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Thursday, December 6, 2012

The Poseidon Adventure (1911) - Eerie Happenings on the Titanic



leading actors posed outside the Queen Mary, where exterior filming took place

Everybody knows about the 1972 Irwin Allen film "The Poseidon Adventure." It starred Gene Hackman, Ernest Borgnine and Shelley Winters, among many others, and is perhaps the defining disaster flick of the entire genre. It has several subtle references to the sinking of RMS Titanic in 1912, perhaps the most famous ship disaster in history.

The Titanic sinking


The 1972 film was based on a Paul Gallico novel of the same name published in 1969. Apparently, Gallico based his narrative on an actual freak wave that struck the Queen Mary in late 1942 as it was carrying 15,000 US troops to England to prepare for the invasion of mainland Europe. According to witnesses, the big ship nearly capsized, so it must have been an epic wave.

Some claim, though, that Gallico was referencing an even earlier disaster - in fact, that of the Titanic. A recurrent urban legend is that a film was shown on the Titanic the night that it sank - and that the film was called "The Poseidon Adventure," which certainly sounds like a title that could have been used then.

The Titanic sinking


Titanic: Ship of Odd Coincidences

Odd coincidences always have surrounded the Titanic. The most famous was the publication by Morgan Roberson of a 1898 novella called "Futility." It featured an ocean liner named the "Titan" which sank in the North Atlantic after striking an iceberg. Many striking similarities between the ship in the novel and the Titanic are known, such as the fact they were both: triple screw (not common then); described as "unsinkable" (and, contrary to what many choose to believe, that word was used in connection with the Titanic more than once); basically the same size; didn't have enough lifeboats; and sank after hitting a fateful iceberg.

The Titanic sinking


Another eerie coincidence concerning the Titanic was that one of its famous passengers, William T. Stead, had himself written a shipwreck. Written in 1886, it described a passenger liner in the North Atlantic that encounters disaster after putting to sea without enough lifeboats. He also wrote a second story, "From the Old World to the New," that features a White Star liner picking up survivors of a ship that had collided with an iceberg. Obviously, something odd was rumbling around in the back of Stead's head decades before he died on the Titanic.

There is more. One of the passengers on board the Titanic, a Dublin man named Toner, apparently also was on board the Empress of Ireland, another large liner, when it sank.  Not only that, he was among the survivors of the Lusitania when it was torpedoed during World War I (at least according to a Chicago Examiner article of May 10, 1915).

The Titanic sinking

The issue of "The Popular Magazine" that was on the news stands at the time of the Titanic's sinking contained a short story about an ocean liner striking an iceberg in the Atlantic and sinking. How's that for a coincidence?

A German book, "Atlantis," by S. Fischer Verlag, was published in early 1912. It was set aboard an ocean liner that had a fate similar to the Titanic.A Danish silent film of the same name was rushed into production shortly thereafter but banned in Norway for being in "bad taste."

The Titanic sinking

The Titanic also was said to be cursed. The White Star Line did not christen the ship, and it was said that a worker was entombed in the ship and died there during construction. The Belfast workers did not like the ship, thinking it an affront to God because of the anti-Catholicism of the Harland and Wolff Company, which built the ship. All sorts of rumors spread among the workers about the unholy nature of the ship, stories such as that the ship's identification number was sacreligious. It doesn't matter whether they were correct about this number or that, but it is a fact that many thought that there was something very wrong about the Titanic.

Finally, it is said that the Titanic carried an ancient Egyptian mummy which cursed the ship. Passenger Stead, mentioned above, supposedly purchased the mummy and was bringing it to the United States on the Titanic. After the fact, everybody involved (that was still living) denied this one, perhaps a little too strongly. There is no paperwork about such a transaction, and it is a bit too fanciful, so it must not have happened. Right?

The point is that a lot of weirdness swirled around the Titanic from the day its keel was laid down. This lasted through the day it sailed, until and including the day the Titanic sank. People just had a very odd attachment to the vessel, either good or bad, such as the ship's crewman quoted by author Walter Lord who said that "God Himself could not sink this ship." That's a very odd position for anybody to express, especially in that God-fearing age. There are several stories from that time of prospective passengers having had "premonitions" about the Titanic sinking. Some of these passengers apparently decided to book passage on a later ship - which was a major decision to make, since the coal shortage at that time meant it could be a while until another ship sailed. That's very unusual, then or now. Of course, everyone has doubts, especially in those days, and those doubts can later, after something like a catastrophic sinking, be confabulated into something more. Who knows.

The Titanic sinking


The 1911 Film "The Poseidon Adventure"

The 1911 film "The Poseidon Adventure" screened on RMS Titanic is an "urban legend," or so we are told by our betters. Supposedly, D.W. Griffith, who began directing films in 1908 and consistently churned one out ever week or two, sometimes more, produced this film in 1911 called "The Poseidon Adventure." It supposedly was written by Angelo Mazzolotti, whose actual name was Pier Angelo Mazzolotti, an Italian director active during that time. Mazzolotti is an interesting character in this regard: weirdly, he directed a 1915 film called "Titanic," apparently about a rare mineral by that name. The word "titanic" obviously was used a lot more commonly then than it is now. That film "Titanic" may be lost, or at least not publicly available, though it would be interesting from a historical perspective. Even more weirdly, Mazzolotti died in, get this, 1972, the year of the later, more famous "The Poseidon Adventure."

