Encyclopedia Titanica

Survivors give their impressions of Titanic movies

Reactions of those survivors who decided to revisit the Titanic

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Survivor reactions
Titanic survivors Leah Aks and Selena Cook after seeing 'Titanic' in 1953

What were the reactions of those survivors who decided to revisit the Titanic once more via film. 

“When you make a movie, you have to have people running around, panicking. Everything was orderly—not only orderly, but quiet. People did what they were told.”

Marshall Drew reflecting on an unnamed Titanic movie in the April 14, 1982 edition of the Muncie Evening Press

Marshall Drew
Marshall Drew with a model of the Titanic in Boston (1980)

Randy Bryan Bigham’s book, Finding Dorothy, covers the life of Titanic survivor and silent screen star Dorothy Gibson. Shortly after the sinking, she filmed the first motion picture about the disaster. The author tells how, at one point, the actress became overwrought while reenacting the evacuation. Filming was stopped and she was given the rest of the day to recuperate before work resumed. She recovered admirably and, after the movie’s release, she was quite pleased with the final product. However, while some survivors publicly stated they would never watch a movie about the sinking, what about the others who viewed the various incarnations of the Titanic shipwreck? Some even visited the sets of the movies. This article hopes to show the different reactions of those who decided to revisit the Titanic once more via film. 

Titanic (1953)

Anna Nysten Gustafson Des Moines Sunday Register, May 17, 1953

Anna Gustafson, 63, of 836 Boyd St., cried quietly through the showing of “Titanic”. “I wanted to see the picture still not. I would not feel good if I did not, but I cried. I remembered some things…. The picture was wonderfully done.” 

Mrs. Gustafson praised the accuracy of “Titanic”, and the likeness between Captain Smith and Richard Basehart (sic Brian Aherne played the role; Basehart played the priest). 

Although her memory of the night is dimmed by fear, confusion, and noise, Mrs. Gustafson said the berg hit by Titanic appeared much smaller than the one in the picture. However she said the blocks of ice that covered the ship’s foredeck were not shown in the film. 

Bertha Moran Cooper Detroit Free Press, May 31, 1953

A gray-haired Detroit woman sat in the darkened auditorium with bowed head and wiped her eyes. She was sixty-three-year old, Mrs. Bertha Cooper, of 2236 Twenty-third St., who had lived through the 1912 disaster at sea shown on the screen. “It was just like that,” she exclaimed as the lifeboats were lowered away. “Very good,” was her final verdict. 

“My brother was one of the men who stayed behind and went down with the ship… I was in lifeboat 15.  They claimed there were 18 boats all together. (The narrator in the film says there were 19.)

…Passengers were wakened, ordered to put on their lifebelts, but told there was no cause for alarm. (This was another time when Mrs. Cooper nodded her head in agreement.)

Bertha Moran Cooper
Detroit survivor of the historic sinking of the Titanic is 63 year old Mrs Bertha Cooper of 2236 23rd Street.  She relieved her experiences Thursday during a special showing of "Titanic", the movie starring Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck at the Fox.

Eugene Daly Connacht Sentinel, October 12, 1954

Seventy-two years old Eugene Daly, 7, St. John’s Terrace, Galway, last week relived his harrowing experiences during the last moments of the Titanic disaster in 1912 when he went to see the Twentieth-Century Fox film of the same name in the Estoria Cinema… Reviewing the film, Mr. Daly described it as an excellent reproduction of what actually happened. The difficulties of the producers were increased, he added, since none of them had any personal knowledge of the tragedy, they had to produce the film according to what the survivors told them, and what had been written about it over the years. Referring to the portrayal of the priest in the film, he said, “One of the last things I saw on the Titanic was two Catholic priests giving General Absolution to all on board.”

Mr. Daly also thought the resemblance between Capt. Smith and Brian Aherne, who played Capt. Smith in the film was not sufficiently striking.   Capt. Smith was a tall, white-haired man. All the characters however were excellently portrayed. 

Mr. Daly was guest of the management at the film show… He went to see the film a second time. 

