The tilted deck beneath the young woman’s feet told her the ship was sinking.
Leaning against the rail, she pulled her sweater closer about her as she stared into a pitch-black, frigid sky dotted with stars. The ocean below was as calm as a garden pool. Except for the slight list, the magnificent vessel seemed solid as ever. But as she gazed astern, a giant, ghostly white mass of ice, silhouetted against heaven and sea, floated into the darkness. How could this have happened on such a beautiful night?
Slowly she turned away from the railing, stricken with the realization that disaster was at hand. The deck was dim but a faint glow illuminated the shocked, frightened expression on her pale, pretty face. No one else was around. Only the shadows saw her fear.
The woman was 22-year-old actress Dorothy Gibson. She wasn’t really alone but standing on a contrived set, surrounded by her director and two cameramen who were advancing slowly toward her on a rolling dais. But the terror her face registered was genuine as less than a week before this movie shoot Dorothy – wearing the same sweater – had actually survived the sinking of Titanic.
She was also playing to more than shadows as the cameras recorded her emotion. The film crew working with her that day admitted to being moved by the subtlety and depth of her performance. Hundreds of thousands of people, probably millions, all over the United States and Great Britain would soon agree. Only one month after the real tragedy had devastated the world, Saved From the Titanic, the first motion picture ever made about it, was released.
Today, the movie is lost. All that’s left are four scene stills, two posters, a few advertisements, and a series of press articles and reviews that attest to a remarkable piece of filmmaking for the time, praised for its acting, advanced cinematography and special effects. Its loss is great to film history.
The picture’s value lies in the unique combination of an artistically directed and photographed story, the inspired acting of an actual survivor of the catastrophe and its record-breaking production, following so closely the actual event it replicated.
Titanic was destined to sink before audiences in numerous movies, television shows, plays and musicals over the next 90 years. But the only one that doesn’t exist on film in some way, and is therefore lost to future generations, is the first phenomenal reenactment of the saga – Saved From the Titanic.
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To cinema scholars and Titanic buffs the most intriguing component to this motion picture is, of course, its star, Dorothy Gibson. Yet little has been written of her. Who was this actress? What ever happened to her?
Legend has sprung up in the absence of fact. For instance, it is generally thought that except for her role in Saved From the Titanic, she’d done nothing noteworthy in movies. She was only a minor actress, a mediocre talent, not even a real star, it’s been claimed. Perhaps this view formed because Dorothy Gibson inexplicably “disappeared” from the screen after 1912. Yet little effort has been made until now to examine the scope of her acting career or the reason for her sudden retirement.
The truth is that, although Dorothy ended up being a minor player of the silent period, since she dropped out of filmmaking so early, she received a great deal of publicity and excellent critical reviews for the movies in which she appeared. Considered one of the most promising new actresses upon her debut, her renown, albeit fleeting, helped solidify the emerging “star” formula in motion pictures.
What’s more, the film studio for which Dorothy worked was no flash in the pan. The new American affiliate of the prestigious French-owned Éclair Company (later absorbed by Universal Pictures), was a leading producer of high-quality one-reel dramas and comedies, crafted by some of the best up-and-coming directors and cinematographers from the Continent, then in the artistic vanguard of filmmaking. When Eclair started production in the United States in 1911, much was expected from the studio by the country’s burgeoning picture industry, then largely based out of the sprawling film colony of Fort Lee, New Jersey. Éclair did not disappoint, becoming a training ground for the finest and most influential technicians of early cinema – most memorably, director Maurice Tourneur.
Hired as Éclair’s first American leading lady, Dorothy Gibson became noted for her work as a comedienne in a succession of popular vehicles showcasing her beauty, charm and a naturalistic, restrained acting style that astounded moviegoers accustomed to performers’ grand theatrical gestures. Dorothy was ahead of her time in her anticipation of the soulful technique later known as “The Method;” only contemporary Mary Pickford was regarded as rivaling her in this delicate, refined approach to movie acting. The popularity of her on-screen persona and the rare skill she brought to her roles, begs the conclusion that, had Dorothy been more ambitious, she’d have realized longer-lasting fame as an entertainer in the new medium of film.
