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Sunday, October 28, 2007

Titanic Movies (originally published 12/97)

It would hardly be a Christmas release season without at least one epic movie that will have to be seen by every man, woman, child, and dog in the country just to break even. This year, Hollywood has outdone itself. The venerable old S. S. Titanic will go down for the umpteenth time in a movie that may well have cost more than the actual disaster it portrays.

It isn't hard to understand the perennial appeal of the Titanic story. It represents one of the rare occasions when real life took on the kind of sophisticated irony that normally comes only from the pen of skilled dramatists. Not only did the ship touted as "unsinkable" go to a watery grave, it did so on its maiden voyage. As a parable on the sin of pride, it ranks right up there with the myth of Icarus, whose homemade wings melted when he dared to fly too near the sun.

Naturally, with material this good, writer-director James Cameron is by no means the first to conceive of the Titanic story as the basis for a movie. Here's a sampling of some earlier dramatizations of the tragedy. Each is available on video.

"Titanic" (1953). When you're dealing with a disaster of this magnitude, it is usually necessary to create some engaging characters with whom the audience can identify. Otherwise, the teeming hordes of suffering humanity are simply too much to take in. In this version of the story, writer-producer Charles Brackett focuses on the troubled marriage of Richard Sturges (Clifton Webb) and Julia Sturges (Barbara Stanwyck). She and the children are leaving him, but he finagles a passage on the same ship (the Titanic, of course) to continue the confrontation. Brackett and his co-writers, Walter Reisch and Richard Breen, won an Academy Award for their screenplay.

"A Night to Remember" (1958). Based upon the popular book of the same title by Walter Lord, this excellent British film is said to have over 200 speaking parts, although I can't imagine that anyone has actually counted them. The story is told largely from the viewpoint of one of the ship's officers, played by Kenneth More. As we follow the officer we catch glimpses of crew members and passengers from all walks of life as they cope with the emergency in their own ways. This panorama of characters provides the human interest required by a dramatization, rather than superimposing melodramatic subplots as the 1953 film had done.

"S.O.S. Titanic" (1979). The disaster movie cycle of the seventies was at its peak when production began on this TV-movie. In the wake of the success of "The Poseidon Adventure" (1972) and its progeny, it was all but inevitable that someone would think of capitalizing on the trend by dusting off this trusty old disaster chestnut. The style, a trendy one at the time, was "docudrama," an attempt to blend the immediacy of documentary with a playwright's approach to characterization. The impressive cast includes David Janssen, Cloris Leachman, Ian Holm, and Helen Mirren.

Along with these three, there are two other films that deserve an honorable mention. Neither is primarily concerned with the Titanic, but each features the doomed ship in a brief but memorable sequence.

"The Unsinkable Molly Brown" (1964). The film version of Meredith Willson's musical play begins with Molly as an orphaned child being swept down the river in a cradle. Miraculously, she survives the white water, thereby earning her "unsinkable" sobriquet. It's only a foreshadowing, however. Much later in her eventful life, the adult Molly (Debbie Reynolds) will find herself on the Titanic. Once again, she survives, bolstering the spirits of her fellow passengers in the process. The character of Molly Brown is supposedly based on one of the actual survivors of the ordeal.

"Cavalcade" (1933). Noel Coward's play, here adapted for the screen, chronicles significant events in the life of a single British family over a span of some thirty years, roughly from the Boer War to World War I. One of the vignettes focuses briefly and touchingly on a honeymooning couple on the deck of the Titanic.

Considering that he's inviting comparison with the likes of Noel Coward while taking on a massively complex and expensive logistical nightmare, I have to admire Cameron's courage. Maybe, in view of his recent string of hits, he's decided that his career is unsinkable.

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