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Long before Leonardo DiCaprio declared himself "King of the World" in James Cameron's 1997 blockbuster, there were other films about the most famous maritime disaster in history, two of which stand out. The best movie about the sinking of the Titanic is usually considered to be the British release A Night to Remember (1958), which stuck pretty closely to the facts of the ocean liner's ill-fated maiden voyage and portrayed many of the actual historical figures involved. The most popular Hollywood release prior to Cameron's is this version, directed by Jean Negulesco, winner of a Best Writing Academy Award for Charles Brackett (who also produced), Walter Reisch, and Richard L. Breen and a nominee for art direction. Negulesco was also nominated for his work by the Director's Guild of America.
Some of the familiar historical figures "on deck" for this version include Captain E.J. Smith, John Jacob Astor and his bride Madeleine (played by Frances Bergen, wife of the ventriloquist and mother to Candice), First Officer Murdoch, Benjamin Guggenheim, and the elderly Strauss couple (one of the owners of Macy's) lovingly going down with the ship together. But they all take a back seat to the high-melodrama shenanigans of the fictional Sturges family. Mrs. Sturges, aka American-born Julia, is played by Barbara Stanwyck, the best reason to watch the movie after, of course, the excitement of the sinking itself, rendered with fairly convincing special effects. She's on board with her two children, older daughter Annette and adolescent Norman, to escape her unhappy marriage to Brit Clifton Webb. Not so coincidentally, hubbie has also booked passage in order to connive custody of their offspring, never realizing that Norman is actually the product of an extramarital affair Julia had years before. All this domestic tension, naturally, is almost (but not quite) forgotten in the great disaster to follow.
One true historical fixture in all other tellings of this legendary tale, Denver socialite-philanthropist Margaret "Molly" Brown, appears prominently in this film but under the name Maude Young, now the possessor of a Montana lead mining fortune as opposed to the real-life Brown's Colorado-based silver mining interests. Why the change was made is a mystery, since Brown (who went by "Maggie" and not "Molly") was always proud of her connection to the Titanic and the heroism she reportedly displayed during the sinking. She died in 1932, so perhaps it was a dispute over rights with her surviving family members. In any case, Thelma Ritter, the supreme character actress of the time, gives her all as the salty Maude.
The film was originally titled "Nearer My God to Thee" after the hymn that some survivors claimed was the last song played by the ship's band as it sunk. Others have strongly disputed this, and historians generally insist that passengers most likely were not standing stoically on deck singing along to the hymn as the ship went under, as this movie depicts. The hymn was sung by doomed crew and passengers of the SS Valencia as it sank off the Canadian coast in 1906, perhaps giving rise to its prominence in the legend of the more famous 1912 sinking shown here. Producers felt using the song name as the title might lead people to think the picture had a religious theme. For a short time the alternative title "Passenger List" was considered until more sensible heads finally prevailed.
Stanwyck was paid $75,000 for eight weeks work on this movie. The actress received favorable reviews for her performance, particularly the intensely real emotions she dredged up for the shipwreck sequence, but she later claimed that was less a matter of acting skills than her personal reaction to the realism of the setting. "The night we were making the scene of the dying ship in the outdoor tank at Twentieth [Century Fox], it was bitter cold," she told Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper. "I was 47 feet up in the air in a lifeboat swinging on the davits. The water below was agitated into a heaving, rolling mass and it was thick with other lifeboats full of women and children. I looked down and thought: If one of these ropes snaps now, it's good-by for you. Then I looked up in the faces lined along the rail--those left behind to die with the ship. I thought of the men and women who had been through this thing in our time. We were re-creating an actual tragedy and I burst into tears. I shook with great racking sobs and couldn't stop."
Stanwyck was known for championing young players in her movies, most famously her support of William Holden, which prevented his firing from the title role in Golden Boy (1939). On Titanic, she befriended Robert Wagner, who played the romantic interest of Audrey Dalton as Stanwyck's daughter. Wagner was only 22 at the time and fairly new to pictures. "Barbara was very helpful," he said years later. "She's a sensitive lady beneath that kind of sharp front. She changed my whole approach to my work--made me want to learn the business completely. She really started me thinking. It means a great deal when someone takes that kind of time with a newcomer." Although rumors of a romance between the young actor and the twice-divorced 45-year-old star made the gossip circuit, a love relationship was not likely, and it made Wagner furious. "It's all nonsense," he protested. "This silly gossip has certainly hurt my chance for a real friendship with a fine woman and a great actress." Wagner's assessment of the damage notwithstanding, the two remained good friends.
Commodore Sir Gordon Illingworth, ex-captain of the Queen Elizabeth ocean liner, was employed as technical adviser. Despite the film's many historical inaccuracies, Illingworth saw to it that nautical details kept close to the truth.
At the end of filming, Negulesco, an accomplished visual artist, presented the cast with drawings he had made of them.
Producer: Charles Brackett
Director: Jean Negulesco
Screenplay: Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch, Richard L. Breen
Cinematography: Joseph MacDonald
Editing: Louis R. Loeffler
Art Direction: Maurice Ransford, Lyle Wheeler
Original Music: Sol Kaplan
Cast: Barbara Stanwyck (Julia Sturges), Clifton Webb (Richard Sturges), Robert Wagner (Gifford Rogers), Audrey Dalton (Annette Sturges), Thelma Ritter (Maude Young), Brian Aherne (Capt. E.J. Smith).
by Rob Nixon