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Blu-ray Review: Titanic (1953)

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The tale of the RMS Titanic‘s sinking is one of those that has been offered up repeatedly by various mediums.  From big screen movies to the television variety, we have all seen (and read about) the Titanic‘s sinking more than once (unless we’ve steadfastly avoided it). 

Currently, the best known of these tales is the James Cameron directed, Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet starring 1997 epic, simply titled Titanic.  For my money though, I would far rather rewatch the 1953 Jean Negulesco directed drama of the same name.  Whereas the Cameron tale focuses on spectacle throwing in a little overwrought melodrama (and momentary nudity) in order to offer the audience a way in to the tale, Negulesco film opts to have the boat offer the backdrop to the story instead of vice-versa.

The tale here is about Richard (Clifton Webb) and Julia (Barbara Stanwyck) Webb.  Julia is on the Titanic to escape Richard, she has grown tired of the upper class life she leads with her husband and their two children,  Annette (Audrey Dalton) and Norman (Harper Carter).  Far from wanting to ditch her family entirely, Julia has taken the children with her and it is only by purchasing someone else’s ticket that Richard is able to get on the boat in the first place.

There are some ancillary characters as well, like George Healey (Richard Basehart), the priest with a drinking problem, and Gifford Rogers (a young Robert Wagner), the college boy who is sweet on Annette.  There is even a stand-in for Molly Brown here (named Maude Young), played pitch perfectly by Thelma Ritter, but it is Richard and Julia’s tale more than any of theirs.

Perhaps what Titanic does best is explore the relationship between this couple, and even if it comes down more on the side of Richard than Julia, it doesn’t let her off scot-free.  Some would say that the destruction of the relationship mirrors the destruction of the boat, or vice versa, but I’m in no way sure that’s the case.  The relationship is far more redemptive than the Titanic‘s sinking, things may not end well for Richard and Julia (come on, the boat sinks and history tells us that most people on it die, I’m not really hurting anything with that pseudo-reveal), but they end better for the couple than they do for the boat.

Where the film doesn’t impress—especially if you’ve seen the Cameron version, and I’m going to grant that this is something of an unfair statement—is the actual sinking of the ship.  That being said, special effects have come a long way between 1953 and today, and the sinking itself is handled in serviceable fashion.  The issue here is one of availability of effects, not what was done with that which was available.  The Cameron film aimed for a true recreation of the sinking, whereas Negulesco’s film attempts to recreate the recorded dialogue amongst the ship’s crew throughout.   I don’t think it’s fair to suggest that Negulesco should have gone for the former not the latter, but audiences who have seen boats sunk (whether the RMS Titanic or in any other disaster flick) in more recent films may be left cold by the event as depicted here (again, I don’t think they should be, just that they will).

The Blu-ray release of the film—something that was supposed to occur last year to coincide with the 100th anniversary of the even but which was delayed—is presented in a full screen aspect ratio and with a mono DTS-HD MA track.  The print is exceptionally clean, as is the audio.  There is no real hiss to the track, nor are there fingerprints of whatever work was done to clean the video.

It is unfortunate, but there is also no featurette detailing whatever work went into bringing this release out.  Instead, we are given two audio commentary tracks, one by film critic Richard Schickel and another by cinematographer Michael D. Lonzo, actors Dalton & Wagner, and historian Sylvia Stoddard.  Two bits of newsreel are included as is a still gallery, trailer, and an “audio essay” by Stoddard.  While this last item is interesting, Stoddard—on more than one occasion—has her thoughts run together or says something in an unclear fashion and corrects herself or makes some other alteration which breaks up her speaking.   For this reason, it can be a frustrating essay to listen to, and one can’t help but wish that she had been given a few more takes – or that they had edited the essay together from multiple ones. 

With a 98 minute runtime, 1953’s Titanic offers up less the tale of a doomed ocean liner than the tale of a couple whose relationship is just as doomed.  For the most part, it eschews spectacle in an attempt to tell us about people.  It is a well-crafted, enjoyable movie that won’t satisfy cinematic thrill-seekers but will please fans of good old-fashioned storytelling.

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About Josh Lasser

Josh has deftly segued from a life of being pre-med to film school to television production to writing about the media in general. And by 'deftly' he means with agonizing second thoughts and the formation of an ulcer.