We all remember Kate and Leo in James Cameron’s Titanic, but the very first film about the disaster was the definition of “too soon”—and extremely eerie to boot.
When the Titanic sunk on April 15, 1912, one of its lucky survivors was 22-year-old screen actress Dorothy Gibson. The starlet was returning home to New York when the ship hit the iceberg, and she managed to make it out on the very first lifeboat. But after she escaped the disaster, a new nightmare began.
As soon as Gibson finally hit American soil, Éclair Film Studio asked if she wanted to star in their dramatization of the disaster, a silent picture they would call Saved from the Titanic. Gibson, likely still in shock, agreed. It also helped that she’d been having an affair with one of Éclair’s producers, Jules Brulatour.
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Unsurprisingly, Gibson was somewhat “difficult” during the production of Saved from the Titanic. After all, the crew had her wearing the same clothes as on that fateful day. Meanwhile, the script forced her to relive a near-exact replication of her experiences on the ship. She kept bursting into tears, and Brulatour had to continually convince her she was doing this in homage to the Titanic victims. That, or for the advancement of her career.
The rushed, one-reel production took only a week to shoot. After that, the 10-minute film was out in theaters a bare month after the Titanic hit the bottom of the ocean. Dorothy Gibson’s recovery from the catastrophe, however, took far longer. She suffered a mental breakdown soon after filming wrapped, and her trauma was all but explicit on screen.
As one reporter noted, she had “the appearance of one whose nerves had been greatly shocked." She made just one film after Saved from the Titanic, then retired.
Though some critics questioned the film’s ethics in profiting off the wreck, Saved from the Titanic received mostly positive reviews. It also kickstarted the Titanic obsession that continues in today’s popular culture. Yet in the end, the film suffered a similar fate to the Titanic itself. In 1914, less than two years after its release, a fire at Éclair’s studio destroyed the footage. Saved from the Titanic is now a lost film.
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