Another Night to Remember

April 25, 2012

One hundred years and eleven days ago, the RMS Titanic sank in the North Atlantic, taking 1,514 lives with it.  This month, to commemorate (or compound) the disaster, Twentieth Century-Fox has re-released James Cameron’s bloated epic Titanic in fake 3D.  The Criterion Collection has gotten into the act by debuting Roy Ward Baker’s A Night to Remember (1958), an earlier, more stately film about the famous sinking, on Blu-ray, with a bounty of new extras.

A Night to Remember was based on a best-selling non-fiction account of the Titanic’s demise by Walter Lord – a book that was also staged, with great fanfare, as a live television drama in 1956, some two years before the Baker film was released.  Given its recent habit of licensing live television segments as supplements for its discs (including The Fugitive Kind and 12 Angry Men), one might have expected Criterion to acquire the Kraft Television Theatre version of “A Night to Remember,” too.  For whatever reason, they didn’t – but you can watch it on Youtube.

Semi-forgotten today, Kraft’s “A Night to Remember” was remarked upon at the time as one of the (ahem) high-water marks of live television.  Dramatically taut, the production was also newsworthy for its deliberate pushing of the physical and technical boundaries of the medium.  “A Night to Remember” cost $125,000, slightly more than three times the budget of an average Kraft.  One hundred and seven men and women in period costume filled the mock Titanic, and seventy-two of them had speaking parts.  There were thirty-one sets, some built at skewed angles to simulate the increasing cant of the sinking vessel, others (seen only for a moment in the final broadcast) in a tank that could be filled with water up to the actors’ waists.

The sets were so vast that the production was moved from NBC’s Studio 8H, to both 8H and 8G, and finally out to the network’s largest available space in exotic Brooklyn.  Six cameras, instead of the usual three or four, captured the action.  We know these stats because NBC trumpeted them in the press, in a successful campaign to position “A Night to Remember” as one of the year’s most important television events.  James Cameron was not the first storyteller tempted to see in the Titanic the makings of a superproduction.

Following an on-camera introduction by Claude Rains, an effectively stentorian and British choice to narrate the show, the first dialogue in “A Night to Remember” is spoken by the familiar actor Marcel Hillaire, here playing a French waiter in the Titanic’s exclusive restaurant with all the hauteur he can muster.  Although it also places barbed emphasis upon the cascading incompetence of officers and crew that delayed rescue – we’re teleported over to the nearby SS Californian, where a radio operator misses the distress call because he can’t be bothered to turn a crank – television’s “A Night to Remember” finds its theme in the suddenly lethal class distinctions that informed the outcomes available to the Titanic’s passengers.  Hubris and privilege are the boogeymen in “A Night to Remember,” not the iceberg that (thanks to the limitations of the medium) we barely see.

The show’s director and co-writer, George Roy Hill, a Minneapolis-born Yalie who styled himself as a cantankerous Irishman, empathizes with the proletariat in steerage and sneers at the rich twits in first class in a way that resounds in the era of the one-percenter – even though the third-class passengers are sketched more roughly and enjoy less screen time than the swells on the upper decks.  Mrs. Astor slices open a life vest to see what it’s made of – cork; “Why, how clever!” – and another young lady expresses delight because she’s never seen an iceberg.  Hill practically seems to be opining: good, natural selection is finally catching up with these fools.  Perhaps the most effective moment in “A Night to Remember” is the one in which J. Bruce Ismay, the head of the White Star Line, steps into a lifeboat even as he knows that women and children remain on the sinking ship.  The glare of utter contempt that the crewman who lowers the raft fixes upon Ismay is unforgettable, and Hill does not even need a close-up to emphasize it.

