Friday, December 26, 2008

The Two Titanics, Hollywood Then and Now

Films ain't what they used to be.

I recently watched the 1953 tragic film Titanic with Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck. It was superior to the 1997 version in one important respect. It briefly soared, rather than merely sank.

I enjoyed the more recent blockbuster. It was made at a time when I could still stand to listen to Leo DiCaprio, before he advertised his Green-ness 24/7. Also, Kate Winslet was fresh off the stunning Sense and Sensibility and a fine Hamlet, two standouts from a career that favors the kind of murk passing for a serious film these days. It also had an engaging, albeit lightweight, love story. Of course, the special effects were spectacular, ground-breaking.

Technically, the 1953 version couldn't come close (although, for the time, it wasn't bad). The acting, it'll come as no surprise, was head and shoulders above the newer model, though. No one ever did arrogance better than Mr. Webb or Miss Stanwyck.

But what's most notable is how different are the approaches of the two screenplays during the sinking. The earlier film focuses on the heroism, the contemporary one, the horror. That difference encapsulates the contrast between the two eras, and points up starkly everything wrong with our current one.

In the 1953 Titanic, for example, the cold-hearted Webb melts as the ice nears and the young lover (Robert Wagner) survives while the male passengers stand calmly on deck singing a hymn. In the newer film, DiCaprio's character dies needlessly as thousands of panicked passengers jump to their icy doom like fleeing rats.

Saving Private Ryan is another good example. Even though it had some good aspects, the focus of the opening is on the horror, the bloodshed, the chaos, and the overwhelming fear of the D-Day landings. By contrast, very sharp contrast, the ending of D-Day the Sixth of June (1956, with Robert Taylor and Joan Collins) focused on the extraordinary achievement (tacked on to what is otherwise a pleasant period love story).

Perhaps the best example is The End of the Affair, 1955 and 1999. Both are faithful adaptations of Graeham Greene's dreary novel of the same title. Both star superbly talented actors. Both are well directed. Yet, the earlier one manages, even while dolling out plenty of the frustration inherent in the story, to give you something to cheer. The newer one is pure depression from start to finish.

In each case, the filmmakers convey their contrasting views of life. It's much more than just the difference between a happy ending or not. None of these three have happy endings (nor beginnings, nor middles). It's the difference between projecting a world in which happiness is possible through pluck, versus a temporary escape from pain as a lucky accident. In the case of the older films, we see a world where, even in tragic circumstances, people strive for dignity and important values. In the newer versions, the struggle is for sheer animal survival in a world set against us, or where we have little choice or reason to hope.

Hollywood today is different night and day, or more accurately sunshine and muck; that's been pointed out many times before. There's no such thing as Tinsletown anymore -- even in rusted form. The problem is the philosophy, or lack of it, of the anti-human producers and filmmakers who wield authority there now. Daryl Zanuck (20th Century Fox), Harry Cohn (Columbia), and Jack Warner (Warner Brothers) all had a taste for darker films, many of them outstanding. But nothing they ever green lighted comes close to the senseless grim or silly dreck given a hundred million bucks without thinking about the odds of a return nowadays.

That's more than a sad ending. It's tragic.

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