Titanic (1953)

Directed by Jean Negulesco

Since the sinking of the Titanic in 1912, the great ship’s disaster has inspired a seemingly endless number of books and movies. (‘Inspired’ is probably not the best word, though it’s accurate to some degree.)

While it is in part due to our fascination with disaster, it is also partly due to how readily it lends itself to human drama.

It is not simply because it’s a tragedy but because it’s a tragedy of such spectacle. It has great scope, especially visually.

Within the larger story of the great ship sinking and the large number of lives lost, the disaster contains a great number of individual tragedies — whether real or imagined.

Thus, in film, we get A Night to Remember (which focuses on the events leading up to the sinking and on the ship itself), and James Cameron’s Titanic, which narrows in on several lives within the larger tale.

Among these films, we also have 1953’s Titanic, a movie that focuses on the drama of a single family’s life set within the Titanic’s sinking.

Unfortunately, it is not the best of the Titanic movies. Far from it. This is largely because it is a little too melodramatic, at least at certain moments. Granted, “disaster movies” call for a certain amount of melodrama but in this case it’s a bit too much.

A woman (Barbara Stanwyck) has a very strained, combative relationship with a husband (Clifton Webb). She believes he is ruining their children with his high society airs and superficiality. They have been living in Europe for many years and she has decided to move herself and her children back to America, away from the life she feels is wrong for them. They have booked passage on the Titanic’s maiden voyage.

What she does not know is her husband has, at the last minute, discovered her plans and managed to get himself on the sailing. He is determined to thwart her and take the son and daughter back to Europe after the ship lands in New York.

The movie is really Clifton Webb’s movie as it is only his character that develops and changes. (Stanwyck’s character is fairly static – she begins and ends the film as essentially the same woman.) When the Titanic hits the iceberg, Webb’s character is forced by circumstances to shed his shallow exterior and for once in his life act for someone other than himself.

While Webb’s performance is excellent as a tight-bum, superficial society sophisticate, the usually wonderful Stanwyck is too much to take. (It kills me to say that since I’m a Barbara Stanwyck fan. I’ll have to watch Ball of Fire again to get rid of the bad taste of this movie.)

I’m not sure if Stanwyck is necessarily responsible for this, however. There are two aspects of the film working against her.

For one, the script does nothing with her character. At the start, she seems a strong determined woman but soon collapses in the face of her husband’s arrogance and dismissive contempt. At the film’s end, she is simply a blubbering twit.

In between, Stanywick is also hobbled by editing that cuts to shots of melodramatic reactions. It seems as if someone is flicking a light switch on and off. Her histrionics come and go on a dime. The reactions seem so sudden you can’t help but wonder if the character has emotional issues that require medication. She’s just plain annoying.

In the end, despite some excellent moments from Clifton Webb, the film is fairly pedestrian. It’s closer to the Poseidon Adventure than to A Night to Remember, or even Cameron’s Titanic.

Sadly, this 1953 version of the Titanic disaster is something of a lame duck.

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