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.


Adam Ross said...

"And, most achingly sad of all, the elderly steward comforting a lost child as the ship rears up for its final plunge."

I saw A Night to Remember with my family when I was probably 8, and this shot really had an effect on me. I remember thinking about it for days, how scared the boy was, and how the steward vainly tried to keep him calm until the end.

Adding on to what you said about Cameron's movie and 80s actioners, the final line is near verbatim to The Road Warrior's. Compare "He exists now... only in my memory," to "He lives now... only in my memory."

The Siren said...

oh GOD that little boy breaks my heart. I wrote this whole post to try and get him out of my system, but it's evidently not going to work if my first commenter is still upset about him too!

Someone had pointed out that Road Warrior similarity to me before but I'd forgotten until you reminded me. When you print it like that it looks like a high school student's bad plagiarizing ("exists" for "lives"). Still, the closing sequence works beautifully for me.

peg said...

"the tenderness of the youthful romance" in cameron's flick is nothing, NOTHING compared to the tenderness of a lifelong romance as personified by the Strauses in Night to Remember. my word, but that made an impression upon me when i was very young and saw it for the first time in the 50s (years before i became friends with one of their descendants who quickly grew weary of my references to the movie and their devotion).

Vanwall said...

Yeah, A Night To Remember is certainly the one to remember - Cameron's film is bit too cloying for me. I'm partial to "The last Voyage", a sort of Titanic-light disaster film, where they used a real liner, the old 'Ile de France' on her way to the breakers, to give it some scary realism by partially flooding her at sea. Woody Strode and Wooden Robert Stack were excellent, and if you've been on an older liner, you recognize the realism of it in the little details, something sets just don't give you. Less scope and a more personal experience makes it a bit more frightening.

As an aside, a buddy who specialized in pre-WW1 cars drove by work one day with one of his cars on a trailer going down to Mexico where Cameron's Titanic was being shot - he was renting it to them. My pal didn't think it would amount to much. Yup, you guessed it, it was the sex scene car. He made a fair amount more on that car selling it after "Titanic" hit the screen.

See you at the "Titanic" revival showing, sometime down the road, I guess. ;-)

Gerard Jones said...

Thank you, Siren. Lovely thought and writing, as ever. I loved Night to Remember when I saw it a long time ago, but, astonishingly, I have never seen Cameron's Titanic. Truth is, I haven't really wanted to until I got to your romantic final line. Now I will.

I have to confess that when I saw "Three Movies" in your header I was hoping you'd be talking about History Is Made at Night from '37, which turned on a fictionalization of the Titanic sinking. Utterly different from the others, but a great, high-speed, high-drama '30s version of a luxury ship disaster. Of course I haven't seen it for a million years and it's not on DVD. That Borzage problem.

I wonder if Cameron was conscious of the Back Street echo? Now I'm imagining Gloria Stuart saying, "You know, Jim, I remember something clever John Stahl when we worked on Back Street together..."

Gerard Jones said...

Oh, and I loved your dissection of the Picasso gag. Even though I haven't seen the movie, I can visualize it perfectly. It's the easiest set-in-the-past gag to do, I guess. I'm embarrassed to admit I've even used it myself.

The Siren said...

Dee, you may have hit on why Cameron left the Strauses out of the movie -- too great an act to follow, as your descendant friend undoubtedly felt also.

Vanwall, Cameron's film is extremely sentimental at times but it does also combine that with a surprisingly hard-nosed attitude toward other aspects of the legend. Wow, I don't know if I would have sold that car--it's so beautiful! But there was such a craze at one point that if your friend caught it right I am sure he did make a bundle. I have seen The Last Voyage and I liked it also. I guess I like shipboard disaster films.

Gerard, I did a brief piece on History Is Made at Night some time back. It's interesting in that it ends the way we all wished the Titanic story had ended. And YES, I am convinced he's seen Back Street! The Stahl version is hard to find. And I couldn't tell you which scene had Stuart in it for the life of me, although I did remember she was in it from reading the '97 stories about her. My bet is that Cameron saw the lovely Sullavan-Boyer remake. I was re-reading From Reverence to Rape and Haskell prefers the ending to the 1932 Back Street, but I think the 1941 ending is the business as well. But then I am hopeless, the sort of women who cried buckets over a red balloon getting stomped to death.

Noel Vera said...

I'm...not a big fan.

The way I saw it (and I'll readily admit I'm probably the only one to see it this way), Rose went on to indulge in a life of extreme sports and in all kinds of adventuresome activities a la Leni Riefenstahl. And when she finally thinks to pull the jewel everyone's been working so hard to find out of the collar of her dress (where it's been hiding all along), her only thought is to toss it into the ocean, in a fit of self-pity.

