Thursday, June 26, 2008

Anecdote of the Week


Oy, quite the week chez Campaspe. Mr. C is in Australia on business. Periodically he calls to tell the Siren how great the weather is. Things here in Brooklyn are hot, humid and rather frantic, as the Siren tries to come up with a New York blog post in time for the Derelict's blogathon.

For some reason, all week the Siren has had Charlie Chaplin on the brain. Perhaps it is because she is child-wrangling by her lonesome. Chaplin was beloved by children around the world for such a long time. Do they still love him, if you show them the movies? Or is his art too faraway and antique now? The Siren plans to find out, soon.

Meanwhile, I couldn't stop thinking about this passage, from Griffith and Mayer's The Movies, and I had to share.

They were dreadfully poor. Charlie's parents were third-string strolling players. His father died early of alcoholism; his mother was often in asylums, whether through drink or because of periodic mental illness. Whenever this happened, Charlie and his brothers had to shift for themselves on the streets of London. Robert Flaherty used to tell the story of one of these times: 'It was a rainy winter night. Charlie, who was about eleven, had no place to sleep and was sheltering under an overhanging roof. A solid-looking man came by, took a look at the boy, and asked him what he was doing there. Charlie told his story. The man stroked his chin for a moment and said, "Well, I've a bit to eat at my place. I've only one room, but you're welcome to stay the night if you don't mind sleeping on the floor." They went to the man's furnished room, where Charlie slept on a pallet at the foot of his host's bed. Next morning when he woke, the man had gone, but Charlie found a note saying, "If you've no place to sleep tonight, come here." Charlie had to avail himself of his friend's help for many nights, but always in the morning the man had gone to his work. Charlie became curious about what that work might be. One morning he managed to wake early. The man was taking out of the closet and measuring in his hands a long, strong rope with a noose at the end of it. He was the common hangman.'

Out of such experiences came the greatest comedian in the world.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Talk to the Animals Wednesday Night and Other Coming Attractions


The Siren used to work at a publication that had a fatwa on the word "upcoming." A celebrated former editor once decreed, "If I see the word 'upcoming' again, I will be downcoming and the editor will be outgoing."

Some coming events in the cinematic blogosphere:

Over at Newcritics, 10 pm June 25th, Lance Mannion's Wednesday Night at the Movies tackles Doctor Dolittle. He wanted to leave it out, and the Siren wouldn't let him. For one thing, while it's the worst of the nominees for 1967's Best Picture Oscar, it still provides Mark Harris with the best parts of Pictures at a Revolution. The Siren was glued to the book in general but Doctor Dolittle, like all disasters, makes brilliantly good copy--from the tons of shit produced by the animals, to the choice of the rainiest village in England for a location, to Rex Harrison's lord-of-the-manor racism and ability to be a towering prick to all who encountered him, to Harrison's wife Rachel Roberts and her alcoholic benders that even appalled Richard Burton. There aren't many movie books that can make the Siren shriek out loud on the subway but Harris's did, and it was a Doctor Dolittle part that done it. This legendary turkey does need to be seen at least once. Like it (does anyone love it?) or hate it, Doctor Dolittle embodies a type of moviemaking that's as dead as the dodo. I'm willing to bet you will at least appreciate the scale and scope of the movie, in those wonderful days before CGI came along to annoy the bejesus out of us. And if you are a Netflix subscriber, it's available for instant viewing.

Even if you just can't bring yourself to watch, stop over at Newcritics Wednesday night at 10 pm in any case. I'm hoping we discuss Richard Fleischer--talented studio workhorse, or auteur in need of a reappraisal? (Check out Dennis's fine piece on Mandingo before you answer that.) There's Anthony Newley and the demise of the song-and-dance man, Samantha Eggar (still working and looking good) who went from animals to The Brood, John Gregory Dunne's The Studio (which went into Doctor Dolittle's doomed marketing plan in hilarious detail) as well as the whole flowering and quick demise of the 1960s studio mega-musical. Do all the ones that stiffed around this time (Star! is another) deserve to languish forever?