The 1911 film supposedly featured characters that were the same names as in the 1972 film: Mike Rogo, Reverend Frank Scott, James Martin, a steward named Acres, Belle Rosen and Nonnie Parry.

There is no official record of such a film called "The Poseidon Adventure," so it never existed. Right? Well, perhaps. That doesn't mean as much as you might think. The sheer volume of films of those days meant that some could have slipped out without much written record. It is a fact that very, very few films of the early silent film period around 1912 and earlier survive at all. Nobody cared about them as historical or literary artifacts until decades later, when most had disintegrated (early film stock was very fragile and combustible). Disintegration of that type of nitrate film stock occurs in thirty years or less, especially if storage conditions are less than ideal (e.g., the used film reels are simply thrown into a hot Southern California warehouse and forgotten).

The fact that a supposed film from 1911 called "The Poseidon Adventure" no longer exists - assuming it ever existed in the first place - would not be unusual at all. In fact, that is what you would expect. Some early screen stars have no - or very few - films still in existence. "Chimes at Midnight" is one of the most famous missing films, and it was filmed in the mid-1920s, so a missing 1911 film is hardly improbable. John Gilbert was a major film star of the 1920s, and very few of his works from that decade survive. The Australian swimmer, Annette Kellerman, was one of the most famous people on earth, actually appearing nude in some of her major film releases, and almost none of her many films survive. So, that some little-known disposable film from 1911, which never gained much attention during its time nor had any major stars, is "missing" is actually what you would expect and would be quite normal.

The Titanic sinking

Did the Titanic have a movie theater? No, but that also doesn't mean anything. Films were new, and ships were not designed to have special rooms for film screenings. There were plenty of places on board a large ocean liner where someone could set up a screen and projector, arrange some chairs, and show a two-reeler film. William H. Harbeck is said to have shown some of his British Columbia films on board the Empress of Ireland (the one that later sank) a few years earlier to calm seasick passengers. It would have been perfectly ordinary for a film expert to take over, say, the Second Class Passenger lounge, especially late on a Sunday night, to ease the monotony of a frigid transatlantic crossing. A smoking lounge would serve as a perfect screening room, since sound was not an issue. Remember - silent film era.

Donald Crisp is said to have starred in the 1911 film as Reverend Scott (the Gene Hackman role in the 1972 film). There is no record of him having done such a film. However, he was working steadily in 1911. Later, he appeared in other films involving notorious ships ('Mutiny on the Bounty" and "Sea Hawk").

The Titanic sinking

There is a page on Snopes that goes through the whole issue. It is known as a "gag" page, meaning it isn't intended to be taken seriously. The page, though, has remained up since 2008 and shows no signs of ever being taken down. They come right out and say that it isn't true, however, in a (extremely wordy) Disclaimer page. I want to emphasize that: Snopes says the story of "The Poseidon Adventure" being shown on the Titanic is all a lie. You must believe Snopes, who has all this stuff about "The Poseidon Adventure" being shown on the Titanic posted on its website. Right?


So, it is an open issue. Snope is very clear in its disclaimer page that you shouldn't take anyone's word for anything. Except, perhaps, for Snopes itself, which, as the self-appointed Guardian of all that is right and Truthful on the Internet, would never post anything untruthful or keep it up for half a dozen years. Right? When someone on the Internet tells you that you can't believe anything on the Internet except what it tells you, then it posts lies... well, "Star Trek" fans know that logic like that is how Kirk destroyed a lot of enemy computers.


I want to be absolutely clear: there is absolutely no proof that that was a 1911 film by D.W. Griffith titled "The Poseidon Adventure" that was shown on the Titanic on the night that it sank, confusing passengers and leading to many unnecessary deaths. Of course, there is no proof that there wasn't, either, which also proves nothing. Logicians know that it is impossible to prove a negative, that is, impossible to prove that there was no such film. During all those years of churning out multiple films every month/week/day, there most certainly could have been such a film, despite written records or the absence of same.


We know what D.W. Griffith was doing every day of 1911 - right? And we know that everything he did was carefully documented, and he didn't do any under-the-table films which he kept private so he could keep all the profits himself instead of giving it to the studio - right? We also know that documents from 1911 are absolutely infallible and complete, that there was no intentional dissembling by anyone back then to elude tax authorities or studios or anyone else - we're in agreement on that, correct? And there would be multiple mentions of any film made back then - you know, except for the ones you've never heard of. So believe Snopes - you know, the page on Snopes which is telling you the truth, not the one where it is lying - whichever one is which.


So we're on agreement on all that. What if the story were true except for the one fact that the film wasn't actually made by D.W. Griffith, but by someone else?

I'm so glad we can reach a consensus on this - the film never existed, and the entire story is bogus. Just go ask Snopes, they'll tell you.




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