April 15 marked the anniversary of one of history’s most infamous maritime disasters: the sinking of the Titanic. As anyone who is a) alive, and b) awake knows, this disaster has been the focus of quite a few films, from James Cameron’s (first) record-breaking 1997 blockbuster to A Night to Remember (1958). It’s even been the setting of a staggeringly crappy animated movie, Titanic: The Legend Goes On (2000). (You may want to wash your eyes with holy water after seeing a few clips. It stinks worse than nitrate rot. It rips off so many Disney movies that Charlie Chaplin imitator Charlie Aplin would shout “By the gods, have you no shame?!”)
But there’s one film that holds the crown of being the very first to set the plot at the Titanic disaster. You could even call it the first fictional film to basically capitalize on it: Saved From The Titanic, which was released a mere month after the ship touched the bottom of the frigid Atlantic.
Yes, a month. Here’s the backstory:
Back in April 1912, news of the Titanic disaster hit newsstands like a thunderbolt. People the world over were shocked and grieved. In the days after the sinking the papers released report after report of the passengers thought to have survived and those confirmed to have died.
The motion picture industry wasn’t unscathed. Three of Titanic’s victims included filmmaker William H. Harbeck, who had once filmed the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake; D.W. Martin, the recently married son of Biograph Company president Henry N. Marvin (his young wife was among the rescued); and Pathé’s cameraman Noel Malachard, who as Motography reported: “was assigned to take films of the first trip; was reported saved, but never showed up.”
One fortunate picture industry-related person who really was saved was young actress Dorothy Gibson, of the Éclair Moving Picture Company. Gibson was a former vaudevillian and theater actress who was known as “The Original Harrison Fisher Girl.” Commercial artist Fisher used her frequently as a model, and her face had adorned everything from Ladies Home Journal to postcards. At the time she was becoming one of the highest-paid actresses in films.
Gibson had been returning from a two-month trip with her mother in Europe. On the night of the sinking they had just happened to stay up late playing bridge whist, and were able to get into a lifeboat right away–in fact, they were on no. 7, the very first one launched. Gibson was said to have grown hysterical as people around them met their fates in the icy water, repeating over and over, “I’ll never ride in my little grey car again.”
The April 27, 1912 issue of The Moving Picture News featured an (exclusive) interview with Gibson, who described her haunting experiences:
At this time, over 80 years before a twinkle started to appear in James Cameron’s eye, movie theaters were showing all things Titanic: newsreels of the ship departing on its maiden voyage, footage of its survivors, slideshows of the ship and its interior, etc. Cameraman raced to get the best footage they could of anything pertaining to the disaster. Warner’s Feature Film Company snapped up the rights to a short (400 foot) film of Captain Edward J. Smith on board the Olympic—which was in Kinemacolor (a very early color motion picture process).
There were even reports of unscrupulous exhibitors securing footage of other ships and trying to pass them off as the Titanic (such fakes were roundly condemned as being beyond bad taste).
With the public’s interest in the tragedy at its peak (even more so than today), you can imagine what was going through the minds of the higher-ups at the Éclair Motion Picture Company. They had already released an incredibly successful newsreel on the Titanic, and now here they were, with a popular actress under contract who had survived that very disaster. The temptation was obviously far too great.
And thus, Saved From The Titanic was launched (pardon the mild pun).
Gibson signed up to make the film only a few days after exiting the lifeboat, doubtless with some misgivings. The persuasive powers of Éclair producer Jules Brulatour, with whom Gibson was having an affair, maaay have had something to do with it. She was given credit as its co-writer, although this might simply mean that the filmmakers incorporated her memories into the story with her cooperation. It was filmed in Fort Lee, N.Y., and partly on an empty ship in the New York Harbor. Gibson, obviously still traumatized, reportedly burst into tears several times during takes.
If you think about it, despite its uncomfortably close timing this film had the potential to be a moving recount of the ship’s final hours, from an eyewitness whose memory was ridiculously fresh. On all levels the historic importance was simply off the charts–newsreel footage of the ship was worked into the story, and Gibson was even clad in the exact same outfit she was wearing when the Titanic sank! (It was a white silk evening dress with a long cardigan and a polo coat.)
