Humor in the movies more harm than good

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Rachel Fellman

The recent thread on the funny moments of the Cameron movie prompted me to bring this up.

I'm not going to begrudge this or any Titanic film its moments of humor, but it seems to me that it can be very dangerous to make historical figures the butt of jokes. Especially certain historical figures and certain jokes.

My favorite example of what I mean concerns J. Bruce Ismay and the Freud Moment. (It deserves capitals.) We all know the one I mean: a combination of James Cameron's scriptwriting and Jonathan Hyde's ad lib, to spread the blame around appropriately.

Is it me, or is something like that a terrible thing to do to somebody who really lived? Number one, this is using him for the movie's trademark "see how dumb they were in 1912 not to have heard of ____" humor, while this was before Freud's popularization- even before "Interpretaion of Dreams" was translated into English. It's not fair -and this goes for all of the historical characters- to expect these people to understand references to things far better-known a century later.

Number two, with that one exchange, Ismay's whole life and experience, the complicated questions that his role in the Titanic disaster raise, his business career and everything he did to help or harm another human being is reduced to one joke. From now on, to viewers of the movie who have not done outside research, Ismay is now "The Freud guy". To those who would analyze the film as film, he's now a symbol of short-sightedness and egotism as well as an excuse to discuss Freudian interpretations. ("The ship's four phallic smokestacks...")

You are not being urged to support his decisions. You are not even being urged to find his decisions disgusting or cowardly. You are being urged to laugh at him. And if a person is not entering the theater with prior knowledge, that's going to be their idea of this man, and that's how he'll be remembered by that person.

Was that really worth it?


This is only my favorite example, mind you. There have been many real people reduced to jokes in Titanic film and's just that I have the biggest axe to grind with this one. (But if you want, by all means, let's talk about Gracie in the Cameron film. Or Maggie Brown, anywhere. The Chairman, in ANTR. Or go on.)

And now, the point of my post:

1. What is worse in the long run? To vilify somebody or to make them funny?

2. Who else has this happened to? What have the effects been?

Inger Sheil

Interesting points, Rachel. I know the standard response to any post pointing out an historically flawed depiction is 'it's only a movie' (belabouring the obvious), but I think you raise valid points. I notice you mention Gracie in your post, and to my mind he fared the worst out of the characters played for laughs in Cameron's movie. Nor is this the first time - the German telemovie does much the same thing. While no one who reads his book would come away with the impression that he was a brandy-obsessed 'Colonel Blimp' figure, those acquainted with him only through his movie incarnation might be forgiven for thinking as much. I wonder if this is the influence of Lord's comments about him in TNLO as bore, taken by Cameron to extremes?

IMHO, however, one of the worst victims of celluloid distortion for the sake of a bit of a giggle is not in Cameron's movie, but rather Joughlin in ANTR. Although he is shown giving up his seat in a lifeboat, the most enduring image of him is not of a man who actually attempted to fulfill his duties and narrowly escaped with his life, but rather that of a bumbling drunk whose life is saved through pure, alcohol fuelled luck. Even in Cameron's movie there are echoes of this, although at least one gets the impression he's driven to swigging from the bottle through sheer terror and the 'Helluva night' line was cut from the script.

The comic drunk is a fairly stock character in drama of the time - poor Joughlin doesn't even have a monopoly on the role, as we are also shown a group of steerage men ('We're tryin' to find our BUNKS!') turned away from second class areas who have obviously read the same 'How to Play a Lush' acting guides (1. Pinball down hallways 2. Open your eyes wide and then squint them shut as if attempting to focus 3. At all times, sway on your feet 4. Make sure you slur your words - incorporate as many 'sh' substitutes for 'th' sounds as possible etc). So resiliant has the 'Drunken Baker' figure proven, however, that researchers are still trying to rehabilitate his image.

~ Inger

Ben Holme

Inger and Rachel.

Good points raised here. A particularly niggling aspect of the "playing for laughs" element in the film was the portrayal of the "snobs in first class" who make poor Rose's life hell (to the point of attempting suicide!) The "freud" exchange in the palm court is a notable example as is the whole character of Cameron's Countess of Rothes.

