With 14 Oscar nominations and 11 wins—both of which remain (tied) records—James Cameron’s 1997 film Titanic has surely secured an indelible place in Oscar history. But the actual disaster, which occurred on the night of April 14, 1912, inspired many other films prior to the ’97 costume drama spectacle. In fact, because the sinking took place at the height of silent film’s popularity, the framework was already in place for studios to crank out inspired films in short order. Along with historical records, these early cinematic depictions of the disaster helped to shape the cultural memory of the event, and many of those deep-rooted images would remain even in Cameron’s version nearly a century later.
The first film to cover the Titanic’s sinking was called “Saved from the Titanic,” a short filmed and released soon after the disaster in 1912. Though it didn’t end up being the most technically accurate dramatization of the story, it did have a certain claim to authenticity: actress Dorothy Gibson, an actual survivor of Titanic, starred in and co-wrote the movie. This legitimacy was a main selling point of the film, including the fact that Gibson was wearing the actual outfit she wore on the night of the sinking in the film—a white silk evening gown with cardigan and polo coat. Sadly, all known prints of the film were lost in a fire at Eclair Studios’ headquarters in New Jersey, so not much is known about the movie aside from a few printed photos and film frames.
The German movie In Nacht Und Eis was also filmed in the summer of 1912 following the Titanic’s sinking, but it was quite a bit longer and more detailed than “Saved from the Titanic.” An epic for the time, it clocked in at 35 minutes long, and covered everything from the boarding of the ship, the collision with the iceberg (replicated by a small model in a pool), the telegraph operators’ desperate attempts to contact help, and the distribution of the lifeboats. Much of the film conveys the rocking of the sea with a gentle tilting motion, which gets progressively more intense as the events of the movie continue on. Some of the moments are heightened for dramatic purposes (such as showing boilers exploding, which did not actually happen), but many of the scenes give a good overview of the events of that night.
Atlantis, a 1913 Danish feature film based on Gerhardt Hauptmann’s novel of the same name, isn’t exactly a Titanic film, but became inextricably linked with the legend due to its similar plot and the timing of its release. The dramatic climax of the film is the sinking of a large ship, in which only a few survivors are able to make it onto the lifeboats. Atlantis also deals with the class issues that divided ship passengers at the time, which was of course a large part of Cameron’s Titanic plot. (By the way, the second assistant director on this film was a young Hungarian man named Mihály Kertész, who would later hit Hollywood under the name Michael Curtiz.)Although, thanks to decades of research and historical background, Cameron’s Titanic is likely the most accurate of the Titanic films (a subgenre that also includes later entries like A Night to Remember), these early films are an important look into the contemporary interpretation of the events. It’s also fascinating to watch films that were made at around the same time as the event itself, as elements like costumes, hair, available technology, and so on—which would require extensive research to recreate in a modern, period film—were simply an element of every day life in 1912. They also established a visual expectation for audiences watching the events of Titanic unfolding on screen, and requiring future filmmakers to address viewers’ anticipation for how the disaster looked and felt.
This is my FINAL entry in the 31 Days of Oscar blogathon, hosted over the last four weeks by Kellee of Outspoken and Freckled, Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club and Aurora of Once Upon a Screen. To find out more info about other entries, visit the blogathon home page. All my past 31 Days of Oscar posts are tagged under 31 Days of Oscar. Thanks for hosting, ladies!