1953 - United States - 98 minutes
Writers - Charles Brackett and Richard L. Breen
Director - Jean Negulesco
Internet Movie Database User Rating - 6.8/10 - Link to IMDb
My Rating - 5 of 5 Stars

1997 - United States - 194 minutes
Writer and Director - James Cameron
Internet Movie Database User Rating - 7.1/10 - Link to IMDb
My Rating - 5 of 5 Stars

I am a member of that league of humans fascinated by the actual events and legends surrounding the sinking of the Titanic. I think I must blame my mother - born exactly one week prior to the sinking - for planting that seed of fascination. I do know that my knowledge of the ship was in advance of the contemporaries of my youth, so it must have come from her.

Bereft of any recently released DVD found to be worthy of note, I got the idea to dig into my collection and watch my two favorite Titanic melodramas again. Without a doubt, A Night to Remember is the best movie about the ship and its sinking, but for good, old tissue blotting "trash," you really can't beat the 1953 and 1997 tellings of the tale.

With apologies to the excellent actors in the 1997 version, the 1953 version is the one with real star power. Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb head the cast of the older film. Stanwyck was - and remains - a Hollywood legend, and she adds very special touches of glamour and heart to her portrayal of Julia Sturges who has tired of the superficial world of wealthy ex-patriots and is returning with her children to her Midwestern home in order to stabilize their lives. Webb is Richard Ward Sturges, her snobbish husband who pursues her through the backdoor of Titanic by purchasing the ticket of a third-class passenger. Robert Wagner plays a young college student who wins the heart of the Sturges's daughter.

An interesting sidelight in the making of this film is that in real life, Wagner won the heart of his costar, Stanwyck (or vice-versa) and they began a May/December romance - Wagner being twenty-three at the time and Stanwyck being forty-six. (I've always surmised that Wagner is no fool, and this brief episode in his life certainly proves it.)

There are some stand-out supporting performances in the 1953 film. Character actress Thelma Ritter plays Maude Young, a character obviously fashioned on the real Molly Brown. Brian Aherne gives Captain Smith a fullness not as often seen in the depiction of the man whose "unsinkable" ship would go down on its maiden voyage. Richard Basehart plays a de-frocked priest who sacrifices his life to comfort those dying upon the ship, and Allyn Joslyn plays the legendary man who dresses as a woman to save himself.

In 1953, the story centered around a married couple in crisis, but in 1997, the story centered around young lovers thrown together by fate. Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio certainly burn up the screen - as well as fogging up some windows - as the passionate lovers. They are beautifully supported by Billy Zane as the jealous fiancé, and Kathy Bates as Molly Brown. Frances Fisher is chilling as the snobbish, ambitious mother, and Gloria Stuart shines as the young, passionate woman played by Winslet who has, at the beginning of the film, reached the age of one-hundred-plus.

In both films there is a sub-plot centering upon the unforgivable attitude of snobbery and self-righteousness and its damage to the people on the ship and society as a whole. In 1953, the damnable attitude was saved by acts of honor, but there is no such redemption in 1997. Both films revolve around highly romantic and improbable stories, but in 1997, the disdain of the upper class does not receive a final reprieve.

How about the actual sinking? Without a doubt, the 1997 film offers the pentacle of technology, special effects, and actual facts in its view of the demise of the ship. Director Cameron is pretty much an expert on the events and that expertise shows in every scene related to the sinking. (I read in some trivia that - through observations and research via diving equipment, he has actually spent more time "on" the Titanic than the actual passengers.) Of course, much knowledge was gained in the forty-four years between the making of the films, but it is pretty clear that '53 is a romantic melodrama climaxed by an actual event, whereas '97 is a detailed account of an actual event supported by a romantic melodrama.

OK, so '97 will always be more famous and, in reality, is the better film, but '53 has its great movie moments via superior acting and beautifully unrealistic, romanticized scenes such as all the men who are left on the ship standing calmly at the rail singing "Nearer My God to Thee" as the great ship upends and slides into legend.

Neil Turner
July 23, 2007

Titanic Times Two