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Posted at 09:29 AM ET, 04/10/2012

Women on the Titanic, real and imagined

One hundred years ago, at 2:20 a.m. on April 15, the Titanic sank.

I just went to see the Imax 3-D re-release of the 1997 film “Titanic” despite my misgivings. Some believe that post-production 3-D is little
Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in a scene from the 3-D version of James Cameron’s romantic epic "Titanic." (AP - AP)
more than a marketing gimmick that does not enhance the film.

I was not a big fan of the regular “Titanic.” As always, the unmiscastable Kate Winslet was glorious, and Leonard DiCaprio wasn't bad himself. But in a way, that was part of the problem. "Titanic" is neither fish nor fowl.

Washington Post writer Ann Hornaday recently called the film a “hackneyed pastiche” with "caricatured villains and melodramatic hokum." She's not wrong.

The cheesy dialogue, cardboard characters and silly narrative might have earned the film a place of honor in the “craptacular” category of disaster films (“Poseidon Adventure,” “Towering Inferno,” and just about every volcano or earthquake movie ever made) were it not for stars Winslet and DiCaprio and the special effects in the film's second half.

It's clear that Cameron loves the Titanic. I've been reading about this ship since I was 12 years old, and I know a fellow buff when I see one. Cameron went to the trouble of recreating a famous picture of a boy spinning a top on the deck of the Titanic taken by aspiring priest and amateur photographer Francis Browne. 

The “I'm flying!” scene of Winslet at the Titanic’s bow is a nod to the evocative Women's Titanic Memorial, unveiled in 1931 and dedicated to the men who "gave their lives that women and children might be saved." 

Which brings me to: Wasn't the real story of the Titanic dramatic enough without inventing a preposterous love triangle?

On the real ship was the Allison family of Montreal, who refused to get into a lifeboat without their baby. Unbeknownst to the Allisons, the nurse had taken the baby to a lifeboat. Father, mother and little two-year-old Lorraine went down with the ship.

On the real ship, men literally tore women from their husbands and threw wives into lifeboats. Charlotte Collyer kicked to get free, but her husband yelled, “I'll get a seat on another boat.” (He did not.)

On the real ship, a young couple was seated on the Promenade Deck. When an officer asked if he could put the girl in a boat, she replied, “Not on your life. We started together, and, if need be, we'll finish together.”

On the real ship, Edith Evans gave up her seat in the last lifeboat to another woman just 15 minutes before the ship sank. “You go first. You have children waiting at home.” Evans, age 36, died that night.

Instead of those people, the filmmakers brought in a feisty grandma from central casting, and saddled the young Rose (Winslet) with a manipulative, gold-digging mother and a reptilian upper-crust beau. He happens to be a violent psychopath (with an even more psychopathic manservant in tow) so it's not a huge surprise that Rose ultimately rejects him for the dashing but penniless Jack (DiCaprio).


A child's shoes believed to be from the body of an unknown boy and recovered by the crew of the Mackay-Bennett, a cable-laying ship chartered by the White Star Line after the Titanic disaster, in the Maritime Museum of the Atlantic in Halifax. (PAUL DARROW - REUTERS)
Our hearts will go on. Or maybe not, depending on how the lifeboat situation shakes out.

Some first-class men were saved, but many third-class women and children drowned. Sometimes survival depended on which side of the ship a passenger mustered. On the starboard side of the ship, the policy was women and children first, but on the port side, it was women and children only.

The statistics are grim: 53 percent of first-class passengers survived, compared to 22 percent of those traveling third class.

The first time I saw “Titanic,” I thought it a stretch to depict a woman getting out of a lifeboat for a man she’d just met. But on the real ship, there was a woman who, like the fictional Rose, attempted to do just that. Celiney Yazbeck cried and tried to rejoin her husband on deck when she realized he could not go with her.

While a husband is different from a brand-new boyfriend, Yazbeck was only 15 years old. Her marriage was hardly the long-term union represented by 63-year-old Rosalie Ida Straus, who said, “I've always stayed with my husband. So why should I leave him now?” 

The way the love story in “Titanic” played out, Rose no doubt felt like a young bride. One of the things I liked about the movie was the portrayal of the more progressive Edwardian times. It's hard to believe that the Victorian era was just a few years prior.

