Top Ten Titanic Toe-Tappers no. 6: The Titanic, or, It was sad (it was sad)

Number six in my Top Ten Titanic Toe-Tappers is probably the best known of them all. It’s that staple of a thousand scout camps, the song that tells how “It was sad when that great ship went down”.

Click on the audio player above to hear Ernest V. Stoneman perform it in 1924, as released under the simple title The Titanic. Although this was the first known recording of the song, an early version of the lyrics is said to have been circulating as sheet music within a week of the disaster.

Stoneman, a bluegrass musician from Virginia who accompanied himself on autoharp and harmonica, is reported to have sold over a million copies. It has to be conceded that, like many of those who have sung these words over the past century – or like many of the scouts, at any rate – he doesn’t actually sound all that sad about the tragedy.

Click on the second audio player above, and you’ll hear a much wilder blues version, cut three years later in 1927, by William and Versey Smith, under the more familiar title of When That Great Ship Went Down. A husband and wife duo, they’re thought to have come from Texas. William was a gospel singer in a similar vein to Blind Willie Johnson; Versey accompanies him on the washboard, while also banging various other household implements she seems to have had to hand.

The Ernest Stoneman recording comes from the excellent compilation People Take Warning, available on Amazon and iTunes.

The William and Versey Smith track is from the more diverse but equally interesting box set Never Let The Same Bee Sting You Twice, also available on Amazon and iTunes.

To listen to the previous selections in my Titanic Top Ten, click here.

Julian Fellowes’ Titanic – the Blogtanic preview

I went last night to a BAFTA preview, at the BFI, of the first two episodes of Julian Fellowes’ four-part Titanic TV series. Attended by many of the cast and crew, it was followed by a panel discussion featuring Fellowes himself.

In their quest to find a fresh way to re-tell the familiar tale, Fellowes and his producers have squared up to the crucial issue that audiences feel they already know the story – and they certainly know the Titanic is going to sink. As Fellowes put it in the Q&A, rather than have three episodes of characters worrying about their marriages and their mortgages, followed by one devoted to the actual disaster, they’ve decided to show the climax in every episode. That means we get to see the ship sink not once, but four times.

It’s a daring move, particularly in terms of episode 1, when the Titanic crashes into the iceberg before we’ve had time to get to know, or care about, the characters. Our first sight of the collision, and the loading of the lifeboats, seems strangely flat, and there has to be a chance some viewers will give up after the first episode. As the series unfolds, however,  each subsequent episode throws new light on the scenes we’ve seen before, repeatedly showing the same incidents from different perspectives.

The idea of the Titanic as a microcosm of the Edwardian world is hardly new, and yes, some of the emblematic figures whom Fellowes has placed aboard the great ship may seem familiar from his previous work. The flawed-but-decent Lord Manton, for example, is strongly reminiscent of the Earl of Grantham from Downton Abbey, while the various servants might have stepped straight out of Gosford Park. Fellowes’ deft touch at revealing their thoughts and motivations, however, from the millionaires in first class down to the impoverished emigrants in steerage and the grimy stokers in the boiler rooms, makes for compelling viewing.

Fellowes’ fictional characters share deck space with many of the Titanic’s real-life passengers and crew. His fellow “Titanoraks” will be fascinated to see his take on certain enduring controversies. Here, for example, it’s Captain Smith, rather than the usual villain J. Bruce Ismay, who dices with death by racing the Titanic ever faster towards the ice field.

While the fates of the genuine historical figures have long since been cast, the lives of the invented characters remain poised in the balance until the fourth and final episode. According to Fellowes, he didn’t decide who would live and who would die until he’d already written the first three instalments. I’m looking forward to finding out who makes it  – if I had to guess, though, it’s not looking good for some of those plucky steerage passengers.

The series is being broadcast in Canada from today onwards, and starts in the UK on Sunday March 25.

All text on Blogtanic © Greg Ward

The 1912 Titanic movie riots

I was very proud this week to contribute a guest post to the consistently wonderful Silent London blog.

