This Must Be the Place

If Sean Penn took the lead role in This Must Be the Place to prove that even after acclaim and an Oscar he is not afraid to take risks with his role choices, then it worked. This is an odd film, and Penn plays an odd character, a burnt out retired goth star.

But the film works, most of the time at least. At times the director tries a little too hard to make his film inscrutable and Jarmuschian. There is, for example, an elderly Native American who hops a ride in the pickup truck the rock star is driving across America, then just as unexpectedly hops out of the truck to wander into the desert. Although the quirkiness level veers slightly too high at times, the story is engaging and even moving at times. Having a depressed former pop star travel across America in order to root out the Nazi war criminal who tormented his father is an unexpected story decision, but it gives the audience a chance to see this frustrated artist and overgrown child finally grow up.

There is some wry humor, especially coming from the rock star’s long-suffering wife (Frances McDormand, who unfortunately disappears one third into the film). Judd Hirsch is excellent as a Simon Wiesenthal-like Nazi hunter, and it is good him still playing some good roles. There is lovely original music by Will Oldham and David Byrne, whose Talking Heads song gives the film its title and who appears as himself in the film. Penn’s high-pitched whisper threatens to get annoying, and fast. I was able stomach his portrayal from start to finish, but I could see how it might wear down the nerves of less-patient viewers. After, Penn, the second star of the film is the cinematography, which is absolutely gorgeous. The camera is always wandering to and fro, which can be annoying in a film like Slumdog Millionaire, but in this film, about travelling without a clear destination, it works to support the story.

Of Human Bondage

For the past few weeks I have been going through every Bette Davis movie I can find. Some of them, it must be admitted, are not very good as Bette Davis movies. That is either because it was early in her career and she was given too small of  a part, or it was later in her career and she was not given enough to do as producers thought just having her name in the credits would be enough.

But Of Human Bondage is a truly great Bette Davis film, despite her having second billing and, actually, not all that much screen time. This entry in her long filmography is often credited as the film that made Davis a star. That is certainly true, but it did much more than that. 26 years old at the time and only three years from her screen debut, Davis’ performance  is a tour de force. It challenges the notion that is still held today that actresses during Hollywood’s Golden Age were simply normal girls with a pretty face whom studio moguls plucked out of obscurity and molded into screen stars. Davis relentlessly pursued the part despite resistance from her studio, dedicated herself to giving the best performance she could, and ignored those around her who said the role would ruin her career. It was a brave move, to say the least. Davis became one of the first glamour girls to act with make-up to make herself look worse,  in a scene of her character dying of tuberculosis (changed from syphilis in the Somerset Maugham novel). The sensation caused by her performance sparked a bitter rivalry between two major studios. And her Oscar snub—one of the worse in history—forever changed the way the Academy Awards are voted for and tallied.

The story of how Davis fought for the part of Mildred are legendary. In 1932 Michael Curtiz, later to become the director of Casablanca, cast Davis in the Southern Gothic drama The Cabin in the Cotton. Curtiz showed the finished product to fellow director John Cromwell, who was considering its star Richard Barthelmess for an upcoming project. Upon viewing the film, Cromwell forgot all about the actor and found himself intrigued by Davis, and she brought to mind the femme fatal from the Maughm’s novel. Cromwell knew producer Pandro Berman had just bought the rights for RKO as a vehicle for Leslie Howard in the lead role of the lovelorn medical student. Cromwell suggested Davis for the role. Curtiz had not gotten along with the young starlet—he called her “god-damned-nothing-no-good-sexless-son-of-a-bitch!” and she called him a “bastard”—but even the Hungarian director had to concede that she would be good for the role. Then even Maugham himself weighed in to agree, seemingly guaranteeing Davis would get the role. But things would not be that easy.

The problem was that RKO held the rights to the story and Davis was under contract to Warner Bros. Lending actors to another studio was a common practice at the time, as it could greatly profit the lending studio, who continue pay the performer a set weekly salary while collecting a large per-picture fee from the borrowing studio. But loan outs were usually instigated by studio heads, not the performers. In a move that foreshadows her highly-publicized legal battle with the studio in 1936, she begged Warners to lend her to RKO so she could take the role. She stuck it out while the studio insisted she complete a number of films she found frivolous, including Fashions of 1934. Probably what was closest to the truth was that the studio was also worried that the gritty role would ruin her glamorous image, the same reason Katharine Hepburn and Irene Dunne had passed on the role of Mildred.

