Wednesday, April 11, 2012

A Boyhood atop Collapsible D or The Revenge of the Titanic

I first encountered Walter Lord's marvelous book "A Night to Remember" when I found an abandoned paperback copy of it atop a coat rack at the Old Brackett School in (Romantic) Arlington when I was in the Fourth Grade or so.
Despite a boyhood that was rapidly spiraling downward into defeat and obscurity, I remained a precocious reader, so the Titanic's story of epic futile catastrophe really resonated with me.
Shit I was a bound over on the same trip, I could grasp that right away...
Now when it came time for some pre-cyberspace cultural synergy, I had to wait around until Channel 56 re-ran the 1958 film adaptation (in glorious black and white which registered so sharply on the old portable black and white TV set in my parent's bedroom)...For once a good movie and good book got together in holy matrimony and there I was, bearing the ring on a little red cushion.
There are certain incidents from history that we revisit time and again, because of their natural tragic drama, because of the lessons we affect to extract from them or because we like to feel humbled by "Big Events".
The whole Titanic phenom has all of that in spades, it is Man and his Machines versus Melville's Inscrutable Malevolent Nature, and of course, Nature clears the boards.
Walter Lord would have us think that the RMS Titanic was the breaking point between the old and new order, Captain John Smith taking her straight to the bottom, Herbert Lightoller going down with the ship and living to the tale, Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon and his spouse floating off to safety in what amounted to their own private lifeboat.
Aiyee, there are a lot of old and new tropes to that story...a vertiable cozy lace trimmed Steampunk Apocalypse (Think about it, a 35,000 ton luxury liner depending on two sets of eyes and no binoculars to navigate an icefield at night...Jules Verne couldn't have done better!)
So this is powerful stuff, even if all the current hype seems like....well...annoying hype.
Shee-it, The Titanic spawned the first "Instant Movie" "Saved from the Titanic" (1912) starring Dorothy Gibson a real life survivor of the disaster who happened to be an actress mercenary enough to be the first extract boffo box office from the tragedy.
The Nazis saw fit to create a big budget propaganda epic out of the story, "Titanic" (1943) which gets in the usual cracks at "British Plutocrats" and features an entirely fictional virtuous German Officer to the storyline. The film only played in markets outside Germany though, Dr, Goebbels abruptly decided that a downbeat movie about ship sinking was too stark a reminder of the Nazi regime's long term prospects.
Of course after World War II the Titanic finally rose from the depths and came into here own, Walter Lord's book was published, Fox released "Titanic" (1953) in which the great liner goes under soap suds while Barbara Stanwyck and Clifton Webb torment each other with brio & Robert Wagner sings "The Navaho Rag".
Of the lot, including James Cameron's super epic, I still like "A Night to Remember" (1958) best, it packs a great emotional punch, doesn't back off the class element and features a fine performance by Kenneth More as Fifth Office Lightoller...I liked it as a kid and I like it now.
Most people forget though that the book was first adapted as live television play in 1956 on the "Kraft Television Theater" and a veryu good adaptation it was as well featuring narration from Claude Rains no less.
Channel Zero always wanted to screen the kinescope but was hamstrung by the unavailability of a good copy and the sure knowledge that a third of the aud would show up expecting Kenneth More and Honor Blackman.

Well, that is our inbound iceberg isn't it?

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