I don't know, but Cameron's overblown episode of The Love Boat hit me pretty hard too, and not in a nice way.

I do think Baker's film is a tremendous picture.

The Siren said...

Oh, it's a flawed film all right. My regard is definitely qualified. While seeing a beautiful unique gemstone sink into the water hurts my eyes, I do think it was also thematically in tune. Rose is preparing for death by returning the gem to her lover's gravesite. Rather than self-pity I saw a cap-R Romantic gesture, like Dante Gabriel Rossetti burying his poems with Elizabeth Siddal. (Of course, Rossetti dug the poems back up a few years later. Those big gestures definitely don't work for everyone.)

Peter Nellhaus said...

I hope you can find the opportunity to see the German version made in the middle of WWII.

I have seen the other versions as well. I probably would have liked Cameron's version better had Rose not been so unlike a woman from her era.

The Siren said...

Winslet LOOKED more like a woman of that era than 90% of the actresses around--the fair skin, the rounded body, she was physically perfect for the part. But she was given a character who was so 1997 in so many ways. She did a wonderful job of conveying Rose's evolution but she was hampered by a lot of that dialogue.

I will have to check out that German version, I have read a bit about it. Tell me, what did you think of the Negulesco movie? I'd love to hear.

WelcometoLA said...

Thanks for not trendily dismissing Cameron's movie. I've been meaning to defend it for years. By the way, just as an aside, we always make a point that a well-cultured person wouldn't have done this or that in a certain time period, but I don't always buy it. All people have their impulsive moments, whatever the era. It's what makes them human. Now, if the bird was an anachronism of the time, that's one thing. Also, don't we often get our notions about these things from the movies themselves, which are no slave to facts or history? Of course, being the Siren, I'm sure you've consulted the books and have plenty of factual backup. But every time I see that kind of point made, it gives me pause. It's a variation on "Oh, my sainted grandmother never had impure thoughts." Oh, yes, she did!

The Siren said...

Larry, I would have believed Rose swearing more than the gesture. Of course it was very much around in 1912 but she would have had to have seen it used somewhere, and then had it explained. Just not very likely for a sheltered upper-class girl of 17 (or is it 18?) barely out of the schoolroom, no matter how rebellious she was. I didn't have a problem with her sleeping with Jack, on the other hand. Our sainted grandmothers definitely did THAT.

peg said...

as much as i almost always like winslett's work, i thought rose was a dramatic adolescent (even as an elderly woman). it wasn't a great romance - they met, they had sex in the back seet of a really nice car, he died. more "west side story" than "romeo and juliet" but without the really terrific music and choreography.

even as an adolescent i preferred "adult" romance whether in comedy, as in "the awful truth" and "the thin man" or finding loy & march the only really interesting couple in "the best years of our lives." maybe because there was an authentic-seeming acknowledgment of (and wry delight in) sex in this instances. it was like watching the "happily ever after" of movies i liked less.

confronting the disaster, stanwyck's character is a complicated grown up; winslett's & stuart's character is, throughout, just not very interesting, no matter how terrific is her story.

Frank Conniff said...

What a beautiful essay. I’ve always loved A Night To Remember. When I was a kid in NYC it was always a big event when they broadcast it on TV in those pre-cable, pre-VCR, pre-DVD, pre-Everything days. I’ve never seen the Charles Brackett version but after reading your post I am definitely going to check it out. As for the Cameron film, I have been shunned by many of my hipster friends for expressing my unabashed love for it. Yes, I know it has its flaws but it always makes me sob at the end, and I can’t say that about many mega-blockbusters (unless I’m crying over the ten bucks I’ve wasted). As Lorrie Moore hilariously put it, in a positive piece she wrote about the movie, “After the third or forth time you see it, the horrible writing hardly bothers you at all.” I have seen it three or four times, and I always fall to pieces at the end, so I guess that sums it up for me. I do love it, although the supremacy of A Night To Remember remains unquestioned.

Linkmeister said...

A wonderful essay, and you stunned me with the news that Eric Ambler wrote the screenplay for A Night to Remember. Eric Ambler! The guy who wrote several wonderful mid-century spy novels!


Peter Nellhaus said...

It's been so long since I saw Negulesco's Titanic. I kept wondering how come Thelma Ritter was playing some woman from Montana, instead of having Molly Brown from Denver.

On a tangent here, there is of course, Titanic: The Musical, better known as The Unsinkable Molly Brown.

The Siren said...

Dee, I think Rose is underwritten but Winslet gives her real life. It's definitely not an adult romance, but the movie is about several characters (including the boat) who never had a chance to grow old.

Frank, that Moore quote is hilarious, the more so for being true.

