Reviewed by Colin Jacobson
DVD International, standard 1.33:1, languages: English Digital Mono, subtitles: none, double side-single layer, 24 chapters, alternate audio track with an additional 45 minutes of testimony from The Chronicles, rated NR, 145 min., $19.98, street date 10/5/99.
On April 14, 1912, the greatest ship of the time and man's monument to the technological achievement, the Royal Mail Steamer, Titanic, would sail into the lexicon of history. At 11:46 p.m. aboard ship, the lookout signaled to the bridge and reported an iceberg right ahead. Within moments the Titanic struck ice and foundered in just over 2 hours. 2,223 souls were aboard. Only 706 would survive. Countless lives would be forever changed by the disaster. Indeed, the tragedy touched the hearts of people around the world. No other historical event would inspire as many literary and cinematic treatments on the subject. This historical presentation was produced in 1929 and is the first feature sound film of the disaster.
The Titanic Chronicles
The Titanic Chronicles was an attempt to understand what happened to the Titanic, the American government held a series of hearings to investigate the disaster. These hearings were filled with eyewitness accounts that detailed every minute of that terrifying night and they represented several different points of view.
The U.S. Senate hearings were opened to the public and they were held in the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in New York City. The hearings were chaired by Senator William Alden Smith of Michigan. Senator Smith's mission was simple: find out what had gone wrong and to discover the truth. This program is a reenactment of the most striking and revealing moments from the actual hearings. The testimony you will hear comes the closest to the truth as to why the R.M.S. Titanic now lies on the bottom of the North Atlantic.
Boy, ya gotta love that Titanic mania! It's Leo this, Kate that, Cameron whatever! It's inescapable, that Titanic fever - catch it!
Okay, the mania over box office smash Titanic clearly dissipated some time ago, but materials designed to capitalize on the public's fascination with the big boat's busted bow (yeah, that was a stupid sentence, but I can't resist alliteration). In that vein we recently saw the release of a double-feature, a DVD with two separate Titanic-related programs.
First up is The Titanic Chronicles, a 52 minute documentary hosted by David McCallum. This show attempts to recreate the Senate hearings about the sinking that took place only weeks after the disaster. Visually, it's a bland program, as it features voice actors whose speech is accompanied by related photos and a little film footage. Participants include Titanic alumni such as Gloria Stuart and Bernard Hill plus others like Tim Curry and Marilu Henner (?).
I found this to be a decent program though not as fascinating as I would have thought. There are no revelations or much data that shines light on the accident. However, it is something of a neat historical document, dull as it tends to be.
The other side of this DVD offers another historical artifact, the first film based on the Titanic disaster: 1929's Titanic: Disaster In the Atlantic. This "talkie" fictionalizes the story; the boat involved is named "Atlantic" and the word "Titanic" is never mentioned. (Actually, the movie's original title was Atlantic.) None of the participants claim to be real people, although they may have been based on actual passengers. The reasons for this fictionalizing are not mentioned, but I'd assume it happened for legal purposes; after all, the disaster was still reasonably recent at the time, and many survivors and relatives of victims were still kicking.
Anyway, the film itself maintains interest only as a historical curiosity. It's a pretty badly acted film. Some of the actors - especially Madeleine Carroll as Monica - actually appear to read from cue cards at many points! I don't know if this impression is fact, but it sure looks that way; I guess the performers were having a hard time making the transition from silent to sound films. Even without this issue, the acting looks stilted and wooden for the most part; none of the performances makes a positive impression.
T:DITA doesn't feature a whole lot of plot or exposition, though it somewhat adequately tells the tales of a few passengers. Actually, the movie manages to be mildly effective toward the end; the panic on-deck seems well-presented, and the film's conclusion with the remaining passengers manages to be moderately touching. The film's scope and presentation were obviously limited because of the capabilities of the period. We see the same panicky passengers on the same deck for all of those shots, and the iceberg itself actually moves to hit the boat! (Man, that was one mean block of ice!) While the film remains mainly a curiosity, I can't say that it's a terrible movie.
Both The Titanic Chronicles and Titanic: Disaster In the Atlantic appear in their appropriate aspect ratios of about 1.33:1 on this double-sided, single-layered DVD; because of this, the images have not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Because they come from very different sources, the quality of each program must be assessed individually. One comment first: the DVD was mislabeled. T:DITA appeared on the side labeled TTC and vice versa. Not a big problem once you know that, but cheesy nonetheless.