It is especially frustrating, having researched some of these individuals, to hear Rose's "always the same narrow people, same mindless chatter" comments. Suffice to say there were undoubteldy one or two "bad eggs" on board, but superficial depictions using humour to sum them up entirely, seems to me to be an easy way out. It is important to appreciate that Cameron's was a film, not a documentary, but nonetheless, it might have been interesting to go a little further beyond "what's been done before" (bearing in mind that the Cameron depictions overall, were better than those in previous films).


The lasting image of ANTR's baker, for me, would have to be the one of him sitting down with his neat little tumbler and adding WATER to his whisky as the cabin begins to fill with water!

To add to your "drunken acting don't do's" we must also include:

5. Hiccup ostentatiously
6. grin widely with closed eyes

Best Regards,
If anything, I like the portrayal of Joughin. I have never seen the man as anything less than professional, much less a drunk (the circumstances that night did a lot of things to a lot of people), and I assume that Walter Lord spoke with him during his research for A Night To Remember.
Now I know very little about Walter Lord, but he has always come across to me as a very honest writer and if anything he is much more sympathetic towards the role of certain people in ANTR than he is with the benefit of thirty years hindsight with "The Night Lives On".
So where did Lord come up with the story of Joughin being drunk? I would think it was Joughin himself, for whatever reason. An old sea dogs story, adding a bit of spice to the tale perhaps - "might get a laugh from the boys when it's published??."
Ultimately, Joughin's story has become as much a part of the Titanic story as "Nearer my God to thee" and the "Unsinkable Molly Brown" and I quite like the legend. As it seems to have been created by the man himself and even if it is not totally truthful, I will carry on liking it, until someone tells me that Walter Lord made it up.
I agree with the Ismay and Gracie situations though, and they were exacerbated by Lord. Even still, annoying as it is to us who are fascinated by the subject, how many others has it introduced to the Titanic story through the film?
Add a bit of humour and drama, but keep true to the reality and you have a Hollywood blockbuster and a ton of people adding their insights to the subject.
IMHO, let the legends adds greater numbers to those searching for the truth.



Rachel Fellman

Hi, Sam. I wanted to add that I'm not objecting (at the moment) to fictionalization. I'm just objecting to the use of humor to reduce people to jokes, by which they will then be known to the general public- a practice seen in all Titanic films, not Cameron's. (Although Cameron's was the one most people have seen, and therefore has the most potential for damage).
By the way, I think that Inger's discussion of Joughlin's portrayal "in ANTR" is referring to the movie, not the book. :)
Rachel Wrote:

> And now, the point of my post: > > 1. What is worse in the long run? To vilify somebody or to > make them funny? > > 2. Who else has this happened to? What have the effects > been? >

1. Well first of all, Ismay's vilification was justified because of abandoning The Titanic while so many women and children were still on board. To me, what "The Freud Comment" alluded to was the fact that Ismay was so engrossed in The Titanic, he didn't stop and think about what Rose meant or what he said in response. But she definitely put him down without his knowledge.....a trick that I have been known for and passed down from My is useful on occaision.

2. As far as who else this has happened to?, Look, in any tragedy, no matter how big or how small, there will always be humor associated with it for a couple of reasons............a. because people need the humor to overcome the grief........or .........b. they just don't know any better. If there is an airplane crash tommorow in which 500 people are killed, the odds are better than even money that there will be jokes about it all over the internet by Sunday. It is the way this society is and it always will be, you cannot stop it, nor escape it.

Regards, Bill
I have to agree with Bill. It's sad but true that tasteless humor always follows tragedy. I can remember when the Challenger blew up, someone came up to me and asked me if I knew what color Christa McAuliffe's eyes were. When he "hit" me with the punchline, I wanted to punch HIM out. But for some people, the only way they can deal with senseless tragedy is to make sick jokes about it. They would probably go insane w/o this release because they simply cannot handle that tragedies such as these occur.
If, in Joughlin's case, he made himself the joke, well that's one thing. For others to do so makes it slanderous. I was also disappointed in Cameron's portrayal of certain people, such as Archie Butt and the Countess of Rothes, both of whom distinguished themselves highly in the hour of crisis, as did Astor and others.
Yes, it's only a movie. Unfortunately in this generation, many cannot differentiate entertainment from reality and history. I know people who still think the Waltons were real, and God only knows how many people we've seen on this website who think Jack and Rose and their entourage were real. Even the Discovery Channel and the History Channel are not exempt from blurring fiction with fact, as Capt. Eric has pointed out. Because it's all about selling toothpaste and soda pop, when you get right to it.

