Tuesday, June 03, 2008
The Titanic in Three Movies
Almost one hundred years later and with just one survivor still living, to say that the Titanic story is irresistible is about as original as remarking that this Cary Grant fellow was really quite attractive. We've cycled through books and movies and musicals and miniseries and a hundred years from now they'll no doubt be adapting the story to whatever format our great-grandchildren have cooked up.
For the Siren, even the dreariest retellings (the worst was that 1979 TV thing) have the gleam of romantic fascination. So last week she couldn't help herself--she had to watch A Night to Remember, fifty years on still the best rendering of the ship's sinking. As she wallowed once more the Siren decided to take a look at some of the differences between this fine version and the other two major movies, the 1997 James Cameron behemoth and the quiet, almost elegiac 1953 Titanic.
The first of the trio, from 1953, had an Oscar-winning script co-written by Charles Brackett and he, along with director Jean Negulesco, wisely kept it simple. The focus throughout is on a single family. Mother Barbara Stanwyck has had enough of marriage to Clifton Webb and she is returning to New York with her two children in tow. Stanwyck's daughter, played by the gorgeous Audrey Dalton, has a rich-girl-poor-boy romance that just may have caught James Cameron's eye, but the subplot is hurt by Robert Wagner, who really deserved a spot in one of the Siren's earlier posts.
The Siren often swats away allegations that a certain actor always played himself, but if ever it was true of a star, it was true of Clifton Webb. He was always a rich, witty, cultivated gay man and either that fits the movie and he's awesome, as with Laura, or you can sort of work it out in your brain to where it doesn't matter, as with Three Coins in the Fountain and Cheaper by the Dozen, or his very presence is ridiculous and your brain starts to hurt. Titanic is possibly his best performance, with no mannerisms and the emotion played for simple truth. No doubt it helps that he's playing opposite Stanwyck, here demonstrating her unsurpassed ability to make a flawed woman sympathetic. Stanwyck's secret is that her young son Norman (Harper Carter) wasn't fathered by Webb. How that plays out as the ship sinks will carry few surprises for those familiar with Production Code notions of maternal payback, but it packs an emotional wallop all the same.
The ship's sinking is confined largely to a background shot, although it's a very nice background shot done with a good miniature. The movie was made before Walter Lord's research produced A Night to Remember, and there's no attempt to depict anyone scrambling for their lives as the ship sinks. Instead the passengers gather on deck and sing "Nearer My God to Thee." Which strikes some later viewers as ridiculous, but that's actually close to what the legend had people believing up to the publication of Lord's book.
A Night to Remember uses Lord's research to the hilt, with an authentic feel that Cameron's movie never surpasses. Eric Ambler wrote a brilliant script that has each character sounding precisely as you would expect a 1912 character to sound, without ever losing the semblance of natural speech. Less is more, Baker seems to have decided, and with few exceptions he lets the events milk emotions for him. The Siren particularly admires the simply shot scene where the boat's designer, Thomas Andrews, scribbles some calculations and says quietly, "She should live another hour and a half. Yes. About that, I should think." Baker went on to make a number of Hammer horror films, but never filmed a moment more full of dread than that one.
The sinking in A Night to Remember builds like a piece of music. Our first realization that the ship is starting to rear up for its final plunge comes in the dining room--a low shot of a dumbwaiter, as the angle of the floor gives it a small nudge, and then it begins to roll, finally crashing across the room. From then on we shift back and forth between the people on the Titanic and the ship's physical destruction. We see bread falling out of the baker's carts, equipment pinnning down men working below, people jumping. The dishes and pots fall out of their shelves in the kitchen, then back the camera goes to the decks where passengers fight to climb higher, as the incline gets steeper and they seem almost to be willing to claw their way through the boards to gain one more minute on the dry ship.
