Monday, April 16, 2012

Titanic Week, 4: The silence of experience

A series of daily posts to commemorate the centenary of Titanic's only voyage
Did I mention I'm on Facebook now?
It's a bit late, I know, but it was one of those things I swore I'd never get involved with, like mobile phones, sport or designing women.
But then, about a week or so ago, a still, small voice in my head said: "why the hell not?" No corresponding voice piped up with any counter-argument, and I couldn't really think of one myself, so here we are. 
I'm easy to find, under my real name, so do come along and say hello if you've got the time. 
Don't worry if you fear such easy engagement with the healthy modern lives of so many well-adjusted people might rob me of any of my curmudgeonliness or inability to relate to my present-day cultural surroundings. Your fears are groundless. I spent a sunny afternoon yesterday watching newsreels of World War I bonds drives, interspersed with 1950s editions of Sunday Night at the London Palladium, and I'm here to tell you that I predict big things of this fellow George Holmes
Nonetheless, I have also been enjoying all the fun things you can do with Facebook - the stuff most people got over the novelty of  a decade or so ago - like putting little links to the films you like on the personal information page and going "ahhhh" when it tells you that Juliette or Ivan likes them too, looking at photos of old schoolfriends to see how monstrously they've aged, and subscribing to updates from Jennifer Love Hewitt and Angela Gheorgiu. (Jen calls us all 'her lovelys'; Angela's a bit more remote, but they're equally keen to let me know when they're next going to be on the telly.) Great to see my favourite tennis player Stan Smith still going strong and letting us know what he's up to as well.
And it is very nice indeed to catch up again with all the lovelys I've encountered since I started blogging back in 2007, many of whom no longer update their blogs with the zeal they used to (if at all in some cases). 

Two of my Facebook friends posted interesting Titanic links this week.

Kendra posted this extremely interesting piece on the post-disaster life of J. Bruce Ismay which, though far from innately sympathetic, does reinforce my natural inclination to sympathise with scapegoats. I am now even more convinced that this man has been given a very raw deal indeed by pop-culture history.
Though you'd have to be a nut to swallow the characterisation of him as cape-swirling villain in the two Nazi versions of the story (1943 and 1997), I was further converted by the plain note of genuine desperation sounded by his unwillingness to even be reminded of the ship's name, his recurring nightmares, and his rather pathetic attempts in private correspondence and conversation to assuage the obvious feelings of guilt that tormented him. 
To which you can of course add: well, you have to be alive to have nightmares.
True, but there are no good reasons beyond post-disaster propaganda to believe that he compelled Smith to captain the ship recklessly or at excessive speeds (and good reasons for disbelieving it) and neither is it the case that he jumped into a women and children only lifeboat at the last second. He, and many other men, were ushered into the women and children first lifeboats that were being filled on the opposite side of the ship from the women and children only boats. 

We should also remember that while it seems outrageous to us that the ship had insufficient lifeboats, this was not unique to the Titanic but a commonplace at the time. (Titanic in fact carried more lifeboats than she was legally required to.) One of the commenters under the post makes a very good point in comparing this to safety-belts in cars, which had been long-recognised as life-savers, but it took a change in the law to make them standard in all vehicles. Titanic is singled out on this point only because it was Titanic that tragedy struck - it could have been any one of a thousand ships, all equally - or more - ill-equipped, with the same terrible outcome. 

Then there's this piece on the twelve known dogs on board the ship, of whom only three survived. 
It contains a moving reference to a fifty year old passenger called Ann Elizabeth Isham, who had actually secured her seat on a lifeboat before being told her great dane was too large to go with her, whereupon she willingly gave up her place and returned to the ship. Her body was later recovered in the freezing water, still clinging tightly to her beloved dog.

I had an interesting chat with the friend who posted the link about how even these dogs seem to have quintessentially Edwardian faces.
I've often noted the bizarre results of trying to cast modern boy actors, their blank paper faces screaming their complete lack of any kind of life-affecting or character-building experience, as characters from times when everyone's faces showed clearly the lives they had led. Meticulous accuracy of dress and decor only intensifies the inadequacy of the casting, so that Leo in Titanic, or Johnny Depp (a fifty year old boy) as a Victorian detective, or Ryan Gosling in The Notebook, able to convey not a millionth of the experiences his character supposedly endures, look like kids at the dressing up box.
But it had never struck me that the same might be said of the era's non-humans too! Yet am I mad or are these beautiful, tragic dogs striking unmistakably Edwardian poses: one looking nobly out to sea, the other two assuming their most dignified posture for the camera? 
(Incidentally, if you are by any chance annoyed by the attention given here, or at the original linked article, to mere dogs, or even find it offensive that tears should be shed for a dog in light of the event's vast human tragedy, then good. I'm pleased to offend you.) 

The Titanic film I want to look at today, uniquely in this series, is one I haven't seen. But it is one that, in one respect at least, might have the strongest claim to being definitive.
It was certainly among the quickest off the mark.
Saved From The Titanic (1912) was released to cinemas within a month of the disaster, and was shot in New York harbour on a derelict transport vessel.
It was produced by the US wing of French production company Eclair Films, and featured one of the company's regular stars, Miss Dorothy Gibson, who was additionally credited with the screenplay.
It was a screenplay she was all too well equipped to write, and that's where the film's claim to definitiveness lies: Dorothy Gibson really was a Titanic survivor.
She had travelled to Europe with her mother after completing her previous Eclair film Revenge of the Silk Masks (1912) and was returning to America on Titanic to resume her career.
She spoke of experiencing "a long, sickening crunch" when the iceberg struck, and escaped in the first lifeboat to depart the stricken ship.
Back in America she was rushed into this one-reel re-enactment, in the same dress that she had been wearing on the night.
Sadly, the film appears to be lost, barring a small thirty-second extract of slightly dubious authenticity.

Gibson's later life was no less dramatic. The following year she was involved in a fatal car accident, and it emerged that the car she was driving belonged to Eclair Films financier Jules Brulatour, thus exposing their secret affair. As a result, Brulatour was divorced by his wife. He and Dorothy were finally married in 1917, but the marriage was dissolved two years later.
Gibson moved to Paris where, as a Nazi sympathiser, it has been alleged she worked as an Axis intelligence operative. By 1944, however, she had renounced her sympathies, and was arrested and imprisoned in Italy as an anti-fascist agitator. With two other prisoners, she successfully escaped.
She died of a heart attack in her Paris hotel room in February, 1946.

(Tomorrow: Night and Ice, the earliest completely surviving Titanic movie.)