For this Hollywood production, the Titanic itself serves as a backdrop to the main melodramatic plot, and not much time is spent on exploring history. Only a few historical characters appear (not including such figures as Bruce Ismay and chief designer Thomas Andrews), and there is little exploration of the traditional themes of a Titanic movie, except maybe seeing privileged rich people idly enjoying themselves. The sinking sequence begins relatively late, only taking up the third act, and there is just enough talk of icebergs to effectively build up to this climax; the film takes the interesting approach of depicting the formation of the fatal iceberg in its opening scene. And I don’t recall any mention of unsinkability, just the fact that there aren’t enough lifeboats for everyone. Ultimately, the Titanic disaster suits the story that the filmmakers wanted to tell – or at least, it creates a suitable climax; for the first two acts, the story would unfold the same way on any ship.
So what is the story? Barbara Stanwyck plays Julia Sturges, who has had enough of her wealthy, selfish husband Richard (Clifton Webb), and boards the Titanic to run away to America with her children, Annette (Audrey Dalton) and Norman (Harper Carter). Richard discovers her plan, however, and slips onboard with a steerage ticket. Managing to get into first class, he finds his family, and drama ensues.
In terms of both acting and writing, this film really delivers; in fact, it won the Academy Award for Writing (Original Screenplay). There’s a real eloquence to the writing, particularly in the conversations between Richard and Julia, and the character-driven story in the first two acts is very compelling. All the main characters have understandable mindsets and are doing what they think is best. Julia feels her children will benefit from a less privileged lifestyle, like the one she knew before marrying Richard. Richard is not above manipulating his children in the hopes of getting his own way. Annette is perfectly happy with her life in Europe, thank you very much, and young naïve Norman just wants to maintain a good relationship with his father, whom he idolises.
As well as the main conflict amongst the family, there is a romantic subplot between Annette and fellow passenger Giff Rogers (Robert Wagner). This isn’t quite as interesting, but I do like some elements of it, like how Giff integrates himself with Julia in the hopes she can put in a good word for him, and how he later teaches Annette a dance that isn’t quite upper-class enough for her to be familiar with. There is also an alcoholic reverend character, whom I didn’t see the point of.
When the iceberg finally re-enters (having opened the film), there’s a rather blatant mistake where the Titanic (correctly) looks like it’s going to hit on the starboard side – but then an underwater shot shows the ice damaging the port side! As previously mentioned, the sinking only takes up the third act, and the film isn’t especially long anyway at 98 minutes, so things escalate very quickly; Richard, following his questionable behaviour and attitudes through the film, naturally gets his chance at redemption in the face of peril. The sinking Titanic is seen listing to port, which is actually historically accurate – though not so much the large and clearly visible explosions that occur when the seawater hits the boilers. The ending brings a painfully cheesy moment when the ship’s band begins playing Nearer My God to Thee – and every single doomed person still onboard stops and sings along.
Having last watched the 1953 Titanic several years ago, it was a lot better than I remembered this time round, with top-notch acting and a great script – it’s certainly not perfect, and you can judge if the plot sounds like the sort of thing you’d be interested in, but I recommend this one overall.