For TTC, I had a very hard time rating the picture because the program consists almost entirely of still photos. We get some historical film footage plus the videotaped inserts of McCallum between participants, but it's not much a visual presentation. I gave the DVD a "C" because it adequately presented the material and that's about all. The images of McCallum look reasonably sharp and clean, and the rest of the footage appeared perfectly adequate. Since this show is essentially an audio piece, picture quality is rather unimportant, but I didn't have any problems with it.
T:DITA presents a completely different bucket of bass. It's a real movie, so image quality obviously is important. Rating the picture and sound quality of a 70 year old film is tough going. On one hand, I want to give readers a fair idea of what to expect if they get this DVD, but on the other, it seems somewhat harsh to attack the quality of such an aged title; under the best of circumstances, a film of this vintage will suffer from some flaws.
Nonetheless, I think the first approach is more important; I don't want to delude anyone into thinking that T:DITA looks anything other than atrocious. This film is only the second to which I've "awarded" an "F", though it's much less of a disappointment than the other, which was Abbott and Costello's Jack and the Beanstalk; the poor image found here is much more understandable than it was on the A&C offering. Understandable or not, T:DITA still looks thoroughly terrible. The picture seems pretty soft throughout, though it's hard to tell due to other problems. Print quality is just awful; scratches, marks, speckles - you name a way to mar a film and it's here. Actually, I didn't notice grain, but considering the massive amounts of other problems, it's probably there but just buried beneath the muck. The movie also looked very jittery and wobbly.
The image tended to appear either way too dark or way too light; contrast is terrible and makes things look either impenetrable or washed out to an extreme. Unlike in the case of Jack and the Beanstalk, I'm not going to fault the producers of this DVD for these issues; I doubt there's much they could do about the numerous problems. Nonetheless, I have to tell it like it is, and this is one ugly picture.
No better is the monaural audio of T:DITA. I knocked the grade up to a "D-" simply in recognition of the horrendously primitive state of sound recording in 1929; while it's possible for a movie from that year to look decent, there's no way one will ever sound anything other than bad. And T:DITA indeed sounds terrible. The audio appears very flat but also comes across as badly distorted for most of the film. Wretched amounts of background noise ignores its name and jumps to the forefront; you'll hear much hiss, crackling, popping and other intrusions. Dialogue was generally semi-intelligible, though it occasionally is completely indecipherable; for the most part, I had to listen carefully to make out what actors said, but it could be done. I'll forgive it some sins since the movie appeared only two years after the advent of "talkies" and there's nothing that could be done about all these problems, but make no mistake: this soundtrack is really awful.
In regard to TTC, the audio compares with the picture in that it's also adequate but not special. The vast majority of the sound comes from the speech of the participants. All of this was recorded in a studio and it seems appropriately warm and natural. Occasional music and effects also seem decently reproduced. The sound seemed to virtually be monaural, but it appeared adequate for the task at hand.
TTC includes a few supplemental features. Most significant is an alternate audio track that contains an additional 45 minutes of testimony from the participants. This is a nice feature since it fills out the proceedings. The comments aren't as interesting as those found in the actual program - obviously the directors kept the best stuff - but it's a nice listen for fans.
TTC also provides some promotional clips for other DVD International titles. There are six promos in all, for discs such as DVD Essentials and Michael Nesmith's Elephant Parts. Yawn...
T:DITA doesn't really contain any extras, although David McCallum reappears to introduce the film. His monologue doesn't tell us much, but it's something, and that's why I couldn't give this side of the DVD an "F"; the introduction counts as a supplement, so a "D-" it is! Oh, and although a booklet appears in the case - something that usually scores points with me - this one offers nothing more than advertisements for other DVD International releases.
I can't really recommend this DVD because it's just not all that interesting to someone who doesn't find Titanic more fascinating. However, those fans should find this piece much more compelling. Quality isn't great, especially in regard to the abysmal sound and picture of the 1929 film Titanic: Disaster In the Atlantic, but it seems to be as good as the DVD's producers could warrant. This DVD didn't do much for me, but with a list price of only $19.98, it should be a nice package for Titanic aficionados.
Current as of 2/14/2000
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