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Film / Titanic (1953)

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Titanic is a 1953 drama film based on the RMS Titanic disaster of April 1912, directed by Jean Negulesco and starring Clifton Webb, Barbara Stanwyck, Robert Wagner, Audrey Dalton, and Thelma Ritter.

Like most films on the topic, this version features some characters based on actual Titanic victims and survivors; however, most of the lead characters and subplots are fictitious. The core plot revolves around the Sturges family.

Richard Sturges (Webb), a wealthy American expatriate living in Paris, buys a last-minute ticket for Titanic’s maiden voyage in order to find his wife Julia (Stanwyck) and his two children, 18-year old Annette (Dalton) and 10-year old Norman (Harper Carter). Julia is displeased with her life in Europe and wants her kids to be raised down-to-earth Americans, rather than Idle Rich elite Europeans. Previously having been in the dark on the issue, Annette insists that she go back to Paris with her father. After a particularly ugly argument, Julia reveals a long-kept secret that she's been hiding for years. This leads Richard to abandon his wife and son. Around this same time, an attractive college tennis player named Gifford "Giff" Rogers (Wagner) notices Annette and falls for her. After initially brushing him off, Annette eventually starts to warm up to Giff. Unfortunately, not too soon afterwards the ship’s lookouts notice an incoming iceberg...

Titanic is a well-received, if historically inaccurate, dramatization of the disaster. It won the Academy Award for Writing Original Screenplay and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Art Direction. The film also was nominated for the Directors Guild of America Award.

Despite sharing the same title and basic premise (a fictional soap opera using the sinking of the Titanic as a backdrop) as well as being produced by the same studio, the James Cameron film is not a remake of this one.

Titanic (1953) contains examples of:

