Most Titanic buffs are familiar with one of the more remarkable coincidences associated with the sinking of that ill-fated ocean liner: Fourteen years earlier, a writer named Morgan Robertson had penned a novella entitled Futility about the largest and grandest ocean liner of its time — considered to be unsinkable because of her multiple water-tight compartments that could be sealed off automatically in case of emergency — which sank after striking an iceberg. Numerous passengers lost their lives because the liner did not carry enough lifeboats to accommodate everyone. Demonstrating an eery prescience, Robertson had named his ship the Titan. (After the Titanic disaster, the novella was reissued as The Wreck of the Titan.)
A much lesser known — but no less remarkable coincidence — is that at the very moment the Titanic struck an iceberg in the north Atlantic late in the evening of 14 April 1912, the film The Poseidon Adventure — a movie about the desperate efforts of a group of passengers to survive the sinking of an ocean liner — was being screened aboard ship.
The film industry was still in its adolescence in 1912, but it was already taking rapid strides towards maturity. The short flip card films viewed on customer-cranked Kinetoscopes and Mutoscopes in nickelodeons had given way to more elaborate films that were projected onto screens for audiences in movie theaters. These films were short (generally no more than one reel in length), and of course they were both silent and black-and-white, but they had already captured the imagination of a population eager for new forms of entertainment. The White Star line, proudly dedicated to sparing no expense in ensuring that its new flagship Titanic provided every luxury their passengers could desire, did not overlook this still relatively novel one: the Titanic carried its own projector and a complement of movies rented from the British office of a U.S. film distributor.
The film industry had not quite shed the somewhat seedy image it had acquired in the days of the nickelodeon, however, which is one of the reasons why this detail of the Titanic story has received relatively little attention. To avoid offending First Class passengers who considered the fad of motion pictures to be less than genteel, movies were screened only in the Second Class dining saloon (where First Class passengers willing to risk their reputations were still free to venture if they so desired). The films were also not run until after 11:00 P.M., both because the aristocratic passengers who might have objected to the presence of this vulgar entertainment would have retired by that hour, and because the ship’s orchestra generally finished its evening concert for the First Class passengers by that hour and was free to provide accompaniment for the otherwise silent movies. (On evenings when the orchestra was otherwise engaged, a piano was available for the use of any brave passenger who might volunteer to improvise a soundtrack.)
Ultimately, only two films were screened on the Titanic before it met its tragic end less than five days into its maiden voyage. None was screened the first two days out, April 10 and 11. In keeping with the nautical theme, the 1911 movie The Lighthouse Keeper, starring Mary Pickford, played on the evening of April 12. This film proved so popular with the passengers that it was also run twice the following evening, April 13. The next evening — the Titanic‘s last, as it turned out — the entertainment switched to another 1911 film with a nautical theme, this one the work of an actor/director who was one of young Hollywood’s fast-rising stars: D.W. Griffith. The movie was The Poseidon Adventure (unusual in its time for its length — an amazing 53 minutes in an era when the 10-minute one-reeler was still the norm), about a group of six passengers and crew members who struggle to stay alive after the ocean liner in which they’re traveling is capsized by a tidal wave. (Author Paul Gallico expanded on this scenario in his 1969 novel of the same name, which was in turn made into a feature film starring Gene Hackman and Ernest Borgnine in 1972.)
The Titanic‘s passengers, obviously unaware of the doom presaged by the film they were viewing, were so enthralled by the events of the The Poseidon Adventure that they failed to notice the slight shudder that marked the Titanic‘s fatal encounter with an iceberg at approximately 11:40 P.M. (In truth, many of the Titanic‘s passengers either did not feel anything when the ship collided with the iceberg or did not consider the slight tremor they did feel to be anything extraordinary.) So enthusiastic was the audience’s reaction to the film (and so slow was word of the true nature of the Titanic‘s dire condition in spreading) that The Poseidon Adventure was immediately screened for a second time just after midnight.
Ultimately, the grim coincidence of a film about a sinking ocean liner’s being shown aboard a sinking ocean liner may have cost some passengers their lives. In the excitement over the two screenings of the movie, few in the enthusiastic audience noted that the Titanic‘s engines had stopped; even those who did didn’t manage to tear themselves away from the flickering screen long enough to go out on deck and inquire. By the time the second screening drew to its conclusion after 1:00 A.M. and a few hundred Second Class passengers filtered back out on deck and finally learned of the Titanic‘s plight, all but a precious few of the woefully inadequate number of lifeboats had loaded and cast off — many of them carrying far less than capacity. Could this explain why barely a third (116 out of 285) of the Titanic‘s Second Class passengers and crew ultimately survived the disaster? (By way of comparison, nearly two-thirds of the First Class passengers and crew — 201 out of 334 — survived.) We may never know.
Finler, Joel W. Silent Cinema.
London: B.T. Batsford Ltd., 1997. ISBN 0-7134-8072-6.
Heyer, Paul. Titanic Legacy: Disaster As Media Event and Myth.
Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 1995. ISBN 0-275-95352-1 (pp. 12-14, 23).
Lord, Walter. The Night Lives On.
New York: William Morrow, 1986. ISBN 0-380-73203-3.