When Warners finally agreed to lend Davis to RKO, her battle was not over. She would have to learn to speak with a cockney accent for the role. The star hired an English maid in order to study her. but didn’t tell her new her real purpose, knowing she would exaggerate her accent. The result is a London lilt that occasionally falters, but for the most part sounds strikingly similar to Angela Lansbury’s Oscar-winning debut performance in Gaslight. Davis also took the unique step of designing her own makeup for her last scenes in the film, when Mildred’s daughter has died and she is dying of tuberculosis. Davis later said “I made it very clear that Mildred was not going to die of a dread disease looking as if a deb had missed her noon nap. The last stages of consumption, poverty and neglect are not pretty and I intended to be convincing-looking.”

One person who was not impressed with Davis’ efforts to master a London accent was her co-star, the British actor Leslie Howard, who was upset that an American had been cast in the role. Davis later claimed that Howard would coolly sit in a chair on the edge of the set reading a book, feeding her lines for her close-up shots, but that changed when he was warned that the picture, which was intended to be a star vehicle for him, was being stolen by “the kid.” Indeed, watch the film today and what you will remember is Davis, not Howard, how is in every scene.

Those closest to Davis were unsure if the role was the best career choice. When she attended the premiere with her mother and first husband, they couldn’t find words to say about her performance after the house lights came back up. Her husband was worried that it might ruin her career. When her performance garnered critical acclaim, Warner Brothers were embarrassed that their star had scored a hit with another studio, and began aggressively suppressing any mention of it. This reverse Oscar baiting is probably why she failed to receive a much-deserved Oscar nod. When she was not nominated for Best Actress for the Oscars in 1936, the year that It Happened One Night swept the awards, angry voters wrote her name in and she came in third. The statuette went to Claudette Colbert for a fine performance in a light-hearted movie. Beginning the following year, write-in ballots were prohibited and Price Waterhouse is hired out every year to count the votes and keep the results secret.

Aside from Davis’ stellar performance, the movie well-made and hides the fact that the London-set story was actually filmed in Hollywood. The overall style of the film is British. There are several effective double exposure shots such as Mildred marrying a wealthy businessman while the club-footed medical student walks the streets, and the “good girl” he finally decides to marry, Sally, waiting patiently for his visit “next Sunday” while the calendar flips through a dozen Sundays. This brand of clever visual storytelling made me think I could have been watching an early film by Hitchcock.

 

The Producers

I have been on an ongoing Bette Davis marathon and enjoying it, but needed to take a little break, and thought I would finally get around to seeing The Producers.

I put off seeing this music remake for some time. I never saw the Broadway stage adaptation of the film, but I probably would have if I had been in New York during its record-breaking run of 2,502 performances. It certainly looked like fun. However, when I heard that the musical was being made into a movie, making it a movie based on a play about a play, and based on an early movie about a play, well, I quickly lost interest. I had just seen the 1968 original around that time the remake was released, and I thought that the totally unique styles of Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel brought their own idiosyncratic performances to the roles of Bialystok and Bloom and really made them their own. I also didn’t think Uma Thurman is voluptuousness enough to play the sexy Swedish secretary Ulla.

But I knew I had to get around to seeing this eventually, because even though he didn’t direct it, this is (more or less) a Mel Brooks movie, after all. After the requisite opening musical number, the first meeting between the failed Broadway producer and his meek accountant seemed to drag on forever. Is this the chemistry of two actors who have played this scene literally thousands of times before on the stage? It was quite a disappointment to see Nathan Lane going to great lengths to do a Zero Mostel impression. Even though he shaved the top of his head to give himself an authentic comb-over, there was, and forever will only be, only one Zero Mostel. At least Matthew Broderick wisely avoids the stammering and long, contemplative pauses before apoplectic eruptions that were Gene Wilder’s trademark. Even Will Ferrell showing up as the oddball Nazi playwright does little to pick up the lagging pace. The fact that the character traits and much of the dialogue are taken directly from the original film seem to challenge the viewer, or me at least, to compare the two, and this one is seems destined to come up lacking.