Linkmeister, isn't that cool? I had never noticed myself until this last Thursday when I watched again and like you, said "Wow!" It's a wonderful script, pitched perfectly between melodrama and documentary. When I realized he wrote it I immediately thought of the brilliant two or three pages in A Coffin for Dimitrios where he tells of the destruction of Smyrna, and again, his tone is perfect.

Patrick Wahl said...

I really like A Night to Remember, starting with the title. I think it is effective because it is so understated. I think it's the British stiff upper lip thing. It also doesn't try to drum up any false sentiment with overwrought personal dramas. Cameron's Titanic, on the other hand, well, what's the opposite of understated. I think the ending had some effective moments, but the rest didn't really engage me.

Liked your point about the Picasso. Not really anachronistic moments, yet they are. They exist in a movie only because of our hindsight, and they are kind of jarring, they don't feel natural. (Almost Famous had a clunky moment when the editor of Rolling Stone talked about data transfer rates. Felt totally unnatural.)

Patrick Wahl said...

Forgot to add - nicely done, as usual.

The Siren said...

Peter, Unsinkable was just okay. The earlier sequences were bearable but the boat scenes were painful to me. I wonder if anyone around saw Titanic: The Musical which came out around the same time as Cameron's film?

Charles, thanks for the kind words. My big problem with things like Rose giving the finger is, as you say, the way it pitchforks us out of the world Cameron is supposedly trying to create. All involvement in the plot and characters shudders to a halt as you sit and say, "wait a minute. where'd that come from?"

Exiled in NJ said...

I always felt Jack (Leo) had come to the liner by way of the Time Bandits, and I kept looking for the dwarves, and hoped they'd take him off to another adventure, so I might enjoy the rest of the film.

Did not Lady Marjorie Bellamy of Upstairs, Downstairs also perish on the North Star liner, though we never see it? But it always seemed to me that Cameron's film could have used the writers from that show to inject some Edwardian sensibilities.

The Siren said...

you are always nailing the one thing I neglect, Exiled! Yes, I remember that episode so very well. We hear about how Lady Marjorie put her maid in the lifeboat and waited "for the next one," which of course never came. And true to the image of the Titanic as ending the Victorian/Edwardian faith in progress and the Way Things Are Going, nothing is ever as right and serene for the Bellamys again after Marjorie perishes. Having her die in that way was a very good touch.

Vanwall said...

Those English stiff upper lips -

After a cannonball hit:

Lord Wellington - "By God, Uxbridge, you've lost your leg!"

Lord Uxbridge, after looking down - "By God, Sir, I have!"

Almost needless to relate, the leg was buried with full military honors.

Exiled in NJ said...

And who are those musicians in the photo? I did not see them listed in IMDB's cast list or either Titanic or Night, but one or two resemble members of The Gypsies from Love in the Afternoon. Maybe it is the hats.

Belvoir said...

Another absorbing and thoughtful post, Siren, a joy to read and think about, thanks.

Took me a few years to finally see Cameron's Titanic, was a bit diffident about it, but it is true that it is for the most part, a worthy and engaging movie, despite anachronisms and jarring notes. The sumptuous visuals and yes, star quality of Leo and esp. Winslet do draw one in, satisfyingly.

I didn't remember that "Demoiselles" was part of Winslet's loot though! That is hilarious/improbable, if only for the fact it's not a small painting. The idea that Winslet (or her guardian, rather) had it uncrated for display in her stateroom is sort of Hollywood hilarity.

I agree the scene of the lady dropping the gem into the sea is silly and milked for mawkishness. But apparently the gesture made many many of the teenage girls who made Titanic such a gigantic hit (many of them reported going to see it multiple times) swoon at the romantic gesture.

A year later, Britney Spears (on the ascendant arc of fame) had a vignette in one of her videos where a handsome spaceboy presents her with a similar gem- "It's like the one the old lady dropped in the ocean!" she exclaims. I know it sounds silly , but it indicated to me just how much the film resonated with young females at the time, it was their "Star Wars", lol.

Noel Vera said...

For the record, I was against Cameron's movie from the very start, when it broke boxoffice records, and swept every gold doorstop in sight (I should post that old article, one of these days). The antipathy's continued unabated for years.

And I agree with Peter's point--it would have been more persuasive, more poignant even, if Winslet struggled and could only partly break away from her upbringing.

Gerard Jones said...

Thanks, Campaspe, for pointing me toward your post on History Is Made at Night. In my chronological journey through the Siren archives I've gotten just barely in '06 (Wild Boys of the Road). I'll look forward to History.

I haven't seen the original Back Street either, although I very much want to, especially given how much I like Irene Dunne. But I did see Gloria Stuart just a couple of months ago in Street of Women, where she did a perfectly fine job in the cheerful, innocent daughter role. Not a difficult one for an ingenue, of course.

