As hard as it may be for some to believe, there were films about the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic prior to James Cameron’s 1997 Academy Award winner. These films have taken different points of view of the disaster, with some closely adhering to the factual record (1958’s A Night to Remember) and others using the sinking of the ship as an secondary event to a human story (James Cameron’s Titanic). Jean Negulesco’s 1953 version of Titanic falls into the latter category. Yet, it’s hard to judge 1953’s Titanic after viewing the 1997 version since Cameron’s gem represented a perfect marriage of the ship’s luxury, the disaster, and an affecting melodrama worthy of the ship’s undying legend. While Negulesco’s rendering has its moments and features a finale that captures the emotional devastation of the passengers, the experience is ultimately underwhelming. Due to it having been lensed in black and white (though colour was available), Titanic fails to capture the glamour and excitement of being aboard the grand ocean liner; making it feel like just a humdrum drama set aboard a doomed ship.
The historical details of the R.M.S. Titanic were reduced to a minimum for this version. Much like its 1997 counterpart, Titanic uses the tragic sinking of the titular luxury liner as a backdrop for a drama about a few fictional characters. Instead of a pair of young lovers, though, 1953’s Titanic concerns a middle-aged couple whose marriage is ending. Julia Sturges (Stanwyck) has booked passage to New York on the Titanic for her and her two children, Annette (Dalton) and Norman (Carter). Her plan is to begin life anew in America and away from the upper class formality in Europe. By leaving, Julia also hopes to separate her children from her rigid, by-the-book husband Richard (Webb). Richard, however, is unwilling to submit to such a plan, and follows in hot pursuit; obtaining a ticket on the doomed liner at the very last minute in the hope of bringing the family back together. The film chronicles their trials and tribulations until the Titanic collides with an iceberg. The rest, as they say, is history.
Despite the soap-opera melodrama, the dialogue and acting are decent enough to keep the movie afloat for the most part. Stanwyck and Webb managed to afford real poignancy to the scenes of their dissolving marriage, yet it’s hard to understand Julia’s standpoint: why would she separate her and the kids from a man who spoils his offspring? In addition, the historical inaccuracies are blatant and difficult to ignore; from the shockingly inaccurate, subpar ship interiors to the depiction of the sinking. Even more baffling is the absence of such key characters as Thomas Andrews (Titanic’s designer) and Bruce Ismay (owner of White Star Line), both of whom played pivotal parts in the Titanic story. On top of the corny melodrama is an out-of-place scene in which the doomed passengers all sing “Nearer My God To Thee” as the ship begins to plunge beneath the waters of the North Atlantic. It’s somewhat effective, but blatantly Hollywood. Due to the above, it’s difficult to label this as a picture about the sinking of the Titanic. 1958’s A Night to Remember and 1997’s Titanic are far superior and more accurate depictions of the tragedy.
Inexplicably, the fate of the titular liner is not sealed until over an hour of the 95-minute runtime has elapsed, and consequently the film is rather dull. The special effects are not all that impressive in the 21st Century, but the model ship is astonishingly detailed, and the composite shots portraying the lifeboats rowing away from the Titanic do look convincing. Added to this, the occurrences on the deck of the ship during the sinking are admittedly well-staged. In particular, the loading of the lifeboats still grips at the heart. The fact that the hubris of the White Star Line caused such a surplus of unnecessary deaths is hard to swallow no matter which dramatisation you’re seeing. Yet, the utter chaos and tragedy of the sinking was greatly simplified here – in A Night to Remember, lifeboats rowed away half-empty, and men were permitted access to some of boats while others were held off at gunpoint. The ship sinks impossibly quickly in this retelling, too, with the Titanic’s three-hour sinking flying by in under half an hour. The filmmakers behind 1953’s Titanic were evidently more concerned with the drama about the Sturges as opposed to staging a faithful recreation of the great ship’s demise.
In the role of Julia, Barbara Stanwyck is magnificent. Alongside her, Clifton Webb basically plays himself but is nonetheless effective. Webb’s scenes with Stanwyck are mature, graceful and marvellous to watch. Even more impressive are the sinking scenes in which Richard moves heaven and earth to get his family into a lifeboat. Also in the cast is Thelma Ritter, who had a field day as the character seemingly based on the Unsinkable Molly Brown. Meanwhile, Robert Wagner and Audrey Dalton are excellent as Gifford and Annette (respectively), who gradually become romantically involved over the course of Titanic’s voyage. Wagner is handsome and effortlessly charismatic, while Audrey is gorgeous.
Over the years, there has been a lot of controversy over the fact that Titanic earned an Oscar for its screenplay (written by Richard Breen, Charles Brackett and Walter Reisch). To this day, the decision is bewildering – the script is pedestrian at best, though the dialogue is admittedly impressive from time to time. This reviewer would not go as far as to call Jean Negulesco’s Titanic a true classic, but it’s nonetheless a solid (if shallow) disaster movie. Yet, A Night to Remember depicted the disaster with more dignity, and James Cameron did it with more passion, spectacle and emotion, making this 1953 version a historical curiosity rather than anything more substantial.