'nuff said,

Tracy Smith

Bill wrote:

1. Well first of all, Ismay's vilification was justified because of abandoning The Titanic while so many women and children were still on board.

Not just women with children (never could understand why adult women were grouped with children, anyway), but all paying passengers had a prior right to the lifeboats...and probably a good deal of the crew as well.

Rachel Fellman

1. I'm not arguing that Ismay was vilified in the Cameron movie. The question "What is worse- to vilify somebody or to make them funny?" was intended to be rhetorical- my point being that to make them funny can be even more damaging. Although vilification was part of Ismay's characterization, his most reputation-destroying scenes were those that attempted to make him seem funny or clueless.
2. I'm not objecting to the "tasteless" humor of the Cameron film. I completely agree that such humor can be neccessary after a disaster, just to help people through it. I'm not complaining about the Freud moment because it was tasteless- I'm complaining about it because it acts to destroy a historical personality. Ismay's characterization in Cameron's Titanic was the example that annoyed me the most, but Ingrid correctly pointed out that there are better ones: Joughlin ("the drunken baker"), Gracie ("Colonel Blimp"), and so forth.
3. Bill, you raise good points, and I understood that Ismay is supposed to be so engrossed in his rich-1912-businessman toys that he can't see that Rose is running intellectual circles around him. But this characterization, and how you're being asked to think that about a real person in a fake situation, just about proves what I'm saying.
4. That's about all I have to say on the topic.
> Exactly my point Kyrila.....TITANIC ('97) also represented the notion that > the rich felt they were better than everyone else, above everyone else, > like Cal's comment when Rose said that half the people on the ship were > gonna be dead and he said "Not the better half"......Now believe me, this > is why I have a problem with the rich folks, not because I am jealous I am > not rich but I'm pissed that they're not more like we are.......HUMAN!

Really 'nuff said, Bill
> By Tracy Smith on Saturday, September 8, 2001 - 03:00 pm: > > Not just women with children (never could understand why > adult women were grouped with children, anyway), but all > paying passengers had a prior right to the lifeboats...and > probably a good deal of the crew as well.

Hi Tracy, Did I just hear what I think I heard?, back in 1912, even though women were not treated as equally, it was chivalrous for a man to give up a seat to a woman and child before taking one himself...........Yeah, all paying passengers have a prior right to lifeboats, providing there are enough of them to begin with....


Rachel has made a fair point about Freud. You should not pick on people who are not alive to defend themselves. For example:Many people were blaming Smith for the sinking after it happened, just because it was easier to shift the blame onto a dead person. But he wasn't there to defend himself, so that wasn't fair.

Take her to sea mr Murdoch, lets stretch her legs
>>For example:Many people were blaming Smith for the sinking after it happened, just because it was easier to shift the blame onto a dead person.<<

Point of order: The Master of the vessel gets the blame because that's what it is to be the Captain of a ship. The Captain is absolutely and ultimately responsible for everything that happens on board and to his ship, and the officers who navigate the vessel do so in accordance with his standing orders.

>>But he wasn't there to defend himself, so that wasn't fair.<<

Life isn't fair.

And in the context of historical studies, the conduct and responsibility of individuals is fair game for discussion and debate.
I thought Ismay's behaviour was fairly depicted in both Titanic and Night To Remember, he wasn't portrayed as a gutless coward ( as he was later in the press ) nor as selfless hero, just a frightened and bewildered man who took a not unnatural opportunity to survive rather than die.

Don Tweed

On the point of humor, as other members have stated, it is inescapable. And nothing is sacred.
Take the Challenger disaster and all the tasteless jokes that seemed to appear overnight.
Humor is a standard remedy for all things and will either anger or make one chuckle.
I have always thought that when you see a sitcom or film poking fun at death that there are thousands of people who have just lost a loved one and find nothing funny at all with the vehicle.
But that's life.
If all the knowledge a person has on the Titanic was obtained from watching Camerons' film, then that person would have a very narrow idea of the facts of the disaster. Some will leave it at that and move on. Others, such as ourselves, want to know more and dig for the truth.
But that's life and people.
Somebody, somewhere, said: "we are at our best when things are worst." And I believe that.
Laughter is the best medicine. Some take the drug, some let the headache work itself out.

Thinking aloud, Don
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