Noel, I've had the same antipathy for Cameron's movie since it became such a huge success, most of the reason I haven't seen it. At first I was intrigued, having liked most of his science-fiction-action movies, but "Titanic fever" put me off. Which is kind of a perverse reaction, really--why shouldn't I like something just because lots of other people like it? But I couldn't help myself.

Do you suppose you'd like it more if it had been a flop that we serious movie geeks had to seek out on our own? There is something very seductive about private discoveries and esoteric knowledge. Britney Spears has never riffed on Trouble in Paradise or Negulesco's Road House.

Ben Alpers said...

Another wonderful post, Campaspe! However, I'm still a Cameron Titanic detractor, trendy or otherwise.

So happy that this has turned into yet another Borzage-related discussion. Can we have that revival already (complete with nicely restored films on well-transfered DVDs)? History is Made at Night isn't the greatest Borzage picture, in my opinion, but it does have the best title.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Excellent analysis, and I agree that "A Night To Remember" hits closest to the mark. What I admire most about the Cameron version is how in certain scenes the spectacular cinematography (computer generated and otherwise) enhanced a story that has become a chestnut, and what I dislike about it most are the anachronisms you mentioned. What a waste. What a shame that with our modern film making technology we have neglected simple storytelling techniques that makes past movies great. It's like one step forward, two steps back.

The Stanwyck version is good soap opera. Great point about the General Slocum disaster and the element of time.

Exiled in NJ said...

Speaking of the sex in the car scense, seems to me Cameron was channeling the near deflowering of Charlotte Vale in Now Voyager, before Mother Vale interrupted the tryst.

The Siren said...

Exiled, I don't know if they're from NTR or the '53 Titanic anymore. Isn't that bad? When you see the sinkings in succession, as I did (via the magic of TCM for the Baker and Youtube for the other two) it's striking how consistent the band shots are. They're the "wine-dark sea" of Titanic movies.

Aside about the Gypies --once after a very bad day I encountered a violin player in the subway who suddenly swung into a full-bore version of "Fascination." I was so delighted I threw a fiver in his case. Ah, nothing like New York.

The Siren said...

Belvoir, many thanks. I remember Frank Rich in the Times demanding to know what he'd been looking at over at the MOMA for all these years. It wasn't just "Demoiselles," she had another quite large and instantly recognizable painting in her stateroom but I can't remember which one and didn't have the energy to go on Youtube and try to search it out. (anyone else remember?)

Between this and Vanwall's comment I now have to do a shout-out to one painting joke that worked well, in "Dr. No." I love the double-take Bond does when he's in Dr. No's quarters and spots Goya's "Duke of Wellington" on the wall. It had been stolen and was missing at the time. As a matter of fact I believe art experts refer to an unscrupulous collector of stolen art as a "Dr No" to this day.

Exiled, together we are building a fantasy Cameron who's quite the old movie buff. A Now, Voyager reference! could be. I talked to someone who worked closely on his crew and described Cameron succinctly as "a maniac" so the idea of interviewing him is a bit frightening, but I sure would like to know if these references are conscious.

The Siren said...

Noel and Gerard, I know what you mean. Titanic '97 is not just white elephant art, it's more like White Woolly Mammoth Art. There are a lot of critics out there who get great pleasure from comic-book-derived movies, no matter how big and lumbering. They get the references and the world view and it's all part of a coninuum for them, even if the movie itself is noisy or vulgar or has bad dialogue. I think that's what's going on with me, because I see Cameron's movie carrying on the traditions that *I* appreciate.

The Siren said...

Ben, thanks very much. I also wrote up Moonrise a while back. At the time I was debating whether or not it qualified as noir. Borzage is such a romantic, humanistic fellow that I was inclined to say no. But something brought back that incredible opening to my mind the other day (god, it still frightens me) and now I am swinging back to yeah, it's definitely noir, just Borzage noir.

(Total tangent there. For heaven's sake Fox, can't you see the Borzage fans are jonesing?)

Jacqueline, you're right about the cinematography. When I went back to look at pieces of Cameron's sinking I spotted all his NTR borrowings right away, but as you say his superior technical resources enable him to build on what he's taking. That said, however, isn't it amazing how all Cameron's technology doesn't make the sinking any more frightening than it is in NTR. Even with 1958 materials a good filmmaker can use the sight of human desperation to jolt you just as much as seeing an ocean liner break in half.

X. Trapnel said...

Terrific post and a brave attempt to make a case for Cameron's overblown bathtub toy of a film. Still, the terror and pity of A Night to Remember expose Cameron as a crass filmmaker unhumbled by tragedy. Titanic is just a 90s allegory about Having It All and having it both ways (e.g., despite all the oohing and aahing about Picasso "Jack's" drawing of "Rose" is carefully realistic so as not to upset any yahoo notion of "real art."

