April 25, 2012

History Is Made at Night: Supreme Moments on the Titanic

So far I’ve watched the unsinkable ship sink in the German Titanic (1943), in the Hollywood Titanic (1953), in the British docudrama, A Night to Remember (1958), and, most spectacularly and convincingly, in the 1997 blockbuster that was just re-released in 3-D.

Daniel Mendelsohn’s piece in the April 16 New Yorker examines the Titanic in the context of metaphor and myth, as a parable of money and class in the Gilded Age, and through the conflating of tragic archetypes (idolized protagonist brought down, thing of beauty shattered). Besides previewing some new books on the subject, Mendelsohn cites various films (“the yoking of romance to the disaster narrative”), including History Is Made at Night, which he calls a “bizarre 1937 tragicomedy” ending on an ocean liner “that hits an iceberg on its maiden voyage.” I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen Frank Borzage’s picture, one of the great films of the 1930s, and I’d have mentioned it along with the others, except that the collision with the iceberg isn’t the subject, it’s merely the table-setter for a couple’s moment of death-defying intimacy amid the human drama of panic, cowardice, bravery, impending doom, and, anyway, the ship doesn’t sink.

Getting to the Heart of It

The material compiled in Richard Davenport-Hines’s nicely crafted Voyagers of the Titanic: Passengers, Sailors, Shipbuilders, Aristocrats, and the Worlds They Came From (Morrow 2012), provides what Julian Fellowes calls “a new and heartbreaking story” (Fellowes’s own miniseries about the event has apparently been a disappointment). Much of the “heartbreak” in Voyagers is experienced later in life by the survivors in the lifeboats who had to endure “for an hour” the “anguished death cries” of other passengers who were drowning and freezing to death all around them. “Sometimes the cries receded, but then the chorus of death resumed, with more piercing despair.” One teenager said he “was traumatized by the memory of that ‘continuous wailing chant, from the fifteen hundred in the water all around us. It sounded like locusts on a mid-summer night.’” A boy of nine at the time, whose mother “held his head in her hands so that he would not hear the horror,” was still hearing it a decade later while living near Briggs Stadium in Detroit, where “the roar of the crowd when a player hit a home run never ceased to remind him of the cries of the … people freezing to death in the Atlantic.”

Briggs Stadium seated 30,000 in 1923, when the boy would have been 20, which means that for him that most apple-pie-American moment, the joyous acclaim of thousands upon thousands of cheering fans when a Tiger player lofts one into the stands serves only to send the survivor back to the chorus of death in the chill of that April night when the sky was said to be so bright with stars and the sea so still. The same teenager who heard the sound of locusts in the wailing said, “I have never seen the stars shine brighter …. I have never seen the sea smoother than it was that night …. It was the kind of a night that made one feel glad to be alive.”

Reading of a beautiful night overarching that grisly scene rouses thoughts of the clear blue sky over Manhattan on the morning of September 11, 2001. In James Cameron’s Titanic, released four years before 9/11, there’s an eerie foreshadowing of the terrorist attack in the tower-like looming of the two immensely steep sheer halves of the Titanic when it splits and sets the tiny human figures falling, leaping, sliding, like rag dolls.

While no other cinematic depictions of the sinking that I’ve seen can match Cameron’s Titanic, his bravura filmmaking (a veritable epic of special effects) seems cold and overblown compared to both Roy Ward Baker’s A Night to Remember, where the focus is primarily on the impersonal development of the event, and Jean Negulesco’s Titanic, in which Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb are the primary instruments in a shameless but highly effective piece of emotional choreography.

One of the supreme moments in A Night to Remember occurs when the ship’s designer, Thomas Andrews (Michael Goodliffe) quietly informs Captain Smith (Laurence Naismith) that his ship, Andrews’s creation, is doomed. As the Captain absorbs what he’s just been told, the look in his eyes is truly frightening; it’s not that he’s afraid  for himself but that he’s been struck a mortal blow and is beyond fear, appalled by the magnitude of his fate and his duty, all this in the few seconds before he sweeps into action and delivers the requisite commands for readying the life-boats and telegraphing for help.

Nothing as subtle happens in the very Hollywood Titanic where the life-and-death reality of the crisis transports the estranged husband and wife back to the dawn of their relationship, and again when the briefly estranged father and son are reunited but doomed, clinging to one another facing death, brave with love (his arm around his son, Webb says “I feel as tall as a mountain”). Thanks to the performances of Stanwyck and Webb, the screenplay, the editing and cinematography and the director’s refusal to overplay a situation that begs for it, everything works; the emotional call rings loud and clear.

