Film Guides

Shirley Temple at 85

Today is Shirley Temple Black’s 85th birthday. The long-retired star and diplomat is likely quietly marking the day with family at her home in Woodside, California, where she remains largely out of the public eye.  Alas, a recently launched Twitter account purporting to be hers was revealed to be a fake after it started pumping spam to 10,000 followers who were eager to find out if  Shirley still puts animal crackers in her soup. She was honored by Kennedy Center in 1998, a broadcast worth watching for the revelation that the still-charming actress inspired the famously wooden Henry Kissinger to crack jokes and utter the phrase “On the Good Ship Lollipop” in his heavy German accent. In 2006, the Screen Actors Guild honored her with a Life Achievement Award presented by Jamie Lee Curtis and, in a nice bit of symmetry, Dakota Fanning. Apart from this appearance, she has kept a rather low profile since the death of her second husband in 2005. Although fans worldwide are hoping for a Betty White type comeback, it looks like it isn’t going to happen.

Her 85th birthday is significant because her longevity makes her a living link with Hollywood’s classic era. The long-feuding sisters Olivia de Havilland and Joan Fontaine are still among us. But when they were just starting their careers with small parts in 1935, the child start was getting top billing in the title roles of The Little Colonel and Curly Top.  Temple is certainly the last remaining female star of a pre-code film (1934’s Little Miss Marker), making her a bridge to the brief period of 1929-34 when Hollywood still allowed itself to make films that were both glamorous and gritty. The only other true Hollywood star to rival her longevity is Mickey Rooney, who also started as a child performer, but had more lucky with transitioning to teenage and adult roles.

Shirley Temple was far and away the greatest child star in the world in her day. She more or less single-handedly save Twentieth Century Fox from financial ruin shortly after she signed with the studio at the age of 5. She was given a bungalow on the Fox lot with built-to-scale furniture and a miniature care. 19 top writers were assigned to crank out Shirley Temple scripts in the race against the onset of puberty. She was the top box-office draw in America four years in a row (1935–38).  “During the Depression,” President Franklin Roosevelt said in one of his radio addresses “when the spirit of the people is lower than at any other time, it is a splendid thing that for just 15 cents an American can go to a movie and look at the smiling face of a baby and forget his troubles.”   64 years since she last stepped in front of a movie camera, Fox reports that Shirley Temple still sells one million DVDs a year. A better sales record than some so-called celebs working today, to be sure.

Shirley scoots around her bungalow on the Fox lot.
Shirley could scoot around her bungalow on the Fox lot, provided she didn’t go too far.

Temple will likely always retain the unofficial title of greatest child star that ever was. No one has ever come close to achieving her level of popularity, and no one ever will. Tabloids mean that studio publicity departments can no longer manufacture and protect a young star’s public persona. Much-needed laws now restrict how much time a minor can spend on a set. Even with the double allotment allowed to the Olsen Twins, in our age even a stage mother as devoted as Gertrude Temple was cannot legally provide the necessary training to polish the natural talented need to create another Shirley Temple. Only Temple could sing and dance, cry on cue, and remember not only her own lines but also those of her adult costars. Adolphe Menjou, who had already been in films for a full 20 years before taking second billing to Temple in Little Miss Marker, reportedly said “this kid scares me—she knows all the tricks.” The following year, while filming  The Little Colonel  Lionel Barrymore forgot a line and his 6-year-old costar fed it to him, sending the veteran actor into a violent rage. Both of the older actors would soon be doing what they could to get on the girl’s good side, much like the gruff characters they played until their hearts are softened by Shirley’s character.

With Adolph Menjou in Little Miss Marker, her first title role.
With Adolph Menjou in Little Miss Marker, her first title role.

Temple’s boundless popularity is hard to imagine today. In John Huston’s 1982 musical film Annie, the red-haired orphan is granted an audience with FDR (played by Edward Herrmann) who is touched by the girl’s optimism. The scene is likely based on Shirley’s real-life visit to the White House, were both the president and the first lady were fans. The scene make one wish that Fox had developed an adaptation of the Harold Gray comic strip for its young star—Temple was forever playing orphans and the girl with circles for eyes was the ultimate one. On the other side of the Atlantic, Princess Margaret and Princess Elizabeth (the future Queen Mother) were devoted fans. So great and early was her fame in Hollywood, that her first baby tooth had only just fallen out when she was asked to press her tiny hands into the wet cement outside Grauman’s  Chinese Theater.

There was a dark side to her fame. Among the thousands of fan letters pouring in every week were some addressed to her father, from women pleading with him to sire “another Shirley.” Although Fox hired a retried police officer to act as her chauffeur and  bodyguard, she was the target of at least two attempted assassinations.  In the most bizarre of the incidents, she was singing “Silent Night” live in the CBS studios at Christmas time, 1939, when a woman in the audience pulled a gun and aimed it at the child star. The would be assassin was dragged out before she had a chance to fire a round. It was later learned that he had a daughter who died the same hour Shirley was born and was convinced the child star had stolen her girl’s soul.  “The tale seemed understandable to me,” Temple would write nearly nearly 50 years later in her autobiography Child Star. The feasibility of soul transmigration aside, the woman’s calculations pinpointing her daughter’s passing and Shirley’s birth were off by a full year. Fox had faked a birth certificate to shave a year off of the age of its top star.

The child star visits the White House.
America’s sweetheart visits the White House.

Her parents would reveal her true age to her as she entered her teens, and she shared it with the public when adjusting her age from 20 to 21 during a highly publicized divorce. She was to have a remarkable childhood. Like many little girls, she idolized Eleanor Roosevelt and Amelia Earhart, but in her case she also got to meet them. But like any other child star, she could not have a normal childhood. Although she had her specially-built bungalow at Fox, she was not allowed to walk around the lot, for fear that too much attention would spoil her. Her playhouse was also her prison. She was also forbidden to do highly lucrative personal appearances, as Fox feared audiences would not want to buy a ticket to see the girl if they had already seen her for free. The other unfortunate footnote of her stardom is that while she made millions for Fox, not much was left for her when her contract with the studio ended. Her father was an investment banker who squandered a good deal on poor investments. Another large chunk was claimed by Uncle Sam.

Although her films are still still selling one million DVDs a year, there are passages in the Temple filmography that are cringe-worthy for  viewers of today. There certainly some racist overtones in some of her films.  The worst offender is certainly the short Kid ‘in’ Africa, which sees little Shirley popped in a stew pot by African cannibals, also played by children. The actress was still too young to comprehend the meaning. When she and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson where preparing to become the first inter-racial dance couple in American film in The Little Colonel, the famed tap dancer arrived at her hotel for rehearsals. She learned that he was staying in the chauffeurs’ quarters over the garage, but later admitted that she wouldn’t understand the reason till years later.

Sharing a dance with Bill Robinson.
Sharing a dance with Bill Robinson.

Going through the comment in the Temple shorts and full features posted on YouTube, the most common complaint seems to be over the “creepiness” of scenes in which the young star appears to be eroticized with short dresses  and distinctly adult mannerisms. But that is how she started her screen career, in the low budget “Baby Burlesks” shorts, which feature kiddies in diapers fastened with over-sized safety pins as they play adult roles. In her second appearance in the series, 4-year-old temple mimics Mexican sexpot Dolores del Rio. In Kiddin’ Hollywood she apes on Marlene Dietrich’s vamp persona. The parodies of established sex symbols stopped when she began making features, but they were subject to moral scrutiny. 1935’s Curly Top was banned in Denmark for  “unspecified corruption.” Perhaps Danish censors were not amused by a scene in which the girl dances the hula in nothing but a grass skirt and a lei.  The novelist Graham Greene was still writing film review to pay the bills in 1937, when he wrote of the John Ford-directed Temple vehicle Wee Willie Winkie “the owners of a child star are like leaseholders—their property diminishes in value every year.” Fox producer Winfield Sheehan responded to his star property growing up by having her costumed in even short dresses and given more childish roles in an attempt to offset her growing spurts. Greene’s review continues with a now infamous passage:

Adult emotions of love and grief glissade across the mask of childhood, a childhood that is only skin-deep. It is clever, but it cannot last. Her admirers–middle-aged men and clergymen–respond to her dubious coquetry, to the sight of her well-shaped and desirable little body, packed with enormous vitality, only because the safety curtain of story and dialogue drops between their intelligence and their desire.

Twentieth Century Fox took seriously the need to protect the squeaky-clean image of its top star and sued for libel. Greene fled the controversy to Mexico, which was to change the course of his career. There may have been some dirty old men seated in the darkness of theaters when Temple’s films lit up the screen. Some also appear in her autobiography. She recalled that Wizard of Oz producer Arthur Freed revealed himself to the 11-year-old after a meeting to discuss her playing Dorothy Gale. But I would prefer to agree with FDR and say that the boundless optimism Shirley Temple radiated on screen helps viewers, both then and today, forget our problems for a time.