Ismay has his defenders, but Derek Mahon's stunning "After the Titanic" is perhaps the best last word:

They said I got away in a boat
And humbled me at the inquiry. I tell you
I sank as far that night as any
Hero. As I sat shivering on the dark water
I turned to ice to hear my costly
Life go thundering down in a pandemonium of
Prams, pianos, sideboards, winches,
Boilers bursting and shredded ragtime. Now I hide
In a lonely house behind the sea
Where the tide leaves broken toys and hat-boxes
Silently at my door. The showers of
April, flowers of May mean nothing to me, nor the
Late light of June, when my gardener
Describes to strangers how the old man stays in bed
On seaward mornings after nights of
Wind, takes his cocaine and will see no-one. Then it is
I drown again with all those dim
Lost faces I never understood. My poor soul
Screams out in the starlight, heart
Breaks loose and rolls down like a stone.
Include me in your lamentations.

The Siren said...

"Overblown bathtub of a film"--that made me laugh, even if I don't agree.

That poem is extraordinary. I didn't realize good Titanic poetry even existed; the ones I have seen were quite dreadful. From what I read, Ismay didn't just step into a boat without a by-your-leave as he does in NTR. The boat had all the people they could coax in, the deck was otherwise empty and the officer offered spots to the men standing about.

Baker's version is brilliant, though. When Ismay steps in at the last moment, the slight pause and then the expression of contempt on the officer's face as he gives the order to lower the lifeboat tells you all you need to know about the way Ismay was regarded after the sinking.

Exiled in NJ said...

Cameron is a matter of perspective. My late wife and I watched it on video on loan from our library in rural Columbia County NY. On our 20-inch sreeen, we thought the ship the best actor, followed by Winslett. Leo was too pretty for my wife.

What I do recall is her reaction to the Picasso discovery and the Jack as artist scene. Morgan had her diploma from Boston Museum School....she said 'what a load of crap' to both, and left the room to have a cigarette. Only Guiness' Gully Jimson could paint on screen for her.

During that same period, two years before CHF would carry her off, I brought Curtis Hanson's LA Confidential back from the library. I'd read the Ellroy trilogy and was amazed that Hanson & Helgeland could compress the sprawling story into a coherent film.....and Morgan? For the first time in our 27 years, she did not get out of her chair though her body craved her nicotine fix. At the climaz she was screaming 'Shoot him, shoot him goddamn ya' as Dudley Smith walked up the road.

So I have this hidden guilty pleasure in reading reactions to Cameron's elephant, the wrong winner of all the awards in that year.

By the way, Morgan would go to the lobby at least twice during any film we would attend. She should have lived in the England we see in old films, where people light up as they watch.

Gerard Jones said...

I too am very pleased that this has opened yet another Borzage discussion. In my mind, every good conversation about anything should eventually lead back to Borzage, Negulesco, Irene Dunne or Kay Francis. One reason I'm so pleased to have found this blog.

(And speaking of History, lets's not forget that one of our number still owes the rest of us some Jean Arthur anecdotes!)

X, thank you for the powerful Derek Mahon. I didn't know of him, but now I do. Just looked him up: he was born nearly 30 years after the sinking, but he shares the ship's birthplace, Belfast.

X. Trapnel said...


My pleasure. Two other great Titanic poems are Thomas Hardy's "The Convergence of the Twain" and Louis MacNeice's "Death of an Old Lady." MacNeice, like Mahon a native of Belfast, was taken to watch the Titanic put out to sea as a five year old and the poem merges the memory metaphorically (and very powerfully) with the death of his stepmother 40 years later.

Speaking of Belfast, I'm hoping someday for a Siren posting on Odd Man Out and/or Carol Reed.

VP81955 said...

Did you know that in the late 1930s, David O. Selznick was planning to make a "Titanic" film? It fell through because he couldn't find a ship he could use for the set.


X. Trapnel said...

I think Selznick had Hitchcock in mind for the Titanic film (that is, to direct, not to play the ship).

Gerard Jones said...

Campaspe, just read your sharp little piece about History Is Made at Night, having reached the summer of '06 in your archives. My hunger for Borzage is only increasing, a hunger hard to satisfy. Can we start a petition?

I've always been conscious of Boyer's voice, of course (even us boys can't help being affected by that), but I'd never consciously noticed his use of hats. I do believe you're right. This gives me an excuse to watch Love Affair again.

As I read your archives I'm still waiting for more revelations of Campaspe the Person, but still you tantalize without delivering. I keep building romantic stories of your choice of a screen name. (Or is that your name? I like thinking of a little girl named Campaspe in an Alabama schoolroom.) Maybe someday the clues will all come together...

Vanwall said...

Ah, Gerard, like the son of Olympias, we must be satisfied with the limning and not the lass.

