|Robbie Lucas (John Merrivale) talks to Captain Smith|
One of my favorite scenes displays the limitations of English reserve. John Merivale who plays Robbie Lucas, one of the aristocrats, asks Captain Smith straight out for the truth about the ship’s condition very shortly after they hit the iceberg, assuring him that he isn’t the sort who panics. Then he returns to his cabin and informs his wife quietly that she has to wake their young children and get them ready for the lifeboats. He insists that she can’t remain with him and assures her that he’ll be along later, though the look they exchange belies his words. He’s cheerful as he bids her and his two little girls goodbye, but he holds onto his son – who has fallen asleep in his arms – for a moment longer, kissing him and murmuring an endearment. This is the only scene in the movie, I believe, that encompasses anything like conventional sentiment, and because it’s unique and plays against the held-in-check emotion of every other scene (including Robbie’s other scenes), of course it doesn’t feel conventional at all (or sentimental).
Cameron’s Titanic whipped up a lot of nonsense about class, inventing a working-class hero (Leonardo DiCaprio) to steal the heroine (Kate Winslet) away from her sneering, underhanded aristocratic fiancé (Billy Zane). It’s the most offensive item in the movie because so many of the wealthy on board the ship behaved courageously and unselfishly. Baker and Ambler’s class commentary is subtle, authentic, and far more revealing. In one scene (before most people on board realize the direness of the situation) some steerage passengers from Belfast play street hockey with slabs of ice while a couple from first class watches from above, he with envy at the fun they appear to be having. (He wants to join in, but his wife won’t permit him to mix with the working class.) When the lifeboats are being filled one of the stewards keeps the steerage passengers below, but some of the Irish break away and sneak up, suddenly finding themselves in the ballroom. “First class!” one of the women whispers, and they linger for a moment, awestruck at this illicit glimpse of a life they’ve only imagined. At the other end of the spectrum is Molly Brown (Tucker McGuire), the low-born American who climbed effortlessly into the upper class when her husband struck gold but retained her western rural unpretentiousness all her life. It’s she who offers to help out the seamen in her lifeboat by picking up an oar (and volunteering other women in the boat to help) and she who is resolute that they turn around and steer closer to the tipping ship so that they can pack the tiny space with more survivors. It’s an inspiriting moment. All told, A Night to Remember makes you feel pretty good about humanity.
– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review, The Boston Phoenix and The Christian Century and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.