Friday, May 18, 2012

Film Pairing: A Night of Icebergs and Sinking Ships

Many thanks to Ron Tierney for letting me play with a variation of his film pairings, which usually look at crime films. My film pairing coincides with the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the supposedly unsinkable White Star liner, Titanic. — Janet Dawson

No, I’m not going to discuss that movie from the late 1990s. Instead, I’ll look at two earlier versions of the disaster, both from the 1950s.

The first is Titanic (1953), which stars two Hollywood stalwarts, Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb, giving superb performances as an estranged married couple who’ve been living a life of ease and superficiality in high society Paris. The cast also includes a very young Robert Wagner as a suitor for Stanwyck’s somewhat snooty daughter, played by Audrey Dalton. Brian Aherne plays the ship’s captain, E.J. Smith, and the redoubtable Thelma Ritter puts in an appearance as Mrs. Maud Young. Never mind that character’s name – Ritter is meant to be Mrs. Margaret Tobin Brown of Denver and Leadville, aka the “Unsinkable” Molly.

The film starts with an unsettling image of an iceberg calving, a hint of what’s to come. Then the action switches to Cherbourg, France, where Stanwyck and her son and daughter board the ship. She’s leaving her socialite husband, Webb, and returning to the United States so that her children will have a normal life.

But Webb has discovered this and he’s in pursuit. He manages to buy a ticket from a steerage passenger and boards the ship. He makes his way to first class and assumes his paterfamilias role without missing a beat, convincing his daughter to return to France with him as soon as the ship docks in New York City. The son, who is younger, is another matter. The verbal clashes between Stanwyck and Webb, sparring over the fate of their marriage and their children, provide much of the drama.

Until the ship hits that iceberg. Then it’s women and children to the lifeboats. Faced with the prospect of never seeing one another again, Stanwyck and Webb discover they still care for one another – and things they never knew about each other.

Titanic was directed by Jean Negulesco. Writer Charles Brackett won an Oscar for Best Screenplay. The film, available on DVD, is well worth seeing.

For my money, the best version of the Titanic disaster is A Night To Remember (1958), directed by Roy Ward Baker. This British film is based on Walter Lord’s book of the same name, and the screenplay was written by thriller writer Eric Ambler.

The only actor in the film with what could be considered a starring role is Kenneth More, as the ship’s Second Officer, Charles Herbert Lightoller, who survived and was instrumental in organizing the loading of the lifeboats. David McCallum, who appeared in The Man From U.N.C.L.E., and is currently “Ducky” in the popular NCIS television series, plays radio operator Harold Bride. Laurence Naismith plays Captain Smith, while Michael Goodliffe plays the ship’s builder, Thomas Andrews. Tucker McGuire does a notable turn as Molly Brown, as does George Rose as a tipsy baker.

The real star of A Night To Remember is the ship itself, its life and death. This is how it differs from the other version, needing no other drama except that which occurred that night.

The film has a documentary feel to it, full of vignettes of people traveling about Titanic – a pair of aristocrats, some honeymooners, a group of Irish steerage passengers, a professional gambler. The film is full of wonderful bits, showing ordinary people, like the stokers feeding the fire in the bowels of the ship, and the stewards setting tables in the dining room. Many of these bits are based on Walter Lord’s interviews with survivors, which adds to the verisimilitude.

The movie touches on the ice warnings that were ignored, as well as the class distinctions that kept the steerage passengers below while first and second class passengers filled the lifeboats. It also gives glimpses of the ship Carpathia, steaming at full speed to for a too-late rescue, while the Californian, which was closer, doesn’t respond to distress signals and rockets, its crew seemingly unable to grasp the urgency.

A Night To Remember has just been released on DVD in a great new digital restoration. I highly recommend it.

What to drink while watching these films? After several hours in a lifeboat on the freezing North Atlantic, I’d opt for a bracing hot pot of Earl Grey tea, accompanied by scones with clotted cream and a tart lemon curd.

Janet Dawson has written ten novels featuring Oakland private investigator Jeri Howard. Her first, Kindred Crimes, won the St. Martin's Press/Private Eye Writers of America contest for best first private eye novel and nominated for three other prestigious mystery awards, the Shamus, the Macavity and the Anthony.



Teri said...

Clifton Webb. I remember celebrating his birthday with you.


Ronald Tierney said...

It's true. I am a Clifton Webb fan and was a fan before I knew he was born in Indiana.