April 15 marks the anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, which ended its maiden voyage disastrously in 1912. There have been many depictions of the sinking, including the 1953 Fox film “Titanic” and the 1958 “A Night to Remember.” For many, the definitive version was James Cameron’s 1997 “Titanic,” the 11-time Oscar winner with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet.
Among the many dramatizations was a 1943 German propaganda film (sometimes referred to as “Nazi Titanic”), which combined fictional characters with the real-life events. That set the pattern for most subsequent depictions, including the 1953 edition (directed by Jean Negulesco, and starring Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck). When the British 1958 “Night to Remember” opened, it was an eye-opener, since the filmmakers emphasized realism, aiming for a documentary feel and basing much of the action on facts they learned from actual survivors.
That film, directed by Roy Ward Baker and starring Kenneth More as Second Officer Charles Lightoller, still remains the favorite of many Titaniacs. While its realism was impressive, the film missed out on one detail: The boat was shown sinking in one piece. There had been conflicting reports from traumatized eyewitnesses, so generally filmmakers stuck with the theory that the Titanic ended intact. However, when the remains of the ship were discovered in 1985, divers found that the ship had indeed split in half, a detail that was crucial to Cameron’s version.
When his film was in production in Mexico, the media reported breathlessly on every new detail of its budget increases and its delays in completion. Variety had a “Titanic Watch” logo on its stories, a clear indication that these reports were going to be an ongoing feature for many months. Finally the film opened on Dec. 19, 1997, and while critical reaction was mixed, every reviewer made mention of the budget, which was estimated at a record-breaking $200 million.
Nobody predicted that the film would break records in every other area. It was the first film to pass $1 billion at the box office. It tied the Oscar record with 14 nominations and 11 wins. The soundtrack and theme song (“My Heart Will Go On”) were mega-hits. It was the first DVD to sell 1 million copies. Though there is no data to prove it, the film probably increased the sale of Kleenex as well.
People responded to the central love story, but the re-creation of the Titanic — and the breakthrough visual effects — contributed to the emotional power of the film.
Like most of the other film and TV depictions, Cameron’s film concentrated on the events from the onboard perspective. Few people write about the effect on the rest of the population. And Variety Archives show that it had a profound effect on people, similar to such events as 9/11 or the Paris terrorist attacks last November. After the sinking, the White Star line sent out a report saying the ship had survived the iceberg and that everyone was fine. When the public learned the truth, they were shaken and depressed.
On April 20, 1912, a Variety story was headlined “Paralyzing Titanic Terror Casts Pall Over Theatres.” The article said that attendance had dropped steeply at theaters and restaurants in the past week; the audiences who opted to attend the theater were glum, while various musical and comedy shows “had an air of funeral services.”
The ship hit an iceberg at 11:40 p.m. on April 14; three hours later, it split in half and sank; of the 2,224 passengers, 1,500 were killed. News traveled more slowly in those days, and on the evening of April 15, people in New York proceeded as usual.
Variety reported that the unnamed sister of Benjamin Guggenheim went to the Winter Garden that evening: “She had been assured in the afternoon that everything was all right, following the false report sent out by the White Star line that the Titanic was being towed into Halifax.” During the show, one of the men in her theater party stepped out for a drink and then “With almost unpardonable stupidity, brought the young woman information about the probable fate of her brother. … She promptly dropped into a dead faint, almost precipitating a panic in the music hall.”
At the Cohan Theatre that evening, some audience members stepped outside during intermission of “The Wall Street Girl” and saw news bulletins posted outside the Times building. They returned and spread the word to the rest of the audience, “with an almost dead silence fastening itself upon the remainder of the performance.”
Otherwise, humans did the same things that they always do in the wake of a calamity: Some panicked, some tried to help and some tried to make a fast buck.
Variety reported that within the first two weeks after the sinking, nearly 50 American vaudeville acts cancelled their engagements in Britain, declining to cross the Atlantic. Tourists were also spooked: “Cancellations commenced to flood the steamship agencies. It is expected that ocean travel will be very light this season.”
Meanwhile, plucky people worked to make things better. The Women’s Titanic Memorial Society raised $10,000 for the survivors; in Boston, The Actors’ Fund Benefit promised that 25% of proceeds from all shows on May 4 would be given to the Titanic Fund, which resulted in across-the-board sellout business.
And of course scam artists tried to make money. In Philadelphia, the Police Department warned all theater managers they would be breaking the law if they showed reels of fake footage pretending to depict the sinking of the Titanic, the rescue of survivors “and other scenes attending the recent calamity.” Law enforcement in other cities similarly tried to squash this deception.
And while the public went into mourning in April, they recovered quickly. On May 25, A British producer announced that a staging of the Titanic disaster, “with all realistic details,” would debut in a Gloucester vaudeville show. And in Chicago, a spectacle called “The Sinking of the Titanic” opened at White City Park, replacing a re-enactment of the Battle of Manila.