Thursday, April 26, 2012

Titanic Week, Day 6: Rediscovered!

A series of posts to commemorate the centenary of Titanic's only voyage
(apologies for the  delay to these final two posts)

Is there room on the lifeboat for E. A. Dupont?
This film-maker needs rescuing!
He ended his days in Hollywood in the fifties, doing The Neanderthal Man ("HALF MAN! HALF BEAST!") and Problem Girls ("Nothing can tame them!"), and doubtless even he had started to wonder if he was the same E. A. Dupont whose Variety (1925) had been one of the last towering achievements of German Expressionism.
Yes, times change, and it's not always easy to keep up, and perhaps he consoled himself that Fritz Lang was over there grinding out sausages too, but at least Lang still had a reputation left to squander. Dupont was kind of a forgotten man, which maybe hurts more than being maligned. His reputation drifted away in the thirties, and Atlantic (1929) was, sadly and unjustly, one of the reasons why.

Of course, you wouldn't expect the first talkie version of the Titanic disaster, shot simultaneously in three languages, to get an easy ride among audiences steeped in the Gospel According to James Cameron. Outside the protective womb of the classic movie blogging community, most old films, and especially the early talkies, can be guaranteed to inspire that befuddled contempt that is the default setting for encounters with early cinema.  (A thousand times will ye encounter that phrase I dread most of all, yet so long to see used in exactly the opposite sense to its habitual one: ‘by today’s standards...’)
But in the case of Atlantic, the contemporary critics were pretty befuddled too. The film was only a mitigated success, praised for some of its technical aspects but often rather haughtily belittled as drama. (Dupont's other great British film, the near-peerless silent masterpiece Piccadilly got pretty sniffy reviews, and very very qualified praise, too.)
It's ironic because we tend now to think of the dawn of talkies as one of the most amber-set and lost-to-time of all film-making eras, and as a kind of naive, cute time. But to be there was to be in a moment like our own: a time of insufferable, thrusting modernity, one enormously condescending to the film-makers and films of the previous epoch, and of course in many cases actively destructive of them.
So, strange as it now seems to us, critics of 1929, anxious to leap into the brave new world where sounds issued every time actors lips moved, accused the more hesitant kind of nascent talkie of being exactly those things you'll hear people calling them today:  ‘old-fashioned’ and  ‘creaky’ and ‘slow’ and ‘unconvincing’. (And don't even get them started on the silent films they're replacing!)
And Atlantic was exactly the kind of production they had their rifles trained on.

Excessive theatricality was the charge, then as now, the film having been adapted from a play called The Berg, and in the then established manner: not by cutting up the scenes, rearranging and relocating them, but by shooting long, dialogue-led, single set interiors, and interspersing them with a few newly-written exterior or location shots as punctuation. It's a method I can't defend against any of the charges made against it, but it is one I just happen to love.
The film was shot in three versions: English (the version I watched), French and German. The non-dialogue scenes are the same in all three editions, and the fact of the same director for each presumably rules out any kind of stylistic differences such as are to be found, for instance, between the English and Spanish versions of the 1931 Dracula. (As might be expected, the dialogue scenes are reportedly a little more naturalistic in the version Dupont shot in his native German.)
The film softens the impact of the play, which sets the real events and various fictional dramas within a dramatised conflict of world views exemplified by two fictional passengers: a padre whose faith is faltering, and 'John Rool', an atheist novelist. In the film, the novelist becomes the main figure, and a kind of surrogate for us; he is unable to walk, and so remains in the bar, watching and interacting as the various characters come and go. He ends up dying in an act of exculpation for his earlier cynicism, while the padre is downgraded to one of several equally important supporting characters. We never get any of his crisis of faith, and neither is Rool's atheism spelled out in block letters; the closest we get is a character telling him, "you make fun of everything that everybody else thinks beautiful".
Various other dramas are enacted for Rool and for us, one of them, interestingly, that of a family estranged from their father who is also on board - the central plot of the 1953 Titanic. (Though it would seem that the father in question is this time a renamed J. J. Astor.) Then there is a young married couple, expecting their first child but threatened with eternal separation as the ship goes down, but saved by the selflessness of Rool himself, who gives up his own place in the lifeboat so they can all have a future together.
Note that the idea of using the disaster as a backdrop to fictional dramas, which swiftly became the standard means of presenting the material, begins here. As befitting a film based on a play, there is very little action; it's mainly dialogue in a seated posture, cutting between two or three spaces – the first class bar, the deck, the main staircase.

