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The working title of this film was Nearer My God to Thee. According to a September 1952 Los Angeles Times news item, Twentieth Century-Fox used the working title because of initial problems registering the title Titanic. A modern source reports that Passenger List was another working title. The opening credits of the picture include the following written prologue: "All navigational details of this film-conversations, incidents and general data-are taken verbatim from the published reports of inquiries held in 1912 by the Congress of the United States and the British Board of Trade." At the end of the film, over a shot of the lifeboats, offscreen narrator Michael Rennie states: "Thus, on April the 15th, 1912, at 0220 hours, as the passengers and crew sang a Welsh hymn, R.M.S. Titantic passed from the British Registry."
The film's story is based on the sinking of the White Star line's R.M.S. Titanic, which, on its maiden voyage from Southampton, England to New York City, struck an iceberg near Newfoundland. The incident took place shortly before midnight on April 14, 1912 and the vessel sank within three hours. Considered "unsinkable," the Titantic was one of the largest and the most luxurious ocean liners of its time. Although the characters of the "Sturgess" family are fictional, many of the characters in the film are based on real people, including Mr. and Mrs. John Jacob Astor, Benjamin Guggenheim and Mr. and Mrs. Isidor Straus. The character of "Maude Young" is based on the wealthy, outspoken American Molly Brown, who was one of the estimated 705 survivors. Over 1,500 people, including the majority of the crew and steerage passengers, died. Modern critics often site the inadequate number of lifeboats, and the fact that some of the lifeboats were only partially filled, as reasons for the tremendous loss of life. The surviving passengers and crew were eventually rescued by the Carpathia, and investigations into the tragedy resulted in stricter enforcements of general maritime safety measures. The incident was one of the major news stories of the 20th century. The wreckage of the Titanic was found in 1985 by Dr. Robert Ballard and his crew. Numerous artifacts have been recovered by divers and tourists continue to visit the site.
According to a July 1938 New York Times article, independent producer David O. Selznick was interested in making a picture about the sinking of the Titanic, to be directed by Alfred Hitchcock. That film was never produced, however. In 1944, Hollywood Reporter noted that Seymour Nebenzal was to be producing a film based on the subject, with the original story to be written by Rowland Leigh. That production was also never realized. September 1952 Hollywood Reporter news items announced that Terry Moore was being considered for a role in Titanic, and that Margaret O'Brien was the "top candidate" for the part of "Annette Sturgess." A December 5, 1952 Hollywood Reporter news item includes Joyce Newhart, George Boyce and Duke Seba in the cast, but their appearance in the completed film has not been confirmed. A modern source adds Joan Hayes and Bert Stevens to the cast. Audrey Dalton was borrowed from Paramount for the production. According to the film's pressbook, technical advisor Commodore Sir Gordon Illingworth had served as the captain of the Queen Mary. The film contains a medley of college songs, for Amherst, Cornell and others, sung by "Giff" and his friends.
In May 1953, Life reported that several survivors of the tragedy attended an April preview of the film in New York and found it "depressingly realistic when the ship hit the iceberg and went down." As noted in the Motion Picture Herald Prod Digest review, the picture's world premiere was held at the Norfolk Navy Base in Virginia on April 11, 1953, in conjunction with the U.S. Navy Relief Ball. The film received an Academy Award nomination for Best Art Direction (b&w) and won an Academy Award for Best Writing (Story and Screenplay). Titanic marked the screen debuts of Frances Bergen, the wife of comedian Edgar Bergen, and Melinda Markey, the daughter of actress Joan Bennett and producer Gene Markey.
Among the many films depicting the sinking of the Titanic are the 1912 short Saved from the Titanic, directed by Etienne Arnaud and starring Dorothy Gibson; the 1929 German-British-French co-production Atlantic, directed by E. A. Dupont and starring Franklin Dyall and Madeleine Carroll; the 1996 made-for-television movie Titanic, directed by Robert Lieberman and starring Peter Gallagher and Catherine Zeta-Jones; and the 1997 Paramount and Twentieth Century-Fox release Titanic, directed by James Cameron and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. Walter Lord's bestselling book about the Titanic served as the basis for both a 1956 television movie, which was directed by George Roy Hill, and a 1958 British picture directed by Roy Baker and starring Kenneth More and Honor Blackman. Both of the works based on Lord's book were entitled A Night to Remember.
The disaster also inspired numerous sub-plot points in films, novels and television programs since 1912, including The Unsinkable Molly Brown, No Greater Love and The Chambermaid on the Titanic. It also has been the subject of several television documentaries, as well as the basis for the Tony Award-winning Broadway musical Titanic (New York, 23 April 1997), directed by Richard Jones, with book by Peter Stone and music and lyrics by Maury Yeston.