Film Guides

The Titanic on Film

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the maiden voyage launching of the RMS Titanic, which departed from Southampton at noon April 10, 1912. Five days later, the biggest and most luxurious ship in the world lay at the bottom of the North Atlantic, and over 1,500 people were dead in the freezing waters. To say the international public was intrigued by the disaster is a gross understatement. Much of the interest in the days after the sinking seems to have been in what had happened, as news varied from reports saying the damaged ship was being towed to Halifax to ones saying not a single person had survived.  Soon the question turned to why? as highly-publicized inquests began in both America and England.

Cinema was not a new form of art or entertainment in 1912, as Nickelodeons and other theaters specializing in short films had began appearing in the last years of the 19th century and had gained huge popularity by 1907, the year the RMS Titanic was planned. But the film industry as it existed through much of the 20th century was just beginning. Paramount and Universal would be founded later in 1912, and Fox would follow in 1915. With the big studios came the need for big stories to feed the movie-hungry public. The temptation to bring the story of the Titanic to the screen, even as survivors were still grieving over loved ones they lost in the disaster. The first Titanic film, a 10-minute silent short starring an actual survivor, premiered exactly one month after the ship struck the fateful iceberg.

Since then, the real life disaster has served as a backdrop for romance, a basis for Nazi propaganda and Cold War drama, and springboard for science fiction. When James Cameron’s 1997 film became not only the most expensive, but also the highest-grossing film up to that time, it seemed, despite its heavy fictionalizing, to be the definitive Titanic film. Yet film after film continues to be released. A new TV series has just been released leading up to the centenary, and there is nothing to indicate that there will not be more films in the future. Below is not a comprehensive list of every Titanic-related film, but just the major works I have been able to catch in the weeks leading up to the centenary.

Titanic survivor Dorothy Gibson in Saved From The Titanic.

Saved From the Titanic (1912)

This now lost ten-minute silent film premiered on May 14, 1912, just 29 days after the sinking. The Éclair Film Company knew that one of their top stars, Dorothy Gibson, was on the RMS Titanic, as they had just recalled her from a European vacation in order to work on a new production in New York. Gibson had a hand in the late-night bridge game on Sunday evening in the first-class lounge which is so often shown in film adaptations.

When news of the tragedy—and Gibson’s survival—reached New York, The Éclair Film Company wasted now time in planning a film. As Gibson and the other survivors returned to New York aboard the Carpathia, the company began rolling cameras on tug boats to capture footage which was later cut into the film. Gibson started writing the script just days after she set her feet on dry land. Filming took a week on board a derelict ship docked near Éclair’s studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Gibson played herself, of course, and we only know that at least two other actors played her father and the officer who ushered her to the lifeboat that saved her. This dramatized footage was edited together with stock shots of icebergs, actual newsreels of the RMS Titanic launching, and shots of the Captain Smith on sister ship the Olympic.

Much publicity was made of the fact that Gibson wore the exact same clothing she had on when she survived the disaster. A reporter observed that she had “the appearance of one whose nerves had been greatly shocked,” and she reportedly broke down in tears several times during the filming. All of this certainly helped the publicity of the film, which became a big hit. Not everyone was impressed, however, with the industry publication  New York Dramatic Mirror condemning the effort of capitalizing on the tragedy as “revolting.”

Despite its popularity, the last known prints of the film were lost in a fire in 1914, and its passing is considered one of the most significant loses of the silent film  era. Only a few stills and a poster survive today.

The RMS Titanic is: current events.

Behind the scenes: Saved From the Titanic would be Gibson’s last film, as apparently the strain of reenacting the trauma caused her to have a nervous breakdown. At the time, the star was having an affair with producer Jules Brulatour, and important player in the film industry who was an adviser at Éclair, head of distribution at Eastman Kodak, and was soon to co-found Universal Pictures. A year after the success of the film, Gibson killed a pedestrian while driving in New York, and the scandal deepened when it was learned that the car she was driving belonged to Brulatour. The two were married, but not to each other at the time. The two would eventually marry after getting their respective divorces, but the damage had already been done to Gibson’s career.

An early special effect shot from In Nacht und Eis.

In Nacht und Eis (1912)

This German film, which began shooting just a few months after the sinking of the RMS Titanic, was as much of an epic in its day as James Cameron’s film would be 86 years later. It was released with a whopping running time of35 minutes in a year when most films were a single reel, or about 10 minutes. Most shorts at the time were shot in studios that allowed in maximum sunlight in controlled conditions, but for the sake of realism, a good deal of production was done on board the German liner Kaisern Auguste Victoria. And although they seem quite primitive today, special effects utilizing models to recreate the sinking of the ship were considered quite advanced for the time.

Aside from its epic scale, the film goes to great lengths to depict the strata of society aboard the RMS Titanic. First-class passengers are shown milling around the upper deck marveling at the construction of the great ship and checking their corsets and pocket watches in their staterooms. Second-class passenger entertain themselves with games on their own deck, including a pillow fight between two men balancing on a pole suspended over a mattress and guiding a blindfolded man through a maze of empty bottles set up on deck. Third-class passengers are not explicitly shown, but stokers laboring in the bowels of the ship are. As was common at the time, various scenes of the black and white film are tinted with various colors to heighten impact, something that is most dramatic in a midnight blue shots of the ship striking the iceberg and a dark red shot of a stoker laboring to feed a raging burner.

The RMS Titanic is: The greatest tragedy of the age.

Shipboard romance: A married couple and their children are shown enjoying the luxury of their first class stateroom. That’s about it.

Biggest inaccuracy: The film does have it share of inaccuracies, such as boilers exploding, which reportedly and the lookouts in the crow’s nest using binoculars and shouting down to the control room when they spot ice (the real  lookouts had telephones to the bridge, but no binoculars). However, many aspects of the sinking were still being investigated at the time, and many conflicting eye-witness reports were still being brought to the attention of the international public.

Behind the scenes: The film was long thought lost, until all of the hype over James Cameron’s adaptation led to renewed interest in the film, and a German collector found a complete copy in a closet. But apparently the BFI had a partial copy in its archives for decades, so it had never really been “lost.” In any case, the entire film is available on YouTube.

Atlantic, the first Titanic talkie.

Atlantic (1929)

The British-produced Atlantic became the first talkie about the RMS Titanic, as well as one of the first British talkies ever made. Several versions were released, including one with German dialogue (Atlantik)  shot simultaneously on the same sets for the benefit of London’s German population before WWII, a French-language version (Atlantis) which was shot later, as well as a silent version released for theaters that had not yet converted to sound. The White Star Line, owners of the real Titanic, were still in operation at that time, and either threatened legal action or prohibited the producers of the film from using the name “Titanic.” But there can be no doubt that this is a thinly-veiled dramatization of the tragedy, be it a heavily fictionalized one.

The RMS Titanic is: The perfect stage for melodrama.

Shipboard romance: The main subplot involves a married man having an affair with a female passenger, which his wife finds out about as the ship is going down. In one scene, a steward opens a stateroom closet to get a woman’s lifebelt, only to discover a pair of men’s shoes, in which is standing a hiding gigolo.

Most jarring anachronism: First class passengers dance to hot jazz music, which didn’t exist until a good 15 years after the Titanic sank.

Behind the scenes: Two of the actress in the film would work with Alfred Hitchcock before his move to America in 1939. Madeleine Carroll would appear in the 39 Steps, and Joan Berry would step in to do a live voice substitution for the heavily accented star of Blackmail, also from 1929.

Borrowed by James Cameron: Since this is the first Titanic film with sound, it is also the first with the ship’s band playing “Nearer, My  God to Thee” as she went down. Although the band did indeed play on deck to calm the passengers, the selection of this song is widely regarded to be a legend. The myth had been born before the release of this film. But this film which certainly helped the myth along, as not only the band but every last passenger and crew member on board joins in on the song. Most adaptations have followed suit in including the song, and Cameron’s film is no exception. Since this is the first film to use the song, it could be said that Cameron borrowed it from here.

Ernst Fritz Fürbringer as the evil Bruce Ismay in the so-called "Nazi Titanic."

Titanic (1943)

James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster was not the first Titanic adaptation to set a record as the most expensive (and beleaguered) film made up until that time. This Nazi propaganda film became the most expensive film ever produced in Germany up until that time. It was conceived of in 1941, when Germany seemed unstoppable in WWII and Nazi occupation of England seemed like a possibility, at least to the Nazi party. The film was planned to be a stinging condemnation of British capitalism and greed and a message that the world would be better off run by Germans, rather than the Brits who had the run of it for most of the 19th century. The tragedy of the Titanic was seen as a perfect example of British mismanagement and placing profits ahead of safety and real progress. By the time the troubled production was finished, Germany was facing defeat on the Eastern front, and Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels, who had personally gave the greenlight to the project and closely oversaw its production, decided the scenes of death and disaster would be too much for a German public that was by that time suffering nearly nightly Allied bombing raids, and banned his own film after he had ordered the imprisonment (and possible execution) of the film’s director.

As the story of the RMS Titanic was borrowed for a  propaganda epic, it not surprising that the script is very cavalier in its handling of historic facts. The film starts with J. Bruce Ismay, the head of the White Star Line, addressing a meeting of stockholders (in German, strangely enough). Their share prices have been falling, but he has a masterful plan up his sleeve. They will continue to allow the prices to drop further, even selling shares to each other at cut rates to prompt its decline. But Ismay plans to announce that the Titanic will set a speed record for crossing the Atlantic, which will drive up the share value and make them all filthy rich. Once the ship has departed, he bribes the captain with $1,000 dollars for each hour they arrive ahead of schedule in New York.

