Last week I watched this film for the first time in about 4 years. It used to be the one and only Titanic film I'd ever seen (I think I was probably the only one of my friends who hadn't seen the monstrosity of a film with the same name made in 1997. Well, maybe monstrosity is a bit harsh, but I spent most of the film yawning and looking at the clock to see how much of it was left. However, this is a review about the 1953 film, so I'll get back on track.)
The last time I watched it, I think I quite enjoyed it (if that's the right word...I think it sounds a bit insensitive to say I enjoyed it. hm...), but this time not so much. I didn't dislike it - I'm not sure if I could ever dislike something that has Barbara Stanwyck in it - but I just didn't really think much of the side plot, and, much as I dislike the 1997 film, I found the actual sinking of the Titanic to be a bit lacking in comparison. No one seemed to be panicking or screaming - or doing anything that you would think people on a ship that was about to sink to the bottom of the Atlantic, would be doing. They all seemed exceptionally calm and contained, which was...strange. Obviously, I've never experienced any huge disaster like the sinking of the Titanic, but I would expect human nature to dictate something other than calm and collected resignation to such a horrific fate. It just didn't seem real, and that ruined it for me. Also, there was the fact that it just seemed to...sink. From what I've read about the Titanic, it didn't just sink - it broke into two pieces whilst sinking. Maybe not as "spectacularly" as depicted in the 1997 film, but I'm almost certain that there has been evidence to show that it didn't just sink in once piece. Please correct me if I'm wrong! Also, I suppose I shouldn't be too hard on the film - it wasn't as though they could film it quite as magnificently in the 50s as in the 90s.
The side plot was all a bit flustered and rushed, I felt. I preferred it infinitely to the '97 plot however (there I go again...I promise I will stop comparing it!!). Barbara Stanwyck was glorious as ever as Julia Sturges. She was ice cold, beautiful and just wonderful. Clifton Webb was....ok...as Richard Ward Sturges, Julia's husband. I've never liked Clifton Webb. I don't find him to be in any way, shape or form entertaining - and, honestly(!), there aren't a lot of Golden Age actors I would say that about. His performance was pretty solid, but I suppose because I'm not overly keen on him, I don't appreciate any good performances that he may give!
Audrey Dalton is the Sturges daughter, Annette. Almost from the word go, I couldn't stand her. I think that's what they were probably aiming for, but it just annoyed me. Hah. Then there was Robert Wagner as Gifford Rogers, whom, although he seemed to be going after Annette (unsuccessfully at first...), I was convinced was setting his sights on Julia in this scene...
...I was proved wrong a little later on in the scene. However, I later read about the romance that blossomed between Barbara and Robert during the filming of Titanic, and so I'm convinced it must have been a bit of that bleeding through that made me get the wrong idea.
Harper Carter gave a mainly nondescript performance as Norman, the Sturges 10 year old son. And there was Thelma Ritter. What an actress! I adore Thelma Ritter - she was such a wonderful character actress! In Titanic she played Maude Young, who is obviously based on Molly Brown. I'm not sure why they changed her name though. I'm almost sure that she wasn't alive in the 50s, anyway. Thelma was as wonderful as she could be in a film where the characters weren't really developed much. I'll always have a place in my heart for dear Thelma!
The basic premise of the plot, other than the actual sinking, is that Julia Sturges is 'on the run' from her husband, Richard, in Europe. She takes her two children with her aboard the Titanic, in the hope of keeping them from the snobby, high society world of her husband in Europe. She plans on moving back to her home town in America - but Richard buys a steerage ticket just before the ship leaves, and confronts her in the middle of dinner (hardly a dignified way to go about it!). After a bitter quarrel, Julia coolly informs her husband that Norman is not in fact his son. Richard understandably gets mad, and takes it out on Norman. Well, rather he doesn't take it out, he just ignores and snubs him - until the iceberg hits, that is.
Once they all realise how fatal the damage to the Titanic has been, they seem to get things into some sort of perspective. Richard and Julia 'make up' before she, Annette and Norman are bundled into one of the lifeboats. This was one of the scenes that made watching the film worthwhile. I could really feel Julia's fear. Having said that, Julia's fear was the only thing I could feel. Everyone else seemed to be standing around like they were waiting for the bus.
As they were lowering the dinghy, some actual fear seemed to appear in the faces of the people left aboard the Titanic, and the people in the dinghy. I found this Barbara Stanwyck quote about the scene:
"The night we were making the scene of the dying ship in the outdoor tank at Twentieth, it was bitter cold. I was 47 feet up in the air in a lifeboat swinging on the davits. The water below was agitated into a heavy rolling mass and it was thick with other lifeboats full of woman and children. I looked down and thought: If one of these ropes snaps now, it's good-by for you. Then I looked up at the faces lined along the rail -those left behind to die with the ship. I thought of the men and women who had been through this thing in our time. We were re-creating an actual tragedy and I burst into tears. I shook with great racking sobs and couldn't stop."
Maybe the extras were affected in a similar way to Stanwyck.
Whilst the dinghy is being lowered, Norman gives up his place in the dinghy to a woman, jumps back onto the sinking Titanic and goes in search of his father. (I love how the '97 film has in so many ways just recycled and spiced up the '53 storyline). He eventually finds him, and the inevitable father-son hug and make up ensues and Richard says something along the lines of "I've been proud of you your entire life!"
I think it might have been this film about the Titanic that immortalised the legend that the band played and the people sang "Nearer My God to Thee" as the Titanic sank. I know that survivors have said they remember hearing the band playing, but they couldn't remember what they were playing- and no one was paying much attention anyway. Well, in this film, the people who are left on the Titanic are singing almost until it sinks. It seems a bit too romanticised really. At least in the '97 film they had the gumption to stop the band playing well before the ship sank.
The actual sinking, as I said, seemed a bit...not downplayed exactly, but it didn't make the actual horror of the tragedy hit home. I suppose it's probably because I've been 'spoilt' with the special effects used in '97 film (it gives me nightmares whenever I see it...). It was spectacular for it's time, I suppose. I feel a bit sad that the special effects used in old films and t.v shows don't have any affect on me. The scary/horror special effects are funny, and the special effects for tragedies like the Titanic are just not very magnificent in comparison to the special effects I've seen growing up. Ah, well.
All in all, I think it's an 'ok' film. The only reason I would watch it again is for Barbara Stanwyck, but I've read several reviews by other people who have enjoyed it more, or less, than I, and who enjoy the other performances too! So, I would say - watch it if you feel like it might be your cup of tea, or watch it even if you don't. You never know whether you'll enjoy a film or not until you've watched it yourself!
So, yes, that is my extremely long, rambling review of the 1953 film Titanic. If you managed to wade through it, and get to the end, I take my hat off to you!
(Barbara watching the Titanic's final moments)