Gerard Jones said...

That is sad...but also romantically fascinating. And such a great line, Vanwall. I just Googled it to see if it was Shaw or Wilde or who. But it's yours?

Noel Vera said...

Actually, I thought the unsung hero in the movie was Billy Zane. He was wonderful to hiss at, gave his Dick Dastardly mannerism a style and panache.

And he showed more interest, threw more seriously thoughtful looks at DiCaprio's way than he ever bothered to give Winslett. When he started shooting at them, thought he was aiming at Winslet and hoping to keep DiCaprio for himself. That would've made for a more interesting soap.

Vanwall said...

Gerard -
Thanks for the compliment, Wilde and Shaw (in keeping with the subject, dare I say two Titans?) are flattering comparisons - yes, on occasion I can whip up a good line, and what better place for good lines than here?

Karen said...

Hooray, exiled, it's not just me! I actually saw TWO echoes of Now, Voyager in Cameron's film. Not just the sex in the car, but the very first shot of Rose, up from her shoes to a face concealed by the brim of a hat, suddenly revealed by the tilt of her head, just as we see the first reveal of the post-transformation Charlotte Vale.

I actually do like the Cameron film, although I know I shouldn't (much like my feeling for blueberry Pop-Tarts). Lorrie Moore's line is dead-on, but beside the wonderful effects there are some truly touching moments, most notably Garber's Andrews adjusting the mantle clock in a final, futile gesture--though I also liked the Strausses lying down together and the rush of brown sludge that poured out of the safe at the beginning, segue-ing to the brown clay water of Stuart's character at her pottery wheel.

Sure, it's no A Night to Remember, which reduces me to helpless sobs when I see it, but Titanic did manage to bring me to tears, despite suffering through an uncomfortable last 20 or so minutes (NB: do NOT drink a large soda during a 3-hour film that ends with endless scenes of rushing water).

I agree that the '58 film captured the End of an Era, death of Edwardian sensibilities best--as only a British film could, really--and that Cameron could have used more of that.

I've not seen the 1953 version, and now I really, really want to.

The Siren said...

Exiled, your wife sounds as though her comments would have been equally as well worth hearing as your own. I am very sorry she is no longer around. I need to see The Horse's Mouth again.

Gerard, I've never done open threads but maybe a Borzage thread is in order. We could start with Desire, which I saw about 10 million years ago and yearn to see again.

X. Trapnel, Odd Man Out should definitely go on my list; I have it on Region 2 DVD. That one would have a lot of relevance for now, I think, concerning as it does the final hours of a terrorist.

VP, I thought I knew and remembered all there was about Selznick but you have succeeded in Stumping the Siren. NO, I had no idea and what a film that would have been!

The Siren said...

Gerard and Vanwall, I had a bad experience with a brief stalking some considerable time ago and it left me a bit paranoid. You never know, however, who you might run into at the Octoplex. Karen and I have probably been at the same showings many times over the years, like ships that ... oops, bad cliche for this post.

The Siren said...

Karen, you've floored me. That first-sight shot is definitely a direct crib, how did I miss it?

James Cameron, Champion of the Women's Picture. You read it here first.

now I want to rent the darn thing again (I only reviewed certain sequences for this piece, on youtube bless it) and comb through it for more.

peg said...


i know, i know. i'm recovering from a hideous sulfa allergy reaction and hope to be able to think/eat/read/watch tv for more than 5 minutes in a few days. when i'm well, i'll try to string together anecdotes. just a teaser... ms. arthur (as she was appropriately called by us all in 1971) agreed with me that "the more the merrier" and joel mccrea were perfect things (she also explained to me that the reason they were was because george stevens was an incomparable genius).

gotta rest now, but more soon.

Karen said...

Aw, Siren, you make me blush.

The Siren said...

K., no flattery at all!

Dee, if you post your Arthur anecdotes on your (superbly named) DeeLuzon of Grandeur blog I will be more than happy to link to it. With bells. And neon lights. And boldface.

I adore The More the Merrier AND Joel McCrea. And I always thought Jean Arthur was a most interesting star.

Vanwall said...

Campaspe -
The less I know the better, please keep it that way, if for nothing else than for your own mystique - your writing already speaks volumes about your head and heart, which will eminently suffice.

I noticed a lot of what comic artists might call swipes in Cameron's work all around, but, yeah, many of his visuals could've stood on their own, as homages in a film-school manner. Good thing the characters were so simplistic, they could do well in a comic book, as Cameron seems to work best with the cold and un-living - like weapons, machinery, and Schwarzenegger - but not always so well with flesh and blood.

