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Titanic: Fox Studio Classics (1953)

What the world really needs is "The Love Boat" back on TV, but instead of a luxury seven-day cruise with washed-up leading men and young starlets with enormously fake breasts we have each episode take place on the maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic in April 1912. Okay, maybe we can still have the burnt-out leading men and buoyant, life-preserving saline boobies — what this Polo Bar pitch really comes down to is that each episode concerns perhaps five or six of the 2,200 souls who made the fateful trip. There's the couple that are divorcing but could get back together, the lonelyhearts who find love, and, say, the widower and daughter who have a couple decades of passive-aggressive baggage to sort through. And then BAM! — iceberg, right? Hardened hearts melt, the meek find courage, the selfish offer sacrifice. Stick it on CBS at eight on Fridays — call it "The Death Boat." All right, all right… it's never going to happen. But those who harbor a Titanic fetish can get pretty much the same experience by simply watching the various voyage-of-doom movies already in existence. Top of the list, of course, is James Cameron's 1997 blockbuster, while 1958's A Night to Remember prides itself on its historical accuracy. The Germans actually completed a movie in 1943 that functioned as a bit of anti-British (and Jewish) propaganda, and the mere fact that the story commanded the public's attention at the time led to silent-era versions. In the case of the 1953 Titanic, produced and co-written by Charles Brackett and directed by Jean Negulesco, the creaky melodrama concerns Richard Sturges (Clifton Webb) and his wife Julia (Barbara Stanwyck) — Julia has fled her European life with her wealthy, socially connected husband, taking her two children with her to Michigan. Richard cajoles his way into a passage at the last minute, but tempers flare and then Julia confesses a terrible secret. Meanwhile, a young tennis player (Robert Wagner) falls for the Sturges's daughter (Audrey Dalton), a nouveau riche American gets in a few bon mots (Thelma Ritter in a transparent Molly Brown persona), and a defrocked priest (Richard Basehart) tries to climb his way out from the bottom of a whiskey bottle. Of course, it's going to take a ten-thousand-ton iceberg to make these nutty folks finally see sense, but by the time that happens it's a relief that the picture is finally getting into the exciting stuff (which, incidentally, is exactly why Cameron's film is so perplexing). No movie from the classic era will ever be able to match the sheer pulse-pounding final hour of the '97 Titanic, but this entry does a serviceable job of playing out the growing sense of dread, with a grim Capt. Smith (Brian Aherne) ready to go down with his ship. The story was as bleak then as it is today, and no matter which film version one happens across, it still retains its essentially mythic appeal — Icarus would have fared no better with iron hulls than he did with feathered wings. Fox's DVD release of Titanic, part of the "Fox Studio Classics" imprint, features a strong full-frame transfer (1.33:1 OAR) from a very good black-and-white source print that shows barely a hint of wear, while the monaural DD 2.0 audio is crisp and pleasant. The chief add-on is the 93-min. documentary Beyond Titanic — the narrator's a breathy fop, but it's filled from bow to stern with historical details. Film critic Richard Schickel delivers a commentary, while a second track features actors Robert Wagner and Audrey Dalton, as well as cinematographer Michael Lonza. Also on board are newsreels, stills, and an audio essay by film historian Sylvia Stodard. Keep-case.
—JJB



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