By the end of “Titanic,” Rose credits Jack with saving her life in more ways than one. We see photographs of her on horseback and wearing pilot’s goggles. She apparently embraced her second chance at life.

This was no retrospective political correctness. In 1912, women were coming into their own -- joining unions, participating in strikes and fighting for the right to vote

There was even some talk of postponing the 1912 suffrage parade on Fifth Avenue, held on May 6, less than a month after the Titanic sank. Some thought it unseemly in view of all the Titanic men who'd just sacrificed their lives. But the parade went on as scheduled, attracting 15,000 marchers.

“You Go and I'll Stay a While” is a chapter title in Walter Lord's classic book “A Night to Remember.” Those were the words spoken by 18-year-old Daniel Marvin to his wife Mary as she entered a lifeboat. They were on their honeymoon.

Marvin appeared again in a later chapter, “Go Away--We Have Just Seen Our Husbands Drown.” Lord tells the story of the mothers of the bride and groom going together to the office of the White Star Line to see the survivor list. The mother of the bride “gave a happy little yelp when she spied the name ‘Mrs. Daniel Marvin,’ then managed to stifle it when she saw no ‘Mr.’ listed beside it.”

Many Titanic books have been published since Lord's slender volume appeared in 1955, but none have bested it. Except for a fictionalized Hollywood film released in 1953, the Titanic was almost forgotten by the 1950s, overshadowed by the Great Depression and the horrors of World War I and II.

Walter Lord had reason to believe no one but his mother and a few ship enthusiasts would buy his book. But as an advertising copywriter, Lord knew the value of choosing words carefully and building a narrative. He was a stickler for accuracy, and decided to let the facts of the Titanic speak for themselves. A masterpiece of understatement, “A Night to Remember” became an instant bestseller.

Lord could not remember a time when he was not interested in the Titanic. As a boy, he talked his family into taking him on the Titanic's sister ship, the Olympic. The author served as a consultant on the 1997 film.

I don't know what he thought of the script or characters, but I can't imagine he was anything but awestruck by the depiction of the sinking itself. Special effects have come a long way since 1958, the year the British film of Lord’s book came out.

I must have been 12 years old when I first read “A Night to Remember,” a book my father had liked because of the irony and “what-ifs” inherent in the Titanic story. I wasn't sure what my father meant, but I soon learned. Every anecdote was interrupted by me checking the survivor list in the back of the book. Oh, he lived! Oh, she died!

Growing up in a Dallas suburb, what does one little girl know of the capricious nature of the sea? Of life and death and chance? What did I know of women's history? I was taught dates and names of kings and countries, and certainly the names of all the Texas heroes, but of ordinary women who'd lived and died, I knew virtually nothing.

Other big passenger ships have met with tragic ends. The Lusitania. The Empress of Ireland. But they never caught the public imagination in quite the same way.

On the Titanic we see a microcosm of a rigid class and gender system that was slowly giving way to a Jazz Age. Women were taking chances like never before, immigrating to America, becoming cowgirls out West or living the artist life in New York or Chicago. And, yes, piloting airplanes.

It's unlikely that the Titanic will ever return to its former (relative) obscurity, what with the discovery of the wreck in 1985 and the recent opening of a huge museum in Belfast, where the Titanic was built.

And then there's Cameron’s 1997 movie, which became a box-office hit, especially with romantic teenaged girls.

As for the re-release, I say “meh” to both the 3-D and Imax. This time around the cliches seemed more egregious. (Poor people are happy, decent, music-lovin' souls. Rich people are vapid, boring pigs, except for nouveau riche like Molly Brown.) The dialogue seemed more contrived. As for the bizarre "heaven" scene at the end, the less said, the better.

God himself couldn't sink this ship? I say: James Cameron himself can't sink this story. It's too powerful. From the dishes crashing on the floor to the huge funnel falling on swimmers, the death throes of the ship were an awesome spectacle in 1997, and still are.

Donna Trussell  is a Texas-born writer living in Kansas City. Follow her on Twitter @donnatrussell.

By Donna Trussell  |  09:29 AM ET, 04/10/2012

Tags:  Titanic, James Cameron, Leonardo DiCaprio, Kate Winslett, Titanic anniversary

 
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