There were, of course, no German officers in the Titanic’s crew, but one is invented—First Officer Petersen, who is brought in as a last-minute replacement when his English counterpart is taken ill. Petersen alone warns Ismay that his reckless speed race in the interests of profit will come to a bad end. When the inevitable happens, it is Petersen and German passengers in third class who act heroically. Ismay was widely attacked in the popular press of the day, not only because it was his company that could have prevented the disaster, but because he was a man who hopped into a lifeboat as it was being lowered, when so many women and children were left behind. Widely portrayed as a callow coward in films, here he becomes the very personification of corporate evil and greed.

The RMS Titanic is: Britain’s greatest folly, until the film itself became the Third Reich’s greatest folly.

Class consciousness: The first class elite are all shown to be heartless cowards who fight their way onto the lifeboats while the third class passengers, especially the German ones, are self-sacrificing and heroic.

Biggest inaccuracy: The White Star Line was not a publicly listed company, and so didn’t have shares on the market, the point on which the whole plot hinges.

Behind the scenes: The background of the production of this film does not yield any entertaining facts, but is full of tragedy even greater than that of the real RMS Titanic. Director Herbert Selpin was given unprecedented financial and military support by Goebbles. When the 20-foot model of the ship he had built was too big for any studio tank available, he moved production to a lake near Berlin, exposing the production to weather delays and a host of other problems. When it came time to shoot interiors, Goebbles provided a ship from the Nazi navy, which was by then extremely overextended. Reportedly, the naval officers were more interested in molesting the actresses than their job as technical advisers for the production,  the ongoing war provided sound problems in the form of bombs and warship sirens, the actors forgot their lines, and everyone seemed to be drunk. After a week of filming without a single scene in the can, Selpin called a crisis meeting at the hotel where the crew was staying, and openly complained about the film, the navy, and even the whole war effort. His friend and screenwriter, Walter Zerlett-Olfenius, who he had brought into the production, reported his outburst to Goebbles, who promptly put the director in jail, where he was found hanged in his cell the next day. The Cap Arcona, the ship used as a stand in for the Titanic, became a death trap in the final days of the war, when the SS loaded it with concentration camp prisoners who could have become witness against war crimes, and set it adrift in the sea, where it was promptly bombed by the British Royal Air Force, killing over 5,000 people.

Borrowed by James Cameron: Quite a lot. There are several plot points from this film that are not based on the actual stories of Titanic survivors, which also turn up in Cameron’s film, including: the poor but romantic hero (the ship’s violinist here) telling his love interest not to marry the man her family wants her to marry, a steward interrupting a quarreling first class couple to tell them to put on their life vests, a man being locked up in the sinking ship, the heroine being forced into a lifeboat by her lover, and even the alleged theft of a blue diamond.

Clifton Webb and Harper Carter face their fate in 20th Century Fox's Titanic.

Titanic (1953)

This 1953 American film from 20th Century Fox dramatically begins with stock footage of an iceberg being calved from a glacier, setting it on a fateful course of collision with the Titanic. After the opening credits comes a disclaimer which states that all details of the film are take verbatim from the American and British inquires in 1912. But what follows is a fictional story of a dysfunctional family set against the backdrop of the Titanic, with many details of the ship changed to add drama. Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck play an American couple from Michigan who have been living the high life in Europe for several years. When she secretly takes their two teenage children aboard the RMS Titanic in order to bring them back to a more modest life in America, he bribes a third class Spanish passenger to hand over his ticket just to get on the ship, where he promptly sneaks up to the first class cabins and bickers with his wife over who will get the children. Through their endless arguments, they are both revealed to be rather horrible people, but finally start to show a little character and morality when the ship starts to go down. He even ventures down to steerage to save the Spanish family whose father’s ticket he is travelling on, telling them “I am for the moment the head of this family.”

The film is the first to have a character based on Molly Brown, with Brooklyn-accented character actress Thelma Ritter playing a slightly brash, card-playing heiress named Maude Young, who consoles a despairing priest (Richard Basehart), who has be excommunicated in Rome over his alcoholism. Ritter’s portrayal of Brown is not exactly accurate and is rather over the top, and would influence subsequent portrayals of Molly Brown, who would appear in most subsequent Titanic films.

The RMS Titanic is: A tragedy that brings out the best in even the worst people.

Class consciousness:  A fictional character, Mr. Meeker, is a social climber in first class, eager to get into the good graces of John Jacob Astor, and later sneaking into a lifeboat under a woman’s shawl.

Shipboard romance: The feuding couple’s teenage daughter (Audrey Dalton) is courted by a returning college athlete (Robert Wagner). Although he is of a lower social standing, he is also (apparently) a first class passenger, and thus it is not a highly improbable romance between two passengers in different classes.

Biggest inaccuracy: A rich American has to bribe a third-class immigrant to get a ticket when he finds out that all first class cabins have been sold out for weeks, an important part of the plot. In fact, around half of first class cabins were empty. Many key points in the plot unfold in parts of the ship that simply didn’t exist, such as the tailor shop and shuffleboard court.

Most jarring anachronism: The humble suitor teaches his love interest a ragtime dance, which would not have been popular until a good decade after the Titanic‘s  sinking.

Borrowed by James Cameron: Clifton Webb’s quip “Why do the English find it necessary to announce dinner as if it were cavalry charge?” is given almost verbatim to Molly Brown in Cameron’s Titanic. Many elements of the Dalton-Wagner romance can be seen in Jack and Rose, such as the salt-of-the-earth boy teaching the socially upright young woman popular dances, and more importantly, how to come out of her shell.

Behind the scenes: On the set Barbara Stanwyck started an affair Robert Wagner, 23 years her junior and the suitor of her character’s daughter in the film.

Kenneth More as the heroic second officer of the RMS Titanic in A Night to Remember.

A Night to Remember (1958)

Based on Walter Lord’s meticulously researched book, the producers of this film did even further research, interviewing other survivors Lord wasn’t able to locate, and introducing some performers to the actual survivors they were portraying or bringing in their children as advisers. Many minor details, such as a first class passenger who goes back to her cabin to get her lucky wind-up pig but leaves behind her jewelry, are taken directly Lord’s interviews. This attention to detail made it the definitive Titanic film at the time, and many still consider it as such. It would be another 21  years before another full Titanic film was made, not counting the musical biopic The Unsinkable Molly Brown.

The film takes the interesting step of telling the story through the eyes of Second Officer Charles Lightoller (Kenneth More), starting the film with him at home with his wife, promising to bring her back garter belts from New York, and following them as they travel to Southampton for the maiden launching. Lightholler was responsible for filling and lowering the lifeboats, and More expertly plays the lifelong seaman who maintains his fortitude and calm in the face of chaos. Lightholler’s actions would come under criticism in later adaptations, especially his ordering lifeboats to be lowered before they were filled to capacity.

The RMS Titanic is: One of the major historical events of the 20th century.

Class consciousness: Before the fateful accident, three drunken passenger walk up the wrong hallway when looking for their cabin, and are told by a steward that they have wondered into second class, and need to go back to where they came. Stewards jobs were not only bar first class to people who did not belong there. Later, when the collision with the iceberg leaves ice on the deck that young men are playing with, a man looking down from a higher deck suggests to his wife that they go down to join the fun. “But they are third class passengers!” she exclaims in a British accent.

Shipboard romance: A young Irishman in third class strikes up a romance with a Russian girl, despite the objections of her mother and the fact that she does not speak a word of English. It has been suggested that this inspired the Leonardo di Caprio character in Cameron’s film, but he is more similar to the role of Fabrizio, who courts a Norwegian girl who speaks no English.

Biggest inaccuracy: For a film known for its accuracy, it is odd that is starts with a stately woman christening the Titanic, a ceremony that the White Star Line never held for any of its ships.

Most jarring anachronism: It is hard to spot, but supposedly some of the extras have 1950s style haircuts, which would have been deemed unacceptable in 1912.

Behind the scenes: Lawrence Beesley, a school teacher and second class passenger who would later be portrayed by David Warner in S.O.S. Titanic, was still alive during the making of this film and found his way onto the set, hoping to “go down with the ship” this time around. But the director spotted him and put a stop to his plan, as having a non-union extra would have caused problems with the production.

Borrowed by James Cameron: Ship’s designer Thomas Andrews tells the captain that it is “a mathematical certainty” that the ship will sink, a line directly borrowed in Cameron’s film. Andrews later quietly tells a passenger the truth about the ship’s fate while people run up the grand staircase in the background, and later still is asked by a passenger if he will not attempt to save himself, all of which turn up in Cameron’s version. The portrayal of the chief baker, who fortified himself with whisky before diving in the freezing waters, is very similar in both films. Third class passengers break through barricades leading to the boat decks above only to be told they are damaging company property appears in both films. Actor  Bernard Fox appears in both films, first as the lookout who spots the berg and later as a first class passenger and friend of Rose and Cal. Jack’s explanation to Rose of what it feels like to fall into freezing water is very similar to a passage in Kenneth More’s memoirs on the making of A Night To Remember, which required him to go into some very cold water on the set. The list could go on and on.