“A Night to Remember” is a compendium of vignettes like those.  It follows certain characters from start to finish, like the Caldicott-and-Charters pairing of Gracie and Smith (Larry Gates and Woodrow Parfrey, cast effectively against type), who meet their fates with stiff-upper-lip reserve.  Other famous passengers, like Isidore Straus (Edgar Stehli), whose wife opts to stay on the ship rather than leave him behind, are glimpsed for only seconds.  If the 1958 feature finally picks a central character out of Walter Lord’s panoply – Second Officer Lightoller, a minor character here, becomes in Dave Kehr’s words the film’s “hero . . . an upright representative of the emerging middle class and managerial caste” – the shorter television staging resists fixing on any single figure as a spine; although it does hover occasionally around Thomas Andrews (Patrick Macnee, then unknown), the thirty-nine year-old “shipbuilding genius” who had a hand in designing the Titanic, and whose main function here is to deliver, sheepishly, the technical explanation as to why the ship will surely sink.  (Macnee and Andrews were both Scots, so the actor attempted a brogue in rehearsals, delivering his key line as “The ship must go doon.”  Hill’s reaction: “Less of the Irish, please.”) [Author’s note, 5/23/12: Much of the last sentence, which was sourced from Patrick Macnee’s 1989 autobiography Blind in One Ear, is erroneous.  See the comments section for more information.

Rains, whose dulcet and unmistakably British tones supply snippets of Titanic lore in a voiceover so dense that it is almost an audio book, becomes the vital structuring element of this decentralized narrative.  “A Night to Remember” is a docudrama, but one of a specific sort that emphasized the panoramic impact of a particular historical incident.  Studio One’s “The Night America Trembled” (about the historic “War of the Worlds” radio broadcast), The Seven Lively Arts’s searing “The Blast in Centralia No. 5,” and Playhouse 90’s “Seven Against the Wall” (on the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre) all took the same basic approach.  Already in its death throes, live television made a mini-genre out of this kind of pocket historical epic, the size of which attracted press attention and fostered, perhaps, the poignant illusion that the medium could compete on Hollywood’s own terms with the industry that was about to bulldoze it.

If directors like Sidney Lumet or Paul Bogart, a consummate lover of actors who died this month, were content to work with material that was essentially stage-worthy and intimate, there was another class of live television director that tried to tug the primitive medium toward the art of the cinema.  Franklin Schaffner and John Frankenheimer led this pack, with George Roy Hill following close behind; all three achieved a destiny as epic-scaled filmmakers that is difficult, on the surface, to reconcile with their origins in television.  (At least until one recalls that Hill wasn’t the only member of this daredevil trio to seek out the foolhardy challenge of filling a television studio with a large quantity of water: Schaffner nearly electrocuted the cast while sinking a submarine in Studio One’s “Dry Run,” and Frankenheimer built a huge water tank to simulate the flooding of the Mississippi River in Playhouse 90’s “Old Man.”)  Inevitably, all three men were determined careerists – an ambition to work on a huge canvas seems inextricable from a large ego – and “A Night to Remember” plays as a very self-conscious calling card on the part of a young director eager to be noticed.

One of the least contestable auteurist entries in live television, “A Night to Remember” was not only directed but also co-written – with John Whedon, later a sitcom writer and also the grandfather of Joss Whedon – by Hill; and while Kraft at that time had a producer, Stanley Quinn, he was an ad agency lifer with few creative bona fides apart from Kraft.  Quinn also took no screen credit on “A Night to Remember,” leaving many published accounts to list Hill as the producer, perhaps not wholly inaccurately.  Hill may also have exerted influence through a key personal relationship.  When last we encountered George Roy Hill, he was seducing the underage star of one of his early features.  During that time, and possibly as early as 1956, Hill was also having an extramarital affair with Marion Dougherty, who was the uncredited casting director of Kraft and therefore, without question, a key creative component in a live show boasting a telephone book-sized cast list.

A control-room director’s dream, “A Night to Remember” supposedly featured over one hundred cues (that is, cuts) in its first act alone.  The personality that Hill imposes upon it is an omniscient one: an unseen hand – whether it be that of God, George Roy Hill, or Claude Rains, clutching Lord’s book and in a sense standing in for the author –  directing our attention, rapidly, forcefully, toward a succession of brief moments on the surface of a vast event.  Andrew Horton, the chief chronicler of Hill’s career, finds “A Night to Remember” interesting mainly for the way in which it anticipates the complex editing schemes of later films like Slaughterhouse-Five.  Indeed, the director’s cutting is masterful.  Early on, Hill introduces the characters in steerage with a fade from a violinist, entertaining the haughty diners in first class, to a bagpiper, leading an exuberant dance below decks.  Near the end, when an immigrant family that has fought its way up from steerage to the top deck arrives just in time to watch the last lifeboat being lowered, Hill drops out the cacophonous sound, scoring the moment of dreadful realization with a second of total silence.  Hill superimposes the dangling boat cable over the family’s stunned faces.  “A Night to Remember” is subtle at times, blunt at others – but amid the chaos of disaster, the tonal shifts make sense.