*****


Siren pals and Oscar experts Michael Phillips of Goatdog's Movies, Nick of Nick's Flick Picks and Nathaniel R of The Film Experience have come up with a great experiment. It's called Best Pictures from the Outside In. Listen carefully, because the Siren herself didn't quite get it at first. These men have seen all Best Picture winners (poor lambs), so they are discussing them in pairs. But instead of matching by theme (the Siren was all set to suggest Lawrence of Arabia vs. Casablanca) they are working their way in from both ends. Eventually, they promise (threaten?) "we'll work our way eventually to the 1960s, smack dab in the middle of Oscar's 80 years of back-patting." Last week was No Country for Old Men and Wings. Next week: The Broadway Melody and The Departed. Week after that, if the Siren is reading the lists right: Crash vs. All Quiet on the Western Front. That last has the Siren particularly intrigued.


June 29th marks the start of the "New York in the Movies" Blogathon for the Derelict, who blogs over at 12 Grand in Checking. The Derelict has terrific taste in cities (obviously) and in movies as well. (You want proof? she recently gave four stars to The Clock and The Woman in the Window.) She's wisely stretching out the contribution time to July 3rd. The Siren loves the topic and plans to contribute if humanly possible.

Ditto Goatdog's Movies About Movies Blogathon, running August 22 to Aug. 29. This is one of the Siren's favorite genres and she will definitely be there. I mean, just check out this list of possible topics. It reminded the Siren of all sorts of movies she loves, including Show People. By the way--anyone got a spare copy of What Price Hollywood laying around?

"Results like these do not belong on the resume of a Supreme Being."

And now George Carlin is gone? Damn. This is a rough month for us all.

He was not a movie star, but as someone who relishes star quality wherever she finds it, the Siren has always been awed by Carlin, one of the two greatest standup comedians of all time (the other, of course, being Richard Pryor). His delivery alone was a marvel--check out the shift in stance and expression with which he emphasizes "But he loves you," taking the joke from amusing to paralyzingly funny. Like Voltaire, Bunuel and Groucho Marx, Carlin combined irreverence and a dark outlook with a still, small hope that there was somebody out there intelligent enough to get it. Too many didn't and still don't, alas, but the Siren is grateful that for so many years, Carlin still thought it was worth trying.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

In the Heat of the Night at Newcritics (updated)

Over at Newcritics, the second night of Lance Mannion's Wednesday Night at the Movies, was a success, although the Siren wishes she had seen more familiar comment labels over there. You can still mosey over and say something if you are so inclined.

Blogger Extraordinaire Lance Mannion is running an open thread on consecutive Wednesdays, covering each of the five Oscar nominees for Best Picture for 1967: The Graduate, In the Heat of the Night, Bonnie and Clyde, Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, and Doctor Dolittle. Next up: In the Heat of the Night, starring Sidney Poitier, Rod Steiger in his Oscar-winning role, Lee Grant and the cool-as-all-hell Warren Oates.

As you might guess, the choice of movies was inspired by Mark Harris' Pictures at a Revolution, although you need not have read that (excellent) book to join in. In fact, you need not have seen the movie recently, or indeed at all. It's not homework (Mannion hates homework), it's a coffee klatsch.

For future reference, here is the rest of the schedule:

June 25. Doctor Dolittle.
July 2. Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.
July 9. Bonnie and Clyde.

So, next week, be there or be hopelessly square as we pay tribute to Anthony Newley and his role in one of history's greatest flops. Plenty of time to stock the bar beforehand.

Cyd Charisse, 1921-2008

I was less than 10 years old but I can still remember my father's expression when one morning he told me he was going to watch Brigadoon. "Who's in it?" I asked. "Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse." "Cyd Charisse? Who's he?"

With great emphasis: "SHE."

"A lady named Cyd?"

"YES, honey."

"So she was pretty?"

If all goes well with childrearing there aren't many moments where a parent says to himself "what the hell have I produced here?" but this was one for my father, I have no doubt. His face was beyond pained as he said, "All right. We'll watch this movie and then you tell me."

