And the ship sails on

Although this film is held by British Pathé, it was originally issued by Pathé’s rival Gaumont. The first shots of the Titanic in Belfast are the only genuine extant footage of the ship. The film then continues with shots of survivors in New York, regrettably re-edited by British Pathé in 2012 to turn a ten-minute newsreel into two minutes

Those of you recently returned from Mars may be interested to know that we are celebrating the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic this month. Those of you who have spent your time on planet Earth these past few months will not have been able to get away from the books, films, television programmes, souvenirs, exhibitions, commemorative issues, tea towels and who knows what else that has been foisted upon us, and you are probably heartily sick of the subject. Nevertheless, it is an event of some cultural significance, and we feel it would be remiss if we did not try and saying something about the Titanic and silent film.

But even here the field is already crowded, with newsreels from the time being readily available online and many probably knowing by now that little film of the liner actually exists, and that much of what screened at at the time that purported to show the Titanic was in fact footage of its sister ship the Olympic. If you see footage that it is claimed shows the launch, passengers embarking, the Titanic at sea, scenes on deck, or indeed the ship sinking, pleased be assured that it is not the Titanic that you are watching.

So, just what was filmed of the Titanic, and what survives today? That will be the subject of our post.

Newsfilm and documentaries are always made with a purpose; that was as true in 1912 as it is today. There had to be real interest in the topic, such as its newsworthiness. And the hard fact is that the Titanic was not news until it sank. The Olympic, the Titanic and the Gigantic (which was postponed and subsequently became the Britannic) were three liners planned by the White Star Line to capture trans-Atlantic business from its great rival Cunard. Cunard had the fastest liners afloat (it took five days to cross from the UK to the USA), and rather than beat them for speed White Star Line went for size and luxury. Its super-liners would be a little slower than Cunard’s, but they would beat them hand down when it came to dimensions and luxury.

The first to be built and to be launched (28 October 1910) was the Olympic. It was the Olympic that grabbed most of the headlines, and attracted the film cameras. There were newsreels of its launch and of life on board ship, and a spectacular documentary was made by the Kineto company, entitled S.S. Olympic, which covered its construction from the laying of the keel to launch. When the time came for the Titanic to be launched, two years later, there wasn’t the same interest. What had been front page news for the first ship was relegated to the inside pages for its successor, and the film companies for the most part ignored it. So, for example, the Kineto film of the Olympic was made by producer Charles Urban, who had initially approached Harland & Wolff for permission to film the construction of both liners. The shipbuilders were happy with this, but Urban took what must have seemed the more practical action and film the construction of the Olympic alone, in black-and-white (a film which survives) and in colour using his Kinemacolor process (a film sadly lost). The Titanic he seems to have ignored.

Part of S.S. Olympic (1910), the Kineto documentary on the construction of the Titanic’s sister ship. The two ships were very similar, and the film gives a good idea of what the construction of the Titanic would have looked like

So what was filmed? The film historian Stephen Bottomore, in his essential book The Titanic and Silent Cinema, suggests that there were five films or film sequences made of the Titanic. One of these can be discounted, as it merely showed the liner’s anchor being transported, but let us examine the other four (plus a fifth possibility that Bottomore also discusses).

The first is a puzzle. When the Titanic sank, producers searched around desperately for any footage that related to the liner. Gaumont concentrated on the scenes in New York where the survivors were received. This newsreel, which demonstrated a desire for accuracy, was released as an issue of The Animated Weekly in the USA and as a Gaumont special in the UK. There were (and are) several versions of this reel, one of which shown in the USA (but not in the UK) had this intertitle for its first scene:

Laying the keel of the Titanic

Who filmed this? It is a mystery. The keel of the Titanic was first laid in Belfast on 31 March 1909. There is no other record of such a film being made that I can trace (or Bottomore), and the scene does not occur in any of the surviving versions of the film. Did Urban film part of the Titanic‘s construction after all (if he had sought rights to do so from Hardland & Wolff it is unlikely that any other company would have had permission)? But then why did he never release it (it is not mentioned in any of Urban’s catalogues)? And why did this part of the newsreel disappear when the most of rest survived? Was it film of the Olympic‘s keel being laid? (unlikely, given Gaumont’s efforts to show true footage) Or might it have been shot by Films Ltd, producers of the second film of the Titanic?