But then Uma Thurman walks through the door to sing “If You Got It, Flaunt It,” and, as Max Bialystok would say, “bowowoowowoaw!” Thurman’s Ulla and Roger Bart’s Carmen Ghia (the assistant to the worst director on Broadway) are the two bright spots in the film, even though they are relatively minor characters. Broderick does an admirable job with all of the singing and dancing he is asked to do, and it is hard to believe this is the same person who played the puny computer geek in War Games.

After a while, I decided to give up trying to compare this to the Wilder/Mostel film and just enjoy it for what it is, but by that time it was almost over.

Three on a Match

I came uponThree on a Match as I am trying to get through as many Bette Davis movies as I can find. Unfortunately, it was only one year since Davis’s screen debut, and she has the smallest role of the three women of the title. She was mainly just asked just to look sincere and pretty, and supply some cheesecake by wearing a skimpy (for the time) bathing suit in a beach scene and changing her stockings in another. Reportedly director Mervyn LeRoy didn’t care much for Davis’ acting. The feeling was mutual, with the actress calling LeRoy a “hack.” Davis had the last laugh, though, as she would quickly become one of the in-demand actresses in Hollywood over the next few years. Aside from Davis’ talents being underused, this is a noteworthy, at times startling film that was only possible in the brief period between the Hays Production Code being adopted in 1930 and it actually being enforced in 1934.

The title comes from the superstition, popular in the ’20s and 30s, that if three people light cigarettes off the same match, the third person will die soon. It was thought that the belief started in World War I, when keeping a match alight long enough to light three cigarettes would attract enemy fire. But as one of the many newspaper clippings shown in the film explains, the rumor was actually started by a match manufacturer to boost sales. The film opens in 1919, with Prohibition set to start. A montage of newspaper and magazine clippings and newsreels sets up the period before the film focuses in on a middle school on the first day of class. One girl is the bad girl of the school, letting her bloomers show when she swings on the playground swing and sneaking cigarettes with boys, another is a goody-two-shoes and teacher’s pet (Anne Shirley, who would go on to adult roles in noirs like Murder My Sweet), and a third is shy and earnest. Every few minutes, the film skips ahead a few years, with a montage combining a popular song of the age, magazine articles, and news items such as the Hindenburg disaster. While these interludes are fun to watch, they are not entirely necessary to the plot.

When we get 1925, the bad girl Mary (now being played by Joan Blondell) is trapped in a reform school why the good girl Vivian (Ann Dvorak) is dreaming of romance in an exclusive boarding school and the shy one (Bette Davis) is training hard to become a secretary. Skip again to 1930, and the three bump into each other in a beauty salon. They are invited to lunch on Vivian, who has married a rich lawyer. It is here that they light the fateful match, with Vivian being the third to use it. She is rich and successful, but bored with her life.

At this point, Ann Dvorak seems to be the weak link in the film, as some of her line reads are rather stiff. But things are about to change for her character. Big time. There is a very clever shot of her coming home with her husband and pretending to imediately fall asleep on the bed, only for him to catch her open her eyes in a mirror. They argue, and they agree he will not join her for their planned cruise. When she meets a handsome, passionate young man on board, she see an opportunity to escape her own life. She kidnaps her own child and runs off on a champagne and drug fueled bender with her good-for-nothing lover. Concerned about the young boy, Mary rescues him and sends him back home. This is where the film really starts to get good. A speakeasy operating gangster (Edward Arnold, who usually plays jovial types) puts pressure on the boyfriend to cough up his gambling debts, backed up by by his sadistic henchman Harve (Humphrey Bogart). This leads to a very cringe-inducing kidnap scene in a park. This was Bogart’s first gangster role and he is quite frightening. When Junior (prolific child actor Dickie Moore) pleads “you mustn’t hurt my momma!”, Bogart deadpans “OK, I’ll bear that in mind” with a chuckle.

The gangsters hole up in a little apartment, keeping the boy and his mother hostage while plotting how to collect the ransom. No secret is made of fact that she is suffering from drug withdraw, and there is great scene when Bogart sees her paranoid state and brushes the underside of his nose with his finger. In the most effective closeup I have ever seen in a ’30s film, another member of the gang (Allen Jenkins) slide open the bathroom door to leer at her histrionics as she struggles to find a way to save her son. The situation spirals out of control to a truly shocking ending.