For many fans of Cyd Charisse, Brigadoon probably ranks somewhere between Meet Me in Las Vegas and that bit in The Harvey Girls where she sings (via dubbing) about being from Providence, Rhode Island. But as a child I thought it was swell and I still do. Why does everybody single out Brigadoon for being shot on the back lot? Does Seven Brides for Seven Brothers look like it was shot in Oregon? Does Easter Parade scream "sidewalks of New York" to you? Brigadoon is a fantasy, for crying out loud. Of course it doesn't look like Scotland. That is because Scotland has no magical disappearing 18th-century villages. In the Siren's view, Vincente Minnelli struggling with Cinemascope, which he disliked, had more to do with some of the movie's awkwardness than the obvious sets.

But there is still a lot to love. Minnelli lit the interiors to resemble Flemish paintings. The scene in the crowded Manhattan bar is brilliant. Van Johnson proved he could really act, and the Lerner and Loewe score is fabulously beautiful.






Most of all, "The Heather on the Hill" is sublime, with that sexual longing that's in all Charisse's dancing, married to a spiritual feeling in keeping with the film's mysticism.

So the Siren has a special place in her heart for Brigadoon for a number of reasons, but the greatest of these is undoubtedly that the movie was the first time she saw Cyd Charisse, the matchless dancer who died yesterday at age 86.




I think the next time I saw Charisse was in Singin' in the Rain. I like to think this was probably my father's introduction to her, as he was in the Army around this time, and could easily have been in an audience reacting exactly the way David Shipman describes here:

If you were in an air-force cinema, circa 1952, you'll never forget the sound which greeted the appearance of Cyd Charisse halfway through the climactic ballet in Singin' in the Rain. The audience to a man greeted the sinuous leggy beauty with a loud and prolonged 'Ooooaah!' As she slithered round an understandably bewildered Gene Kelly, there was uproar in the cinema. Cyd Charisse didn't do more than dance in Singin' in the Rain and people remember her in it.


It was a star-making turn such as few performers ever get. Up to that time the beautiful Texan had been getting herself married, having a son, getting divorced, then getting married to singer Tony Martin in 1948 and having another son. (One early role the Siren would like to see: Cyd's brief turn as Galina Ulanova in the notorious Mission to Moscow.) There were movies along the way as Hollywood gave her dancing numbers in generally inferior musicals and tried to find use for her in straight roles. She never comfortably adapted to non-musical parts, despite a pretty good late-career performance in the underrated Two Weeks in Another Town.





It was her run of musicals at MGM in the 1950s that guaranteed her immortality, including Singin' in the Rain and another masterpiece that followed it, The Band Wagon. Fred Astaire called "The Girl Hunt Ballet" his favorite dance. Charisse, who had been in a couple of noirs without making much of an impression, took a Mickey Spillane spoof and danced a femme fatale for the ages: "She was bad...she was dangerous. I wouldn't trust any further than I can throw her. But she was my kind of woman."




As in The Band Wagon, Charisse's greatest moments usually cast her as a woman whose jazzed-up dancing is seen as slumming somehow. In that sense she was perfectly of the 1950s, her sensuality boiling along under the surface as she gives her frequently wooden line readings. Then the music starts, she begins to dance and all hell breaks loose. You realize that here is the real Cyd, a dose of sex so strong that at some point in the dance her partner, even a great like Astaire or Kelly, seems bowled over by it.

So in The Band Wagon, she's a ballerina with a bad attitude about musicals, until she and Astaire go "Dancing in the Dark." In Meet Me in Las Vegas, she's a ballerina again, horrified by her contract to perform in Vegas, giving a nice-but-no-more bit from Swan Lake--and then all but igniting the film stock with "Frankie and Johnny."

She gave her best all-around performance in It's Always Fair Weather as a woman who harbors a brain under the bombshell exterior, sporting some dangerously feminist ideas in a cab scene with Gene Kelly, then raising the gym roof with a chorus of punch-drunk boxers in "Baby, You Knock Me Out." Her final musical at MGM had her taking the old Garbo role as a defrosted Soviet in the Ninotchka remake, Silk Stockings, discovering the power of her own beauty in a number partnered only by some lingerie and the items of the title. Her last great dancing part, in Nicholas Ray's Party Girl, brought the two-sided Cyd to some sort of apotheosis, as she tries to set Robert Taylor straight while performing two dances that would turn any good man bad.

