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Each movie version reflects its time's values

This is Dark Cloud on Wednesday, December 31, 1997.

Despite every reason in the world to believe that Titanic would be one of the great bombs in cinematic history, there is now reason to believe it might be one of the better films in a while. I base this not on personal experience, because I haven’t seen it, but because I have heard lots of people say that the movie has been sold out, and that the wait was worth it, and that they loved it. This includes women whose last movie liked was Last of the Mohicans, and men whose most recent charmed experience under the spell of Hollywood was Spawn. That is a wide spectrum.

There have been something like twenty movies made about the Titanic, most awful, but there was one that made a big impression on me in my youth. It was used to inaugurate something brand new for television at the time, NBC’s Saturday Night at the Movies. Television was only starting to be shown in color, and there were actually a few hour long shows on the air, after ten years in which the American Public was thought to be exhausted after thirty minutes. But now the thought had occurred that actual full-length relatively recent movies, interrupted by commercials, could be shown in prime time. They chose Titanic, starring Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb.

That it was melodrama writ large - and not true, as it turns out - which did not prevent the final scenes from being as gut wrenching as anyone could stand in their own homes back then. It was the story of a frigidly proper American and his long suffering wife and their ten-year-old son. After an argument, the wife tells the husband that the son is not his. But first, the ship hits the burg. The lookout, after a horrified stare forward, calmly says “Jesus Mary” and rings the bell. In 1959 or whatever year this was, that was the shock equivalent of Martin Lawrence. It focused attention.

The ship sinks, not to ruin it for you, and the band plays “Nearer My God To Thee” and the wife is one of the first class babes to make it in a lifeboat. Before parting, the man recalls the happiest moment of his life, which was when he married Stanwyck, and asks if he might relive it by repledging his love, which dissolves Stanwyck and audience. Then the son, who does not know he is a bastard, does the right thing and decides his place is with his father since Mom is safe. The step father is touched, we are all so touched, and our last sight of the man and son are of them singing that maudlin hymn as the mother watches from a safe distance, then the crack of a bulkhead caving, the ship upends, sinks, it is over. Also the movie. There is no way to make any of this seem plausible, or even watchable, especially if you are not familiar with Clifton Webb, a terrific character actor of Puritan men and comic buffoons. His gravitas and inner turmoil under calm facade carry this film, and he was, if memory serves, very good.

The script clearly meant to impart life lessons for the fifties when it was made, not recall Edwardian values, which would have been more correct. In fact, disasters like this always serve in myth to reinforce currently accepted values. The Titanic was very flexible in this regard, since nobody knew what happened and there were no facts to buttress or deny various old person accounts.

It would be of some interest if a film student made a concordance of every Titanic film and applied the lessons imparted to the times in which it was made. I believe that I can predict how this monster movie will somehow reflect the slacker, Gen-X values of the nineties, no wrench there, even though it is nailed to realities that the other movies were not. After all, the myth is gone; people - including the director - have looted the wreck by submarine. Artifacts now see sunlight. And there is nothing wrong with this but it does make me sad on one level. Would anyone have enjoyed The Last Crusade if someone had actually found Christ’s cup?