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.
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.
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.
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.