Snow White and the Huntsman

So far, I have successfully avoided the entire Twilight series, and so did not have any preconceptions about this film, which is obviously trying to ride on the popularity of the teen vampire films and their goddess Kristen Stewart. Because I had no expectations, I was somewhat surprised to find myself actually enjoying this.

Although this adaptation diverges at times from Snow White as written by the Brothers Grimm, it is considerably more faithful than the Disney version, and also has an appropriate fairy tale feel. The British locations and beautiful, subdued cinematography certainly make for a good-looking film. The sets and costumes by the always brilliant Colleen Atwood have much to add to the atmosphere. The only thing marring the visuals are some occasional badly-done CGI shots.

Although this decision raised the ire of the Little People of America, full-sized actors were cast as the seven dwarves. I was surprised to see Nick Frost, whom no one would describe as a small man, playing a dwarf. The dwarves are the true highlight of the film, especially Bob Hoskins as their blind seer. Most praise has been given to Charlize Theron’s performance the the wicked and powerful queen obsessed with youth. She is indeed creepy, and her role reflects the current obsession with anti-aging cosmetics, but she does tend to go a bit over the top at times with her royal temper tantrums.

The weak link here is ironically the biggest box office draw of the film. Kristen Stewart is not particularly bad as Snow White, but she doesn’t bring a whole lot of life to the role. And I was never sure if she was actually trying to do a British accent or not. If she was, she didn’t try very hard.

Although the direction was fine, I continued to be surprised, and a bit disappointed, that big movies with budgets of $100 million or more like this and TRON: Legacy are given to directors with no previous credits to their name.  This is probably done because studio executives believe they are easier to control. Meanwhile, master filmmaker such as Terry Gilliam can’t raise the money to get a project off the ground.

Miss Congeniality

A week ago, I had only heard the title of this film, and had successfully avoided seeing anything starring Sandra Bullock. But I’ve been reading the book Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need, in which the author gives this film as an example of a $100 million hit that follows his theory of screenplay structure. I decided to watch it in order to get a better grasp on the book. I could also justify watching a “chick flick” by telling myself that I need to work myself through every entry in Michael Caine’s filmography, even the bad ones.

It turned out that I quite enjoyed this film. There is the requisite romance for any film starring Sandra between her and her FBI supervisor, but thankfully that is pushed to the background and the focus is on Sandra’s transformation throughout the film, and some biting satire of beauty pageants. There is very little storytelling subtlety as we are introduced to Sandra as a slovenly tomboy FBI agent with bad table manners and split ends. When she is determined to be the only federal agent suitable to be sent undercover to the Miss USA pageant, which has had bomb threats, Michael Caine shows up as a disgraced beauty adviser who turns the slob into a beauty overnight. Caine, naturally, steals the show, and has all the funniest lines, delivered with moderate helpings of camp. But we also have Candice Bergen as the queen bee organizer of the pageant and William Shatner doing quite a funny send up of Miss America host Bert Parks. Heather Burns is hilarious as the ditsy Miss Rhode Island, who replies to a question about her ideal date with “I’d have to say April 25th. Because it’s not too hot, not too cold, all you need is a light jacket,” evidently taken from an actual beauty pageant.

Going back to the book that prompted me to watch this, yes, the film is tightly structured, and, yes, that does help us identify with Sandra’s character and hope she pulls through, but it also makes the film rather predictable. I suppose you don’t watch this kind of film to be surprised, though.

Legally Blonde

After watching Miss Congeniality yesterday and finding myself laughing out loud, I decided to watch a different “chick flick” every day this week. But there is a catch. I don’t want to watch Rom-Coms. Watching Drew Barrymore deliberate for 90 minutes over which guy she wants to be with is not what I am interested in. I want to find some more movies about the transformation of the central character, who happens to be female.

Legally Blonde fits that bill, and is funny in the bargain. It starts with a Barbie-perfect sorority queen Elle (Reese Witherspoon) preparing for date which she is sure would be the big one where he pops the question. Although she is blonde and rather plastic. she is not an airhead. The shop clerk who is about to sell Elle a dress for the big date quips “there is nothing I love more than a dumb blonde with daddy’s plastic” is in for a quick shock, when her dumb blonde quashes her plan to charge her full retail price for last year’s model. She has not street smarts, but salon smarts. The big date ends with her getting dumped, rather than proposed to.

