for CinemaScope. Both are very brief but a real treat for Hollywood nostalgia buffs.
Still Gallery: A couple dozen photographs from the set of Titanic offers a wonderful look at some of the craftsmanship that went into constructing the film sets and a few candid moments with the cast and crew.
Titanic is out now on Blu-ray.
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