As an adaptation of the Titanic disaster, it is more accurate, and strives more for accuracy, than the above might suggest.
The ship is not called Titanic, of course, owing to pressure from the White Star Line, who put considerable effort into protesting and trying to derail the film, but there is a great deal of factual and technical information that reinforces its links with the true story. The other factor, usually cited as anachronistic, that is relevant here is the obviously 1920s setting, as seen in the costumes, stylings and especially the music. But as no date is given, and the ship is not officially the Titanic, presumably the twenties setting is deliberate: it is a contemporary retelling. (This also gave the White Star Line another point of difference as consolation, along with the fact that this time all the real life characters have been renamed.)

The iceberg strikes earlier than any other film (relative to its total length): just 25 minutes into a 90 minute movie. (The berg appears to puncture the ship above the water line, but it does so realistically in terms of the damage created – a series of punched holes, rather than the single gash that had been the orthodox understanding until the ship was discovered many decades later.)
There are some very good effects shots to follow, of the main staircase flooding, and of the submerging deck, and especially of the flooded ballroom, seemingly full-size or thereabouts, certainly not a miniature like the one in Night and Ice. But on the whole, Dupont denies us most of the spectacle we have come to expect, an evident source of frustration to contemporary audiences hungry for disaster movie thrills, judging by the online forums.
Most heretically of all, there is no actual shot of the ship sinking beneath the waves. Debate rages on the internet as to whether this has been cut or was never shot, compounded by the confusion caused by some documentaries which splice together the final scenes of this movie and the submerging shots from the 1953 version.
It seems that such a shot was planned, and possibly filmed, but never included in any release print – the decision being that the final horror should be left to the audience's imagination, perhaps understandable in a British production made less than twenty years after the event.
But what we have instead is enormously powerful, and one of several moments that give the lie to the standard account of Dupont's inability to use sound film effectively. Through the final scenes, the lights continually flicker on and off as the ship dies, with dialogue continuing in pitch black. Just as the final descent begins, they cut out for good, and so for the last few seconds we see only a black screen. We don't see the ship sink, but we do hear it. It is a brilliant idea. Yes, it's a fairly obvious response to the demands of the new talking cinema, and certainly it's a lot cheaper to shoot it that way. But dramatically it pays its way too: it is eerily effective.

And so, for me, is the majority of the film.
'Stagey' acting is not something I have any difficulty with, and this is an exciting cast by anybody's standards: two stunning Hitchcock heroines: Madeleine Carroll, younger than we’re used to seeing her, and Joan Barry; dapper Italian comedian and director (and Mr Gracie Fields) Monty Banks, Valentine Dyall’s father Franklin as Rool (and if you’re familiar with Valentine’s acting style you can just imagine what his old dad’s like) and that grande dame of Edwardian and Victorian musical comedy, the great Ellaline Terriss, aka Mrs Seymour Hicks, who died aged 99 in 1971.
The lifeboat scenes are excellently directed, and some of the editing is also very fine.
The film ends, after the terrible blackness in which we hear the great ship slipping to its doom, on  a shot of the morning sun breaking through clouds; it concludes a film that I personally found to be all the things it is said to be not: entirely engrossing, powerful and moving.
The recent restoration and reissue of Piccadilly did much to return Dupont to the consciousness of cineastes: when the full revaluation comes, hopefully Atlantic, too, will be fully redeemed.


2 comments:

Meredith L. Grau said...

Wow. I am consistently impressed with how knowledgeable you are on so many topics! Very informative stuff. I saw the Stanwyck version of Titanic just last week for the first time. I didn't feel like it built enough tension, but the performances were pretty good and I was pleasantly surprised by the special effects. But, the subject remains too sad for me to sink my teeth into that often. I appreciate you doing it for me, haha.

Matthew Coniam said...

Thanks, Meredith.
I wasn't over-keen on the Stanners version first time I saw it; it was only when I rewatched it for these retrospectives, knowing exactly what I would be getting in advance, that it really impressed me.

I agree - it is horribly sad; I'm not sure why everybody doesn't think so.

Thanks again for the nice words!
Matthew