“Titanic” won an Academy Award for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay.
After his successful collaborations with Billy Wilder on such luminous films as “Ninotchka,” “A Foreign Affair” and “Sunset Boulevard,” writer Charles Brackett became a writer/producer, primarily for 20th Century Fox, and shepherded ex-Wilder collaborators Walter Reisch and Richard Breen to fashioning a drama of the great ocean liner's sinking, with intertwined stories of a fractured marriage between top Fox contract star Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck, and young love with gleaming college brat Robert Wagner and Stanwyck's pretentious daughter, played by starlet Audrey Dalton.
In an interview with Pat McGilligan for the book “Backstory 2,” Reisch explained “Titanic” was planned as a dramatic vehicle for Webb, who had gained considerable success as the lighthearted Mr. Belvedere character in the 1948 film “Sitting Pretty,” and as a colour CinemaScope film…except there weren't enough cameras available at the time, so the production was ultimately shot 1.33:1, in black and white. The addition of colour and ‘scope would have given the film a glossy, soap opera veneer, whereas the diffused black & white cinematography suggest authenticity, and balances the standard melodramatic conflicts of Webb's shattered marriage with Reisch's factual research, conducted in London and New York.
As Sylvia Stoddard explains in the disc's second commentary track, “Titanic” was made before the publication of Walter Lord's “A Night To Remember,” so accounts of the disaster from witnesses were to be found only in court documents and archival news reports. (Lord's book, which gathers recollections from Titanic survivors, ultimately formed the basis of the titular British docu-drama, made in 1958.)
A 35-year member of the Titanic Historical Society, Stoddard saves a concise blow-by-blow account of the ship's sinking for the film's final reel, and explains Titanic's symbolic representation of shattered Victorian optimism; as the ship was torn apart and tumbled to the ocean depths, the vain belief that all of Nature's elements could be conquered with mechanical wonders was quickly destroyed. Along with discussions about the treatment of classes among Titanic passengers, Stoddard also offers brief sketches of the film's cast, and uses the film as an example of what was then a standard studio production – complete film factories with busy craft departments and bottomless ingenuity.
Robert Wagner echoes Stoddard's views regarding Fox, and with a heavy nostalgia for the old contract system that allowed the actor to hone his craft and slowly move up to supporting and leading roles in subsequent studio films. For some, the system worked brilliantly, and Wagner's nostalgia for the learning atmosphere between certain directors and major stars like Stanwyck is very overt. Audrey Dalton, then 18, describes her intro into feature films, and paints a similar portrait of a nurturing studio, though she's completely retired from acting today.
Interviewed and recorded with Stoddard, cinematographer Michael Lonzo Describes the nuts and bolts of the film's special effects, and though pretty reserved by today's standards, the effects team certainly mounted an effective sinking for the finale, which Lonzo dissects in great detail.
Film critic Richard Schickel is given a track of his own, and the results, even for a 98 minute film, are very disappointing. One gets the sense Schickel was tired, and recorded his thoughts in one sitting, grabbing bits of minor trivia and rudimentary film history from his mind, and not a prepared set of notes. The pacing is lethargic, and though each subject begins with a good preamble, Schickel rarely follows through with firm opinions. This isn't to say Schickel's views lack substance, but given the wide spectrum of extant interviews and archival material, much more could have been said.
The newsreel “Titanic Premiere Thrills South” is a classic example of vintage publicity, in which the film was shown at a marine base, and new Fox contract starlets Debra Paget, Anne Francis, and Jeffrey Hunter run around, pose, and smile, with Paget looking very silly with an ‘invading' marine platoon on a beach. The second newsreel captures Fox wins at the Academy Awards, with “Titanic” writers receiving their Best Screenplay and Story statuettes, and Darryl Zanuck usurping the limelight from poor Spyros Skouras in accepting a statue for the studio's innovative CinemaScope lens (which Skouras actually shepherded).
Sylvia Stoddard adds an audio essay of Titanic's aftermath, focusing on the survivors, the rescue, and news headlines that shocked the world. Though her last words are clipped off, Stoddard closes with a rather touching anecdote regarding Clive Cussler, author of the novel “Raise the Titanic.”
Lastly, the disc includes a documentary that originally aired on A&E – a more substantive attempt to examine the facts, the myths, and filmic translations than the myriad of one hour specials that dotted TV stations after James Cameron's version became a global sensation.
Using sobering comments from historian/authors Don Lynch and Daniel Allen Butler, the doc is another briskly paced A&E production, with loads of film and still images. For film fans, the best treats lie in excerpted scenes from the 1943 German retelling (a propagandistic but impressively mounted drama, pitting greedy Brits against a crusading, factually nonexistent, German officer); a 1929 British sound retelling (titled “Atlantic”); and a really impressive 1913 Danish variation (titled “Atlantis”). There's also a clip from the premiere episode of Irwin Allen's “Time Tunnel” TV series, where Michael Rennie – who bookends “Titanic” with narration – plays Captain Edward John Smith.
Narrated by Victor Garber, the doc contains a fair amount of footage from the Titanic wreck, as discovered by Robert Ballard, and reveals the rather sad dichotomy that exists between people deeply moved by the ship's tragedy, and people obsessed with all things Titanic, fueling a never-ending souvenir industry.
This video transfer looks fairly good, though a lot of digital noise reduction seems to have been used to offset a grain problem with the source print. The focus of some scenes is very soft, and the seriously grey palette – director Jean Negulesco doesn't use a lot of high contrast lighting until the end – has a rather ghostly quality. Sol Kaplan's score is pretty much restricted to the main and end titles, and the film's source music is restricted to period songs, and Robert Wagner doing the politically incorrect “Navaho Rag” number (which is downright surreal). Though re-channeled into a pseudo-stereo mix, the original mono track is the better choice. The Studio Classics line continues to uphold a benchmark for quality films with another fine inclusion in the collection.
Aspects of the saga and fictional variations of the Titanic have appeared many times in film and TV movies, including the German In Nacht und Eis (1912), the Danish Atlantis (1913), the multi-lingual sound release Atlantic (1929), the Nazi Titanic [M] (1943), the American soap opera / disaster Titanic (1953), the British A Night to Remember (1958), the ABC TV movie S.O.S. Titanic (1979), Clive Cussler’s Raise the Titanic [M] (1980), the CBS TV mini-series Titanic (1996), James Cameron’s Titanic (1997), the TV movie Saving the Titanic [M] (2011), the TV mini-series Titanic (2012), and (so far) the 12-part series (!) Titanic: Blood and Steel (2012).
Among the numerous documentaries about the wreck of the Titanic, the most notable include National Geographic’s Secrets of the Titanic (1986), the original 107 minute IMAX film Titanica (1995), and James Cameron’s 3D IMAX epic Ghosts of the Abyss (2003).
© 2003 Mark R. Hasan