When her ex takes off for Harvard Law School, she spends the summer studying for the LSATs and shooting a sexy application video and follows him there. The path to her triumph in the courtroom is a bit predictable, but fun. The portrayal of first year law school and the use of legal procedure and jargon are probably not very accurate. But it hardly matters, as the story hits all the right bases to make it a feel good flick.

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…

Counter-Espionage

Counter-Espionage is yet another movie I have watched without knowing anything whatsoever about it before hand. This one was chosen purely by its year of release, 70 years ago. I had no idea that this was only one film in a series of films with Warren William playing the detective “the Lone Wolf” or that other actors had played the same character before and since William.

Michael Lanyard, a.k.a. The Lone Wolf, first appeared in series of pulp detective novels by Louis Joseph Vance (1879–1933), with the first film adaptation being a silent short in 1914. It is hard to imagine Alfred Hitchcock wasting his time to read any of the novels or to watch any of the films, but Lanyard, as a reformed jewel thief who works undercover as a detective, has parallels to Cary Grant’s character in To Catch a Thief. In an early performance, Melvyn Douglas played the character in one film, before Warren William took over the role for nine films. Eric Blore, who played plotting butlers and waiters in several Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies, took the role of Jamison, Lanyard’s British valet, for 11 films, spanning three different actors in the lead role.

Although I’ve yet to see any of the other films, but this one seems to be unique in that is set in Jamison’s home turf of London. The whole city is constantly under the threat of German air raids, and taking advantage of the darkness of the blackouts, the Lone Wolf prowls into the home of a prominent British diplomat and steals the “beam detector plans” without which London is doomed to certain destruction. Although he appears to be selling out to a faction of German spies, it is actually a front as he works for the British. By coincidence, the American president happens to be in town (but not on screen), meaning Lanyard has to duck both the American Secret Service and the much more competent Scotland Yard. Although the film manages to express the on-edge atmosphere of London during the air raids, it is obviously shot in Hollywood and the mishmash of American and British actors and their respective accents gets distracting. Lloyd Bridges makes a brief, uncredited appearance as a waiter in a restaurant that serves as a front for the spy ring, and Forrest Tucker, who would later be known for TV’s “F-Troup,” is inexplicably cast as a British air raid warden.

This was by no means a great film, but the butler snobbery of Eric Blore makes it entertaining enough. It’s probably not worthwhile to watch the whole series, but I would love to track down the one film in which Melvyn Douglas makes an appearance, as well as the one with Columbia contract player Rita Hayworth.

Escapade in Japan

I saw Escapade in Japan at a movie screening and networking event that is held roughly once a month at a cozy little restaurant in Tokyo. As with all of the other films I have caught at this event, this one was much, much more fun to watch with a group of like-minded people. Although there is a good deal of intentional humor in the film, we all roared with laughter at many subtle moments tat would only be funny to a group of Japanese who had lived aboard and expats living in Japan, which is exactly what we were.

The whole film is basically just an excuse to take Technicolor cameras from one scenic Japanese location to another, but the little bit of plot that is there is quite charming. Cameron Mitchell plays an American diplomat who has just be reassigned from the Philippines to Tokyo. His wife (Teresa Wright) shows up and tells him she is leaving him because she found out about the affair he was having at his previous post. Their 7-year-old son (Jon Provost) is put on a flight. When his plane has engine trouble, he winds up floating alone on a raft in the Pacific. Even though an uncredited Clint Eastwood flies in on a search mission, the boy is found by a fisherman and his wife. Tony befriends the fisherman’s son, who learned English by listening to armed forces radio. This is where the movie really begins. By the time the fishing boat docks, the boys are buddies. When the police come to take Tony back to his parents, the boys mistakenly think they are about to be carted off to jail and make a run for it. They conveniently make stops at music halls, temples, geisha houses and the like.

There are some funny moments where the police are portrayed as being totally incompetent at the simple task of finding two young boys, but it is mostly just one travelogue scene after another. But the little pieces that hold the plot together are quite charming. At 7, Jon Provost was already an accomplished child actor and was just about to start his long tenure on “Lassie,” which made him very famous. But Roger Nakagawa, who plays the Japanese boy, was appearing in his first and last film role. But the two really do a lot to carry the film, and were asked to do some pretty dangerous stuff, such as riding on a flatbed carriage of a moving train and climbing across the roof of a shrine in Kyoto.