Debbie Reynolds reacts to the iceberg in The Unsinkable Molly Brown.

The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964)

A Night to Remember was instantly recognized as the definitive Titanic film, and many still regard it as such. Not surprisingly, it would be over two decades before another Titanic film was attempted. But The Unsinkable Molly Brown isn’t really a Titanic film. The ship doesn’t appear until the last 8 minutes of the two hour plus running time. And we miss most of Brown’s heroic behavior—helping other women board lifeboats, keeping them calm in her own lifeboat, and encouraging the lifeboat to go back to pick up people from the water (whether they did so or not is still unclear). This is not even a very good biopic of Margaret Brown, as it is so highly fictionalized, dropping her efforts for the women’s suffrage movement,  and serving more as a vehicle for Debbie Reynods’ singing.

The RMS Titanic is: Just another remarkable event in a remarkable life.

Borrowed by James Cameron: Molly’s dinner table anecdote about hiding money in a stove only to have her unaware husband toss in a match to warm his backside is repeated by Kathy Bates in Cameron’s film. Evidently the event never happened to the real Margaret Brown, but when it was reported in a newspaper society column, she didn’t bother to correct it, thinking that any publicity is good publicity.

Future Lovejoy David Warner and Susan Saint James relax on the second class deck in S.O.S. Titanic.

S.O.S. Titanic (1979)

This made-for-TV mini-series was also repackaged as a feature film. Despite its obviously limited budget, and a few horribly miscast performers, has a unique narrative structure and it is the first Titanic film to attempt to portray life in the ship’s second class. The two hour, 24 minute version starts with the wireless operator of the RMS Carpathia bursting into the sleeping quarters of the captain to announce the the RMS Titanic is sending distress signals. After charting a course, they arrive at given coordinates only to discover the great ship is nowhere to be seen. When a lifeboat emerges from an ice field, the first person pulled on board the rescue ship is Madeleine Astor, who informs the stunned crew that the mighty Titanic “is gone.” Another survivor pulled onto the ship does not need to give his name, as his face is known. Head of the White Star Line Bruce Ismay (play by a smarmy Ian Holm) tells them that the Titanic “was my ship.” The film then becomes one long flashback as the survivors tell their stories to the crew of the Carpathia.

Lawrence Beesley in the Titanic's exercise room.

Although there are dozens of central characters, the film focuses on three couples in each of the three classes. There is John Jacob Astor, the richest man on board, contemplating his loss of social standing after his recent divorce and remarriage to a much younger woman. In steerage, a young Irish immigrant pursues a mysterious blonde beauty. There is also a hint of romances between a passenger and a seamstress from the crew (played by a then largely-unknown Helen Mirren). But the shipboard romance that gets the most screen time is between two teachers, one British and one American, played by David Warner and Susan Saint James. Warner’s character, Lawrence Beesley, was a real school teacher and a Titanic survivor who wrote the first book on the sinking, published just six weeks later. However, the American teacher he meets in the ship’s library is wholly fictitious. The romance may have been inspired on a photo of Beeseley and a woman riding exercise bikes in Titanic‘s fitness room. But this was just a friend who was seeing Beesley off at Southampton, and alighted the ship before it set sail.

Thelma Ritter’s portrayal of the Molly Brown-inspired character in the 1953 version cemented Brown’s image as a slightly brash, plainspoken woman. But in Cloris Leachman’s hands, she becomes a sex-starved lonely widow, rather than the pioneering suffragette she was in real life, and this warped view would further mutate in subsequent adaptations.

The film ends  with Madeleine Astor telling a woman aboard the Carpathia who has told her to keep her faith that “there is no God, he went down with the Titanic” and the credits are shown as passenger lists of  “perished” and “survived” characters.

The RMS Titanic is: A microcosm of the British social system.

Class consciousness: This is the main point of the first Titanic film to acknowledge there were second class passengers between first and third class.

Shipboard romance: Oh, yes, on every deck, and in the ship’s Turkish bath as well (or at least a peeping Tom glancing through a cracked door).

Biggest inaccuracy: Aside from the fictional American school teacher who plays a prominent role in the plot, the film is remarkably accurate with the facts. The biggest mistakes seem to be regarding who boarded in Southampton or in Cherbourg and the fact that John Jacob Astor did not have a full beard.

Most jarring anachronism: The early 1910s and the late 1970s were at polar opposites in terms of popular hairstyles, and many of the actors apparently weren’t willing to undergo the full transformation. The actress playing Madeleine Astor (one of the most glamorous women of her day)  looks like she could be the singer in a second-rate country bar house band.

Borrowed by James Cameron: One of the lookouts in the crow’s nest remarks “there is ice out there. I can smell it,” a line that is recycled in Cameron’s film. The depiction of third class passengers entertaining themselves, especially dancing to Irish folk tunes, is very similar in this film and Cameron’s.

Jason Robarts and company on board the well-preserved RMS Titanic.

Raise the Titanic (1980)

This international coproduction was made after numerous teams had tried but failed to find the wreck of the Titanic, and five years before it was eventually found. Even though they present the hull as still in one piece and sound enough to be brought to the surface, it is remarkable how similar it looks to scenes from the actual exploration in 1985 and James Cameron footage for his own film.

The plot is an attempt to take a historical event from a completely different age and force it into a Cold War thriller. The US department of defense is planning to build a laser-powered electric shield around its borders, which will block any nuclear missiles launched from the Soviet Union. (As ridiculous as it seems, this foreshadow Reagan’s Star Wars missile defense plan by a few years.) The only way to power the massive system is a rare mineral—so rare, in fact, that it is only known to exist in strongboxes in the hull of the Titanic. Washington doesn’t care about expenses or desecrating a mass grave site if it will help beat those damn Ruskies, and so up comes the wreck of the RMS Titanic.

The production was a huge disaster, with a model of the rusted-out ship built for $350,000, only for it to be discovered that a new tank had to be built to accommodate it, which came at the  price of $6 million. That was just one of several major difficulties. Producer Lew Grade famously remarked it would have been cheaper to lower the Atlantic ocean. The film failed to make back its budget, surprising no one.

Biggest inaccuracy: The exploration crew know they are getting close when they find the cornet from the ship band’s cornet player, engraved with a message of appreciation from the White Star Line. A Titanic scholar assures them that this belonged to the ships cornet player, but there were no brass players in the Titanic band.

Borrowed by James Cameron: A modern-day explorer opens safe boxes from the Titanic, only to find their contents are worthless in both films.

Mike Doyle and Sonsee Neu look through the gates entrapping third class passengers in the 1996 TV miniseries "Titanic."

Titanic (1996)

This two-part miniseries was quickly rolled out during the huge amount of media hype that surrounded the production of James Cameron’s blockbuster. Reportedly, the ratings were good on the first evening of the broadcast, but quickly dropped off on the second evening due to a rather lackluster production. While obviously made on a limited budget, which shows in the lack of extras and the somewhat threadbare sets, there are some nice touches to this adaptation and the fictionalized subplots are at least more plausible than what we have in James Cameron’s film, which was released less than a year later.

The single character who is the thread tying the various stories together is a young English petty thief (played adequately by American actor Mike Doyle). He steals his third class ticket onto the Titanic from a drunk he meets in a barroom while hiding from the cops after another robbery. He has dreams of changing his ways and finding work in Hollywood. But his theft is witnessed by a devious steward (Tim Curry) who enlists the younger man in helping him case and later rob the first class staterooms en route. He meets an earnest, young, and very Lutheran German girl (Sonsee Neu) who is immigrating alone. When he falls for her, he determines to change his life for the better.

Meanwhile, Catherine Zeta-Jones plays a first class passenger who meets on old flame (Peter Gallagher) on board, and she decides to break it off with her husband over the Marconi wireless. Eva Marie Saint plays a very rich and very proper passenger who does not approve of adultery under her very nose, and is later more concerned with saving her lap dog than her husband when the ship is going down. These are all fictional characters, but the are farm more believable as romances between two steerage passengers and two first class ones, rather than one from each.

Unfortunately, the “factual” part of the story falls back on every myth about the Titanic, such as John Jacob Astor quipping “I asked for ice, but this is ridiculous.” Astor was never known for his sense of humor, and certainly didn’t say these words just after he was separated from his pregnant bride. Many other details are poorly researched, such as George C Scott as Captain Smith telling the wireless operators to send “CQD, come quickly, distress,” which is not actually what the code meant.

On the other hand, characters benefit too much from historic hindsight. Captain Smith admonishes his crew for turning around the iceberg, exposing the ship’s broadside to danger, and reversing engines, when full forward speed would have made her turn faster. A survivor slams another for allow her lifeboat to leave with only 20 passengers, when they can hold 65 men. These are things that were only understood about the Titanic decades later.

The RMS Titanic is: The perfect stage for a soap opera.

