Friday, January 9, 2015

Barbara's Boat Sinks

Before Walter Lord wrote A Night to Remember, before James Cameron went trolling on the ocean bottom to snatch images of the wreck of a great ship, there was Titanic (1953).  Starring Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb as Julia and Richard Ward Sturgess, the film used a family dispute to tell the tale of the doomed ship.  Not that this was the first telling - there had been a 1915 silent version, as well as a German film from 1943 (which the commentary on my disk stated was more a diatribe against the inefficiencies of Great Britain than a tale of the factual Titanic).  And while the 1953 film is focused on the marital discord of the Sturgess family, it also attempts to tell - within dramatic reason - the true story of the sinking of RMS Titanic.

Julia Sturgess and her two children, Annette (Audrey Dalton) and Norman (Harper Carter) board the HMS Titanic, ostensibly on a brief vacation to see Julia's midwestern family.  Unbeknownst to her children, however, Julia intends to relocate the children to America permanently.  Her husband's chosen lifestyle - wandering from hotel to hotel to partake in the social season for that particular venue - has become stale to Julia, and she sees her children becoming petty snobs who look down on their family and their country.  In hot pursuit is Richard, who manages to board the sold-out ship by bribing the head of an immigrant family - give Richard his steerage ticket, and Richard will pay the man what amounts to a small fortune to take a later boat.  Richard then boards with the rest of the Uzcadum family, and boldly forces himself into first class and his wife's cabin.  The couple begin a battle for what they both see as the future of their offspring.
The film mixes the lives of the fictional characters with those of historical ones.  We see John Jacob and Madeleine Astor, and Isidor and Ida Strauss board.  We meet Maude Young (Thelma Ritter), a character based on the Unsinkable Molly Brown.  We also follow the activities of the crew, most notably Captain E.J. Smith (Brian Aherne) and Second Officer Lightoller (Edmund Purdom, in his film debut), who periodically converse about the iceberg that will doom the ship.

It's particularly enjoyable to see Robert Wagner in the role of Gifford Rogers, a young man who becomes instantly smitten with young Annette Sturgess.  This was one of Wagner's earliest movies - he had come to the public's attention the year before, when he played a shell-shocked soldier in the Susan Hayward film With a Song in My Heart.  In Titanic, he has only a few scenes, but one that is worth noting is with Stanwyck:  he seeks her advice on how to best court her daughter.  Their easy conversation doesn't give any hint of the feelings of the two stars.  In the video below, Mr. Wagner discusses his relationship with Stanwyck.  He fell in love with her on this set of this picture, and, after a four-year affair, proposed marriage.  Stanwyck declined, because of their age difference (he was 23 when the affair started; she was 45).  Here is a video of Wagner discussing his love for Ms. Stanwyck:
Clifton Webb is always a fascinating actor to watch.  He takes a character who could be merely a mustache-twirling villain, and gives him many layers of emotion, affection, and disdain.  By the end of the film, his Richard Sturgess becomes something of a hero, as he faces the inevitable with courage.   We watch him use his children as weapons against his wife, but then see the love that he has for them, an affection that is quite mutual.  

Stanwyck's Julia is likewise layered.  She lives in an era where she and her children are still the property of her husband.  She must sneak away from him if she is to retain custody of the children.  But we also discover that she has betrayed her husband - we never learn if he has been equally lax in adhering to their marital vows (she never accuses him of it, so we must assume he has been faithful).  By adding this piece of information, Julia becomes somewhat less attractive.  While we don't root for Richard, we begin to understand him.  Both Webb and Stanwyck give us flawed, human characters.  To choose between them is not easy. It's fun to know that Mr. Webb was actually a big fan of Ms. Stanwyck, stating "that woman's an absolute dream to work with." (Sitting Pretty: The Life and Times of Clifton Webb By Clifton Webb)
Thelma Ritter is one of my personal favorites.  In listening to the commentary on my DVD, I was dismayed to hear the film critic Richard Shickel say she always played the same character (he also couldn't remember Robert Wagner's TV credits, but that is another issue).  I beg to differ - surely, she played tough-minded middle class women, BUT, her characters are always nuanced.  In Titanic, she hasn't a lot to do - there are a lot of characters, as I've previously noted, and she has very little screen time.  But what she has, she makes use of.  She becomes the eyes of the audience - as Richard suffers an emotional reaction to his wife's betrayal, it is Ritter's Maude who sees his despair. 

Other appearances worth noting are Richard Basehart as George Healey, a priest who has recently been defrocked because of his alcoholism; Allyn Joslyn as Earl Meeker, a man who survives the disaster by sneaking on a lifeboat dressed as a woman; and the lovely Frances Bergen - mother of Candace, and wife of Edgar - as the pregnant Madeleine Astor.  
The story of a man dressing as a woman to escape the ship is a common one in Titanic lore.  The only truth to the story that is known is that John Jacob Astor put a woman's hat on a small boy, in order to get him onto a lifeboat.  The rule of the era was that women and children were evacuated first, and while men did survive in lifeboats, none are known to have sneaked on in women's garb. 

Originally, the film was to be called Nearer My God to Thee, the song that was allegedly playing as the ship slipped into the ocean, though there is no historical basis for this rumor.  This TCM article provides more information on both that rumor and the film itself.  

In the meantime, we'll close with a trailer that serves as an introduction to some of our main characters.  We'll be back next time with another Barbara Stanwyck film:

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