Cameron's ship goes down in more spectacular fashion, with many awestriking and beautiful shots, such as the lights that turn the water a jewel-like green as they sink below the surface, or the shot from below of the propeller rising, or Kate Winslet and Leonardo di Caprio clinging to the ship's railing, suspended above the water as if on a skyscraper's observation deck. But one measure of Baker's brilliance is how many of his shots and choices were lifted by James Cameron. There's the dishes falling; shipping line official J. Bruce Ismay in a lifeboat, turning his back on the Titanic; the smokestack falling (although on a different character); Andrews, with no life jacket on, contemplating a painting and waiting for death; the list goes on. But to say he borrowed a lot isn't a slam at Cameron. He had the instinct to take things from both of the smaller-scale movies that went before and use them to keep his epic from being just another way to say "cool, look at that!"
Speaking of Cameron--maybe the Siren wasn't entirely honest in that quiz below. Maybe she does have a secret, or at least something she doesn't rush to bring up in conversations with cinephiles. She likes his Titanic. It isn't the best of the three--that's Baker's film, without the smallest shred of doubt. But Cameron's Titanic isn't bad, no, it really isn't. And while it's fashionable now to claim you hated it from the beginning (and sure, a lot of people did) it grossed over a billion dollars. Don't try to tell me that's all teenage Leo fans. Some of you out there liked it too.
Cameron himself cracked that he'd made a $200 million chick flick, which is neither a joke nor self-deprecation. What's best in the picture--the tenderness of the youthful romance, the sweep of the story, the small characters who still imprint themselves on your memory--are all things that help define a classic women's picture. What doesn't work in the movie--the vulgarity of the dialogue, the wink-wink asides to the audience, the way Billy Zane morphs into a hellbent shoot-'em-up psychopath at the end--comes from the worst traditions of the 1980s actioners that made Cameron's name.
It was during the 1980s (1981 and Raiders of the Lost Ark, to be precise) that action movie scripts developed an urge to poke the audience from time to time, as if to say, "You're smart, big guy! you got that joke right away, didn't you?" The Siren likes Raiders and a lot of 1980s action pictures, that isn't the point. But because of this compulsion, which apparently Cameron couldn't shake, Rose can't merely be taking some paintings back from Europe, she's got to have "Les Demoiselles d'Avignon" in her stateroom so the audience can chortle over recognizing Picasso. Then the villain must remark that the painter will never amount to anything so we can all feel smug, because all those patrons lolling around eating Raisinets at the Hell Plaza Octoplex on a Saturday night would have twigged to the brilliance of Cubism the second they saw it. And then Jack has to come in and say something discerning. (The Siren's favorite line from any review of Titanic came from Britain's Tom Shone: "At least he didn't say, 'Hey! Paint!'")
Reading through the many online fan critiques of Titanic shows that Victor Garber made a strong impression as Thomas Andrews. Aside from Garber's talent, one reason that character stays with us is that he is one--perhaps the only--person whom Cameron allows to speak with dignity that's in tune with the period. Titanic's biggest weaknesses are the cutesy nudges to modern viewers, such as Rose's (anachronistic) invoking of Freud in a conversation with Ismay, or her giving someone the finger at one point. A well-born young woman? In 19-freaking-12?
It should be acknowledged, though, that the procession of lousy jokes does stem from Cameron's overall theme. The rich passengers on the 1953 Titanic are basically fine folks at heart, and with a handful of exceptions (such as Ismay) the Baker versions are treated with deference too. The harshest portrait in A Night to Remember is of the captain of the nearby California, who ignored the Titanic's rockets. Cameron cuts the California out of the movie and confines his mockery to first class, from Frances Fisher's icy mother, to John Jacob Astor IV asking Jack if he's from "the Boston Dawsons." The sympathetic rich are either nouveau, like Molly Brown, or rebellious like Rose. Cameron's evident contempt for the class divisions on the Titanic leads him to an unearned contempt for all of the first class passengers and everything they did that night. But Baker allows for the gallantry of Benjamin Guggenheim and his valet in the ship's saloon, dressed in their finest evening clothes and going down like gentlemen. It is one of those ineffably Victorian/Edwardian moments of bravery--it's the Light Brigade or Nurse Edith Cavell of a few years later. Even by 1958 this breed was extinct as the dodo, but Baker lets Guggenheim walk away with dignity, his camera moving on to one well-dressed old man still at a table, playing solitaire in defiant loneliness. Cameron gives only a glancing reference to these men and their deaths, and his camera mocks the portly plutocrats as they are confronted with the water coming in.
