Buried somewhere betwixt and beneath all the historical inaccuracies and heavy treacle of the misguided soap opera that is Jean Negulesco’s Titanic (1953) is an even more abysmally bloated, cliché-ridden morality play about marital redemption and the bittersweet reconciliation of a father and son. Charles Brackett, Richard L. Breen and Walter Reisch's screenplay lays it on thick, taking what is arguably the seminal event in maritime history – the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic - and extorting its tragedy. What we're left with then is an undeniably glossy and glamorous affair with stars Clifton Webb, Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Wagner peddling a lot of bunk that never quite leaves the dry dock.
For some reason the Titanic story has always been a tough nut for Hollywood to crack. A congenital defect of virtually every film maker attempting it (and this includes James Cameron’s fanciful 1997 multiple Oscar winner) eschews virtually any, and sometimes all of, the specifics about the actual men and woman aboard the ill-fated luxury liner in favor of concocting some idiotic scenarios chocked full of characters with far less compelling stories to tell, but with oh so much more dramatic enthusiasm favoring the absurdities in their embellishments.
Melodrama is one thing. But Americanized versions of Titanic have found it necessary to relegate real life luminaries aboard the ship like the ‘unsinkable’ Molly Brown, John Jacob Astor, Capt. E.J. Smith, Ida Strauss, Second Office Charles Lightoller, Thomas Andrews the ship builder, and the rest, to mere window dressing and/or background – suggesting an air of authenticity without actually being authentic. Had the genuine articles been dull or uninspiring in and of themselves one might forgive this chronic oversight. But with such a compendium of real life fascinating personalities to choose from this slight is more than unforgivable.
One narrative aspect virtually every movie has readily agreed upon is White Star Chairman J. Bruce Ismay as the villain. Negulesco’s Titanic doesn’t really go too far down this path in search of the necessary scapegoat. Ismay is there, but like the rest, comfortably tucked into the backdrop for safe keeping. No, this Titanic is very much about navel-gazing into the tepid marital quarrels of the Ward family; a leaden weight dragging the story down to the icy dregs long before the iceberg takes the rest of the ship with it. Add to this the inaccuracies in Lyle Wheeler and Maurice Ransford’s production design, which doesn’t even make the attempt toward authenticity, and you have just another big scale fluff piece with self-absorbed period recreations that look exactly like what they are – sets filled with dozens of extras costumed by Dorothy Jeakins.
'Inane' is a good word for Clifton Webb's droll performance as industrialist Richard Ward, part middle-aged fool/part effete fop, both utterly incapable of recognizing the sacrifices others have made around him - for him. I’ve personally never understood the longevity of Webb’s career. To me, he always seems to be playing limited variations on that thoroughly condescending rooster from a particularly stuffy social caste; his smug superiority utterly grating rather than inspiringly glib. His Richard Ward is no different – perversely cool while frowning upon even his contemporaries, whom he readily delights in dismissing with a tongue lashing.
It must have been difficult to play opposite someone whose one act wonder was accompanied by a broom poll inserted much too far up his rectum; for there can be no other reason why the usually accomplished Barbara Stanwyck, as Julia Sturges - Ward's soon to be ex – is so stilted and simpering throughout the film. Stanwyck’s Julia is a girl from the wrong side of the tracks, much too young, yet strangely sophisticated for Richard in ways he can only guess at. Through his connections and wealth Richard has played Svengali with his wife, elevating her stature to that of a lady of leisure. But the veneer in this transformation is very thin. Moreover, Richard’s constant scolding of Julia has provided her with the impetus to leave him at a moment’s notice.
However, Julia has ulterior motives too. The Wards’ daughter, Annette (Audrey Dalton) has begun to adopt her father’s callous regard for the lower classes, emerging into the debutante sect as just another utterly spoiled, empty-headed prig. After finagling his impromptu passage on Titanic at the last possible moment, Richard tells Julia that he will never allow her to take Annette or his son, Norman (Harper Carter) away from him once the ship docks in New York. Ah, but here’s the wrinkle. Norman is not Richard’s son; rather, the love child of an extra-marital affair Julia had while the couple was living in France. This realization causes Richard to rather callously shun Norman. Instead, he plots to steal Annette away from Julia.