Cecil William Fitzpatrick The Yorkshire and Leeds Mercury, August 11, 1953

A sixty-three old Irishman, Mr. Cecil William Fitzpatrick, of Cambridgerow, Chapeltown Road, Leeds, a survivor of the Titanic, which sank after striking an iceberg on April 15, 1912, relived his experiences last night when he chatted in Bradford with a member of the crew of the Carpathia (Ernest William Varley [possibly an imposter as he does not appear on the Carpathia crew list])…   They were introduced from the Odeon Cinema stage where the film, “Titanic” is being shown this week by Edgar Mitchell, manager of the cinema.  

Mr. Fitzpatrick… told the audience a little about his experiences on the Titanic. He said he joined the ship at Southampton as an engineer mess steward the night before she sailed. 

Fitzpatrick
Mr C. W. Fitzpatrick, on the left, with Mr E. Mitchell and on the right, Mr E. W. Varley

The Yorkshire Evening Post, August 1, 1953

He is Mr. C.W. Fitzpatrick of Leeds, a Corporation employee, and he told me he liked the film very much. He had no criticism to make of it. 

Percy Thomas Oxenham The Vineland Journal, March 25, 1953

Oxenham has a score to settle with the motion picture version of the disaster. He saw a preview of the film on Ed Sullivan’s tv show and criticized it. “There was no band playing accompaniment to ‘Nearer My God to Thee.’ It was impossible to play because all the instruments were below in the quarters and the hatches were battened down, “ he explained. 

Another point Oxenham takes issue with is depicting John Jacob Astor, the financier who died in the ship sinking, as a hero. “He didn’t give up his place in a lifeboat to a woman with a child in her arms,” Oxenham said. 

Oxenham
Disaster survivor – Thomas Oxenham of Helena ave. near Grant, enjoys watching his television today, but back in 1912 when he was a passenger on the ill-fated Titanic coming to America from his native England he thought for a while he would never see America's shores. He is one of the few survivors in the now historical sea tragedy that claimed 1,517 lives

Addie and Ralph Wells Akron Beacon Journal, June 3, 1953

The Wells family attended a sneak preview of the soon-to-be released movie, “Titanic”, at The Colonial the other night. Mrs. Wells liked the picture but thought it was terribly depressing, especially as the ship went down while those aboard sang, “Nearer My God to Thee.” Mrs. Wells didn’t recall hearing the song across the waters, but others in the lifeboat had talked about it. 

“I don’t see how those movie people got the scenery to look so real,” she said. “It looked just like the Titanic as I remember it.” 

Addie and Ralph Wells
Mrs Arthur H. Wells and son Ralph
"... it was pretty orderly"

Jack Ryerson The Palm Beach Post, April 15, 1962

The other, a Hollywood version called “Titanic”, is not real he says. (A publicity photo showed him and his sister Emily Ryerson Cooke with “Titanic” actress Audrey Dalton) 

Ryerson
Titanic survivor John B. Ryerson of Palm Beach
… It was "A Night to Remember – or to forget."

Selena Rogers Cook The Scranton, Pa., Tribune, May 15, 1953

A Waverly woman who survived the catastrophic sinking of the White Star Liner Titanic in the North Atlantic on April 14, 1912 agrees to the authenticity of the motion picture, “Titanic” and praises it as, “good entertainment for everyone.” Mrs. Arthur Cook was recently brought to New York City for the premiere of the motion picture along with numerous other survivors of the sinking… While at the premiere at New York City, Mrs. Cook met one of the survivors, a man (Frank Aks) of 41 years of age who was thrown overboard into a lifeboat during the ship disaster. He was ten weeks old at the time. 

Leah and Frank Aks Life Magazine, May 18, 1953

Mrs. Aks was in New York for a preview of the movie Titanic. Though she liked the movie, she found it depressingly realistic when the ship hit the iceberg and went down. She and the woman next to her, Mrs. Selena Cook, sat crying as they relived the moments of panic and heroism. Frank liked the movie too, but he was chiefly pleased to get confirmation from other passengers of the story, which he has always doubted, of his melodramatic babyhood.

