Talkie of the Week: Titanic

USA 1953, 98 minutes, black & white, 20th Century Fox Film Corporation. Director: Jean Negulesco, Screenplay by: Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch & Richard Breen. Cast: Clifton Webb, Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Wagner, Audrey Dalton, Thelma Ritter, Briane Aherne, Richard Basehart

Plot summary: Julia Sturges is boarding the Titanic with her two children Norman and Annette to escape her unhappy marriage and the elitist life they have lived in Europe. Her estranged husband Richard follows her in order to reclaim custody of his children. 17-year-old Annette is eager to return to Europe with her father and Julia ultimately accepts that she is old enough to make that decision for herself. However, she insists on taking 10-year-old Norman home with her to Michigan. While Julia and Richard find their marriage in shambles, Annette is falling in love with 20-year-old Gifford Rogers, a tennis player at Purdue. A young love that is being put to test when the Titanic hits an iceberg and slowly begins to sink.

Review: When you choose to watch a film called Titanic, you pretty much know what you will get. The ship hit an iceberg and sank. 1,517 people died. Happy endings look different, which may be an explanation for this movie’s marginal box office success back in the days. It was recognized however, and received two Academy Award nominations, including a well-deserved win for Best Story and Screenplay.

The film itself is beautifully shot and well cast. Clifton Webb is brilliantly convincing as an elitist Englishman, while Barbara Stanwyck lives up to her talent and shows a wide range of emotions as runaway wife Julia Sturges. It is a pleasure to watch these two actors as sparring partners, fighting over “their” children while a 22-year-old Robert Wagner gives a lively portrayal of Purdue college boy Gifford Rogers, a wonderful contrast to Audrey Dalton’s haughty character Annette. Thelma Ritter adds to that choir of rich performances and includes a sense of humor to the otherwise tragic plot of the film.

The Titanic itself serves a subplot, a mere setting. The real drama, the tragedy is told by the characters and their backstories. The movie picks up on the people and their lives, and how the tragedy affected them. And how they do it is convincing.

Throughout film history, the fate of the Titanic has been fitted to the screen several times. The story itself never really changes, although the characters and plot may. Check out Titanic from 1997 and look at the similarities in story-telling. It’s not the same, but sometimes it’s good to see a classic being revived in a way.

Available on DVD and VHS.


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