Titanic. Even the word makes us stop to pull immediate memories of what has been projected throughout countless history lessons, books, movies and articles. Who among us has not heard the story of that fateful night in the North Atlantic? Titanic. It embodies great strength, might and endurance that fell like Icarus into the sea when the gods felt that mankind had dared to usurp the rationale of perfection.
Julia Sturges (Barbara Stanwyck) has taken her children, Annette (Audrey Dalton) and Norman (Harper Carter) on the Titanic, to begin life anew in America and away from the upper crust infested pots of formality in Europe. It is also her hope to sweep them away from under the thumb of her rigid and by the book husband, Richard (Clifton Webb), without his getting to them first. Julia has lived her adult life in Europe, falling for the spell that Richard first put on her twenty years before our story begins. In that time, she has had to adjust to days and weeks, running to months and years of the same habits and travels as years gone by, with social standing, seeing and being seen by those who 'count' as the winning goal. Her passage on the Titanic is a ticket to freedom and a life less ordinary that the gilded cage she and her children have had to endure thus far.
During this time, both Richard and she will spar in a mental tournament against each other; hurting and offending, living out the tales of their years spent together, with the final denouement being thrust by Julia as she informs her husband that their son, Norman, is not his, but the fruit of a liaison many years before.
Richard's machinations at a last minute boarding via the courtesy and promise of money to a Basque man at the dock, spill Julia's plans into the sea. The surprise of his appearance on board ship begins a revolution between Julia and him, that will have resounding effects on the four members of this family.
Barbara Stanwyck is magnificent in this role. I have yet to see a film that she has starred in that doesn't hold water years after it was made; all due to the fact of her professionalism and capture of her assigned character. She shines as Julia and her scenes with Webb are mature and graceful. She is a mother attempting to protect her children from the monotonous and trite permanence of the moneyed and privileged.
Clifton Webb is simply playing Clifton Webb. He plays Richard as prickly and unabashed, someone worried more about the cut of his suit and who his next moneyed and title bearing dinner companion may be. He is someone that countries fought revolutions over, with his air of noblesse oblige. His scenes with Stanwyck, as they try to win the affections of their children over to 'their side' are marvelous to watch. His scenes as Titanic is sinking and he is moving heaven and earth to get his family into a lifeboat bring forth a complete turnaround for his character. While still generating that certain savoir faire, he knows the truth as it is fated to happen and accepts it readily. One of the final scenes of the film entails Webb and Carter as the ship is going down, and if you are not shedding a tear as it happens, then you've missed the point entirely.
The great character actress, Thelma Ritter (Maude Young), has a field day as a character that seems for all the world based on Molly Brown, the western mining heiress. Her experience lends a note of security throughout the film. Her habit of observing the human condition and speaking her mind about it in her roles, is never more evident than it is here.
Audrey Dalton and Robert Wager (Gifford Rogers) as the lovers are the part of the makeup that glues the story together between generations as young love blossoms while older tales fray at the edges in bursts that hurt and infuriate. Dalton is lovely to look at and for all intents and purposes, reminds one of a young Vivien Leigh.
Harper Carter as young Norman scores points as the son who looks up to his father as the end all to end all. The rejection that he suffers at the hands of his father is heartbreaking, but redeems itself later in the proceedings.
Brian Aherne (Capt. Smith) seems a mere afterthought to the proceedings, but he holds his way firm and consistent. As the world weary captain, sailing on his last voyage before retirement, it is a sad end to a long and lustrous seafaring career.
The screenplay by Charles Brackett, Richard Breen and Walter Reisch moves along at a brisk pace and contains a real storyline and not the teenage generated potion as written by James Cameron in his later version of Titanic. The three mentioned screenwriters were also awarded the Oscar for Best Screenplay (are you listening Mr. Cameron?). It's amazing that there are frequent similarities in both films, and that Mr. Cameron seemed to 'borrow' heavily from the earlier film. Brackett and the others put real words into the mouths of their actors, and kept at bay the gooey confections of Cameron's attempt. Brackett and co.'s dialogue is crisp and to the point, with a welcome addition of maturity about it. They cut away the maudlin aspects of what could have been a monumental soap opera.
While some may say that the look of the '53 film is dated, and heaven forbid, in black and white!, they must understand that the technology of the time was not the sophisticated machine that it is nowadays. Massive budgets, computer enhancements, cost overruns, etc., were not necessarily the order of the day until Joseph Mankiewicz's 'Cleopatra' in 1963, which cost $44 million. To imitate it today would cost in the neighbourhood of $270 to accomplish. The most expensive film, though, was 'Vojna i mir' (War and Peace, Russian, 1968).
This is the way Hollywood used to make 'em. The razzle dazzle, all cylinders firing, bells and whistles with rockets red glare, was an anachronism. They concentrated more on the story and the words uttered. We've become conceited in the way we look at films today. Take a mighty step back and discover the world of possibilities to be had, before the silver screen became littered with the shoot 'em up, bang bang, over the top efforts that permeate cinema today. To paraphrase Norma Desmond in 'Sunset Boulevard,' 'films of the golden age WERE big, it's today's pictures that got small.'
Titanic. . .they just don't make 'em like this anymore