My post describes the riots that broke out in three movie theatres in Bayonne, New Jersey, on April 26, 1912 – that is, just 11 days after the Titanic sank. The theatres had advertised that they were going to show “sensational” moving images of the disaster. The local police chief, knowing no such footage existed, forbade the showings to go ahead. And the audiences rioted…

To read the full story, on Silent London, click here.

And if you’re wondering how I came across this snippet, it was when I was researching my post So what SHOULD you do with the deckchairs on the Titanic? Hoping to find eyewitness reports of Baker Charles Joughin’s activities, I searched for newspaper stories from 1912 that mentioned “Titanic chairs” – and found this instead.

The astonishing true story of the “Nazi Titanic”

The compelling TV documentary Nazi Titanic: Revealed tells the amazing story of the 1943 Titanic movie, made in Nazi Germany. Not only was its director arrested and driven to suicide during the shoot, but the real-life ship that doubled as the Titanic met her own grisly end just two years later, claiming three times as many victims as the Titanic herself.

Commissioned by propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, the film calls the Titanic disaster “an eternal condemnation of England’s quest for profit”. It centres on the struggle between “Sir Bruce Ismay” and John Jacob Astor – depicted as an Englishman – for control of the White Star Line, which is in financial trouble due to the cost of building “the first unsinkable ship in the world”. Boasting that the Titanic will capture the Blue Riband for the fastest-ever Atlantic crossing, Ismay promises Captain Smith $1000 for every hour he’s ahead of schedule when he reaches New York.

As well as the usual fictitious passengers, from decadent English gentry to young lovers in steerage, the film also features an invented crew member, the young German officer Petersen. Very much the conscience of the piece, Petersen repeatedly warns Ismay that the Titanic is sailing too fast, with too few lifeboats, into an ice zone. When the inevitable happens, both Ismay and Astor try and fail to buy their way onto a lifeboat, but Petersen helps Ismay to escape anyway, so he can be held accountable for his actions. Petersen too is rescued, after he swims out to a lifeboat carrying a little girl. The two men have a final confrontation at the subsequent inquiry, only for Ismay to be exonerated, and all blame placed on Captain Smith.

Incidental moments en route include a girl rejecting her parents to follow the man she loves; a debauched dance in the third-class dining room; and even, as in James Cameron’s Titanic, a jewel thief being rescued from the ship’s jail by the judicious use of an axe.

Click to buy from Amazon.com

The climactic scenes were filmed aboard the Cap Ancona, a liner requisitioned by the German navy. After director Herbert Selpin complained about the behaviour of the ship’s real-life German officers, his co-writer denounced him to the Gestapo. Within 24 hours Selpin had been interrogated by Goebbels himself, and found hanged in his cells.

The Cap Arcona also met with catastrophe; she was sunk by British fighter planes the day before the war ended. Five thousand concentration camp inmates, who were being shipped to an unknown destination, lost their lives.

The so-called “Nazi Titanic” will be shown at the NFT2, BFI Southbank, on April 18 at 6.20pm, and April 25 at 8.30pm.


S.O.S. – The Titanic Centenary at the BFI

Here’s the full schedule for the Titanic season organised by the British Film Institute.

March 20 6.20pm NFT1, BFI Southbank

Titanic (TV miniseries, 2012)

A special preview screening of episode 1 of Julian Fellowes’ eagerly awaited four-part miniseries, plus a Q&A session featuring Fellowes, director Jon Jones, producers Nigel Stafford-Clark and Simon Vaughan, and cast members.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

April 5 onwards BFI Imax

James Cameron’s Titanic  (USA, 2012)

The new 3D version of James Cameron’s 1997 blockbuster.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

April 11 6.20pm NFT3, BFI Southbank

Hitchcock’s Titanic Project

A talk by Professor Charles Barr. Alfred Hitchcock was originally scheduled to make his Hollywood directorial debut with a Titanic movie in 1939. He called it a “marvellously dramatic subject for a motion picture”, but the film was never made. Professor Barr will show a sequence edited from his other work to illustrate how it might have looked.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

April 11 8.40pm NFT3, BFI Southbank, and April 15 4pm NFT2, BFI Southbank

Atlantic (UK, 1929)

