Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Titanic Week, 1: Stanwyck escapes, but Waldo Lydecker goes down with the ship

A series of daily posts to commemorate the centenary of Titanic's only voyage

The 1953 Hollywood Titanic was a film I had only seen once, a few years ago, and to be honest I didn't remember it all that well at all: watching it again for Titanic Week proved a pleasant surprise. 
My abiding memory of the film had been of a surfeit of soap opera, through which I sat impatiently, and a surprising paucity of special effects and disaster sequences, which had left me feeling short-changed.
This time, prepared in advance for both, I was better able to enjoy the fictional main story, through which the true story of Titanic is threaded, and found the relative absence of disaster movie money shots oddly refreshing, too, in the light of my gradual but now complete disenchantment with the James Cameron film, of which more later in the week.

In many ways, this production anticipates the Cameron film, by utilising the documentary narrative as a backdrop against which a fictional primary narrative is enacted, and in which real life figures and narratives pass and inter-relate.
(Oddly, however, some of the obviously real-life characters are given fictitious names here - most notably 'Maude Young', who is clearly Molly Brown - while others, including Captain Smith, Astor and Guggenheim, retain their real names.)
The invented narrative thread in both films takes the form of an across-the-tracks romance, albeit delivered here at half the length and with a millionth of the self-regard of the later film.
Where the two films differ, however, is in the central tension animating the fictional thread. 
Though it certainly does not ignore the class elements that seem to cling like barnacles to the story, it lacks entirely the crudely polarised social juxtapositions which many viewers will have come to expect. Unlike Cameron's, these star-crossed lovers are both first class passengers, and the distinctions that divide them are not arbitrary ones of wealth and attainment but self-definitional ones of character, worldview and lifestyle. The result, despite the simplicity of the dialogue and the film's obligation (necessitated by the running time and the historical and factual material competing for the audience's attention) to sketch the story in the broadest (and swiftest) of strokes, is a much more interesting drama.
Barbara Stanwyck plays a woman of modest means who has married a millionaire wastrel, played on his usual magnificent autopilot by Clifton Webb. Now after twenty years of living in fashionable hotels in various European capitals she is leaving him and taking her two children back to America. He is also an American, but immersed in European society and scornful of the values that Stanwyck, and the film, take small-town America to represent: sincerity, integrity, community and a fundamental authenticity of living. Robert Wagner's seemingly naive college boy, at first rejected and eventually embraced by their daughter, is considered unacceptable by Webb not because he lacks means but because he lacks sophistication and social ambition. 
In his book A Night To Remember: The Definitive Titanic Film - which, despite its title, is full of useful insights into all the Titanic movies - Jeffrey Richards links this aspect of the narrative to the insular character of fifties American culture, and notes how the film seems to use the disaster - a British ship and crew with American passengers - as a metaphor for the handing over of the custodianship of western culture from an exhausted Anglo-European old world to the vigorous and self-reliant American new world, as seen in such moments as when Captain Smith hears the young American students singing their college anthems, and sits down to enjoy them, a smile of placid resignation on his face as he seems to recognise the transition between two great epochs.
Though contrastingly benign, these details continue the tradition begun by the 1943 Nazi version of appropriating the disaster as a commentary on its historical moment and employing national characteristics as a key to understanding its meaning, and even its causes. 

Stylistically, the film is interesting in that it was shot entirely in the studio and on discrete sets, with no real sea shots utilised at any point. The ship is represented at all times by a sleek and splendid 28 foot model, and special effects are used sparingly. There are only a few of the expected shots of rooms flooding and gushing torrents of water, none of them involving the lead actors, and the final images of the ship sliding into the water (and not splitting in two) are beautifully but transparently designed model shots.
Yet these scenes - all the more effective, I now feel, for being so restrained - are somehow more awe-inspiring than the more detailed and specific effects of A Night to Remember and other versions, creating, as the subtler horror films do, a patchwork effect that obliges the audience to fill in the missing details with their own imaginations, which no special effects technology can ever hope to match.
It also helps elevate the events to the level of myth.
Even in a studio tank, Stanwyck recalled being so moved as she looked up from her lifeboat at the actors playing those who remained on the doomed vessel that she burst into genuine tears, and something of this authenticity of feeling is most definitely retained in the finished film, despite its stock characterisations and telegraphed dramatic trajectory.
Whereas the effect of the wealth of documentary detail in A Night to Remember and the wreck exploration prologue (and subsequent crass psychologising) of the Cameron film is oddly iconoclastic, this more elliptical approach pays homage as if from a distance, mindful of Titanic's status as both icon and grave.

(Tomorrow: The Titanic and the Nazis)