Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Don't they know the ship is doomed?

TCM is running a night of disaster movies tonight. The night kicks off with a movie set against the backdrop of one of the best-known disasters of the 20th century: the 1953 version of Titanic, at 8:00 PM. Note the year, 1953. There have been quite a few movies made, if not about the RMS Titanic, then at least set about the doomed luxury liner and using the disaster as a key point in the plot. Indeed, I've recommended a couple of them before in the form of the 1943 Nazi version of Titanic, the 1958 A Night to Remember, which is more of a docudrama than other versions.

When making a movie like Titanic, or any other disaster movie, one has two choices: try to make something as grounded in fact as possible, or simply use the disaster as a peg to hang whatever other story you've got on. A Night to Remember comes closer to that first category, while most of the other versios of Titanic -- and indeed, the rest of tonight's disaster movies on TCM -- fall in the second group. That includes the 1953 version of Titanic that's airing tonight.

The main story that ocupies the film before any iceberg comes into play involves wealthy Julia Sturges (Barbara Stanwyck). She's a mother with two children, near-adult daughter Annette (Audrey Dalton), and young son Norman. However, Julia is in a marriage to Richard (Clifton Webb) that's neared the end of its run. Indeed, Julia is getting on the Titanic with her two children because she's looking to file for divorce and take custody of the children in America, which is her native country. Richard doesn't want a divorce, but if there has to be one, then perhaps he can get custody of the children. Richard tries to get Julia to see things his way, while Annette spends time with American college student Gifford Rogers (Robert Wagner). And then comes the iceberg.

The last section of the movie, unsurprisingly, deals with the ship doomed to sinking, and people trying to get off the ship, which doesn't have enough lifeboats. Women and children get to go first, so we know there's very little chance of Richard's escaping with his life. But what about Julia and her two children? And what about the supporting characters? Allyn Joslyn plays a man who tries to sneak his way onto one of the lifeboats, while Thelma Ritter plays an ambitious woman who wants the finer things in life, like money and jewelry. Special effects are of a 1950s standard, which means that if you've seen the 1997 version, you're not going to get anything like that.

Ultimately, a movie like this comes down to the quality of the main story just as much as it comes down to the portrayal of the disaster. I don't particularly care for James Cameron's 1997 version of Titanic, for example, in part because Leonardo Di Caprio and Kate Winslet leave me cold, and the special effects-driven version of the sinking goes on and on. Oh, and there's that horrid song. So for me, 1950s special effects isn't necessarily a bad thing. Seeing what the Nazis were going to make of the disaster, on the other hand, is eminently fascinating. If there is a problem I have with the 1953 version of Titanic, it's that the movie is workmanlike. It's a story we've seen before, only this time it's set against impending disaster. Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck are more than competent, but ultimately I found the story somewhat less compelling than, say, From Here to Eternity, which was also released in 1943 and has a disaster that everybody in the audience knows is coming. Perhaps I'm being overly harsh on the movie, in that I'm not into the whole Titanic thing in the first place. The 1953 version of Titanic is by no means a bad film. It's just that there are other things I prefer more.

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