DATELINE: Connections to the Past?
Father & Son Face Fate on Titanic (1953 version).
The 1953 version of Titanic and re-telling of the horrific night that is unforgettable and must be remembered was pure Hollywood spectacle. It had an all-star cast, and it ended with masterful special effects for its age. It had to be a black and white movie to heighten its impact literally with the iceberg and figuratively with the horror.
The central family of the movie plot bears a startling resemblance to the real family that became subject of my biographical history, Tales of a Titanic Family.
Rich Americans, the father is a prig played by Clifton Webb, and his stunning wife is Barbara Stanwyck. They have two children, the younger a boy (Harper Carter) at odds with his father. Their mettle would be tested by an iceberg.
So, not having seen the movie in dozens of years, we were not prepared entirely for what other coincidences and frightful similarities might turn up. The theory did not take long to prove itself.
The 1953 movie was released in April, on the 41st anniversary week of the Titanic’s sinking. Almost immediately upon introducing the mother figure in the movie, played by Barbara Stanwyck, she was identified as Julia. This stunned me a bit, as Julia was indeed the name of Richard White’s grandmother, and the name of his aunt, his father’s sister (His father died with him on Titanic).
Then, Clifton Webb showed up as the father: his name, of course, was Richard Sturges.
They have two children also on board the ship. The elder here is a daughter, and the younger son is only about 14. However, in a key moment, Stanwyck recites the A.E. Housman poem, “When I was one and twenty,” about fate. Richard was 21 when he was aboard the ill-fated ship.
Clifton Webb cannot buy a ticket in first-class because it is all sold out: which wasn’t true. White Star Lines tried to give away cabins that remained empty.
Though he was a world traveler, a man among many New York millionaires. Clifton Webb’s character has greetings for all his friends, from Guggenheim to Strauss to Astor.
Robert Wagner played a 21-year old college man from Purdue. He is a Richard White stand-in.
Among the delightful actors in this film are Richard Basehart as a defrocked priest, and there is also Thelma Ritter as the hard-talking, unsinkable Molly Brown. Brian Aherne seems to be ship’s captain in every movie version. Director Jean Negulesco is adept at weaving together an hour of soapish stories before the heavy business of sinking the liner.
In a key moment Barbara Stanwyck tells her husband that their second child is not his. They plan to divide up the spoils, each child going with one parent. It is a haunting parallel to the real family.
The final minutes of the ice-berg’s damage and sinking of the ship is done quickly and without any noticeable panic among the men left without lifeboats. They are all gentlemen, singing as the ship seems to blow up and rapidly spirals into oblivion.
There is no bad behavior, or messy deaths, as occurred in real life. We think the smoke stack fell from the ship and onto those who jumped off the ship, like Richard White. The unbilled narrator at the end of the movie is Michael Rennie.
Seeing this version of the story seemed to be fitting, as it became tailored to Richard White’s actual life experience. Watching was not easier, and not pleasant, no matter how purified the events. Richard apparently jumped off the ship, like Wagner’s character. Richard may not have been his father’s son, and Richard haunts this writer.
The ghost of Richard Frazar White brought me face-to-face with Robert Wagner a dozen years ago—and only now do I know why.