For years now the Siren had occasionally searched around for current pictures of Charisse, and she always looked radiantly happy and beautiful. It was a great life, but it's still a sad day for us. The Siren leaves the final word to Astaire: "That Cyd! When you've danced with her, you stay danced with."

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Anecdote of the Week



The Siren is tied up at the moment, but she remembered this tidbit from Joan Collins' Past Imperfect and decided to share. Yes, I own Joan's memoirs. In hardcover. And I love Joan. You gotta problem with that?

Anyway, we had mentioned the Diane English remake of The Women but the Siren frequently forgets that this is the second remake of the Luce/Cukor classic. The first remake was The Opposite Sex, from 1956. Joan took the part of Crystal Allen, which Crawford had played with such panache. But Collins encountered some problems that Crawford didn't report, including a horrendous skin reaction to the soap flakes used in the bubble-bath scene. The Siren hasn't seen this version, one reason being that it's supposed to stink. But that doesn't stop her as much as the presence of Hollywooden actress (thanks, Mr. Wolcott) June Allyson in the old Norma Shearer part.

Collins, however, has a tale to tell regarding Allyson and why it's those "sweet" types you really need to watch out for -- not to mention anybody in a Peter Pan collar. Time came to film the big confrontation.

June was a tiny lady, about five foot two in heels. She was famous for her cute blond bob and her Peter Pan collars. She was petite, delicate and ladylike, so I was not concerned that she had to slap my face after the following dialogue.

June: By the way, if you're dressing for Steven, I wouldn't wear that. He doesn't like anything quite so obvious.

Crystal: When Steven doesn't like what I wear I take it off!

...And June hauled off and belted me. This little lady with her tiny hands had a punch like Muhammad Ali! I felt as if a steamroller had hit me. Something fell from my face and hit the floor with a loud clatter--my teeth? Oh, God, no. Please don't let her have knocked out my teeth? My head was ringing, as the slap had connected with my ears, and I couldn't hear a thing. Stars danced before my eyes and I staggered to a chair and collapsed.

"Cut--cut, for Christ's sake, cut!" screamed director David Miller. "What the hell's going on here?"

June burst into tears and collapsed into another chair. Makeup men and dressers rushed to the set with smelling salts and succor.

I put my hands tentatively to my mouth. Thank God, a full set of teeth still, but what flew off me? The wardrobe lady solved the mystery, retrieving the long rhinestone earrings which the force of June's slap had sent spinning. But any more shooting was out of the question. On each of my cheeks was forming the perfect imprint of a tiny hand! Branded, if not for life, for the two or three days it took for the welts to go down. June was desperately sorry, and it took longer to calm her down than it did me. Luckily, when they saw the scene on rushes it was unnecessary to reshoot the slap--it had complete authenticity!


Is it just the Siren, or does it seem that there was something else going on here? It isn't hard to cheat a slap. The Siren herself learned how to do it. Perhaps Allyson was so tiny that nobody thought it worthwhile to teach her how. Or perhaps Allyson had vast reserves of repressed anger that came roaring out at that moment.

Or, deep down inside, she wasn't sweet at all. Hmm...



As for Joan, not everyone has to be a talent for the ages, and the Siren just finds Collins enormous fun, from her taste for younger men to her pronouncements on why you should always wear foundation (that's makeup, guys) and her endearingly frank memoirs. She's a unique combination of highfalutin' and down-to-earth. Not every diva would cheerfully tell how Howard Hawks, who liked his women slender in life and on screen, rebuked her for indulging in too much food when shooting Land of the Pharaohs in Rome. Collins, who'd been up the previous night wolfing pasta and zabaglione, batted her eyelashes and claimed to have eaten only three hard-boiled eggs for two days. Hawks snapped, "Well you better cut it down to two hard-boiled eggs."

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.