“A Night to Remember” enjoyed a rapturous reception.  Every major critic, even the tough two titans, Jack Gould (of the New York Times) and John Crosby (of the Herald Tribune), approved.  NBC took out a full-page ad in the Times to tout its a repeat of the kinescope on May 2, a rerun that, because of reuse payments due to the gargantuan cast, cost the network more than putting on a new play would have.

(“A Night to Remember” was not restaged live, as some sources claim.  And, incidentally, if you look in the wrong places you’ll also find Hill deprived of his co-writing credit, or read that Hill won Emmys for writing and directing the show.  Although he was nominated for both, and “A Night to Remember” for best dramatic program, the only Emmy win was for its live camerawork).

The live television dramas that tend to hold up best are the small, claustrophobic character pieces – the storied “kitchen sink” opuses.  Adaptations of books and plays, or shows that give off a whiff of the “tradition of quality,” are the most likely to seem stodgy and ancient.  But, despite its unconcealed self-importance, “A Night to Remember” works both as a drama and, more vitally, as an action piece.  It moves at a terrific pace and builds real suspense along the way.  Only the ending seems somewhat crude.  Hill wisely uses as little stock footage as possible (like the 1958 film, this version borrowed its Titanic exteriors from a 1943 German film that built some impressive miniatures), but that decision renders the climax necessarily brief.  Hill tries for a pair of shock effects, neither of which really comes off – at least to the extent that we can observe today.

The show ends in the main stateroom, empty except for a steward and the shell-shocked designer Andrews.  As the stewart flees, the entire set tips forward, toward the camera, and the sea sweeps away the steward and rushes toward the viewer – an effect achieved, none too convincingly, by shooting through a fishtank that was rapidly filled with frothy water.  Just before that, allegedly, we see Andrews crushed (or decapitated, according to one account from the set) by a gigantic chandelier that falls from the stateroom ceiling.  Hill staged the effect through a multi-camera sleight-of-hand, by cutting quickly from a close-up of Patrick Macnee to a long shot, from another angle, in which Andrews is represented by a dummy.  Contemporary reviews record some shocked reactions to this graphic image.  But, in the surviving kinescope, the effect is lost.  The Andrews dummy is barely visible at the left edge of the frame, and one would never notice his “death” unless, as I did, one goes back for a second look with the knowledge of what’s supposed to be there.  On a first viewing of the extant “A Night to Remember,” the final image of Andrews is now a stunned, guilt-ridden close-up of Macnee’s face.  Not a bad ending at all – but also a sobering reminder of how the poor positioning of a kinescope camera can rewrite television history.

8 Responses to “Another Night to Remember”

  1. stuartgalbraithiv Says:

    One tiny correction: It’s the 1953 ‘Titanic’ that incorporates spfx footage from the German production, not the 1958 film … I’m amazed by the similarities to the film of ‘A Night to Remember’ (I just re-watched it again recently via the British Blu-ray.) Yes, it’s based on the same source material, but now I wonder if the British filmmakers gave this one a look. Roy Ward Baker was back in England by this time, but maybe…

    • Stephen Bowie Says:

      But but but but but … Wikipedia says that clips from the 1943 film were used in A Night to Remember!

      Seriously … I haven’t seen the 1958 film in a long time, and I decided not to look at it again, because I wanted to write about the Kraft version without having it turn into a simple comparison/contrast. (And I haven’t read the Lord book, although I’m curious about it now.) My vague memory is that the treatment of the Andrews character is quite similar, but that’s about as much as I can venture.

      Lightoller is sort of ambiguous in the TV version; he is seen imposing some order on the evacuations, but prior to that there’s a curious scene in which he has a kind of self-justifying voiceover regarding his decision to sack out on his bunk (because he’s off-duty and doesn’t want to add to the chaos) rather than go back on deck to investigate. I was unclear as to whether this was intended as another example (like the lazy telegrapher) of ironic ineptitude, or as an instance of very British pragmatism in the face of disaster. The actor who plays Lightoller is Neil North, a former child actor (the title character in The Winslow Boy, in fact), and he has a fresh-faced quality that’s totally at odds with Kenneth More’s gravitas.