The first talkie to tell the Titanic story – albeit, thanks to pressure from the White Star Line, under a different name – was based on Ernest Raymond’s play, The Berg.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

April 13–28 times vary NFT3 & Studio, BFI Southbank

April 16 8.20pm NFT2, BFI Southbank; special showing with introduction

A Night To Remember  (UK, 1958)

More of a docudrama than a conventional narrative, the affecting and beautifully made movie version of Walter Lord’s bestselling book stars Kenneth More as its stern-jawed hero, Second Officer Charles Lightoller.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

April 18 6.20pm NFT2, BFI Southbank, and April 25 8.30pm NFT2, BFI Southbank

In Nacht und Eis (Germany, 1912) and Titanic  (Germany, 1943)

By the time the dramatic silent In Nacht Und Eis was released in August 1912, footage of icebergs and the Titanic were so familiar that the trade papers were already saying “they don’t attract audiences any more”. As for the so-called “Nazi Titanic”, it’s a fascinating propaganda piece, commissioned by Josef Goebbels, which calls the disaster “an eternal condemnation of England’s quest for profit”.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

April 24 8.40pm NFT2, BFI Southbank, and April 28 6.40pm NFT2, BFI Southbank

Titanic  (USA, 1953)

Romance and redemption against the backdrop of appalling maritime disaster. The young Robert Wagner falls for Audrey Dalton, and estranged couple Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck face the prospect of separating forever – and that’s before the iceberg intervenes.

Naming the Titanic – or now playing: James Cameron’s Cedric

This photo shows the Titanic and her sister ship, the Olympic, under construction at Belfast’s Harland & Wolff shipyards in 1910.

The White Star Line first announced the names of the two ships on 22 April 1908. The impetus for naming the Olympic seems obvious – it was just five days until the opening ceremony of the 1908 Olympic Games in London.

In fact, the name officially referred to the Greek gods of Mount Olympus – the pantheon of Zeus, Hera, Aphrodite, and so on. In Greek myth, those gods came to power by subduing the mighty immortal Titans, who had ruled in the preceding Golden Age. Hence the name Titanic.

The Olympic and the Titanic also had a younger sister, work on which had barely started when the Titanic went down. Despite subsequent denials, historians generally agree that this third ship was originally destined to be called the Gigantic – in Greek mythology, the Giants, or Gigantes, were yet another race of gods, who staged a revolt against the Olympic gods in the hope of reinstating the Titans.

The name Gigantic was quietly dropped after the disaster. In 1914, with jingoism seeming a better bet than hubris, the third ship was launched as the Britannic.

Every White Star ship, incidentally, was given a name ending in –ic, whereas the ships of their big rivals Cunard ended in –ia; thus Mauretania, Lusitania and so on. Previous White Star vessels had included the Traffic, the Magnetic, and the Arabic.

When RMS Cedric was launched in 1903, she was, like the later Titanic, the largest ship in the world.

You have to wonder whether the sinking of the Titanic would be quite so well remembered had disaster befallen the Cedric instead. Does James Cameron’s Cedric in 3D have quite the same ring?

The Titanic’s (very) big sister, filmed in 1910

This remarkable footage, from the BFI archive channel on YouTube, shows the construction of the Titanic’s “older sister”, the Olympic, in 1910.

The Olympic and the Titanic were built side by side in the same enormous gantry at Belfast’s Harland & Wolff shipyards, surmounted by 214-foot cranes. Fifteen thousand men worked on the two ships; up to eight of them are thought to have lost their lives.

For the initial overhead sequence here, the camera must have been somewhere near the top.  Sadly, when it moved down to ground level, the operator resisted panning far enough over to reveal the Titanic, which must have been already taking shape.

The Olympic was eventually launched later that year, on October 20, and set off on the first leg of her maiden voyage on May 31, 1911, the same day that the Titanic was launched. Although the Titanic was subsequently modified to provide extra passenger comforts, the two ships were all but identical.

Historians seeking to debunk the myth that the Titanic was considered “unsinkable” thus point to the fact that there’s no record of anyone making similar claims about the Olympic.

Many thanks to Simon McCallum at the BFI for inviting me to post the clip on Blogtanic.