Second Looks: Titanic (1953)

This review was written for the Barbara Stanwyck filmography project, my quest to watch every film the actress ever made! For more reviews from this project, visit the dedicated index.

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(Image via moviespictures.org)

Julia Sturges (Barbara Stanwyck) has boarded the Titanic with her two children, Annette (Audrey Dalton) and Norman (Harper Carter). She plans to take them to her hometown in northern Michigan and raise them in a more down-to-earth fashion than their rootless, wealthy father, Richard (Clifton Webb).

But it won’t be that simple. Julia can’t just whisk the kids away to America without Richard having a say in things. Buying a ticket second-hand, Richard boards the ship in hopes to stop Julia from what he sees as ruining his family.

Titanic was directed by Jean Negulesco. It was written by Charles Brackett, Walter Reisch, and Richard Breen.

Before this re-watch, it had been several years since I’d watched this version of the Titanic tragedy, and while of course I’m very familiar with the history of the ill-fated ship, I’d forgotten just how tear-jerked I was by this particular portrayal.

From the goodbyes said as Julia and her children prepare to board the lifeboat, to Norman’s decision to give up his spot on the lifeboat, to the “Nearer, My God, To Thee” scene… prepare for your heart to be ripped out every time you tune in for 1953’s Titanic, no matter how many times you’ve seen it!

In telling the story of a sinking, Titanic is emotionally effective, placing emphasis on the fact that the iceberg collision and subsequent sinking were avoidable. The blame is placed on the decisions of the Captain, but also on the fact that there were not enough lifeboats on board to fit all of the passengers — a troubling fact that led to maritime safety reform following British and American inquiries into the sinking.

The ominous iceberg opening hints to the trouble that will come, but before it reaches its heartbreaking final act, Titanic is somewhat of a typical family drama. Annette is a Veda Pierce type, complaining about having a “bad” table at dinner, for example. Julia is a mother trying to help her bourgeois children come down to Earth.

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(Image via classicmoviefavorites.com)

And there’s plenty of drama between Julia and Richard, with their differing opinions about how to raise the children. Many of the film’s earlier scenes focus on the tension between Julia and Richard, also revealing secrets of their past.

The lives of side characters are explored as well, adding more interesting to the film beyond its historical setting and familial spats. Thelma Ritter offers her talents to the supporting cast as Maud Young, an unassuming woman of wealth who is mistaken for a maid when we first meet her. The character is, of course, based on real RMS Titanic passenger/survivor “Unsinkable” Molly Brown. Ritter steals just about every one of her scenes.

Strong performances across the board make Titanic worth watching both in its heart-wrenching portrayal of the ship’s sinking and in its portrayal of one family’s personal problems. It’s hard to say whether this will land in my Stanwyck top five once I finish the project, but it’s certainly worth watching.

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3 thoughts on “Second Looks: Titanic (1953)

  1. Todd B says:

    I’ve seen ‘A Night to Remember’ and James Cameron’s ‘Titanic’, and loved them both, but I’ve never seen this 1953 version, and I’ve always wanted to. If you’ve seen all three, where would you rank this version in comparison?

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    • Lindsey says:

      I just realized I never responded to this — sorry for being so slow about it! I had giant lizards to conquer, etc.

      I have seen all three. The one I watch most often is Cameron’s. I’m sure my adoration of it is in part influenced by nostalgia (I saw it in the theater and then watched it over and over with my sister on a two-tape VHS version haha), but it’s just grand, so beautiful to look at. I get swept up in it every time I watch, whether it’s been a month or a year since I last saw it.

      A Night to Remember is, I would say, of the greatest value as a historical drama between the three. I think it and the ’53 are on par in terms of quality but offer different things. The ship itself plays much less of a role in the ’53 until you get to the sinking — it’s mostly a family drama, but a very good one.

      I guess based on this ramble my personal ranking would be Cameron first, Night and ’53 tied for second haha. Depends on what you’re looking for, really. Cameron for romance and grandeur, ’53 for a heartbreaking family tragedy, Night for more of an action-based depiction. They’re all very different, and all certainly worth watching!

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