Class consciousness: In a highly improbably scene, John Jacob Astor, the richest man on board tells a third-class thief never to make investments with his own money.

Shipboard romance: Two  of them, one in steerage and one in first class. One couple pulls through together, while the other is pulled apart by the tragedy.

Biggest inaccuracy: A major subplot revolves around a trouble nanny to a third class family named Alice Cleaver, who has a premonition the ship is going to sink, and steals on of the children in her car after it is revealed she is a murder, having thrown her own child from a train. There was a child-murderer name Alice Cleaver, and a nanny on the Titanic named Alice Cleaver, but they were not the same person, and the one who survived the Titanic was regarded as a hero by the press.

Kate Winslet dangles of the back of the Titanic while Leonardo DiCaprio convinces her to come back on board.

Titanic (1997)

Despite what you may think about the saccharine-sweet love story at the center of James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster, it has to be admitted that it is the first film to have a wealth of information, budget and film technology to fully impress upon the viewer the sheer scale and opulence of the Titanic when she was afloat, and the devastating violence and human suffering when she sank. Cameron famously employed the same firms that built and supplied the RMS Titanic and  There are numerous fan edits of the film out there. I am not sure if anyone has ever attempted one that completely removes the Jack and Rose romance, but that would produce a short, but high accurate and impressive update to A Night To Remember.

The love story is overly sentimental and highly improbable. Even with love as a motivation, the army of stewards on the Titanic would have made it impossible for a steerage passenger to sneak up to a first class deck or the forward deck of the ship.

Although the character’s are fictional, Cameron based Old Rose on American artist Beatrice Wood, who was 104 when the film was released. Wood was the daughter of socialites who rejected her families plans to marry her off and pursued the arts, beginning as an actress before moving one to painting and ceramics. Although she was not a passenger on the Titanic, her extraordinary life (detailed in her autobiography I Shock Myself) makes the character of Rose more believable and ultimately makes the romance seem not that impossible.

The RMS Titanic is: A stand in for Romeo and Juliet’s Verona.

Most jarring anachronism: This is most certainly the most thoroughly researched and executed Titanic film ever made, and one really has to look into minor details to find errors, such as Rose smoking filter cigarettes, which did not become coming till the 1940s.

Jack and Rose try to remember the lyrics to "Come Josephine in My Flying Machine" in a scene deleted from the theatrical release of Titanic.

Titanic: White Star Line Edition (2006)

This is a fan edit named after the shipping company that owned the RMS Titanic. It takes all of the deleted scenes which where included special collector’s edition DVD released in 2006 and places them back into the context of the story. It also includes an alternative ending, which has old Rose showing Brock Lovett the Heart of the Ocean before tossing it into the sea. It will take 3 hours and 45 minutes of your life to watch this extended version, but it is far superior to the theatrical release. The replacement of the deleted scenes does not just add new material, but also makes several scenes that were in the shorter release make more sense and have more impact.

Many viewers have wondered who the blonde woman is that Rose glances at just before the ship finally goes down, who loses her grip on the hand rails and falls into the sea. This Norwegian girl was a love interest for Jack’s friend Fabrizio, even though they do not share a common language. But almost all of her scenes were cut in the release version, which unfortunately takes some depth away from Fabrizio and truly does make him a one-dimensional Italian stereotype.

There is a scene showing Rose having a panic attack in her stateroom, which not only explains why her hair goes from being pulled back at dinner to being loose when she contemplates suicide at the back of the ship, but also shows a bit more of her psychology. There is also a beautifully filmed scene of her going down to the third class general room to ask Jack to have a word in private, showing the remarkable contrast between first class and steerage passengers on the ship. There are other small details, such as Jack befriending the young English girl Cora, which explains why he calls her his “best girl” before he dances with Rose. Later there is a scene of Jack defending the door Rose is floating on against a man who wants to climb on.

By far the most damaging deletion in the theatrical version was a scene of Jack escorting Rose back to the first class deck after their fun dancing in third class below, while trying to remember the lyrics to “Come Josephine in My Flying Machine,” which was a big hit in 1911, the year before the Titanic’s maiden voyage. Restoring this scene not only makes it clear why Jack sings the song to Rose later, and she sings it while waiting to be picked up out of the icy waters, but also explains why Rose later becomes a pilot (as evidenced in the photo of her jauntily getting ready to board a biplane shown near the end of the film) and makes clear that Rose spent the remaining 86 years of her life doing all the things she and Jack talked about during the few days they were together on the Titanic.

There are also restored scenes between Brock Lovett and Rose’s granddaughter Lizzy, which make it clearer why he is so obsessed with getting the lost diamond the Heart of the Ocean, which he assures her is not only for financial reasons. And then comes an alternative ending, which is the biggest improvement in this version. As Brock and Lizzy are chatting on the sidelines of a party to mark end of the unsuccessful exploration, they notice that Rose has wandered to the stern of the exploration ship. In a scene mirroring one earlier in the film, she tells them not to come any closer. She decides to “pay it forward” by passing on to Brock the lesson she learned Jack and her experience surviving the Titanic. “You look for treasure in the wrong place,” she tells him. “Only life is precious, and making each day count.” And then, in a Harold and Maude touch, she tosses the priceless diamond into the ocean “where it belongs.” This ending is still followed by the incredibly corny coda of Rose and Jack kissing on the grand staircase to the applause of passengers and crew, but its philosophical content is enough to redeem a film weighted down by its sappiness, and I will never understand why this ending was not used.

The billionaire playboy who decides to, like, rebuild the Titanic.

Titanic II (2010)

Not only is Titanic II easily the worse Titanic film ever made, it is near the forefront of the running for the worst film ever made. It is in no was a sequel to the James Cameron film, although the producers may have been hoping that a few people would have been confused enough to think so and buy a ticket, or more likely rent the DVD, since I doubt this ever got a theatrical release.

Of course, this is not really a film about the Titanic, but about the Titanic II, a vanity project of a billionaire playboy who decides build an exact duplicate of the doomed Titanic, but with state-of-the-art technology hidden behind the vintage exterior. The point to this is to prove that they can overcome the mistakes of  past by recreating the maiden voyage of the first Titanic without a hitch, thanks to modern technology such as “ice detectors that can pick up an ice cube 500 feet away.” Although supposedly creating a voyage that started at Southampton, England, the Titanic II passes by the Statue of Liberty just after its launch. It is headed for disaster, though, because global warming is causing huge chucks of the Arctic shelf to drop off, creating tidal waves carrying icebergs at a speed of 800 miles an hour. That’s faster than the speed of sound, so you know the Titanic II is destined to repeat history.

This direct-to-video movie disaster was obviously filmed on the moored Queen Mary and in a hotel complex. The ship’s captain looks like he should be working at the counter of a video rental shop, extras look like they were pulled on the street, and the billionaire who built the ship has visible geometric creases on his shirt, showing that it just came out of the package. There was no budge to flood the sets, so the most dramatic scene involves the the ships owner and nurse using a belt and overhead pipe to maneuver over inch-deep water with a flailing electric cord in it. The most baffling scene comes the ships nurse finds her friend has been injured and cello-tapes a credit card over the wound, despite being in a well-stocked infirmary. And, yes, there is a Titanic-style, I’ll die so you can live moment, but anyone who has watched the film to this point is hoping they will both die.


In the 3D revamp of Titanic, Rose and Jack appear to be standing 50 feet apart in this scene.

 Titanic in 3D (2012)

When James Cameron announced that he would be retrofitting his Oscar-sweeping blockbuster for a 3D release to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Titanic’s sinking, I was skeptical. Digital 3D never  look as good as it is supposed to even for films shot with two cameras, and creating two different, distinctive perspectives from a single camera negative seemed destined for terrible results.

The resulting 3D actually looks best in the shoots of the wreck of the Titanic, as the 3D gives you the sensation of floating through the water. The technology also adds even more impact to the violence and destruction of the ship breaking apart, which was the strong suit of the first release of the film.

But the 3D actually works counter to the human side of the story. Although characters appear to be separated from the background as they chat around dining tables, their noses do not stick out from their faces, giving them the appearance of a pop-up children’s book. The 3D creates distances where there was previously intimacy. In the scene when Jack pulls Rose aside into the ships exercise room to try to convince her one last time not to marry the man she obviously doesn’t love, the two appear to be standing 50 feet apart.


more to come…

Film Guides

A Guide to Christmas Carol Adaptations

At this festive season of the year, it is more than usually desirable to watch a film adaptation of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. But with so many other versions to choose from, how does one decide which to watch?

Scrooge, or Marley’s Ghost (1901)

Directed by Walter R. Booth

The earlies adaptation of Dicken’s beloved tale was produced in England in 1901 by R.W. Paul, an early film inventor, pioneer, and camera trick specialist. 650 feet of the film (around 5 and a half minutes) survive, and it is not really clear how long the full film was. As with many of the earliest narrative films, Paul choose a well-known story and simplified it, making it easy for early film-goers to understand.  The ghosts of Christmasses Past, Present, and Future are conglomerated in the single figure of Jacob Marley’s ghost. Thus began a long tradition of cutting out elements of a novel that is not all that long to begin with in order to make a nice story arch for a film.Paul uses trick camera work, such as superimposing Marley’s face over the door knocker, and double exposure to make Scrooge and Marley semi-transparent, which are impressively done, considering the year this was produced.