But there is a more at work here than a buddy film between two boys. Just 12 years after the end of the war, the film relentlessly strives to humanize the Japanese, who were demonized in Hollywood a generation before. In Destination Tokyo in 1943, Cary Grant plays a submarine captain who tells his men with certainly that Japanese children are only seen as future soldiers. In this film, the Japanese police assure the worried American parents that their boy must be OK as people in Japan love all children, and children are never kidnapped.

 

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

I went to see this knowing I wouldn’t like it all that much, but I wanted to see Christopher Plummer, still acting in his 80s, as the rich elderly man still heartbroken over the loss of his niece 40 years earlier.

That was the only reason I wanted to see this, and really about the only thing I knew about the film never got around to seeing the trilogy of Swedish films or read the novels they are based on for that matter. I didn’t expect to judge a remake by comparing it to an original I had never seen, but that is exactly what I wound up doing.

The opening credit sequence features male and female forms of CGI mercury bashing each other to bits. While this looks impressive, it is totally unrelated to the film and plays out like the Nine Inch Nails promo video it is, a Trent Reznor cover of Led Zepplin. I was expecting the story to be transplanted to America, the way Insomnia was moved from Norway to Alaska and Let The Right One In went from Sweden to New Mexico. But I soon discovered the film is set in an alternative reality Sweden where the Swedish language was never invented and Swedes talk to other Swedes in heavily slurred English. The only principal actor who doesn’t try a Swedish accent is Stellan Skarsgård a genuine Swede. Although Christopher Plummer was good in his small but important role, I kept wondering why they didn’t get, Max Von Sydow for the part. (Evidently they tried.)

The whole enterprise of shooting a Swedish novel in Sweden with American and British actors doing not so subtle Swedish accents seemed so ridiculous too me that I lost all interest. When the separate paths of the disgraced journalist trying to save his reputation and the disaffected hacker finally cross, past the one hour mark, I had stopped caring. I had even forgot about the mystery of the missing niece, which is supposed to tie the two main characters together.

Instead of hanging on the plot, I was just thinking about the very blatant Apple product placement. At $90 mil, this is not even the most expensive commercial for the MacBook Pro (that would be Mission Impossible 4 at $145 mil). But at nearly three hours it is certainly the longest Apple commercial ever made. When a state-appointed case worker asks the titular hacker why she needs such an expensive computer, I was hoping she would say “oh, you’re right, I should be using a homemade Linux box with open source software. Thanks for pointing that out.”

Tower Heist

I’m almost embarrassed to admit it, but I actually enjoyed Tower Heist. I have never understood why Ben Stiller is considered a film star, and I think Eddie Murphy ceased to be funny decades ago.

My sole motivation to see big-budget Oceans parody was the promise of Alan Alda playing a Bernie Madoff-inspired Ponzi scheme billionaire. Alda broke with his archetypal  sensitive ’70s guy image with a small part in Woody Allen’s Crimes and Misdemeanors, playing a full-of-himself millionaire TV producer, and played the antagonistic senator hounding Howard Hughes in the Aviator. I was expecting to enjoy the few moments when Alda was on the screen, and  cringe for the rest of the running time when Stiller and Murphy were paired up.

A heist film is supposed to be all about plot, but the plot here—about the staff of a luxury residential tower stealing back their swindled pensions from the Alda character—is very formulaic. And it is not even a very good formula, as there are subplots that are developed then dropped, and characters who are introduced and then just forgotten about. But what you can enjoy are the supporting actors, and with so many characters, you don’t have to wait long for a new one to pop up. It was nice to see Matthew Broderick, now pushing 50, returning to comedy as a bankrupt trader, Gabourey Sidibe is a highlight as a Jamaican-born maid and safe cracker, makes the role memorable even though it is not developed much in the script. One of the funniest characters is a Russian clerk studying for her bar exam on the side. I’d seen, but not remembered, Nina Arianda in a tiny part in Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, and she evidently she has mostly worked on Broadway, playing the Judy Holliday character in a production of Born Yesterday, which must have been perfect for her type of comedy. Her first film credit only dates to 2011, and she is only in this film for a few minutes, but I certainly hope she gets to play some bigger roles on screen soon.