SPOILER ALERT…. I TALK ABOUT THE ENDING (with a story as famous and infamous as R.M.S. Titanic, it’s hard not talk about the ending)
Disappointed by her unhappy marriage to Richard Stergus (Clifton Webb), a member of the European social elite, Julia Stergus (Barbara Stanwyck) is leaving Europe with her two children aboard the ill-fated R.M.S. Titanic. Julia wishes to return to the United States in hopes of giving her children a chance at a normal life. Daughter, Annette (Audrey Dalton) close to turning 18 is an elitist snob, who has no desires of remaining in America if it means her home will no longer be in Paris. Their adolescent son Norman (Harper Carter) is on the verge of becoming a man. When Richard learns of Julia’s leaving he finds his way onto the ship to intercept her plans of taking the children. However, Julia has one card left to play. Norman is not Richard’s son. This revelation destroys Richard who has viewed Norman as an extension of himself. Out of his grief Richard begins to reject the attentions of the boy who idolizes him.
While one relationship is ending, another is beginning. Upon boarding the ship, Purdue tennis player Gifford Rogers (Robert Wagner) is infatuated with Annette; however, he is having problems breaking through her icy exterior. It is after an evening of dancing, that Annette begins to fall for Giff who is an average Midwestern athlete, not an aristocrat with a title like she’s been used to.
The film depicts real passengers on the R.M.S. Titanic to add to the authenticity of the experience. John Jacob Astor IV (William Johnstone) is returning to the United States with his young bride Madeleine Astor played by Frances Bergen (Frances Bergen was the wife of ventriloquist Edgar Bergan and the mother of actress Candice Bergan). Not included in the film, but it is interesting to note that the Astor’s had left New York amidst scandal over John marrying the very young Madeleine (who was much younger than she is portrayed in the film). They were returning home expecting their first and only child together. Also on board, were Macy’s store owner Isidor Straus and his wife Ida. The elderly couple is typically depicted in most Titanic films as a sign of underlying love and companionship. Ida refuses to leave her husband’s side to enter a lifeboat and remains aboard the ship with Isidor. One slightly confusing character is Maude Young (Thelma Ritter) the heiress of a Montana lead mine. The character is very similar to real life R.M.S. Titanic survivor, Molly Brown, whose husband J.J. Brown owned shares in a Colorado lead and silver mine. Molly was traveling alone, returning to the United States. She gained infamy and notoriety for her courage and strength during the sinking of the ship. It is unclear why the filmmakers decided to change Molly Brown’s name to Maude Young, since Molly had always been proud of her experience on the R.M.S. Titanic. However, Thelma Ritter is excellent (as always) in this role. Maude Young is a tough talking woman with a heart of gold (still sounds very similar to Molly Brown). Captain Edward John Smith (Brian Aherne) is at the ships helm as the steady ship’s captain who is ill-advised and misguided by White Star and misinformed by telegraph delays. Second Officer Charles Lightroller (Edmund Purdom) is also in the film, warning and questioning the actions of Captain Smith. Lighttroller is also the officer who noticed upon leaving Ireland that the ship was short a set of binoculars for the men on look out in the crow’s-nest, he had planned to purchase additional binoculars upon arrival in New York. He was also the officer who coordinated most of the evacuation efforts after the collision.
Alongside real passengers are a body of fictionalized characters. There is social climber Earl Meeker, who always seems to be around wherever the elite are meeting. However, the supporting character who peaks much curiosity is the recently defrocked priest George S. Healey. The pressures of running a parish drove him to the bottle. He was sent to Rome, where the final decision came down that he could not overcome his daemons to be able to love God as he needed to be a spiritual guide. Now Healey is in his own version of The Lost Weekend (1945), but aboard the R.M.S. Titanic.
