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Fox Home Entertainment presents
Titanic (1953) (1953)

Richard: Please, Julia, let's not bicker, since there's no love lost between us.
Julia: That's the tragic part, Richard. There's been so much love lost between us.

- Clifton Webb, Barbara Stanwyck

Review By: David Krauss  
Published: August 31, 2003

Stars: Barbara Stanwyck, Clifton Webb, Robert Wagner, Audrey Dalton, Thelma Ritter, Brian Aherne, Richard Basehart
Other Stars: Allyn Joslyn, Frances Bergen, Edmund Purdom, Michael Rennie
Director: Jean Negulesco

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 01h:37m:38s
Release Date: September 02, 2003
UPC: 024543077657
Genre: drama


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
A- A-B+B A

DVD Review

Of all the epic disasters dramatized on film, the sinking of the Titanic seems to inspire the greatest degree of sensitivity from writers and directors. Although natural calamities can exact a similar human toll, there's something about Titanic that wrenches the heart and twists the gut. Maybe it's the fact that hundreds of innocent people died due to man's arrogance and bravado, that simple steps could have prevented the tragedy or severely curtailed the number of casualties, or, most likely, that men and women displayed remarkable honor and courage on that fateful night, losing their lives with a dignity that seems foreign today.

Whatever the reasons, Titanic continues to fascinate and haunt us 91 years later. A half-century ago, the first major Hollywood film to chronicle the ship's ill-fated journey premiered. Often dwarfed by James Cameron's 1997 blockbuster and the definitive British semi-documentary A Night to Remember (1958), the 1953 version of Titanic is no less memorable or heartbreaking. Clocking in at a lean 97 minutes, director Jean Negulesco tells the Titanic's devastating tale in less time than it takes Cameron to navigate the ship into the ice field. The lack of a bloated love story helps, but the elder Titanic separates itself from its sister films by largely focusing on one splintering family and how the disaster shapes and changes it.

The wealthy Sturges family leads a whirlwind life of privilege and pleasure, flitting from one ritzy European locale to another. Wife Julia (Barbara Stanwyck) has come to despise the shallow existence, and worries the excess and prejudicial attitudes will adversely affect her children—the already haughty Annette (Audrey Dalton) and younger, more innocent Norman (Harper Carter). On the pretense of a visit back home to her "common" Midwestern roots, Julia books passage for herself and the children on the Titanic, with no intention of returning to Europe. Her husband Richard (Clifton Webb) learns of the "kidnapping" and boards the liner at the last moment, hoping to change Julia's mind—more for appearance's sake and ego fulfillment than any feelings of love and devotion.

Once reunited, the couple clashes in a series of heated arguments, with twenty years of repressed anger and resentment bubbling over and forcing the disclosure of a shocking secret. Meanwhile, Annette abandons her airs and discovers an attraction to Gifford Rogers (Robert Wagner), a down-to-earth college tennis player. Other notable passengers on the doomed vessel include Maude Young (Thelma Ritter), a tacky, nouveau riche matron based on the "unsinkable" Molly Brown; George Headley (Richard Basehart), a defrocked (and drunken) Catholic priest; and such historical figures as John Jacob Astor (William Johnstone) and Isador Straus (Roy Gordon).

The Oscar®-winning story and screenplay by Charles Brackett, Richard L. Breen and Walter Reisch favors honest emotion over melodramatic clichés, and masterfully intertwines the characters' lives. Some feel the personal drama steals focus from the ship itself and the numerous factors that caused the tragedy—and they're right—but the writers unobtrusively drop in key details and generally adhere to the facts, providing a thorough overview of the night's events. (Inaccuracies are easy to forgive, as historians gathered the bulk of their Titanic knowledge in the years following this film's release.) The special effects—created with a 28-foot model and filmed in the 20th Century-Fox studio tank—are surprisingly realistic, if less extravagant than subsequent Titanic films. Although the movie devotes only its final half-hour to the sinking, director Negulesco uses the time efficiently, creating an atmosphere of somber resignation accented by noble, brave acts and devastating farewells.

In this Titanic, though, stellar performances outclass the spectacle. Stanwyck, one of Hollywood's most natural and talented actresses, perfectly balances all of Julia's wide-ranging emotions. Whether she's frustrated, vindictive, calculating, tender, blunt, empathetic or devastated, Stanwyck strikes just the right note, her tone and manner always appropriate for a woman of acquired stature and questionable breeding. Webb, whose dry wit and withering glances enliven numerous comedies, shifts those talents to the dramatic arena as the pampered, impudent father who finds strength and meaning in crisis. The moving transformation proves disaster does indeed often bring out the best in men, and his parting scene with Stanwyck presents both actors in the finest light, brimming with a raw intensity and deep emotion that beautifully brings their relationship full circle.

The Titanic disaster has spawned three excellent yet very different films. Comparisons are tempting, but futile. Handicapped by production limitations and a dearth of accessible facts, the 1953 version still does a remarkable job of recreating the tragedy. It may not convey all of Titanic's social themes or accurately depict each detail, but it never abandons the humanity at the center of the story. That's what makes this Titanic unique, memorable, and well worth a fresh look.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: A-

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicno


Image Transfer Review: Titanic was the last big budget film to be shot before 20th Century-Fox introduced the CinemaScope process. A wider screen would have magnified the spectacle, but the 1.33:1 ratio nicely compliments the film's smaller, more intimate focus. This transfer possesses typical age-related flaws, and while noticeable, the specks and grit rarely overwhelm the image. The black & white photography is well reproduced, with good contrast and lots of gray level variance. Blacks are deep and rich, with sharp lines and adequate shadow detail. Some of the film looks a bit hazy, but the effect seems intentional, either to depict the misty ocean air or give the film a slightly antiquated, documentary look. Once again, Fox has taken appropriate care with one of its classics and fans of the film will appreciate the effort.