Originality is in short supply in "Titanic", and just the fact that he built his own ocean and then satisfied every modeller's fantasy by gluing together the ultimate scale model says more than a little about dreams of a youth who saw a lotta films, I'd speculate - the rivet heads were mass-molded and stuck on like so many zircons pasted to a sparkly dress that I almost laughed out loud at the enormity of his caprice...or mania, if you choose to look at it that way. Well, exiled in nj had it right - the best actor at least had the best costume.

The whole sentiment in "Titanic" immediately struck me as sticky like glue, as well, almost a romantic socialist-realism aspect with a rake's eye - furtively screwing the hoi-poloi in the car barn, hanging robber baron spoils on the walls like so many shiny gewgaws, mouthy punks put in their places with icy stares, the longing for a higher class; why not just tattoo it on my forehead with a blunt instrument? Oh yeah, that's what the Governator was for - must've been missed on those "high" seas.

The nobility and the upper classes are wide targets, and anecdote may give them an air of suffering in some special way, but as ye sow, so shall ye reap, and counting deserving souls for lifeboat spaces was clever math designed for only the best folks, something the hi-falutin' were born with, or cursed with.

They could've been dissected in a more skilled and penetrating manner, with less histrionics - those were much more relevant for steerage, where there was a helluva film to made, without the Strauses and Ismays at all - but then, remaking scenes from better films would've been so much harder, and what in the hell would he do with this big boat thingie?

The Siren said...

Noel, I missed your defense of Billy Zane! He seems to be having a good time but the part is possibly unplayable as written, which may be why he evidently amused himself with the goo-goo eyes at Di Caprio (I noticed those too).

Noel Vera said...

Yep. Every time their eye meet, I can feel the tension in the air. Plus I keep imagining how amazing the climactic moment could be, something straight out of Y Mama Tambien.

Frank Conniff said...

Speaking of Billy Zane, there was another great line in the Lorrie Moore piece, where she said something to the effect of, "The mustache-twirling nature of his performance shows that he understands exactly the kind of movie he is in." (I'm quoting from memory so I'm sure the line was even better when read in the exact wording of Ms. Moore. I forget the name of the book, but it was a compilation of fiction writers writing about movies).

Gerard Jones said...

I'm sorry to hear about your stalking experience, Campaspe. A friend of mine is going through that right now, and it's pretty awful. A grim but prudent reason to keep your identity under wraps.

(Nonetheless, I'll continue to spin romantic speculations about how you came to the name. Did a wealthy patron introduce you to a cinephile who was so smitten by your perceptivity that the only noble course was to surrender you...?)

As for James Cameron, it doesn't surprise me really that he would lift from women's pictures. (And I would say "lift from," not "quote," because I don't see him signaling that he wants us to recognize the source of the device, only using it to draw an emotional reaction from his audience.) Although he came out of a pure boy-action milieu, he pretty quickly showed an interest in (and touch for) intensely emotional melodrama, much more than anyone else from the sci-fi violence camp. That intentional-drowning and resuscitation sequence in The Abyss isn't just clever and suspenseful but astonishingly tender and intimate. The last kiss and the moment when Mastrantonio looks away from him and exhales are heartrending enough for any old-school women's pic.

And Cameron's always made a real effort to create women who are real and self-directed characters, not just motivators for the men. Even in that awful TV show of his, Dark Angel. Only too bad they decided to hire Jessica Alba instead of an actress.

Obviously he likes spectacle--and it's such a reliable money-maker for him that it will probably always be his stock-in-trade--but he also shows a real desire to tell emotional stories. In that he carries on some of the tradition of the studio era, not feeling he has to choose between the human story and the blockbuster. Which helps him make, if nothing else, much better blockbusters than most.

The Siren said...

Gerard, I think one of the reasons I (and a lot of women I know) who don't gravitate toward action pictures or sci-fi loved the original Terminator was that Cameron did a startlingly fine job with the romance in that one. I went to the movie solely to please the boy I was dating ("that Conan the Barbarian guy? are you SURE we have to see this and not Amadeus?") and was delighted to find this love story running throughout the film, and a bittersweet one at that. Yeah, he's a softy. We're on to him all right.

I'm not sure whether or not he's signalling his borrowings ... now that Karen mentions it, that initial shot of Winslet is about as direct as a crib gets. But of course if it's a quick shot (as opposed to, say, wholesale copying the Odessa steps sequence) you might not notice unless you see the movies in succession, like I just did with NTR and the last forty-five minutes or so of Cameron's film. Like the time a friend and I saw The Searchers just before Last Temptation of Christ, and so we both noticed a horn-blowing shot that Scorsese had borrowed in every particular short of putting feathers on the Jewish guy.

Dume3 said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gerard Jones said...

"Jews with Feathers." Sounds like an old Woody Allen story...

Noel Vera said...