The flip side is that Cameron's refusal to buy into any of the mythologizing around Titanic's rich passengers enables him to attack, as no other treatment has, the difference in survival rates depending on how much was paid for the ticket. As the boat starts to sink we notice, and we are meant to notice, that the faces of the doomed are the faces we saw in steerage. Nor does Cameron skirt the stark fact that of 20 lifeboats, the people sitting in 19 of them listened to the screams of the dying without rowing back. Certainly that's alluded to in A Night to Remember, but what we see are a few selfish passengers and frightened crew gaining the upper hand over the more compassionate. Cameron shows us someone trying to drown Rose for her life jacket, and then the results of hypothermia in the North Atlantic waters, how rapidly and inexorably it sets in. He leaves the audience to conclude that the fears of being swamped were in some measure self-serving. By plunging his heroine in the water, Cameron can wash that taint from her, and put the harshest moral questions--not just about the systemic class divisions, but about the survivors--on the table in a way that the other versions don't.
The Siren has her own theory as to why the Titanic disaster makes good movies and, on one occasion, a great one. That's the element of time. After hitting the iceberg, the Titanic took two hours and forty minutes to sink, and those ticking moments are a gift to any storyteller. With other great maritime disasters, death came with no time for action. The wreck of the General Slocum in 1904, for example, also ended an era, that of the German community on New York's Lower East Side. The 2004 New York Times obituary for the last survivor, Adella Wotherspoon, was a masterpiece of historical reporting, a movie in itself if we only had Rossellini or King Vidor still here to film it. (You can read an abridged version online here.) But the sinking by itself was too horrifically swift and sudden, and so the heartrending loss of so many children and families has been filmed (so far as the Siren knows) only as a brief episode in Manhattan Melodrama.
The Titanic, however, puts tragedy into an almost Aristotelian structure, scene by scene. The Strauses, reduced to a single shot in Cameron's movie, but given unforgettable cameos in both the other films. The band in all three films, playing at first to console others, and finally to prepare themselves. Barbara Stanwyck's farewell to the husband who has redeemed himself in her eyes, and then her scream when she realizes her son has left the lifeboat. The father in Cameron's movie, telling his daughters there will be soon be another boat "for the daddies." The steerage mother putting her children to bed for a sleep that will last forever. The honeymoon couple in A Night to Remember, emerging on the deck dressed in white because Andrews told them it would help make them easy to spot. And, most achingly sad of all, the elderly steward comforting a lost child as the ship rears up for its final plunge. Baker's film is the least overtly sentimental of the three films, but he cuts to this pair several times, and it is them we see last before the Titanic disappears.
The passengers behave as we all hope we would, giving loving goodbyes to family, putting their safety above our own, offering comfort. They behave as we all fear we might, trampling others to survive, clinging to safety while others drown a few yards from us.
Disaster movies always try to draw meaning from loss. The 1953 Titanic is one of the few women's pictures detailing male anxiety and fatherly tenderness, acknowledging a bond that ultimately proves as strong as a mother's. The Siren has found that men are often struck powerfully by the final reconciliation between Clifton Webb's character and his son, but the fate of the Titanic itself is not as moving. Baker's movie ends with an intertitle: "BUT...THEIR SACRIFICE WAS NOT IN VAIN" because now we have plenty of lifeboats and the International Ice Patrol. After the wrenching two hours that went before that's good to know, but won't have many drying their eyes--especially not as a rocking horse drifts by.
It falls to Cameron to come up with the most emotionally satisfying way to conclude, using an ending the Siren swears he cribbed from one of the greatest women's pictures of all, Back Street. The camera sweeps over the photographs on old Rose's table, showing us a full and rich life. But we know that in some sense she was still bereft, and death comes not merely to restore Rose, who was never the real tragic heroine of the movie. In Cameron's final shot, it's the Titanic who regains life and beauty, to sail on at last.