Friday, June 29, 2012


This is the first talkie made about the Titanic disaster, but because of legal threats from the White Star Line, the filmmakers used the name Atlantic instead of Titanic, and used fictitious characters instead of real people. The movie begins at 11 p.m. on Sunday night with a vaguely ominous scene in which the ship's captain tells his crew not to say anything that might unduly alarm the passengers. There's a rumor that the ship is entering an area of water filled with ice bergs and floes and such—one of the officers, Lanchester (John Longden), says, "I wonder who sets these rumors afloat," one of the few bits of humor, intentional or otherwise, in the film. We spend most of the movie in the company of a handful of upper-class passengers who are drinking and playing poker (we see no one from steerage and only a few crew members). Chief among them are the elderly Mr. Rool (Franklin Dyall) who is confined to a wheelchair, and his wife, son, and pregnant daughter-in law; a minister whom everyone calls Padre; the tipsy, carefree Dandy (Monty Banks); and a bounder named Tate-Hughes who is cheating on his wife with a saucy young lady. About 20 minutes into the film, the ship hits an iceberg though no one takes the bump seriously until alarm bells start going off. Lanchester tells Rool, in his most melodramatic delivery, "The ship has three hours to live!" As women and children are called first, most of the pathos of the next hour involves decisions about whether or not to go (Mrs. Rool refuses to leave without her husband). The ship's band continues playing upbeat tunes trying to keep everyone calm, but the loading of the lifeboats becomes a helter-skelter affair; in one brief scene, two men get into a fistfight trying to get in a lifeboat until a crew member shoots them both. Dandy has a moment of hysteria, then calms down and joins the other men in the lounge to keep up their civilized drinking until the end. After the barful of men sing a drinking song ("Drunk last night, drunk the night before, gonna get drunk tonight like I've never been drunk before"), they hear the band launch into "Nearer, My God, to Thee," and we know the end is near.  

This British-made film has the usual weaknesses of an early talkie: overdone acting, awkwardly delivered dialogue, and no background score, but the scenes of panic at the lifeboats are well donejust don't expect anything like what James Cameron gave us in the 1997 TITANIC, or even what 20th Century Fox did in the 1953 TITANIC. A handful of the actors might be recognized: Madeline Carroll, as the pregnant wife, was the heroine of Hitchcock's THE 39 STEPS; John Stuart, as Rool's son, had a long career with supporting roles in over 100 movies;  Longden, the officer (pictured at left in uniform), was a detective in Hitchcock's early thriller BLACKMAIL; Banks was married to comic actress Gracie Fields. Rather than attempt a spectacular special effect as the ship finally sinks, the screen instead goes to black and we hear the awful roar of hundreds of people facing their doom—it's quite effective. It's a bit strange to realize that this was made less than 20 years after the real disaster, so most of the survivors would still have been alive. [YouTube]

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