Another half-remembered aspect of Dorothy’s public life is her pre-film work as a model for the foremost illustrator of the day, Harrison Fisher. Whenever Dorothy is mentioned, it seems the sobriquet of “The Harrison Fisher Girl” follows her. But as with her movie career, the extent to which she met fame as a cover model hasn’t been thoroughly explored.
In a way, Dorothy’s stint as a muse to Fisher is even more momentous than her cinematic output. Unlike her appearance in movies, only one of which is known to survive, her work for Fisher has ensured the preservation of her image down to the present day.
Her face with its big, heavy-lidded eyes and wide, curling lips may have been nameless, but it inspired the most prolific commercial artist of the era, whose stylized depictions of poised, healthy ingenues came to epitomize the American girl of the early 20th century. Fisher, called the “historian of American beauty,” delighted in recording the feminine ideal of his time in full-color, sumptuous paintings of dainty yet sophisticated lasses, replacing in significance his predecessor Charles Dana Gibson’s quick pen-and-ink sketches of more sportive, tailored women.
As one of Fisher’s favorite models, Dorothy’s youth and good looks, more recognizable to contemporaries than to modern eyes, adorned the covers of best-selling magazines like the Saturday Evening Post, Cosmopolitan (yes, Dorothy was a Cosmo Girl) and the Ladies Home Journal. In addition, her image was reproduced on countless picture postcards, prints, posters and in Fisher’s own high-priced art books.
If her professional existence has been shrouded in erroneous or fragmented data, then Dorothy Gibson’s private life has been – and to a marked degree still is – a greater mystery.
Until recently it was believed that Dorothy, following a notorious and humiliating affair with (and eventual sham marriage to) film financier Jules Brulatour, had lived out her life quietly and peacefully in Paris. Titanic historian Phillip Gowan shattered that fiction with his astonishing discovery of Dorothy’s involvement in Fascist politics in the 1930s, which led to her imprisonment for alleged espionage during World War II.
This almost unbelievable dimension to her already fascinating life has increased Dorothy’s appeal beyond that of an actress or model or Titanic survivor to that of a deeply complex woman.
Her movements in the last decade and a half of her life remain a riddle but enough has been disclosed to prove there was a lot more to Dorothy Gibson than beauty and talent.
Her personality was a hefty mass of contradictions. Though daring and confident with a warm heart and free spirit, she could also be weak-willed, selfish, cold and unassertive. Intelligent, savvy and highly motivated, she appears to have also been impressionable, reckless and unscrupulous.
While outwardly independent, outspoken and determined, the ironic source of Dorothy’s ambition was the traditionally feminine dream of marriage and family – even though questionable morality was the route she sought to attain her goal. Dorothy’s unorthodox value system and inconsistent self-image derived partly from the influence of her permissive, seditious mother, Pauline Boeson Gibson, to whom she remained devoted, despite outrageous sympathies and predicaments which would threaten both their lives.
Dorothy Gibson’s ultimate journey into disgrace and obscurity was nonetheless marked by incredible achievement, extraordinary hope, and amazing redemption. While this book is a thorough, if not definitive, study of her career, the private story presented in these pages is an enduring puzzle.
Perhaps all the pieces of her life will never fit but a good portion of the tale has surfaced and is told, with its many twists and turns, in this first full-scale attempt at finding and understanding Dorothy.
© Randy Bryan Bigham 2004
This article is an excerpt from the introduction of Randy Bigham’s biography, Finding Dorothy: An Appreciation of the Life and Career of Dorothy Gibson Brulatour. A portion of proceeds to benefit the British Titanic Society and the Fort Lee Film Commission