With this week marking the 108th anniversary of the sinking of RMS Titanic and my using old movies as part of my staying sane while sheltering in place strategy, I naturally thought that revisiting the cinematic Titanic would be timely.
Now I didn’t watch the Rose and Jack show of twenty-odd years ago. It’s entertaining, I suppose, if you can get past the silly shipboard romance, a collection of stock characters and a story that concludes with an old woman dropping a priceless diamond into the sea. It’s mostly some really well done special effects and an excuse for Celine Dion to sing “My Heart Will Go On” and on and on. If I’m going to do some on and on and on, you bet it will be ABBA.
Nor did I tune up the 1953 movie Titanic, which is less about the disaster and more about Barbara Stanwyck and her broken marriage to Clifton Webb. Webb, an actor who never married or had children, lived with his mother until her death when he was 71. ‘Nuff said. But I enjoy this version better than Kate’s and Leo’s because its half as long and has the great Thelma Ritter as the Molly Brown character.
Instead, my go-to movie on this subject is A Night to Remember, a 1958 docudrama made before that term had been coined. Karl and I had seen it the night of the 100th anniversary of the sinking at the TCM Classic Film Festival that year. (Note the movie chosen for this screening.)
So I watched it this week, thinking that it would at least show respect for the more than 1,500 people who died that night while providing two hours distraction from the crisis at hand. The movie provides a fairly comprehensive accounting of the numerous errors and miscommunications that occurred that caused the tragedy, while also providing snippets of conversation among the passengers as it unfolded.
On being ordered to put on life vests: “This thing is uncomfortable. It hurts.” “I refuse to wear it. I dislike it intensely.” On being ordered to the main decks: “Really too tiresome. Everybody knows this ship can’t sink.” “Purser, I must have my jewels. I must have them. They’re in the safe.” “But surely they’ll let us take just one bag.” “My pig! I must have my lucky pig.” On being ordered into the lifeboasts: “Catch my death of cold? Certainly not.” “My friend has been put in that boat. We want to stay together.” “Will there be room in the boats for everyone? Of course there will.”
Once the ship is gone and people are in the water—drowning or freezing, whichever came first—the question of whether to row back to try to save some of them arises. “We’re crowded enough as it is. I’m feeling most unwell.”
Of course there are the noble and selfless stories of aged couples choosing to stay together and older people giving their space to younger ones. On the other side is the man who pretended to be a woman to get on a lifeboat.
Watching the movie again after all these years made me curious to know more about who lived and who died. While 62% of first-class passengers survived and 41% of second-class did as well, only 25% of third-class (steerage) and 23% of the crew managed to live. Even with “women and children first” being the order of the day, nearly 33% of first-class men still made it. Given that 97% of first-class women survived compared to only 46% of women in third and only one non-steerage child died compared to 66% of the other 79 children, it is abundantly clear that class was more important than gender or age when it came to survival.
There were changes made to improve safety at sea as a result of the tragedy that killed over 1,500 people. Laws were enacted to require lifeboats to accommodate all aboard as well as lifeboat drills. The U. S. passed the Radio Act of 1912 requiring radio communications be conducted 24 hours a day and that the use of rockets by ship would be a message of distress. I suppose that fixing these things meant there was no need to look at that troublesome class issue.
Today, COVID-19 is killing a Titanic a day in the United States and has been for more than a week. Perhaps it doesn’t feel that way because we’re not in line with other people to get on a lifeboat, or worse, we’re not physically pushing them out of the way while we do.
Clearly, A Night to Remember didn’t provide the distraction for which I was looking. But it did present some food for thought. Now, it’s time to go listen to ABBA. The clip provides the lyrics, and I encourage you to sing along.