Riots, refunds and a rescued star: the first Titanic films

RMS Titanic
RMS Titanic

This is a guest post for Silent London by Greg Ward, author of Blogtanic.

Working on Blogtanic, my Titanic centenary blog – I was looking for stories about chairs on the Titanic, but let’s not go into that – I stumbled across this intriguing snippet of movie history, in the New York Evening World of April 27, 1912.

The Titanic cinema riot
The Titanic cinema riot

At this point, it’s still less than two weeks since the Titanic went down. Three theatres in Bayonne, New Jersey, 10 miles from downtown Manhattan, announce that they’re going to show moving pictures of the sinking. Knowing that no such footage exists, the local police chief declares he will only allow them to show genuine images. And so the audiences riot.  “Having been led to believe they were to see something sensational [they] uttered loud protests. Seats were torn loose …”

Only in New Jersey did the police take it upon themselves to censor such shows. All over the world, moving picture houses were presenting fake “newsreel” images of the Titanic. Typically they’d include actual film of the Titanic’s Captain Smith, shot the previous year but captioned as though it had been taken on the fatal voyage, cobbled together with close-ups of other liners and scenes of icebergs bobbing in the ocean.

Advert in the Tacoma Times
Advert in the Tacoma Times

Cinema-goers placed a heavy premium on genuine footage – even though there was none of the disaster itself. In this advert, from Tacoma, Washington, a theatre promises to pay out $5,000 if its pictures aren’t genuine.

Dorothy Gibson
Dorothy Gibson

Meanwhile, the same week as the New Jersey riots, and in the same state, director Etienne Arnaud had already started shooting the first-ever Titanic feature film,  Saved From The Titanic. A mere ten days earlier,  22-year-old bona-fide movie star Dorothy Gibson had escaped on the first lifeboat to leave the sinking ship. Now, working to her own script, she re-enacted her ordeal wearing the self-same clothes, and then segued into a fictional story about finding love with a sailor.  Two scenes were even filmed in colour, using the Kinemacolor process, and it was released on 14 May.

By the time the German feature film  In Nacht Und Eis was released that August, four months after the tragedy, the public appetite for sensational images seems to have been sated. Trade papers solemnly reported that Titanic films “don’t attract audiences any more”.

Tell that to James Cameron.

Blogtanic.wordpress.com is written by Greg Ward, the author of the new Rough Guide to the Titanic. Read more about the BFI’s film screenings to commemorate the Titanic centenary on Blogtanic here.

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4 thoughts on “Riots, refunds and a rescued star: the first Titanic films”

  1. You probably know this, but if you can get a copy, I recommend Stephen Bottomore’s outstanding (and out of print) book The Titanic and Silent Cinema, published by The Projection Box in 2000. There were several newsreels covering the disaster, many of them re-using the same old footage (Capt Smith on the SS Olympic in 1911, the launch of the SS Olympic) but also including some shots of the coffins arriving in Halifax, and the Carpathia docking in New York. The BFI holds two or three versions of this material and it’s well worth a look. The really interesting one is Topical Budget Newsreel’s coverage of the Titanic leaving Southampton, sadly lost. Wouldn’t that be something to see?

    1. Thanks Simon, the book sounds really interesting – I haven’t seen it, but I’ll try to get hold of it.
      I’ll be posting several more clippings and movie adverts from 1912 newspapers on Blogtanic in the next few weeks.
      And there was actually a movie-maker filming aboard the Titanic during the voyage; imagine if they somehow found that footage intact.

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