What the documentary approach of A Night to Remember lacks is the magnetic pull of a character like Clifton Webb, who fascinates us the moment he, as Richard Ward Sturges, a wealthy, world-class snob, strides unstoppably on board the ship. He has no ticket. The only way he can get aboard is to offer an immigrant husband in steerage a small fortune in cash (relatively speaking), convincing the man to take another boat. After being admitted aboard with the wife and baby, Sturges leaves them in steerage and goes straight to his rightful place in first class. He hardly gives us time to be appalled by the air of absolute entitlement with which he engineers this transaction. He has a compelling motive, having only just learned that his wife, Julia, is attempting to escape with their children to the real-folks down-to-earth midwest (where the P on a college boy’s sweater stands not for Princeton but Purdue), so that her son and daughter won’t become the “ruthless, purposeless, superficial” people Sturges has been grooming them to be. Webb’s behavior on the ship seems to bear her out. When during a fight over custody Julia confesses that his beloved son who idolizes him is not his son but the offspring of a one-night stand, the deeply wounded father viciously determines to behave as if the boy no longer exists.

The instant this unapologetic snob comprehends that the ship is doomed, however, he doesn’t merely rise to the occasion, he transcends it by pushing through the tide of panic-stricken passengers and making his way down to steerage to save the wife and child he so cavalierly separated from their husband and father. It might seem a wildly improbable turn for such a manner-bound man to take, but somehow it makes beautiful, moving sense, and you come to share his wife Julia’s thought, that the disaster has not transformed him so much as it has brought forth the nobility beneath the veneer of sophistication and style and privilege that she saw in him when they first fell in love.

A real-life moment of truth for Barbara Stanwyck came during the filming of the scene that followed the couple’s reconciliation. A bitter cold night had been replicated on the set at Fox’s Century City studios. The actress was suspended in one of the lifeboats swinging on davits some 50 feet above the “heavy rolling mass of water” in the outdoor tank. Looking down, she thought, “If one of these ropes snaps now, it’s goodbye for you. Then I looked up at the faces lined along the rail — those left behind to die with the ship. I thought of the men and women who had been through this thing in our time. We were re-creating an actual tragedy and I burst into tears. I shook with great racking sobs and couldn’t stop.”

The Great Borzage 

In the hands of another director, History Is Made at Night could have been unimaginably worse than the “bizarre tragicomedy” Mendelsohn brushes off in passing. In then-dialogue-director Joshua Logan’s account of the filming, a couple of foul-mouthed madcap “geniuses” named Gene Towne and Graham Baker were “talking the story” to producer Walter Wanger: “If the thinnest boredom appeared to cross Wanger’s eyes, they pepped up the story by sexing it up.” When a slam-bang denouement was needed, they decided to “sink the Titanic.”

For Borzage, the situation was a natural. He had the right actors, having already drawn career-best performances from Charles Boyer as a great headwaiter whose genius for his profession you never doubt for a second, Jean Arthur as an unhappy wife from Kansas whose life-altering love for Boyer you never doubt, and Leo Carillo, a human-comedy delight as “the great Caesar,” whose gifts as a chef you believe in absolutely, and Colin Clive as the insanely jealous husband Bruce Vail, owner of the ocean liner Princess Irene, named for his happy wife (once she’s found Boyer). What better situation for Hollywood’s greatest director of romances than to have his lovers huddled together in the tragic fog sharing a surpassingly intimate moment on a sinking ship, all the life boats lowered, their choice made, to die together, the soft floating haze lending their faces a ghostly radiance as if they were already in some limbo between life and death, while the other, mostly male passengers doomed to go down with the ship are praying, weeping, and singing “Nearer My God to Thee.”

For an uncompromising humanist romanticist like Frank Borzage, it was the ultimate have-your-cake-of-life-and-death-and-eat-it-too opportunity. Not only would he bring his lovers back from the brink of death, he would do the same for everyone else on the ship and would show them experiencing the news of their salvation in a mass delirium of joy. The film closes with a swiftly edited montage of jubilant faces in close-up: a man inhaling a cigar as if it were sweet with the breath of new life, people hugging one another. You want a Hollywood ending? This is the Sistine Chapel of Hollywood endings.

In a review for The Nation, Mark Van Doren called History Is Made at Night “easily the best of its kind in recent years” and then pointed out one of the characteristic qualities of actors in a Borzage film: “Jean Arthur and Charles Boyer as the lovers whom nothing can ever quite succeed in keeping apart … are charming not so much because they act with restraint, but because they know how to act as if nothing restrained them.”

Sad to say, Borzage’s classic, like his even greater film, Man’s Castle, is still not available on DVD in this country. History Is Made at Night can be seen online at hulu,among other resources. Just google it at imdb. A Night to Remember is at the library.