Aks
Leah and Frank Aks

Katherine Gilnagh Manning Life Magazine, May 18, 1953

Mrs manning
Now Mrs. Manning and living in New York City, she found the movie “wonderful”.  

Arthur Olsen St. Petersburg Times, May 29, 1953

Wild, desperate moments on the sloping decks of the Titanic 41 years ago were vividly recalled yesterday by two Bay area men (one a fake survivor named John Bartell) who were among the 705 survivors of that world famous tragedy. Both saw the film “Titanic” at Florida State Theatre as guests of the management. 

Olsen, a 50 year old house painter, who came here in 1947, was a red haired boy of 9, was returning to this country from Trundheim, Norway with his father. “He aroused me and told me to dress,” Olsen recalls… “Taking me to the nearest lifeboat filled with women and children, my father handed me to a woman and asked her to take care of me. “

“’It may be a long time before I see you,’ he told me. ‘Be a good boy Artie,’ he stepped back into the darkness and I never saw him again.”

Bertha Watt Marshall The Province, March 20, 1959

I saw a picture, some years ago on the same subject, but that was fiction.”

Bertha Watt marshall
Mrs Marshall
"... memories flood back."

Ellen Hocking Hambly Schenectady Gazette, May 30, 1953

Celluloid last night rolled away 41 years, one month, and 14 days for Mrs. Ellen Hambly, and once more she stood on the pitching deck of the once-mightiest ship afloat — the Titanic. Once more, as she watched the film saga of the queen of the White Star Line as a guest of Proctor’s theater. White-haired Mrs. Hambly was a girl of 21, coming to America from England with her mother, aunt sister, and a brother. 

Ellen Hamby
Mrs Ellen Hambly points to the Titanic, from whose listing deck she fled to a lifeboat when the sea queen sank in 1912. Penzance, England-born, Mrs Hambly lives today at 2105 Dean Street.

A Night to Remember (1956 Kraft tv version) 

Bertha Ilett Christensen The Geneva Times, March 29, 1956

A Geneva survivor of the Titanic was thinking back today to that terrible night in 1912.  “We were in the lifeboat about six hours,” Mrs. Chris Christensen, 88, White Springs Rd., said today as she recalled one of the most tragic disasters in sea history.  Memories of the sinking of the ship were received as Mrs. Christensen watched the play “A Night to Remember,” televised on Kraft Theatre. 

Minnie and William Coutts Pittsburgh Press, April 10, 1956

Of the millions who watched Kraft Theater’s gripping dramatization of the Titanic disaster, none watched more intently than William L. Coutts, a patient in Shadyside Hospital.

Mr. Coutts remembers being awakened by his mother and of her tying him and Neville into life jackets. She had none for herself. He recalls their trying one door after another in the steerage compartments and finding them locked. Finally, they located an open door and were lead by a seaman to the main deck and to a lifeboat…

“I really enjoyed that show,” said Mr. Coutts, a genial, white-haired man in brilliantly colored pajamas. “The only criticism I had was that the Carpathia was never mentioned. They mentioned the Californian a lot, but never the Carpathia.”… “But on the whole, the play was ideal, wonderful. The detail was marvelous.”

Mr. Coutts’ mother, the gallant woman who lifebelts on her children before seeking one for herself, had only one comment to make on the show. “There wasn’t all that excitement,” was Mrs. Coutts’ comment. 


A Night to Remember (1958)

Marguerite Frolicher Schwarzenbach Stamford Advocate, February 17, 1959

One of the few remaining survivors, Mrs. Schwarzenbach has seen the movie. She found it harrowing. 

Millvina Dean The Titanic Diaries by Anthony Cunningham

I went to see the film version of “A Night to Remember” many, many years ago… I saw it with about four or five other survivors in Boston and we all hated it because our fathers had been killed on the ship. It was a dreadful experience. We were absolutely appalled. One person said she had nightmares for weeks afterwards and that we should never have been taken to see it and I agree… I haven’t seen the latest film yet either, even though people have invited me to private screenings. I couldn’t bear to see those scenes reenacted. 

