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Thursday, March 26, 2015

A Night to Remember

From the book by Walter Lord, screenplay by Eric Ambler.
One of the most consistently popular items I've posted here over the years has been a piece on James Cameron's blockbuster hit movie, Titanic. That's not surprising in that, for twelve years, Cameron's 1997 film was the highest grossing movie of all time, surpassed only in 2010 by Cameron's Avatar, weighing in at $2.7-billion (that's billion...with a "B"). Titanic was "only" $2.1-billion. No other films have ever surpassed the two-billion-dollar mark in world-wide earnings. Titanic is all the more remarkable in that it was essentially a "remake" of the 1958 British black and white film, A Night to Remember, which was based upon Walter Lord's book by the same title.
The paperback art was a bit more exciting.
First edition cover. The
original art was
rather subdued.
Walter Lord, 1958

Decades ago, while on vacation, I picked up a paperback copy of Alvin Moscow's Collision Course, detailing the sinking of the Italian ocean liner SS Andrea Doria in a collision with the Norwegian liner, MS Stockholm near the foggy mouth of New York Harbor in 1956. That led me to check out Lord's A Night to Remember; and despite the fact both were about tragic shipwrecks, I've been an avid fan of such books and movies, not to mention ships and cruising ever since. Walter Lord's book came out in November of 1955 and was an immediate best-seller (60,000 copies in the first two months). NBC and Kraft Foods first brought the his book to American television in 1956. Then the British movie director William Ward Baker and the Irish producer William MacQuitty came together with Lord, purchasing the film rights to make the movie in 1958. NBC and Kraft had sunk the Titanic for a mere $95,000. It cost the two British filmmakers $1.6-million to send her to the bottom.

The painting artist played a much more important role
in moviemaking in the 1950s than today.
The climactic scene. The lifeboats slip
away, the ship slips under.
Any comparison of Cameron's Titanic and the British A Night to Remember is inherently and grossly unfair. First of all there was forty years between them. The arts and crafts of filmmaking during that time had jumped ahead by leaps and bounds. CGI not only didn't exist in 1958 but could not even have been dreamed of. Special effects were still languishing in the realm of what was then known as "trick photography--reversing images, filming models, mat shots painted on glass, etc. Moreover the $1.6-million mentioned above ($9.3 million in 1997 dollars) couldn't hold a candle to the $200-million Cameron spent (or overspent) to sink his Titanic (half a ship, built full-scale, in a custom made swimming pool). Cameron had an all-star cast of DiCaprio, Winslet, and some of the most expensive supporting talent Hollywood had to offer. Barker and MacQuitty had...well, Kenneth More. And before you say "Kenneth Who?" let me advise you that absolutely none of the cast in the 1958 move were anyone you'd recall today.

Scenes and cast from A Night to Remember.
Perhaps the most unfortunate factor in the making of A Night to Remember came down to the fact it was not shot in color. It could have been. Color was, by 1958, a staple of the filmmaker's art, though far more costly than black and white. However films as late as 1970 were still being shot in black and white, and for the same reason. Color would have elevated a very good effort at capturing the drama and pathos of such a tragic incident to the level of outstanding. As it was, the film was lauded for its historic accuracy (though it was loaded with intentional and unintentional errors) and good to excellent performances. The British have always stood out in that regard. Likewise, Eric Ambler's screenplay, written under the caring, expert guidance of Walter Lord himself, could easily be considered equal to or surpassing that of Titanic, which many critics deemed its weakest element.

Actress Tucker McGuire plays a dazed Margaret (Molly) Brown as she
watches the Titanic go down from the relative safety of a lifeboat.
One of the more fascinating figures consistent with virtually every telling of the sinking of the Titanic is the colorful presence of Mrs. Margaret (Molly) Brown of Unsinkable Molly Brown fame. There's even a striking resemblance between the actress, Tucker McGuire (above), who plays Molly in A Night to Remember and Kathy Bates, who landed the coveted role in Cameron's epic. Of course, neither of them much resemble Debbie Reynolds from the unsinkable hit musical version detailing Molly's Colorado frontier background.

The RMS Titanic as seen in the film, Night to Remember, steaming
at full speed toward her catastrophic rendezvous with a North Atlantic iceberg,
the night of April 14, 1912, with 2,223 passengers and crew on board. Only 706 survived.

Click below to see the trailer for A Night to Remember:


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