Pros: Historical values, well-executed special effects
only an incomplete print survives

Scrooge (1935)

Directed by: Henry Edwards
Seymour Hicks

British actor Seymour Hicks first played Scrooge on the stage in 1901, when he was in his early 30s. Playing the miser in youth, middle age, and old age, Hicks got poor reviews on the “old” part of his portrayal. He got better at it, and starred in a silent version in 1916. When Hicks played Scrooge yet again in 1935, the 64-year-old actor had the curmudgeonly Scrooge down pat. Unfortunately, the producers allowed him to play the young Scrooge as well, somewhat straining credulity. This is the earliest surviving sound version of Dickens’ tale. The camera tricks of the 1901 version are absent, as only the Ghost of Christmas Present is seen, all others, including Marley’s ghost, are represented by off-screen voices, and, in the case of the Ghost of ChristmasYet to Come, as the shadow of a pointing hand. This version includes a sequence showing how the people of London spend Christmas, from Queen Victoria down to common street urchins, who scramble for hot buns a baker throws from his window. A sequence in the center of the film shows how people around England, including Scrooge’s nephew Fred, make merry at Christmas.  The central character of Fezziweg is completely omitted, weakening Dicken’s theme of a good man turned bad by greed.

Pros: A few nice sequences giving a panorama of London life
crackling soundtrack, schmaltzy score

A Christmas Carol (1938)

Directed by: Edwin L. Marin
Reginald Owen

Although this American production is still considered a classic adaptation, it truncates Dickens’ story a bit too much.  Leo G. Carroll is good in his short appearance as Marley’s ghost, but all in all, the film is a bit too “American” in tone. As with other MGM literary adaptations from the 1930s,  anything that could be considered the slightest bit controversial in the source material was omitted in order to produce a feel-good “family film.” The character of Belle, and consequently that of young Scrooge in love, don’t appear. The orphans named Want and Ignorance who hide under the robe of the Ghost of Christmas Present are left out, as are the charwomen who steal Scrooge’s bedclothes and belongings in order to sell them to a rag and bone man. Other liberties with Dickens’ novel are taken, such as Scrooge sacking Bob Cratchit on Christmas Eve, rather than just threatening to. Gene Lockhart delivers a moving performance as Cratchit, a good-natured and caring family man, who struggles to hide his uncertainty about the future from his family, although Lockhart is a bit too plump to convincingly play an impoverished clerk. Reginald Owen was a last-minute replacement for Lionel Barrymore, who performed Scrooge annually on the radio, but was unable to do so on the screen due to a worsening case of arthritis that would confine him to a wheelchair for the latter part of his long career.

Pros: Memorable performance by Leo G. Carroll as Marley’s ghost
Cons: Too much of Dickens’ story has been cut

Scrooge (1951)

Directed by: Brian Desmond Hurst
Alistair Sim

This British production was an instant hit both at home and in the US. While the Victorian costumes are not entirely authentic, the screenplay remains relatively faithful to the Dickens novel. Scrooge’s transition from earnest and honest to greedy and exploitive is spelled out even more clearly here than in the book. The film introduces a new character, a client of Fezziweg’s, who entice Scrooge and Marley to come work for him for double the pay. Despite their close association with Fezziweg, they accept the higher salary, and turn their backs on Marley, later driving their corrupt new employer out of his own business, which they take over. Sims excels in the role, playing the heartless, cut-throat businessman as well as the transformed Scrooge. His tender delivery of the line to Fred’s wife, “can you find it in your heart to forgive a man who had no eyes to see or no ears to see?” is truly moving. The scenes of the Cratchits at home maintain the difficult balance between despair and merriment, and Glyn Dearman leaves the strongest impression of all the young actors who have played Tiny Tim.

Pros: Exemplary performance by Alistair Sim
George Cole as young Scrooge tends to overact

Scrooge (1970)

Directed by: Ronald Neame
Albert Finney

With the star power in the musical adaptation, including Albert Finney, Alec Guinness, and veteran stage actress Edith Evans, this has the potential to be a very good adaptation. Unfortunately, it largely fails as both a musical and a Christmas Carol adaptation. Finney was in his early 40s at the time of filming, which allowed him the rare opportunity to play both the younger Scrooge and the older one convincingly. But Finney looks a bit too old to play the young Scrooge in love, and, even with good make-up, seems a bit too young to play the old Scrooge. His “old” voice quickly wears thin and becomes grating. Alec Guinness chews the scenery in the brief appearance as Marley’s Ghost, and Edith Evans, at the end of a long acclaimed career, does not actually do much, and seems very miscast as the Ghost of Christmas Past. The soot on the faces of the street urchins looks very art directed, and both the plot and songs seem somewhat divorced from the tone of Dickens’ novel.

Pros: A few of the musical numbers, especially “December the 25th” at Fezziweg’s Ball, are catchy.
The themes and tone of Dickens novel seem lost

A Christmas Carol (1971)

Directed by: Richard Williams
Alistair Sim

20 years after his brilliant turn as Scrooge, Alistair Sim returned to provide the voice for the role in the made-for-TV animated short. Besides doing an admirable job of condensing the essential plot points into less than 25 minutes, this adaptation is remarkable for successfully adapting the story for children, while not oversimplifying it or glossing over some of the darker themes of the novel. The scene in which The Ghost of Christmas Present shows Scrooge the children under his robe representing Ignorance and Want, and the portrayal of Marley’s ghost, and charwoman and laundress selling Scrooge’s stolen belongings are presented in a truly frightening way, and have a strong effect on Scrooge. Ken Harris, who previously did animation work on How the Grinch Stole Christmas, created the visual look, basing the style on the etchings of John Leech that accompanied the first edition of Dickens’ book in 1843. The use of dramatic angles and sudden transitions add to the dramatic import. Freed from the constrictions of working with live actors, the Ghost of Christmas Past is shown just as eerily has Dickens describes it. Needless to say, Fezziweg’s Christmas ball and the final scenes are charming and upbeat. While perhaps too scary for very young children, this is one of the best introductions to the tale yet brought to the screen.

Pros: Unique animation style, voice work by Alistair Sim and Michael Redgrave
One wonders how it might have been as an hour-long animated special or even a feature

A Christmas Carol (1984)

Directed by: Clive Donner
George C. Scott

Who would have thought that a version of A Christmas Carol produced for an American TV network with an American actor as Scrooge would become the definitive adaptation of one of the most beloved stories of Victorian literature? But that seems to be the case. George C. Scott plays Scrooge as a tough, gruff man who is every bit as powerful and frightening as his famous portrayal of General Patton. Of all adaptations, this is one of the most faithful to the source material. The Ghost of Christmas Present, played by an excellent Edward Woodward, informs that Tiny Tim will die if not help, chiding Scrooge with his own words, suggesting that he should decrease the surplus population. Then, in a near quote from Dickens, says “then maybe you will hold your tongue until you have discovered What the surplus is, and Where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of Heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man’s child.” This dialogue, central to Dickens’ theme of social injustice and poverty, is more often than not omitted in order to make the story less dark and more family-friendly. There are minor diversions from the source material, but these actually add to the mood and spirit of the book, rather than detract from it. In a scene not in the novel, the Ghost of Christmas Present bring Scrooge to the outskirts of the city, where a desperate and homeless family crouches around a pitiful fire, preferring this to going to one of the poorhouses that Scrooge’s taxes support. David Warner is good as a pensive Bob Cratchit, and Frank Finlay is excellent as Marley’s Ghost, who is in equal parts tormented, frightening, and concerned for Scrooge’s future. Director Clive Owen, who worked as an editor on the 1951 version early in his career, does an excellent job in preserving the atmosphere of Dickens’ novel, while using expressive, at times Expressionistic cinematography for the scenes involving the spirits.

Pros: A tour de force performance by Scott, expressive music score, convincing sets and recreations of Victorian streets, markets, and life
At times, this adaptations shows its made-for-TV origins, with a few obvious models used for exterior shots and odd transitions where commercial breaks used to be

The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992)

Directed by: Brian Henson
Scrooge: Michael Caine

An actor of the stature of Michael Caine was bound to get around to playing Scrooge sooner or later, although few could have guessed that he would be performing with a bunch of felt puppets. Caine is good in everything, and is superb here, although he occasionally looks a bit confused to be surrounded by Muppets. But there are plenty of silly Muppet-esque jokes, which Caine, who is not necessarily known for comedy, is able to provide the straight man for. When Scrooge revisits his old boss Fezziweg, who has been renamed Fozziweg as he is played by Fozzie the Bear, Caine exclaims “Oh, it is Fozziweg’s old rubber chicken factory!” while keeping a straight face. Injecting Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy, as Bob and Martha Cratchit, in to Dickens’ story makes it hard for adults to take this as a serious adaptation. On the other hand, the three spirits, which are not filled by established Muppet characters, as appropriately spooky, and the Ghost of Christmas Past in particular is closer to Dickens’ vision than most adaptations. Since this is directed by Brian Henson and lovingly dedicated to his late father Jim Henson, saying anything against this might make one seem like a bit of a Scrooge, but I found the songs repetitive and not well integrated into the story. And while this was originally made for theatrical release, it has the production values of a made-for-TV special.