Alice Peterson, Eleanor Shuman, and Harold Johnson Chicago American, February 25, 1959

‘Three victims laud film’… Only Mrs. Peterson and Harold recall the disaster for Eleanor was only a year-and-a-half at the time.  Harold was five--and he says he remembers clearly getting into the lifeboat and being picked up the Carpathia in the bitter chill before dawn.  But he doesn't remember being afraid.
As far as Mrs. Peterson knows, the picture is remarkably accurate, although there was a lot going on that she could not see.  Her son explained:

"We were traveling third class--and we were kept shut off from the upper decks as long as possible while the crew tried to save the first class passengers.  It was first class all the way," he added, with some bitterness.

Bertha Lehmann Luhrs Star Tribune, March 5, 1959

For realism… the film was 99 percent on the button, much more so than a film about the Titanic that was made several years ago with Clifton Webb starred. Mrs. Carl Luhrs, of Pequot Lakes, Minn, another survivor, agreed. 

Gretchen Longley Leopold The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 22, 1959

Two local residents who survived the sinking of the Titanic relived their experiences when they saw the movie, “A Night to Remember”, which opens at the Trans Lux Wednesday. The other Philadelphia survivor at the preview was Mrs. Gretchen Longley Leopold, widow of Dr. Raymond S. Leopold… Deeply affected by the film, Mrs. Leopold said, “I just had to cry as I kept thinking of that beautiful ship and all those wonderful people. I was returning from Europe with my two aunts. I refused the one remaining spot in the third lifeboat to remain with them, but we found room in the fourth boat.” 

Richard Norris Williams The Philadelphia Inquirer, March 22, 1959

Richard Norris Williams, 2nd, of St. David’s, who was aboard the Titanic with his father, said he thought the picture “was restrained in its realism but vivid in its portrayal. I could just visualize it happening again.” … Williams added that it was a chilling experience to see the reconstruction of the episode picturing the shearing off the huge funnel, which crushed his father.

Lawrence Beesley as told by his daughter in Anthony Cunningham’s Titanic Diaries

My sister Laurien went with him to the studios where a section of the Titanic had been reproduced. Heaven knows why, but one day during the filming he took it upon himself to be an extra in the film and got himself dressed in appropriate 1912-style clothes and inveigled into the crowds ‘on deck’. However, just as the cameras were about to roll, he was spotted and respectfully asked to leave. Imagine the irony of that! It was the second time he found himself leaving the Titanic before it sank!

Joseph Boxhall Nautical Magazine, May 1959, titanicofficers.com

Speaking about the film, he said that at first he was not in favour of the project, and it took two months and the diplomatic visit of an old seafaring friend to persuade him to have anything to do with it. Even then he would not spend a night away from Christchurch.

However, he admitted he was not too displeased with the result and commented on the fabulous amount of money that was spent on technical equipment.

In answer to a question concerning the harrowing scene presented in the film of third-class passengers clamouring to get through a closed sliding gate aft, he said it may or may not have been true. American immigration laws insisted on this gate; if it had not been there, no immigrants would have been allowed to land. At night it was opened to allow the crew to wash down, but whether it had been closed again on this particular night he could not say.

Boxhall
Commander Boxhall watching A Night to Remember

Charles Judd Reading Mercury, August 2, 1958

At a preview of the latest film about the 1912 disaster, “A Night to Remember”, at the Odeon on Monday morning, a local survivor, Mr. Charles Judd, said he thought this particular film to detail than any other he had seen… after the ship sank was in the water for 5½ hours before he was picked up. The film brought back many painful memories for him as he told this newspaper he prefers to forget about it as much as possible. 

Bertha Watt Marshall The Province, March 20, 1959

Last night, she relived with unexpected vividness the experience she had as a little girl of twelve when the unsinkable White Star Liner Titanic slid under the icy waters of the North Atlantic… She was tense as she watched the dramatic reconstruction of a scene, which she had said had been indelibly printed on her memory. 

Later, on the verge of tears, she said she could never hear ‘Nearer My God to Thee’ without feeling a catch in her throat. This was the hymn the orchestra played as the liner went down. 