Meanwhile, Gifford Rogers (Robert Wagner) has won his steerage ticket on Titanic in a poker game (Jack Dawson anyone?). With Julia’s blessing, Giff' becomes Annette’s penniless suitor, but only after some awkward first attempts to win Annette’s heart have also managed to break through her rigid ignorance about those less fortunate than she. After making a dent in Annette's hoity-toity arrogance – and teaching her the soft shoe shuffle – an antiseptic romance blossoms between Gifford and Annette - all very above board and quite proper. But by then the Titanic has already struck its berg in the icy Atlantic.
Rogers barely escapes the deluge that predictably follows; as do Julia and Annette who row in one of the lifeboats helmed by Molly Brown (Thelma Ritter). But Norman, who dearly loves Richard, elects to stay behind with the men. As the ship goes down Richard – who has never told Norman he is not his biological father – elects to carry this guilty secret to his grave; embracing the boy with a loving heart and with truer forgiveness still for Julia.
Titanic was one of Fox’s biggest investments of the year - though hardly a gamble. As pure subject matter, the R.M.S. Titanic remains unsinkable at the box office. Our collective fascination with that hulking leviathan that took 1,514 souls down with her into the frigid North Atlantic has never waned. Still, this version of events could almost make me want to forget what I already know about the disaster. Historical inaccuracies abound, too many to go into at any length in a single review; ranging from minute details (like was there a horn section in Titanic's band...the answer is 'No!’) to glaring oversights (as in having the ship strike the berg on its port side).
For such a lavishly appointed film, Fox’s penny pinching becomes immediately apparent during the dining room confrontation between Richard and Julia; the interior set merely re-purposed and modestly redressed from the party sequence in Fox’s The Razor’s Edge 1946). There are even more grossly inaccurate depictions of the sinking – an exceptionally well documented moment in history readily available for research by 1953: if only someone inside Fox's own research department had taken the time to pay attention.
Clearly, none of these factual misfires mattered at the time of the film’s general release. Titanic was the smash Fox hoped for – star studded and stupefying. Because the crux of our story is not - as the film's title would suggest - the R.M.S. Titanic itself - but the reconciliation between Richard and Julia, and, Richard's acceptance of Norman as his 'father', moments before the ship takes both of them to a watery grave, ironically, Titanic's screenplay took home the Oscar for Best 'Original' Screenplay. Even more perplexing today is the film's overwhelming 88% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes.com.
By now anyone reading this review will have wisely deduced that I am decidedly NOT a fan of the film. I realize that most who go to the movies do not attend to be educated; hence my constant nattering about historical inaccuracies will undoubtedly perturb. But at some basic level a movie based on historical events should at least marginally align the essence of history itself. This version of Titanic decidedly does not. As I began this review – I will reinstate herein that melodrama is fine. But if you want to do a story about the perils at sea and heap more fiction than fact into the tale, then call it something else – like…gee, I don’t know: The Poseidon Adventure – and be done with it!
Will someone please go to the collective brain trust (or lack thereof) responsible at Fox Home Video for this middling Blu-ray and just knock their heads together? Fox has been the worst transgressor on the hi-def front for quite some time now – giving us 720p transfers merely bumped up to a 1080p signal. Technically, it’s hi-def. I mean this Blu-ray won’t play in your DVD player. But technically won’t cut it once you pop this disc into your Blu-ray player and view the results.
Titanic’s image reveals a slap-dash effort at best; regurgitated from old digital files that have had zero clean up and stabilization. Yes, the image does tighten up – but so marginally that direct comparisons between this disc and my old DVD in motion yielded no perceivable improvements at all. Whole chunks of this B&W image are very softly focused with muddy contrast levels and a loss of fine detail that is wholly inexcusable. Film grain is not accurately reproduced and damage and age related artifacts abound everywhere. Just terrible! As expected, Fox gives us the same tired old audio too – our choice of original mono or garbled up pseudo-stereo.
Even worse, the very best extra that was included on their DVD - the feature length and absorbingly thorough ‘Beyond Titanic’; a fabulous documentary that covers not only the actual maritime disaster, but delves deeply into most every film version of the ill-fated crossing, as well as making some assessments about the lasting cultural impact of the story itself – has been unceremoniously left off of the Blu-ray. Given the very limited improvement to the overall image, and this unforgiveable absence, my recommendation to those who already own the old DVD is to hang on to it. My recommendation to those who do not own this film and/or have never seen it is to merely skip over this disc in its entirety. You aren’t missing anything.
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)