Two Ships Collide 

What the two "Titanics" tell us about ourselves

What the two "Titanics" tell us about ourselves

The bookstore near where I live stayed open an extra hour one evening last week so that truly dedicated fans of the movie Titanic could be the first on their block to buy video cassettes when they became available at midnight. While there did not appear to be a huge throng on hand, the phenomenal dedication the movie has attracted may be bordering on pathology, especially astounding considering how crummy the movie was.

One of the things I assiduously try to refrain from becoming is one of those cranky old men grumbling endlessly about the annoying tendency of the world to change from the halcyon way it was when I was 12. So it is with some trepidation that I raise the issue of the movie Titanic, which I recently had occasion to watch.

I am not, however, speaking about the behemoth that sailed into our collective consciousness before sailing off with an inordinate amount of our money last winter. Rather, I am referring to the much more modest film made in 1953 and starring Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck. The film is worth looking at as a social and historical document, because a comparison with the 1997 movie underlines some interesting ways in which American society and popular culture have changed.

Please be reassured that I am not about to engage in film criticism here. In any case, comparison of the two Titanics as films is unfair. The older version was minor studio hackwork, whereas the contemporary version was a much more ambitious undertaking—and clearly a statement that the producer knew what to put up on the screen to make money.

Both films were made to make money. They’re both about a sinking ship, and in each case the producer made a picture that he thought would draw moviegoers to the ticketbox. What’s interesting, however, is the different approach that each producer took—and how it’s reflective of the era in which he lived.

The older film is mercifully short—a shade over 90 minutes—offering just enough time to set up the melodrama before sending all the characters to meet their respective fates. About 45 minutes is given over to the sinking sequence, which is quite adequate given the limited special effects available for the film.

The basic story revolves around Stanwyck and Webb, a wealthy American couple in their late 40s who are sailing to New York with their two children. At a guess, the children are roughly 13 and 20 years old.

Stanwyck and Webb are in the throes of various disagreements. Webb is the sort of man who enjoys a superficial life of fashionable idleness in Europe, and expects to be remembered on his tombstone as “the best dressed man of his day.” In counterpoint to this aristocratic lifestyle is Stanwyck, who wants to instill sturdy American-heartland values in her children. Because of their differences, Stanwyck is trying to figure out a way to take the kids and leave Webb.

The arguments rage for some time until, at a decisive moment, Stanwyck gains the upper hand. She tells Webb that their son is not his child. Rather, he is the product of an adulterous liaison.

In response, Webb spends most of the rest of the voyage playing bridge, snubbing his adoring son. When Stanwyck asks him not to take the feud out on the boy, he replies, “That would require character, which you have pointed out that I lack.”

There are, of course, a few other sub-plots that deserve mention. One involves a former priest returning from Rome after being defrocked for drunkenness. Another involves a budding romance between Webb’s and Stanwyck’s daughter and an impossibly young Robert Wagner. A third involves a wormy little social climber intent on insinuating himself into the rich people’s bridge game.

I don’t think it will be spoiling it for anyone if I say that the ship then strikes an iceberg and most people go down with the ship, arrayed calmly in choir formation on the fantail and singing “Nearer My God to Thee.”

The first noteworthy point to make about this film is that it is centrally about adults. The main characters are an estranged older couple arguing about the values they should impart to their children. To the extent the film views young romance, it is portrayed as both sweet and slightly comical—the sort of wistful perspective you would expect when such things are viewed through much older eyes. (Indeed, when the ship actually strikes the iceberg, we see the captain sitting in a darkened corner nostalgically watching as the young people gather around a piano to sing “High Above Cayuga’s Waters.”)