She admitted the picture over dramatizes some episodes. “The steerage passengers were not locked below in the way the film suggests,” she said.  “And there was no fighting for boats while I was on board the ship.”

Of the film itself, she commented, “This is the story of the Titanic.”

Renee Harris Pittsburgh Press, March 5, 1959

Time Heals All Wounds. But for Mrs. Jacques Futrelle and Mrs. Henry B. Harris, time has not erased the memory of an April night almost fifty years ago… full of chatter about their lives today, and their recollections of the tragedy on April 14, 1912, they were in Pittsburgh in connection with the film, “A Night to Remember” which opens today at the Fulton… “I’m afraid I’m a sissy,” added Renee Harris whose husband was a top Broadway producer when he met his untimely death. “I couldn’t get myself to attend the premiere, but submitted to viewing it privately.  I only watched the very beginning, it was so realistic, I couldn’t take it.”

Harris and Futrelle
Mrs Rene Harris and Mrs Jacques Futrelle
"A Night to Remember is grim reality for them"

May Futrelle Boston Sunday Herald, March 15, 1959

“How do you feel about the picture, Mrs. Futrelle,” someone inquired.

“If you had asked me that the first time I saw it, I couldn’t have told you, because I was too upset, but after the second showing I can tell you I believe it to be remarkably accurate, honest, and exciting film. More inaccurate nonsense has been written about the Titanic than I have time to tell you, but speaking for the portions of that picture that relate to my own experiences, and to what I saw and heard, I can only tell you this is the way it happened, I was there and I know.” 

“How do you like travelling around the countryside and talking about “A Night to Remember?””

“It’s the best thing that’s happened to me in years,” was the reply. 

Emma Bliss The Windsor Daily Star, March 9, 1959

Mrs. Emma Bliss, once a stewardess on the ill-fated Titanic, which sank after hitting an iceberg on its maiden voyage in 1912, relived the tragedy when she watched a special showing of the British movie, “A Night to Remember,” which depicts the sinking of the ship. The old lady shows emotion as she recognizes familiar scenes, and is comforted by nurse Ann Green.  She bites her finger then breaks down. 

Emma Bliss
Once Titanic Stewardess...

Bertha Mulvihill Noon Providence Daily Journal, April 16, 1959

“I don’t know where they got all this women and children first business, I never saw it,” said Mrs. Henry Noon. “I’ll tell you what I saw. I saw a woman with her five children standing on the ship. When the ship split in half, I saw the mother and her five children drown in the water. I was in lifeboat 15 and it was going the other way.”

“Lifeboat 15 was the last boat to get off, you know. It didn’t tell it in the book and it didn’t show it in the movie, and there wasn’t anything about it on television.”

“From reading and watching I never saw anything like what I saw happen. I don’t say the stories aren’t true; just that where I was, and what I went through wasn’t like that at all. I was a steerage passenger on the Titanic.” 

“I saw the movie about it, I saw the play about it, and I read the book about it, and none of them says it the way I saw it. Everybody keeps telling about the millionaires and what happened to them. But there were plenty of people there besides the millionaires.”

Hannah Abelson Bolton Herald Statesman, May 2 1962

She remembers, in particular, the opening of one film on the Titanic (The British one) in New York City where she was treated to such fanfare for that, “You’d think that I was Queen Elizabeth coming in.” Although she stayed to see part of the film, “When the boat started to sink, I left.”

Eva Hart USA Today, May 1980

In 1958, when I first saw the film, “A Night to Remember”, portraying the Titanic sinking (based on the book of the same title by Walter Lord), my personal feelings were mixed. I thought, and still think, it a really marvelous film., one which I doubt can be bettered, but there are one or two scenes of the actual sinking which I couldn’t bear to watch. Although, I have seen it many times, I still close my eyes when these come on the screen. 

Herbert Pitman Somerset Country Herald, August 2, 1958

Last month, Mr. Pitman was a guest of the Rank Film Organisation. Ltd., at the world premiere in London of “A Night to Remember”- the story of the disaster. “The film is an excellent representation of what happened, and I can’t recall a single technical mistake.” 