  • Adapted Out: The ship's designer Thomas Andrews and J. Bruce Ismay, the chairman of the White Star Line, are both absent in this version.
  • Age Lift:
    • Captain Smith looks at least 20 years younger than his actual age.
    • Madeleine Astor looks a good 10 to 15 years older than she would've been at the time of the sinking.
  • Anachronism Stew:
    • Some of the actors' costumes and hairstyles reflect the early 1950s fashion, and not The Edwardian Era, when the story is set.
    • World War II era inflatable rafts can be seen lowered during the evacuation sequence.
    • The type of siren heard during the sinking didn't exist until decades after the Titanic disaster.
  • Artistic License – History: Where to begin...
    • Titanic's maiden voyage was not sold out, more than half of First-Class cabins were unoccupied, so Richard wouldn't have had to haggle for a steerage ticket.
    • Tickets were non-transferable; Richard would not have been able to board the ship after purchasing someone else's ticket.
    • The Astors occupied a parlor suite on C-deck, but the film portrays them in an A-deck cabin, which in reality were some of the cheapest and most uncomfortable First-Class cabins on the ship.
    • Only the promenade deck remotely resembles any actual location aboard the Titanic.
    • As with most films based on the sinking, this version erroneously portrays First Class passengers dancing during dinner. There was no designated space for dancing in any of the public rooms aboard Titanic and dancing itself wasn't embraced as an acceptable public pastime by the upper classes until after World War I.
    • Titanic's orchestra is shown consisting of horn instruments and percussion, while in reality all of the musicians played string instruments only.
    • There was no emergency alarm system on the Titanic.
  • Artistic License – Ships: The ship's model used in the film is actually quite well done, but it seems to have been based more on Titanic's sister-ship Olympic and has "Southampton" written on the stern as the ship's registered port. In reality, while Titanic did sail out of Southampton, its actual port of registry was Liverpool, which is what was written on the stern.note 
    • The interiors and general layout of the ship in the film bear only a passing resemblance at best to the actual Titanic.
  • Beach Kiss: Julia cheated on Richard with a stranger she met while strolling on the beach late one night.
  • Dated History: Titanic is shown going down in one piece.
  • Death of a Child: Norman commits a Heroic Sacrifice and gives up being saved in order to let someone else have his seat in the lifeboat. Also a sad case of Truth in Television.
  • Defrosting Ice Queen: Annette starts out very frigid and antagonistic towards Giff, but eventually his wooing works and she falls in love with him.
  • Dirty Coward: Harold Meeker dresses as a woman in order to sneak onto a lifeboat.
  • Disguised in Drag: See above.
  • The Edwardian Era: With a healthy dose of the The '50s thrown in for good measure.
  • Face Death with Dignity: The remaining passengers and crew left behind on the ship gather together and sing Nearer My God To Thee (even the Jewish ones), as the ship gradually sinks beneath the waves.
  • Foregone Conclusion: The ship hits an iceberg and sinks.
  • Freudian Excuse: Julia's infidelity is Hand Waved as a result of her self-consciousness around Richard's sophisticated wealthy friends.
  • Ham-to-Ham Combat: Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck tearing into each other in every scene they have together.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: Surprisingly averted. The film puts all blame for the sinking on Captain Smith's shoulders, where it probably belongs.
  • Hollywood Costuming: Most of the costumes and hairstyles in the film are an eclectic mix of Edwardian and Fifties style fashion trends.
  • Hollywood History: Probably the quintessential example amongst Titanic films.
  • Hypocrite: For someone who so openly disdains living the privileged life of the upper class, Julia has no qualms booking First Class tickets on the most luxurious ship ever built for her family’s passage back to America.
  • Idle Rich: Invoked by Julia when she's criticizing Richard's shallow lifestyle.
  • Jerkass: After learning the truth about Julia's affair, Richard lashes out at the innocent ten year old Norman.
  • Lighter and Softer: The film portrays the evacuation of the ship as much more calm and organized than it actually was. The steerage passengers are shown to have easy access to the lifeboats and the people left behind are shown stoically singing Nearer My God to Thee instead of desperately fighting for their lives as the ship begins its final plunge.
  • Love at First Sight: Giff fell for Annette immediately. For her it took a while.
  • Made of Explodium: Titanic's boilers apparently had a lining of sodium given how they explode on contact with water during the final plunge.
  • Meaningful Name: Pathetic Harold Meeker raids the wardrobe closet in some woman’s cabin in order to escape the sinking ship.
  • No Historical Figures Were Harmed: Maude Young is a thinly veiled representation of the famous Titanic survivor Molly Brown.
  • Not Actually His Child: Julia reveals to Richard that his beloved son Norman is actually a product of a one night stand she had eleven years earlier, leaving Richard heartbroken.
  • One-Night-Stand Pregnancy: Norman is the result of his mother’s one-night stand with a stranger on the beach.
  • Outliving One's Offspring: The film concludes with a devastated Julia watching Titanic sink into the ocean with her son still onboard.
  • Parental Title Characterization: Daddy's Girl Annette calls her father "Daddy". Norman has a more stilted relationship with their father, and he wants to seem more grown-up, so he instead uses "Father". He also calls him "sir" a lot.
  • Rags to Riches: It's implied that prior to marrying Richard that Julia was middle class at best.
  • Race Lift: The Jewish Mr. and Mrs. Straus are shown singing the classic methodist hymn "Near My God, To Thee" at the end of the film.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Just about everything Julia tells Richard before the ship hits the iceberg is this.
  • Redemption Equals Death:
    • Reverend Healy, who was defrocked by the Catholic Church due to his alcoholism, goes down into the boiler room to give comfort and absolution to the stokers and engineers before the ship sinks.
    • Richard Sturges drops his upper class pretense when the ship begins sinking and makes no attempt to save himself. He then proceeds to help evacuate the women and children, even making sure that the Basque family he used to board the ship is put safely into a lifeboat.
  • Rich Bitch: Averted. Unlike most of the other films based on the Titanic disaster, none of the women in First Class are portrayed as snobby or cruel.
  • Rich Boredom: Julia would rather have her children be raised as middle-class than as rich.
  • Riches to Rags: These are Julia's plans for her family when she goes back to her hometown in Michigan.
  • Say My Name: "NORMAN...NORMAN!!!!!!"
  • The Scream: Julia lets out an agonizing wail when she realizes her son is still aboard the sinking ship. It's a very jarring moment because Barbara Stanwyck's raw emotion is uncharacteristically modern and realistic for a glossy Hollywood melodrama filmed in 1953.
  • Shown Their Work: Even though the film is rife with cliches and historical inaccuracies, it is the only dramatization of the disaster to correctly show Titanic listing to port (left) side during the sinking.
  • So Proud of You: Despite not being his biological son, Richard is nevertheless proud of Norman's selflessness for giving up his seat to save someone.
  • Together in Death: A famous real life example; Ida Straus refuses to leave her husband Isidor.
    • In a non-romantic example, Norman and Richard die together on the ship, reunited as father and son.
  • The Unfair Sex: Richard's lifestyle may be seen as shallow, but he is still portrayed as a courteous man who genuinely loves his family, while Julia does nothing but whine about their privileged life together and constantly shames and belittles her husband's upper class upbringing; she even attempts to take her children back to Michigan under false pretenses in order to keep Richard away from them. Yet, she is the one who the film treats as sympathetic and in the right; and even uses her Rich Boredom as an excuse to justify her infidelity, which is a bit shocking considering this film was made at the height of the Hays Code.
  • Vehicle Title: Second film about the disaster using the title Titanic, this would later become a trend with film/tv dramatizations of the sinking.
  • Wham Line: "He's not your son."