Image Transfer Grade: B+

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
MonoEnglish, Spanishyes
DS 2.0Englishyes


Audio Transfer Review: While Titanic may not be visually innovative, its novel use of sound is both creative and hugely effective. Other than the opening title sequence, the film uses no music score, relying instead on natural sounds and shipboard music to augment the action. The liner cutting through the sea, a dining room orchestra, Sunday hymns, ocean breezes, a string quartet—all these realistic elements help draw the viewer into the film and make the action more immediate and engrossing.

A prime example occurs about an hour into the film. What I initially thought was an annoying hum or rumble clouding the Dolby stereo track turned out to be noise from the ship's ever-churning engines, a fact that hits home when the Titanic scrapes the iceberg and the motors shut down, producing a deafening, eerie silence that jarringly transitions the film into its tragic last act.

The disc's processed stereo possesses little fidelity (and doesn't sound any different than the original mono track, also included), but transmits information cleanly and with minimal age-related distortion. Dialogue is easily understood and background sounds blend seamlessly into the action.

Audio Transfer Grade: B

 

Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 25 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, Spanish with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Documentaries
2 Feature/Episode commentaries by film critic Richard Schickel; actor Robert Wagner, actress Audrey Dalton, cinematographer Michael Lonza, Titanic historian Sylvia Stoddard
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Movietone newsreels
  2. Audio essay by Titanic historian Sylvia Stoddard
  3. Still gallery
Extras Review: Thanks to the film's brief running time, Fox has padded the disc with a cavalcade of interesting extras. I was looking forward to the insights provided by noted film critic and historian Richard Schickel, but his commentary track disappoints. Much of the time he merely describes the action on-screen in a meandering, distracted manner filled with too much vocal stammering. He offers perfunctory background information on the actors and chief writer, and only the most elementary perspective regarding the Titanic itself. Although Schickel gathers steam toward the end and makes several cogent points, I expected more from this renowned film historian.

Far more interesting and rewarding, the second commentary track splices together remarks by Robert Wagner, Audrey Dalton, cinematographer Michael Lonza, and Titanic buff Sylvia Stoddard. The multiple perspectives punch up the track and all involved share some fascinating stories and trivia concerning the film's production. Lonza discusses Titanic's technical aspects, including the complex special effects and inner workings of the Fox studio tank, while also providing a far more in-depth look at the careers of Stanwyck and Webb. Stoddard tackles Titanic history and the film's hits and misses regarding accuracy, but tosses in some fun film facts as well, including the uncredited appearances of Edmund Purdom as Second Officer Lightoller and Michael Rennie as the narrator. Wagner rhapsodizes about the studio system and its supportive family atmosphere, his apprenticeship at Fox, and how Titanic offered him his first heroic screen role, but RJ's tone is a bit subdued and filled with melancholy. Dalton, though, is a breath of fresh air and relates many lively stories. Her delightful on-set recollections and personal remembrances (including some humorous practical jokes) really take the listener inside the production. So skip Schickel, but don't miss this superior commentary.

Beyond Titanic is a fascinating 94-minute Fox Television documentary from 1998. Narrated by Victor Garber, the unique film offers the first in-depth look at Titanic's far-reaching legacy. It begins with the disaster's aftermath and how it affected every corner of society, from the suffragette movement to racial equality, but the bulk of the documentary examines how popular culture has depicted and at times exploited the Titanic story over the years. In addition to extensive discussions on the three major Titanic movies, almost every media allusion to the ship is explored, including thinly veiled silent films, an anti-British Nazi propaganda movie, Walter Lord's two best-selling books, sci-fi TV shows, a children's book, a Broadway musical, even a high-tech home computer game. Segments on the Titanic's underwater grave and artifact exhibitions are also included, along with historian, actor and survivor interviews.

An 11-minute audio essay by film and Titanic historian Sylvia Stoddard picks up where the movie ends and chronicles the rescue of the passengers, their frantic search for surviving family members and their reception upon arrival in New York. Stoddard's lively manner and obvious enthusiasm for the subject make the track worthwhile.

Two clips from the Fox Movietone News series are also included, the first of which centers on the film's benefit premiere for the Navy Relief Society in Norfolk, Virginia. Ed Sullivan, Nanette Fabray, Charles Coburn, and Debra Paget appear in the clip. The second newsreel recaps the 1953 Oscar® ceremony and spotlights mainly Fox film winners, of course.

A still gallery features twenty black & white photos, several of which show the cast members relaxing and conferring on the set. Production stills and special effects shots round out the collection.

Extras Grade: A

 

Final Comments

If you're looking for a Titanic tutorial, rent A Night to Remember. If you crave a sweeping love story, pop in Cameron's blockbuster. This Titanic is neither of those. It may not be "king of the world," but by focusing on family relationships and using the disaster as a potent backdrop, it carves its own niche and tells its tragic story with equal power and tenderness. The literate screenplay, unobtrusive direction and terrific performances by Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb enhance the film's emotional core. Fox rounds out the package with a first-class image transfer and a boatload of notable extras, making this true studio classic attractive to both Titanic and film history enthusiasts. Highly recommended.

 


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