Edith Russell Titanic Memories: The Making of A Night to Remember by William MacQuitty, p 21

We walked past the workshops and finally turned a corner to see where a third of the ship rose from its concrete. Two funnels, thrust into the winter sky, dwarfed the four lifeboats on the boat deck. Edith stopped in her tracks. She stood still and silent for a long time, until she said, “I can’t believe it.” On the boat deck she took hold of a lifeboat lifeline… Edith was completely overcome… Slowly she walked along the boat deck. “It was here that I stood.” 

Edith Russell
Edith Russell with the dress she wore on the Titanic

Shadow of the Titanic by Andrew Wilson, p 317

“Captain Smith is perfect-also the set-and the gala dinner, the dining room perfect. They make me push my jewellery aside and take pig from stateroom- all different from fact and it’s a factual film??”


SOS Titanic

Eva Hart BBC South, 1979

When the whole thing is finished, and undoubtedly on the screen will be a large ship gradually sinking, nose first; that I cannot look at and don’t want to. I never look at pictures of sinking ships. It has a terrible effect on me. 

Eva hart
Eva Hart on BBC South Today in 1979

James Cameron’s Titanic

Eleanor Johnson Shuman The Chicago Tribune, December 10, 1997

James Cameron’s “Titanic” has its Chicago premiere on Wednesday at the McClurg Court Theatre with a display of silverware and dishes from the actual ship and visits from notables. No, not stars- Leonardo Di Caprio, Kate Winslet, or Billy Zane, but Titanic survivor Eleanor Johnson Shuman. The northwest octogenarian is on her second viewing of the movie, has met the director Cameron (“very pleasant”) and tells us, “the opening scenes where the Titanic is resting on the ocean floor are the best.”

The Pantagraph, March 10, 1998

Mrs. Shuman saw the premiere of the movie “Titanic” last year in Chicago and met director James Cameron there. “He said I reminded him of Rose, the girl in the movie,” Mrs. Shuman told a reporter later. “So when you see Rose, think of me.” 

The movie, she said, was so realistic that it was difficult to watch. “I did a lot of crying.”

Over the years when a new movie about the Titanic was appearing at the neighborhood cinema, newspapers reported that local survivors were attending, but, unfortunately, did not record their impressions. Hopefully readers will let our editor know if they come across ones that I have missed. Here are some of the survivors mentioned:—Edwina Troutt Corrigan, Marshall Drew, Albert Caldwell, Margaret Devaney O’Neill, Violet Jessop, Emily Ryerson Cooke, Washington Dodge, jr, Eleanor Cassebeer, Elizabeth Dowdell Fierer, James Witter, Marjorie Collyer Dutton, Gus Cohen, Karen Abelseth Little, Alfred Pugh, Julia Smyth White, Richard Pfropper, Frank Goldsmith and his mother Emily Illman. 


Thank you to Mike Findlay, Randy Bryan Bigham, Gregg Jasper, Anthony Cunningham, Mark and Joe Petteruti, and Mike Beatty for their assistance. 

This article first appeared in Voyage 114, winter 2021, journal of the Titanic International Society

Contributors

Michael Poirier, USA

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  1. Mark Baber said:

    23 October 1958: A special showing of the film "A Night to Remember", not yet released in the U.S., is held at the Dauphin Hotel in Manhattan. Survivor Irene Harris leaves the screening just after Titanic strikes the iceberg, saying "I will never see the rest of this. It carried me too realistically back to that night ...." She later tells Geoffrey Martin of the Rank Organisation that the title of the "starkly realistic" movie was a mistake. "It was," she says, "a night to forget." (Source: The New York Times, 27 October 1958.)

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Encyclopedia Titanica (2021) Survivors give their impressions of Titanic movies (Titanica!, ref: #578, published 13 October 2021, generated 17th October 2021 11:24:37 AM); URL : https://www.encyclopedia-titanica.org/survivors-give-their-impressions-of-the-titanic-movies.html