The second scene in the Animated Weekly newsreel showed the launch of the Titanic in Belfast on 31 May 1911. The film was not produced by Gaumont, but rather by Films Ltd, a Liverpool-based company with an office in Belfast. The footage does not survive, and Bottomore quotes the only account we have of it, a most unhelpful two-liner from the Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly film trade journal:

Thousands who were unable to see the launch will avail themselves of this opportunity. Even those who saw the launch may in this film see some feature that they missed.

The fact that the launch was filmed by a minor film company and paid only meagre attention by the film press shows what comparatively little interest the Titanic had for the media at this point. The Animated Weekly film with these two sequences was first shown in New York on 21 April, just six days after the disaster, so if they were shipped from Belfast then would have had to have been sent out on 16 April, which seems an extraordinarily rapid turnaround. But for some strange reason the laying of the keel and the launch were not included in the British version of the reel issued by Gaumont at the start of May, and are now lost.

Instead Gaumont in the UK showed the only film of the Titanic to survive today. On 3 February 1912 a camera operator filmed the Titanic being moved into the Thompson dry dock, Belfast. The film was taken from the quayside looking up at the ship, showing the prow, and comprises seven shots from roughly the same camera position, one of them a panning shot along the length of the ship (there is a useful short analysis of the footage on Encyclopedia Titanica).

The first record we have of it being shown is when it featured in the Gaumont Graphic newsreel of 18 April 1912 (three days after the sinking), issue number 112, where it was falsely billed as ‘The Titanic Leaving Belfast Lough Bound for Southampton April 2 1912’. The news of the disaster had only just come through to the UK and Gaumont had moved swiftly to obtain the film, showing 100 feet in its next newsreel release. The full Gaumont Graphic no. 112 issue was:

1 – The British Dog Show at Earls Court
2 – Bob Sleighing
3 – Lord Mayor of Belfast Inspecting the Australian Cadets
4 – The Titanic Leaving Belfast Lough Bound for Southampton April 2 1912
5 – Paris Fashions

The Gaumont Graphic issue ledger for 18 April credits the film as “Prov Cine Local”, which must mean the operator was working for Provincial Cinematograph Theatres, a cinema chain with a strong presence in Ireland.

Gaumont issued a longer film in the UK at the start of May which was the Animated Weekly release from the USA except, except – most oddly – that there were no shots of the Titanic itself. It included footage of Captain Smith (on board the Olympic), ice floes, a flashing title with the distress code C.Q.D. (which preceded S.O.S. – both signals were employed by the Titanic), and scenes in New York with survivors and news reporters. At a later date the 2 February 1912 footage was added to this reel, and it is this version that is embedded at the top of this post.

Captain Smith from the Globe newsreel supposedly showing the Titanic (which he captained) but which actually shows the Olympic in New York in 1911 – the name Olympic has been painted out by the film company or an exhibitor but can be seen unobscured in this frame grab, top right

False claims for footage of the Titanic were made right from the start. Bottomore records a New York theatre as claiming to have colour footage of the Titanic‘s launch which it showed on 17 April. This was clearly the Kinemacolor film of the Olympic. Another company, the British-based Globe Film Company, issued a newsreel on the disaster which can be found in several archives (in different versions), which shamelessly used footage of the Olympic from 1911 throughout, going so far as to blot out the word Olympic where it appears on the ship and to remove the names of New York tugs seen beside the ship when the film claims to be showing us the Titanic at Southampton.

Advertisement for the Topical Budget newsreel film of the Titanic at Southampton, now lost, from The Bioscope 25 April 1912

The fourth and final film of the Titanic known to have been made was a newsreel of the ship at Southampton. Topical Budget, a British newsreel produced by the Topical Film Company, included the following two titles for its issue of 17 April 1912 (just two days after the sinking):

The Titanic at Southampton, prior to her maiden voyage, which has proved so disastrous.

The White Star Line. Anxious crowds awaiting news outside the London office.

All that is known about this film is an advertisement in The Bioscope for 25 April 1912. The newsreel’s own records for this period are lost, as is the film [Update – the film has been found – see comments]. The mystery is why the footage was not better exploited. If, as it seems, it was the only film of the Titanic at Southampton, then Topical had a scoop the whole world wanted to see. The Titanic had left Southampton on 10 April, and we do not know whether Topical showed the launch in one of its issues that week (British newseels were issued twice-weekly) and then showed it again for the issue on the 17th, or whether it had filmed the launch but not bothered to use the footage (full issue records for the newsreel do not survive from this period). Or might they have stooped to subterfuge and used the Provincial Cinematograph Theatres footage, and labelled as being shot in Southampton? There is no way of knowing.