The real stars of the film are Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb as the unhappy Stergus’s who appear on the outside to have it all. It has to be difficult for a filmmaker to find someone who can hold-their-own in a scene opposite Barbara Stanwyck, but Clifton Webb does an excellent job. Stanwyck as Julia is reminiscent of many of her roles, the poor girl with street smarts who has moved up in society. Though Julia has conformed herself to her husband’s ideals, she is still willing fight him tooth-and-nail if she needs to, to protect her children and to teach them middle class values. Clifton Webb as William Stergus
portrays a real character arch in this film. He begins as the proper gentleman who has the ability to think and talk quick to get what he wants. He is able to gain passage on the R.M.S. Titanic by paying off a third class passenger who is traveling with his family to America to plant grapes. This act though selfish on the part of Stergus ended up saving this man’s life so he could join his family later, a luxury he may not have had had he been aboard the ship. Stergus’s world crumbles when he learns of his wife’s infidelity, and the true parentage of Norman. He is determined from that moment on that Julia is out of his life, and Norman must go as well. However, when the ship collides with the iceberg, Stergus sets about making sure that Julia and the children are safe and awaiting lifeboats. Stergus continues on and retrieves the Uzcadum family (the third class family that he boarded with) thus ensuring that their lives are saved as well. Julia now sees that Stergus is a compassionate man with the ability to see beyond the class and social standing of others. Stergus himself has realized that he has and will always love Julia despite the hurt they have caused each other. But, it is when Norman leaves the lifeboat he is on with his mother and sister to seek out his father (who he presumes is going to be on another lifeboat for the men) that Stergus realizes he’s true connection to the child that cannot be strictly defined by blood.
As with most Titanic films there is often an exploration of the class system which dominated Europe and the United States at the time. Historians have noted that the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic as the catalyst for change. This film does touch on the differences between the first class and third class passengers, but really at only a surface level. It seems as if the only reason to have the third class passengers on board this version of the Titanic was for the sake of the Stergus character. Little attention was paid to building up the any of the characters in the third class, as it was done in respect to prominent first class passengers or members of the crew.
It seems throughout the film that the sinking of the R.M.S. Titanic was used merely as a backdrop to the struggles of the Stergus family. Noël Coward in his play Cavalcade (1931) used the metaphor of the R.M.S. Titanic for those who go blindly into the future. This an obvious reflection of the Stergus family from the beginning of the film with Julia leaving her husband to return to the United States and the end of the film with Julia once again leaving him this time on the sinking ship. However, this metaphor works for many of the real and fictional characters on the ship. The Astor’s were returning to the United States hopeful about their new life together, but unsure that they would still be rejected by elite society. Defrocked priest Healey spends much of the film trying to find a way to tell his family he is coming back home in shame. He continues to drink throughout the film, since that is all he can do. However, at the end of the film with the ship sinking, Healey storms his way to the boilers after most of the men are evacuating. It is unclear if he is going down there to give comfort to the injured and dying or to try in his own simple way to keep the ship going.
This film ends with many unanswered questions. The ship sinks and that is the end of this story. However, (and maybe because I’ve watched too many Titanic films) it would be nice to have a conclusive ending to these characters, their story cannot simply ending because the setting of the story has changed. Where there any survivors amongst those still on board? Where Annette and Giff able to reunite aboard the Carpathia? Where the Uzcadum’s able to make a new life in the United States? There were also some mysterious papers that Stergus had Mrs. Uzcadum signing, we can only assume that they dealt with the money he had promised the family for the voyage. However, there is a lot of assuming and questions that arise with this film that could’ve been better explained.
The facts in this film about the R.M.S. Titanic are based on the 1912 United States Congressional inquest and the inquest conducted by the British Board of Trade. Many historians have noted inaccuracies with both of these inquests. They were conducted in mere days after the sinking when many survivors were still in shock and unable to fully comprehend let alone describe in detail what had happened. Also, many survivors noted that the inquest did not ask questions that dealt with all the details of that night, and thus some facts where left out. Many consider Walter Lord’s work, A Night to Remember (1955) to be the most conclusive documentation of survivor interviews. The book was later made into a film in 1958 with the same name. However, this is not to compare the two movies or other films that have depicted the tragedy. Each film stands on its own for different reasons. Titanic (1953) is the story of a marriage in crises set aboard the ill-fated R.M.S. Titanic.
TCM will be showing Titanic along with other classic disaster films:
Titanic (1953) 8:00PM (ET)
In Old Chicago (1938) 10:00PM (ET)
The Hurricane (1937) 12:00AM (ET)
San Francisco (1936) 2:00AM (ET)
The Crowded Sky (1960) 4:00AM (ET)
Images from: Titanic. Dir. Jean Negulesco. 20th Century Fox 1953. DVD.
Tagged: A Night to Remember, Audrey Dalton, Barbara Stanwyck, Brian Aherne, Clifton Webb, Edmund Purdom, Frances Bergen, Harper Carter, In Old Chicago, R.M.S. Titanic, Robert Wagner, San Francisco, TCM, TCM Disaster Films, The Crowded Sky, The Hurricane, The Lost Weekend, Thelma Ritter, Titanic, Titanic (1953), Turner Classic Movies, William Johnstone