Pros: Superb performance from Michael Caine
Less than inspiring songs, made-for-TV production values

A Christmas Carol (1999)

Directed by: David Hugh Jones
Scrooge: Patrick Stewart

When this adaptation was made for the Turner Network in 1999, Patrick Stewart had already staged a one-man show of A Christmas Carol in London and New York, reading the novel from an armchair, performing all the characters and voices himself. And so the actor brought a lot of his own long-established ideas to this production, and this can be seen as his Stewart’s adaptation. Great pains have been taken to make this version the most faithful to the book, using computer effects to create scenes of the illustrated tiles in the back of Scrooge’s fireplace, and the walls of his room fading away to reveal the grounds of his childhood school, scenes present in the book but left out probably simply because the technology wasn’t there. For viewers who mainly know the story from other film adaptations, while find this rather sombre in tone and event a bit of a downer. Stewart’s Scrooge is a bitter businessman, who seems seems moved by the death of Jacob Marley and pledges over his coffin to protect the business they built together, a scene which seems at odds with novel, which describes Scrooge sitting in his office alone while Marley lay on the point of death at home. Another scene, which shows one of Scrooge’s unnamed debtors tell his wife that the moneylender has died, news which makes her happy as it defers repayment, is not in the original novel, but seems to fit here. After the visitations, Scrooges struggles to become his new self, literally choking out a cough, and seeming rather reluctant to offer the boy outside his window two shillings (not Dickens’ half a crown, i.e. 2.5 shillings) to go and buy the prize turkey. The character of the Ghost of Christmas Past, described by Dickens as something of a cross between a young boy and an old man, has always created casting problems for film directors, and the role has been played by women and men, both young and old. Joel Grey is the first actor who even comes close to portraying the spirit the way Dickens describes it, and his acting is both reserved and slightly unsettling.

Pros: Very faithful to the book, eerie performance of The Ghost of Christmas Past by Joel Grey
Scrooge’s seeming reluctance to turn into a good man at the end of the film seems at odds with the novel

A Christmas Carol (2004)

Directed by: Arthur Allan Seidelman
Kelsey Grammer

Produced by Hallmark Entertainment for US television with a cast of mainly TV actors (Kelsey Grammer, Jason Alexander, Jane Krakowski), this adaptation, based on a Madison Square Garden stage musical, is obviously intended as “family entertainment.” It works well as such, and is probably the best adaptation to introduce children to the story. But Dickens scholars and fans of the other films will be aghast at the liberties taken with the plot and the not-so-convincing Victorian accents by some of the American actors. Scrooge meets all three spirits in human form both before and after his haunted night, including a beggar woman played with great relish by Geraldine Chaplin, adding a new aspect to the story.  Jesse L. Martin, known for his turn in “Rent” on Broadway,  is excellent as a musical hall ticket seller and the ghost of Christmas Present. Scrooge’s stinginess is explained by a childhood drama in which his father is taken off to debtor’s prison, a detail borrowed from Dickens’ own life. Viewers will either like the songs and score and love this, or find the whole thing intolerable. Personally, I like the songs and far prefer them to those found in the Albert Finney version. Ironically, the child actors playing Tiny Tim and an unnamed girl who sings to Scrooge on the way to her mother’s funeral prove to be the best singers. Even with a wig and make-up, Grammer looks a bit young to play Scrooge, and “Seinfeld”‘s Jason Alexander overdoes his role as Marley’s Ghost. But if you remember this is primarily for children, these shortcomings can be easily overlooked.

Pros: Good for kids, nicely done score and songs
Cons: Nonchalant attitude to Dicken’s original plot

A Christmas Carol (2009)

Directed by: Robert Zemeckis
Jim Carrey

In what is the highest-budgeted Christmas Carol adaptation to date (and will be for some time), Robert Zemeckis returns to the performance capture technology that was so panned by critics in his The Polar Express. The technology has caught up a bit, making the characters less creepy, although personally I was left wishing to see some real human emotion on the screen when, for example, Mrs. Cratchit . The use of motion capture allowed Jim Carrey to perform Scrooge at the various stages of his life, as well as the three spirits who visit him. This is a technological feat and a first in the long history of Carol adaptations, and actually works as it underscores the idea that the spirits are actually different aspects of Scrooge’s own psyche. When the Ghost of Christmas Present throws Scrooges words back in his face, saying “if they are going to die, they had better do it and decrease the surplus population,” the face of Carrey as the ghost morphs into the face of Carrey as Scrooge. The technology also allows Scrooge to shrink down to the size of a dormouse while observing the rag and bone man purchasing the bed curtains stolen from the recently deceased but not mourned miser. It is a detail that is not in Dickens’ books, but helps add to the fantasy. On the other hand, having Gary Oldman perform both Bob Cratchit and Tiny Tim seems unnecessary and a bit pointless.

Pros: The first time one actor has played Scrooge at his very ages as well as the three spirits
Cons: Characters too often slip down into into the “uncanny valley”

Film Guides

75 Years of Woody Allen

In October, 1965, Groucho Marx, the grand statesman of American comedy, sent a telegram to a young comedian he had discovered during a trip to New York, summing him to the West Coast for a special occasion. “I am sorry I cannot make it to your 75th birthday party,” wired Woody Allen in reply. “But I still expect you to come to mine.”

At that time, the three-quarters century mark for the comedy writer must have been far, far into the unforeseeable future, but today Woody Allen turns 75. Groucho, sadly, is no longer around to attend the party. Today is as good as time as any to look Woody’s long career, which is still continuing, producing on average one film a year, and hopefully will well into the future.

Woody has come a long way since he received the birthday invite from Groucho. At the time, Allen was one of the highest-paid stand-up comedians in the world and was a sought-after writer, but had yet to direct his first film. Groucho was taken with the young comic’s sharp wit, remarking “he is smart enough to be the fifth Marx Brothers.” Years later, Allen would comment on their unlikely friendship, “he was and admirer of mine, and I was a worshiper of his.”  Woody had reluctantly been drawn into movies, taking a role in Casino Royale, which allowed him to live on studio expenses in London while writing his first Broadway play “Don’t Drink the Water.” His first film script, What’s New Pussycat?, as directed by Clive Donner, was an embarrassment that he would have liked to quickly forget, if only it had not been such a big success at the box office. After that frustration, he swore that he would never again write another film script unless he could direct it himself. That is what he has been doing ever since, producing 40 feature films and counting.

Photo © 1980 Rollins-Joffe Productions

The Magician of Brooklyn

As a boy, Allan Konigsberg became fascinated with the glamor of magic tricks, and spent hours in his room practicing magic tricks. As a teenager, he was thrilled to run into Milton Berle in a magic shop, and insisted on demonstrating his sleight of hand, but was so nervous he couldn’t do a simple trick. The aesthetics of conjuring runs through the films that boy would make as an adult Woody Allen. The boy magician appears in Stardust Memories (1980), doing tricks and donning a cape to fly away when the expectations of the adult world are too much for him. In Oedipus Wrecks, his contribution to the trilogy film New York Stories (1989), Allen plays a successful lawyer with a strained relationship with his nagging mother. When he takes her to a magic show and she volunteers to disappear into a cabinet, he is frantic, then relieved when she never comes out.  In Alice (1990), a Chinese doctor who dabbles in magic spells adds meaning to the empty life of a rich housewife. Alice includes scene of hypnotism, which also comes up in The Curse of The Jade Scorpion (2001),  in which a clever jewel robber puts subjects into a trance so they can do his dirty work. In Shadows and Fog (1992), Allen plays a lowly file clerk in a Kafkaesque tale of a town terrorized by a mysterious killer. Allen comes face-to-face with the murderer, but is saved by the magician Armstead, who takes him inside his magic mirror, and into some alternate dimension. By jumping through the mirror, he makes the choice of fantasy over reality, a dichotomy that comes up over and over in Allen’s films.

Photo © 1985 Orion Pictures

The Film Houses of Flatbush

As a boy growing up in Brooklyn, Allan Konigsberg would retreat from the heat and the tough street kids of Flatbush by going into one of the many air-conditioned movie theaters in the neighborhood. Allen’s theatrical play “Play It Again, Sam,” which was later turned into a film with Allen in the lead role is about a man who escapes from reality into the world of the movies, which is also a theme of The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985). The films he saw there would live their imprint in his own films. The comedies of Bob Hope are a clear influence on Allen’s early comedies such as Love and Death (1975). The silent comedy of Chaplin and Keaton would influence Sleeper (1973), set 300 years in the future when spoken communication is kept at a minimum. The musicals of Judy Garland and Bettie Hutton inspired Everyone Says I Love You (1996), a modern-day musical.