William H. Harbeck, from Moving Picture News

There might have been other films of the Titanic made, but none were advertised in the film trade papers or cinema listings that historians have pored over. But what of film taken on board the Titanic? One of most intriguing discoveries from Stephen Bottomore’s research is that there were at least two cameramen on the liner when she sank. One was William Harbeck, an American producer of travelogues who had five cameras and 110,000 feet of film with him. He may have been seen filming on board when the Titanic had a near collision with the liner New York in Southampton harbour, as witnessed by passenger Lawrence Beesley, who wrote in his book The Loss of S.S. Titanic:

No one was more interested than a young American kinematograph photographer, who, with his wife, followed the whole scene with eager eyes, turning the handle of his camera with the most evident pleasure as he recorded the unexpected incident on his films. It was obviously quite a windfall for him to have been on board at such a time. But neither the film nor those who exposed it reached the other side, and the record of the accident from the Titanic’s deck has never been thrown on the screen.

Harbeck was American, but he wasn’t that young (he was 44), and the woman with him was not his wife, but otherwise this seems likely to have been him. Some have speculated that the cameraman was the 19-year-old American Daniel Marvin, son of Harry Marvin, president of the Biograph film company, who was returning from honeymoon in Europe with his American wife Mary. But they were first class passengers, whereas Bessley and Harbeck were second class (and hence on another deck); moreover, Bessley elsewhere refers to Harbeck’s ‘wife’ as being “evidently French”, as Henriette Yvois certainly was.

Another man potentially with a camera was Jean-Noël Malachard, a French newsreel cameraman with Pathé-Journal who was journeying to New York to join the company’s American branch. Both Harbeck and Malachard drowned, with any film that they may have taken going down with them, though as the sinking itself took place at night there was no way they could have even attempted to record the disaster itself.

So we have four films that were made of the Titanic, with maybe a fifth shot on board as the liner left Southampton:

  • c.31 March 1909 – laying of the keel at Belfast – producer known – length unknown – film lost
  • 31 May 1911 – launch at Belfast – producer Films Ltd – length unknown – film lost
  • 3 February 1912 – moving into dry dock at Belfast – producer Provincial Cinematograph Theatres – length 100ft – film extant
  • c.10 April 1912 – at Southampton, prior to depature – producer Topical Film Company – length c.60ft – film lost [Stop press: This film has been found! But does it show the Titanic? See comments]
  • 10 April 1912 – footage possibly shot of near collision with US liner New York – producer William Harbeck – length unknown – film lost

What does the extant film of the Titanic signify? Of itself, it has little to say. It is not very interesting film of a big ship. It evokes no sense of loss, greatness, vaingloriousness, hubris or tragedy. We bring those feelings to the film, once we are told what it signifies. We invest our feelings in what we see on the screen. Yet there is that special frisson when we see the footage and realise that what is now history was once actuality. A connection is made that is part of the unique power of film, collapsing time while simultaneously making us aware of the yawning gap of time. The footage of the Titanic exposes the limitations of film as historical record, while at the same time showing how powerful even the plainest film can be if we bring powerful thoughts to bear upon it. There is also that special connection between actuality and drama, where each offsets the other. The actuality only makes us yearn to see the story told. The dramatic only makes us want to see anything that makes it clear that our dreams have some basis in reality.

The key source for studying the Titanic and contemporary film is the aforementioned The Titanic and Silent Cinema by Stephen Bottomore, to which this post is much indebted. Among the huge number of Titanic publications, I recommend Richard Howells’ The Myth of the Titanic for its insightful analysis of the disaster’s cultural significance, with some subtle readings of the films made about the tragedy. As he wisely points out, there are two Titanics out there: the real Titanic that lies beneath the ocean waves, and the Titanic of myth that sails on in literature, musicals, movies and memories.

I am giving a talk on the Titanic and film at the Cinema Museum on Sunday 15 April, where we will be tracing the story of the disaster through both newsreels and fiction films. Neil Brand will be at the piano. It will be interesting to see what the audience will make of an interweaving of the actual and the dramatic, as we tell the story once again, as the Titanic sinks beneath waves again, as we shiver at what it tells us of our fallibility and fragility all over again.

(My thanks to Linda Kaye of the British Universities Film & Video Council for access to copies of the Gaumont Graphic newsreel ledgers)