Either Cameron's a softy with a mysoginist hiding deep inside, or his control over his characters isn't as sure as he'd like to think it is (I vote for the latter). Hamilton's character in the Terminator films is fine, but Jamie Lee Curtis doesn't fare as well in True Lies (frankly, her character as written is an embarrassment). And no one mentions the daughter, but she's a chippie off the mother's block.

Gerard Jones said...

Noel: Yes, True Lieswas appalling for its meanness, misogyny and general lousiness. I suspect much of the problem was that he was trying to do comedy, which he really shouldn't have. What he imagined to be cutting or bold or full of "attitude" was just nasty. And the French movie he was adapting was about female foolishness and duplicity, but the French can pull that off without seeming sexist and hostile that mainstream Hollywood just can't. And, of course, it was a Schwarzenegger movie during the period that his whole style was about smarmy cruelty. Not that I think Arnie helped script the Curtis character's lines, but his persona had a way of infecting everything. It was a bad step out of genre for old Jimbo. Fortunately the box office said, "Don't do that again."

Noel Vera said...

I don't know--I don't seem to like anything Cameron's done after The Terminator. Even Piranha 2 seemed like a masterpiece compared to his big Hollywood efforts.

Gerard Jones said...

I haven't seen Piranha 2...or Titanic...so maybe I should shut up until I have. I mean, isn't that like having opinions on Orson Welles without having seen Kane or Ambersons?

The Siren said...

I also hated True Lies, which I thought had all of Cameron's bad qualities and none of his good ones.

Noel Vera said...

Full disclosure: I've got a prejudice against big budgets. Ever since Cameron's budgest have grown as big as his ego, I've lost most affection for him.

Well, there's about the first three-fourths of The Abyss, but that's about it.

Anonymous said...

"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."

If only . . . Cameron didn't end Rose's story with her tossing that stone that she had held on for over eighty years before she died. If that had not happened, I would agree with you.

Gerard Jones said...

But Juanita...if Rose hadn't thrown it over the side, how would Britney Spears's boyfriend have been able to fish it out for her? For heaven's sake, think of the greater good!

Tram said...

Another Now, Voyager allusion in Titanic:

In Now, Voyager:
Charlotte Vale: Oh Jerry, don't let's ask for the moon. We have the stars.

In Titanic:
Jack: Where to, Miss?
Rose: To the stars.

And some screen captures:

Bette Davis' big hat

Kate Winslet's big hat

in the act (Now, Voyager)

in the act (Titanic)

Exiled in NJ said...

Sabrina's hat is not overlarge, but Wilder does the toes to head pan when the title subject returns from Paris, but with Wilder we start not with the shoes but with the poodle.

The Siren said...

tram, welcome and thanks so much for those wonderful captures!

exiled, I am laughing but it's true, he does! Trust Wilder to do it with a European twist. :)

Gloria said...

Yesterday I saw a real story in TV a bit related to this post.

It starts when, years ago, a couple of spinsters in her eighties sell to an antique shop in Barcelona the trosseau which, they are now quite sure, they will never use.

Later, an American lady visits the shop and request the owner to show her whatever clothing and apparel she might have of the 1910-20 period. To the surprise of the shops owner (rather used to see customers just purchading one or two items), she purchases everything.

Sometime after this, the American lady visits again the Barcelona antiques shop and tells the owner that the goods she bought were put to good use.

The antiques shop owner then phones the old spinsters and tells them to go to the cinema and see "Titanic": The old girls, who had not been in a cinema for ages get a nice surprise as they meet again items of their troussards, finally put to use as part of the film wardrobe.

Tonio Kruger said...

I keep going back and forth on the last Titanic movie. Part of me wants to love it. Part of me identifies with Noel Vera's attitude.

Perhaps it's because the whole "Rose Dawson posing in the nude for her man" seems like such a male-oriented fantasy. Or the whole "yes, it's sad that all those people died, but on the bright side, the lady got to ride a horse" thing that has been mentioned by others.

On the other hand, my middle brother liked it and he normally wouldn't touch movies like that with a ten-foot pole. So maybe...

Vidor said...

There is a picture of a baseball player named Old Hoss Radbourne flipping the bird at a camera a good 25 years or so before the Titanic set sail. Of course he was a baseball player, not a highborn lady, but the gesture as an offensive signal pre-dates 1912 by quite a bit.

Anyone who's really interested about cinematic portrayals of the Titanic should watch the Nazi version. Really, there is one. It's called "Titanic", it was made in 1943, it's very strange, and a couple of brief clips were re-used in "A Night to Remember".

john said...

Forgotten is "Der Titanic". A Goebbels 1943 bolt aimed at anglo-saxon baddies. No blondes but brunettes à la Riefenstahl!

john said...

Hows about 4 movies! Nazi 1944 Titanic. Bad guys Old Blighty capitalists! Good guy Herrenvolk hero!