      Maybe some readers will have other thoughts on the subject.

    • Dallas Says:

      “A Night to Remember” absolutely, positively used footage from the German movie. Just watch the two films.

  2. Stephen Bowie Says:

    And incidentally, two things regarding the cast:

    (1) Apart from a few ringers in the major roles (like Parfrey and Gates), “Night” is pretty accurate in its casting of authentic British actors as the Brits and Americans as the Americans. That’s an amazing feat on behalf of Marion Dougherty (and her assistant; I think she had one by that point), given that the population of British expats gathered around the Broadway stage in those days was probably pretty thin. (Neil North, for instance, was almost out of acting and running an antique shop with a male lover on East 57th Street.)

    (2) The cast crawl at the end of the show lists all 107 actors (!), even the ones who didn’t have lines … but apart from segregating them according to crew vs. passenger and first vs. third class, it doesn’t give the roles they played. The IMDb fills in some of those names but I don’t trust its accuracy (for one thing, it omits some actors entirely, like Parfrey) but in my research I couldn’t find a cast list, or even a review that identified any of the major players other than Macnee and Clarence Derwent (who played Captain Smith).

    I was tempted to, and still may, try to “crowd-source” the identification of some of the other actors. I’m particularly curious about the actors who played Bruce Ismay and the most prominent steerage passenger, Klaus Carson (looking leftward in the last image above). My best guesses are Jerome Kilty (the playwright) and Michael Gorrin, respectively, but I couldn’t find enough period images to confirm it.

  3. Stephen,

    Another fine piece brining to light an almost-forgotten show! I’d heard of the TV version of “A Night to Remember” (which is a spellbinding book, by the way – I read it first when I was 7, and the power never left me), but hadn’t seen it until now.

    A note on Lightoller – IIRC, he’s a fairly impressive character in the book as well, moreso than in some of the other TItanic books I’ve read. He started out the voyage with his nose somewhat out of joint because he’d been bumped from First Officer to Second Officer (Murdoch, who was originally supposed to be Chief, had been bumped to First), and that might have played a role in his diffidence at first. In the book, Lord suggests that he stayed below in part so, because he wasn’t on duty, they’d know where to find him when they needed him.

    Hard to believe now, with the glut in Titanic movies, books and the like, but Lord’s book is credited with reviving interest in the disaster. I don’t think it had ever gone completely away, but he brought it out of the dusty history pages and back to the forefront of consciousness. He was a very accessible historian.

    • Stephen Bowie Says:

      That line, about Lightoller staying in his cabin so he’s findable, is incorporated into his voiceover. One review that I read interpreted this as a dereliction of duty, perhaps because North flops on his bunk rather indolently in that scene; but I think it’s probably a misreading. However you interpret Lightoller in the TV version, though, he definitely gets swallowed in the chaos. The most memorable figures in the ensemble are Andrews and Ismay and, to a lesser extent, the captain and Gracie & Clinch Smith (Gates and Parfrey).

  4. Tomlin Dudek Says:

    This is a good article, and your depth of knowledge of live American television is astounding. However, to quote, “Macnee and Andrews were both Scots” — I’m afraid you’re wrong there. Macnee is frightfully English, born and bred, after all it’s what he’s based his career around. Andrews was actually from the County Down in Northern Ireland; typically of James Cameron’s anti-British ‘blockbuster’, he was inaccurately portrayed as a to-be-sure, twinkly lovable Southern Oirish stereotype in that.

    • Stephen Bowie Says:

      Thanks, Tomlin, for pointing that out. What’s interesting is that I repeated those errors from Patrick Macnee’s autobiography. Macnee, whose paternal ancestry was Scottish, mistakenly thought that Andrews was a Scot and attempted to play him with what he called “my native accent” (emphasis added). Which suggests, perhaps, that Macnee may have identified as a Scot when it suited him … and also that poor Mr. Andrews has been subjected to nearly every possible geographical hijacking, at least until someone attempts a Welsh version in the next Titanic movie!

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