But, Éclair’s 1910s instinct to make a movie movie was far too strong. They added this laborious fictional story: Gibson’s character is to marry Navy ensign Jack once she returns home on the Titanic from studying abroad. Both Jack and Gibson’s parents are looking forward to her arrival when they hear of the ship’s sinking. After some agonized waiting, Gibson is found to be among the rescued. She tells them her harrowing testimony via flashbacks and “faints as she finishes the story.” Her mother tells Jack that he must leave the Navy, since any seafaring-memories are traumatic for Gibson, and her father tells him to choose either his daughter or the sea. Jack talks over this “conflict between love and duty” with his captain, who advises him that an officer should stay with his duties. Jack decides to stick with the Navy, which impresses Gibson’s father. The father then gives Gibson’s hand to a surprised Jack, declaring: “Daughter, here is your husband.”
The film, which was completed in a week, ran about ten minutes long (which was standard for early 1910s movies). While incorporating the literally weeks-old Titanic disaster into a fictional story about military duty seems rather gauche today, it helps to know that it wasn’t uncommon for recent tragedies to show up in films at the time (in 1913, only two weeks after its studio burned to the ground. Thanhouser soberly released a reenactment titled When the Studio Burned). Saved From The Titanic also had the special boost of being the first to have an eyewitness as the star–adding to the film’s credibility.
Of course, the way it was rushed into distribution obviously points to Éclair’s desire to capitalize on the shipwreck (it was also released internationally as A Survivor of the Titanic in the U.K. and Was die Titanic sie lehrte in Germany). There were some positive reviews–The Moving Picture News kindly called it “a very pretty story, and because of the nation-wide interest in Miss Gibson, whose rare beauty is seen more to advantage than ever, this film will be a sensation,” and Moving Picture World even thought: “A surprising and artistically perfect reel has resulted.”
But others didn’t hesitate to point out the inherent poor taste of the film, debuting before the grass had time to grow over the victims’ graves. The New York Dramatic Mirror didn’t hold back:
The bare idea of undertaking to reproduce in a studio, no matter how well equipped, or by re-enacted sea scenes an event of the appalling character of the Titanic disaster, with its 1,600 victims, is revolting, especially at this time when the horrors of the event are so fresh in mind. And that a young woman who came so lately, with her good mother, safely through the distressing scenes can now bring herself to commercialize her good fortune by the grace of God, is past understanding…
In the “Western Correspondent” column of the June 15 issue of The Moving Picture News, the writer was also scathing:
Gibson would appear in only one more film after Saved From the Titanic: Éclair’s Roses and Thorns, released in May 1912, and likely filmed around the time of the Titanic movie. Suffering from a reported nervous breakdown, she then retired from films, supposedly to pursue a career in choral singing (which did work out pretty well for her).
I’m a little sorry that I know the rest of her story: her 6-year affair with Jules Brulatour eventually lead to their 1917 marriage, but it ended a mere two years later when it was declared to be a “legally invalid contract.” Gibson moved to Paris to start anew, and eventually would become a Nazi sympathizer and one of their alleged spies. In 1944 she decided to end her involvement with the Third Reich, but was still jailed as an anti-Fascist agitator. She and two other prisoners managed to escape; however, her freedom was fairly brief. In 1946 she would die of a heart attack at a Paris hotel.
All known prints of Saved From The Titanic perished in a fire at the Éclair studio in 1914. Even most of the stills have been lost–the pictures printed in Moving Picture News and Motion Picture World (reproduced in this humble blog post) are all that we have.
Saved From The Titanic as got to be one of the most tantalizing, historically significant lost films of all time. That one of the most famous tragedies in history would be (somewhat) reenacted on film less than a month after it happened, by one of the actual survivors of that tragedy, while in the clothes worn during said tragedy, is stunning. Only in the silent era, my friends. Only in the silent era.