originally published July 13, 2014

Mention the 1997 James Cameron film Titanic to someone and you’re bound to get one of these responses:

“What an overpriced piece of CGI crap!”

“I loved that movie!”

“Not just a great film, but that Celine Dion song is the best!” (these are the people with whom I won’t spend a lot of my free time.)

There’s no question that Cameron’s movie – despite its mostly unnecessary formulaic love story – best captures the realism of the mighty liner’s demise. Other movies have focused on various passengers and dynamics aboard the RMS Titanic: The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1964) is a musical about the American socialite, Titanic (1953) is a movie filled with historical inaccuracies – also with a fictitious love story crammed into its frames, and A Night To Remember (1958) was a British film praised for its attention to detail.

 But the first movie about the Titanic to hit the silver screen? We’ll have to venture deep into the realm of silent cinema, years before the advent of talkies and even years before the first World War. The first movie to capture the horrors of that fateful April night in the cold claws of the North Atlantic was called Saved From The Titanic. It was released on May 14, 1912. Twenty-nine days after the ship sank.

The story of this lost classic begins and ends with the beautiful and talented Dorothy Gibson, a singer, dancer, Broadway performer and one of the first ladies of silent cinema to earn top billing as a genuine star. She was a natural comedic actress, working briefly at Lubin Studios but getting her big break with the American branch of Éclair Studios, which was based out of Paris. In the early spring of 1912, Dorothy took a six-week holiday with her mother in Italy. She was booked to sail home aboard – what else? – the Titanic.

Dorothy and her mother – both of whom had been up late playing bridge – were awake when the Titanic became intimate with that iceberg (or whatever actually happened – I’ve been over the conspiracy theories already). Along with the other bridge players they raced to lifeboat #7, which was the first to be lowered into the water at 12:40am, one hour after the collision. For almost six hours Dorothy Gibson bobbed through the waves, watching the unsinkable vessel’s final descent into the shadowy brine and listening to the desperate and doomed souls, fighting fruitlessly against hypothermia and/or drowning. Dorothy’s mind slipped off its axis; she was heard muttering “I’ll never ride in my little grey car again” over and over.

Jules Brulatour, a successful movie producer with Éclair and (coincidentally?) Dorothy’s lover, heard of the disaster and immediately dispatched a fleet of tugboats dotted with cameramen to New York to capture the return to port of the RMS Carpathia, the ship which had rescued a heap of Titanic survivors. He stitched together his footage along with a few shots of the Titanic’s official launch, some old clips of Captain Edward Smith aboard the RMS Olympic, and some stock footage of icebergs. The newsreel was rocketed around the country in less than a week. People were buying tickets to movie houses just to see the footage.

This gave Jules an idea – why not throw together an actual film of the disaster? After all, he had the Carpathia footage, he had a top-notch studio at his disposal in Fort Lee, New Jersey (the pre-Hollywood Hollywood), and he also had a girlfriend who had actually been there, and who could provide details that no other screenwriter could possess. Whether Dorothy was persuaded to participate in the picture out of tribute to the lost souls who perished that night or because it would be a huge career boost, we’ll never really know.

The production was filmed at Éclair Studios and also aboard an abandoned transport vessel in New York Harbor. It took only a week to shoot, and the studio insisted on racing through the editing and processing stages so the film could land in theaters as quickly as possible. This was before the era of the feature film, so the entirety of Saved From The Titanic fit onto a single reel – it was only ten minutes long.

Dorothy Gibson starred as “Miss Dorothy”, a fictionalized version of herself. Miss Dorothy is shown arriving aboard the Carpathia and meeting her mother, father and fiancé. She tells the story of the sinking in flashback, after which the mother pleads with her fiancé to quit the US Navy, as the sea is simply too dangerous. The fiancé asserts his patriotism and the film fades to black. The lesson here is yes, people died and it was a tragedy… but AMERICA!

Kind of brings a tear, don’t it?

Dorothy, who was said to have burst into tears several times throughout the film’s production, added to the realism by donning the same dress and overcoat she’d been wearing on the night of her rescue. I’m no psychologist, but it seems that reliving an unfathomable tragedy immediately after having experienced it – even wearing the same clothes – is not an advisable route to mental recovery. Critics picked up on the look of shock and devastation on Dorothy’s face throughout the movie. She probably didn’t have to do much actual acting.

The movie was released worldwide on May 14, 1912, less than a month after the events that inspired it. Motion Picture World praised the film and in particular the braveness of Dorothy’s performance. Éclair made a point of emphasizing the actress’s actual participation in the disaster, and promoted the authenticity her involvement had provided. The New York Dramatic Mirror was less kind with their review, finding it “revolting” that Éclair – and Dorothy herself – would capitalize on the worst maritime disaster in history.

This sounds about right. Had there been a 9/11 movie released within a month of the atrocities of 2001, most of us would have been disgusted, but ticket sales would have nevertheless been through the roof.

Unfortunately, a 1914 fire at Éclair Studios destroyed the only known prints of Saved From The Titanic. All that remains are a handful of production stills and the movie’s dubious legacy of questionable taste. For Dorothy, making the film plummeted her fragile sanity into a frothing crisis. She retired from movies immediately after the film’s release, and despite being neck and neck with Mary Pickford as one of the two highest-paid actresses on the planet, she never made another movie again. She returned to stage work, and eventually moved to Paris, then to Italy, where she became an alleged intelligence operative and Nazi sympathizer.

Éclair eventually shifted their focus from movie-making to camera-making (the makers of the Woodstock film used Éclair cameras), but they found their curious niche in cinematic legend with this film. Was it a good movie? No one who has seen it is alive to say. Was it in poor taste? Perhaps. But at least it didn’t feature that deplorable Celine Dion tune. So that’s something.

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