Photo © 1987 Orion Pictures

Madcap Manhattan Weekend

An early experience for the young Allan Konigsberg would have a strong effect on the rest of his life and a good number of his films. When he was 5 or 6 years old, Allen’s father took him into Manhattan for the first time. Taking the train from Avenue J in Brooklyn, they came up to street level at Times Square. The sheer sense of wonder that filled the boy never seems to have left him. That first visit to the city was faithfully recreated in Radio Days (1987), in which Seth Green plays a version of young Woody Allen. At the time of the films production, the real Allen was perhaps the most well-known resident of Manhattan, and used his influence to get permission to film at the Radio City Music Hall and the last operational automat in the city. His father, who was born in 1900 and would live a full century in the city, would take his young son for walks, pointing out where speakeasies had been and  where gang shootings had occurred, not knowing his was scouting locations for his son’s Bullets over Broadway (1994). The ‘20s glamour of Manhattan, along with the depressed outlaying outer boroughs, would also appear in The Purple Rose of Cairo (1985), when the character of the film within the film go out for a “madcap Manhattan weekend.” As the title character in Zelig (1983), Allen receives a Time Square tickertape parade in the style of Charles Lindbergh. Allen’s love for the city has never left him, even after he has gone to film in London, Barcelona and Spain. Manhattan (1979) famously opens with Allen’s narration over a montage of shots of the city that is the most enduring paean to urban life ever committed to film.

Photo © 2000 DreamWorks

Bums and Lowlifes

At the age of 16, Allan Konigsberg became Woody Allen, and was soon publishing jokes in New York newspapers. While still in his teens, he was writing gags for TV variety programs, and by his 20s, he was performing standup comedy. Working in show business opened up a whole new world for the young talent, a world inhabited well-intentioned, but sometimes sleazy people. It is this world that forms the setting of Broadway Danny Rose (1984), in which Allen plays the most dedicated manager of talentless nightclub acts. Allen has always insisted in interviews that he can only play two kinds of characters, bums and lowlifes because of who he is, and intellectuals because of how he looks, and that as a beer-drinking sports fan, he falls into the first category. Allen plays bums and lowlifes in Take the Money and Run (1969), his first film as a director, in which he is an inept bank robber whose stick-up notes are too illegible to get him any money and a similar role in Small Time Crooks (2000), in which he is the leader of hapless bunch of criminals who have more success with their front than with their failed heist.

Photo © 1991 Orion Pictures Corporation

Keeping Up With His Dates

Allen has insisted in interviews that his true interests are baseball, basketball and jazz, and he has never had intellectual aspirations—he only read books to keep up with his dates. Whatever the reason, the books he picked up have stuck with him. Shadows and Fog (1992), an homage to German expressionism, draws from the fiction of Franz Kafka. Crimes and Misdemeanors (1989) and the recent Match Point (2005) and Cassandra’s Dream (2007) all deal with Dosteyevskian themes of guilt and moral responsibility.

Film Guides

Thanksgiving Disaster Films

Thanksgiving is a time for sharing with friends and family—road trips home gone terribly wrong, family bickering, frayed nerves around the dinner table, the old flame returning from school for the long weekend explaining that they have “found someone new,” and various cooking disasters. The cinematic possibilities are endless.  While their Christmas counterparts are often feel-good from start to finish, Thanksgiving films often delve deep into familial dysfunction before (sometimes) arriving at a happy conclusion in the final moments.

Photo © 1987 Hughes Entertainment

Planes, Trains & Automobiles (1987)

Perhaps the best-known and most successful Thanksgiving movie ever, Planes, Trains & Automobiles starts with Steve Martin as a high-strung advertising executive in New York counting the minutes to the flight that will take him home to Chicago for Thanksgiving. Things start to go wrong when the taxis he hails are stolen first by Kevin Bacon, and then by an obnoxious traveling salesman played by John Candy. It turns out the salesman is sitting next to him on his flight, which gets rerouted to Wichita due to heavy snow in Chicago. Everything that could go wrong does, including a thoroughly burnt out car, and the two men form an unlikely friendship which helps them get home in time for the holiday.

Key Thanksgiving moment: Martin invites the awkward Candy into his perfect suburban home and introduces him to his perfect suburban family as his “friend.” Cue cute John Candy smile and closing credits.

Photo © 1986 Orion Pictures Corporation

Hannah and Her Sisters (1986)

This Woody Allen drama, one of his most successful films, starts at one thanksgiving dinner, and ends two years and two thanksgivings later. In between Hannah (Mia Farrow) has problems in her marriage to Elliot (Michael Caine), who is having an affair with his sister-in-law Lee (Barbara Hershey), who in turn is in a strained relationship with tortured artist Frederick (Max von Sydow). Meanwhile Hannah’s hypochondriac ex-husband Mickey (Woody Allen) is worried that he is dying, and Hannah’s other sister Holly (Dianne Wiest) competes with best friend April (Carrie Fisher) for the affections of a sensitive architect (Sam Waterston). Oh, and mom (Maureen O’Sullivan) gets drunk and bickers with dad (Lloyd Nolan). You can see problems run in the family.  Things are especially bad at the time of the second Thanksgiving, but everyone has rebounded by the third and final turkey day.

Key Thanksgiving moment: Woody Allen’s then-friend John Doumanian plays the crazy uncle who is the star of every thanksgiving dinner, in this case offering beer to the kiddies.  All of the thanksgiving sequences were filmed in Mia Farrow’s real apartment, with some of her children sitting at the “kids’ table. If you look closely, you can catch a glimpse of Allen’s future wife Soon-Yi Previn.

Photo © 2003 United Artists

Pieces of April (2003)

A pre-Tom Cruise Katie Holmes plays an emo girl living with her boyfriend in a small apartment Manhattan’s Lower East Side. She has been on bad terms with her family for years, but invites them all to her place for Thanksgiving dinner, which might be the last for her cancer-stricken mother (Patricia Clarkson in a fantastic performance that revitalized her career). The family has various misadventures during the long drive from suburbia to New York, including funeral services for road kill and semi-medicinal joints smoked in gas station restrooms. Meanwhile, April’s cooking plans are thrown for a loop when she discovers that her long-unused oven is broken and last-minute attempts to seek help from her neighbors are not very successful.

Key Thanksgiving moment: April asks a neighbor if she can borrow her oven to roast a turkey. Not only is the woman vegan, she would never again be able to use an oven that had been used to cook a living soul.

Photo © 1997 Bandeira Entertainment

The House of Yes (1997)

It is the age-old story: a college student comes home for the long Thanksgiving weekend and informs their old flame that they have “found someone new.” In this case, however, Marty (Josh Hamilton) is not breaking the news to his old high school sweetheart, but to his twin sister Jackie (Parker Posey), a mentally unstable young woman who is obsessed with their Washington DC neighbors, the Kennedys, especially her namesake Jackie-O. Over the course of the weekend, Marty’s naïve fiancée (Tori Spelling) learns that his mother (Geneviève Bujold) has no idea who their father is, takes a roll in the hay with his younger brother (Freddie Prinze Jr.), and learns a few more dark secrets about the family.

Key Thanksgiving moment: The family matriarch announces that the hurricane has knocked out the electricity and the electric oven, hence no turkey, but they can have cranberry sauce, which is eaten raw. “It is not actually raw,” chirps Tori Spelling, “because it is pre-cooked,” a comment the family ignores.

Photo © 1997 Fox Searchlight Pictures

The Ice Storm (1997)

Paul Hood (Tobey Maguire) a 16-year-old prep school student goes home to suburban Connecticut to spend Thanksgiving 1973 with his family. The lives of everyone in his family are closely intertwined with those of their neighbors, the Carvers. His father (Kevin Kline) is having an affair with Mrs. Carver (Sigourney Weaver), and his 14-year-old sister (Christina Ricci) experiments sexually with both of the Carver boys (Elijah Wood and Adam Hann-Byrd) over the course of the weekend. Meanwhile Paul’s mom (Joan Allen) has become a compulsive shoplifter. After the obligatory turkey meal, Paul heads to New York to visit the rich girl he has a crush on (Katie Holmes in her film debut), but when she passes out from beer and pills, he flees, only to be caught in the ice storm that brings the weekend to a tragic end. There is no happy ending rolled out at the close of this one.

Key Thanksgiving moment: Asked to say grace before the Thanksgiving meal, Christina Ricci’s says thanks for all the material possessions they enjoy, and for letting all the white people kill the Indians and steal their tribal lands, and stuff ourselves like pigs while children in Asia are being napalmed, and…

Photo © 1984 Orion

Broadway Danny Rose (1984)

Woody Allen plays Danny Rose, a struggling manager of struggling performers, including a one-legged tap dancer and a blind xylophonist. He pins all his hopes on an Italian crooner, Lou Canova (Nick Apollo Forte), who hits the big-time, drops him as manager, divorces his wife, and runs off with a girl with ties to the mafia (Mia Farrow). This is more than Danny can forgive, so when she shows up at one of his trademark thanksgiving dinners where he serves pathetic frozen turkey TV diners to washed-up nightclub acts, he tells her to hit the road, but then he has second thoughts.

Key Thanksgiving moment: Woody and Mia are shot at by mafia thugs in a warehouse housing the floats for the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The leaked helium kicks their voices up a few octaves.