Nobody today would dream of making such a high-budget film and not orienting it toward the youth market. Director James Cameron’s contemporary Titanic set box office records by attracting multiple-repeat teenage viewers. The Titanic for our age, of course, features two attractive young people whose lyrical sex distracts the lookout who is supposed to be watching for icebergs at the critical moment. In the 1954 version, the youth market is all but dismissed, with the entire film dedicated to the melodrama involving Webb and Stanwyck (and, of course, the iceberg). To offer something for the kids, however, the producers have thrown in the love story involving the young people that they might identify with. Of course, the key point here is that the young romance is secondary to the one involving the older couple. So that while the makers of the 1953 film may have thrown in the young-love subplot to broaden the appeal, they didn’t make it the whole focus of the movie. But now, the difference between a moderately successful film and a blockbuster is not how many adults go to it once, but how many teenagers go to it five times.

Secondly, the thematic emphasis of the earlier movie is redemption, which is not a commercially attractive theme for today since we do not necessarily recognize sin. As the ship goes down, Webb, who has been portrayed as a socially charming man of no substance or worth, engages in a flurry of minor acts of heroism, generally of the moral kind, none of which involve swinging an axe or greatly disturbing his evening clothes. Others have their similar moments of grace and redemption.

Today, we want our heroes to have more than dignity. Hence, the theme of the 1997 Titanic is the young artist helping the ingenue break free of the stultifying social conventions of the age, a process neatly summarized in the touching scene in which Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jack teaches Kate Winslet’s Rose how to spit. Naturally, the heroine gets to use her newly acquired skill to symbolize having reached a higher moral plane in a scene that presents a neat validation of the advancing crassness of our own age.

Rather than tax an audience with a skimpy understanding of history or our social past, we get contemporary people in old clothes. Instead of offering characters from a more mannered past, Cameron gives us a hero who is your basic, 1990s wise guy.

For instance, when DiCaprio finds himself caught on the tilting deck in a crush of people behind someone reciting the 23rd Psalm, he demands, “Yeah, but can you move through the valley a little faster?” Urgency in 1997 was rudeness in 1912.

On the other hand, the current version of the film is clearly a more realistic portrayal of what happened in the final hours on the doomed ship. The 1953 Titanic features minimal wailing and screaming. The ship never seems to list. At the appropriate moment, it disappears cleanly into the deep with minimal agony. No contemporary producer would dream of such an antiseptic portrayal. After all, two decades of CNN have taught us what disaster really looks like.

The older film offers not a portrait of the final agony on the ship, but an idealized view of human nature in which the doomed accept their fate with stoic dignity. The film implicitly asks its audience, “Would you die as gracefully?” Whereas in the newer film, DiCaprio also dies with grace, but the act of death becomes more of a romantic act than a moral one. For the predominantly younger audience targeted in the newer film, death and dignity are less interesting questions—and less marketable commodities.

Another aspect of the later film is that it panders to modern audiences’ need for bigger and better spectacles. Now that we have had 70 years of sound films to watch, we require the big screen to show us something more. This is evident in the demand for flashier special effects, which the new film clearly has, and for more plot devices. Hence, to add thrills, the newer film features the villainous fiancé chasing the young couple through the sinking ship and various other contrivances. The basic story of the movie, after all, has been told so often that it is no longer exciting enough.

Finally, our contemporary Titanic audience has been offered something that was not provided for in 1953: blame. Perhaps it is the final triumph of the plaintiffs’ bar that we have come to believe nothing goes wrong in our current age without someone being responsible. Thus, we get plenty of finger-pointing at the captain and the steamship line as being responsible in a number of ways for the sinking ship.

Certainly, with hindsight, we know that they do bear much of the responsibility, although perhaps not as portrayed in the film. But this is not a point the earlier film develops, perhaps reflecting an age that had more deference to authority and a greater sense that we can’t control all the outcomes.

Of course, all of this may be attaching far too much significance to an undistinguished old film and an overrated new one. Nonetheless it is worthwhile to look at the two fictional perspectives on a single event to ask how our society has become more and less attractive with the passage of time. In many ways, we are a better society now than we were 45 years ago; we would also do well to look at the ways in which we are not.


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