‘Saved From the Titanic’: Survivor Dorothy Gibson’s Lost Titanic Movie

on April 11 2012 2:55 PM

Before Titanic 3-D, The Unsinkable Molly Brown or A Night to Remember, there was another movie that captivated the globe with the tale of the Titanic tragedy. It was the film that planted the seed for what would become one of the most enduring legends of modern times. Saved From the Titanic (1912) was the original Titanic mythmaker and the first movie to tackle the disaster. Yet like the ship itself, the film is now the stuff of legends.

Saved From the Titanic debuted in theaters on May 14, 1912 just one month after the cruise ship crashed into an iceberg.  Not only was it the first Titanic movie, but it starred a Titanic survivor wearing the same clothes she wore the night the Titanic sunk.

That survivor was none other than model, singer, and silent screen star Dorothy Gibson. Gibson began modeling in 1909 and burst to superstardom on the silver screen in 1911. One of her films, The Lucky Hold Up, was released while she was on the Titanic.

The 22-year-old boarded the doomed ship in Cherbourg after a six-week vacation in Italy with her mother. She was playing bridge with friends in the lounge on the night of the ship's fatal collision with an iceberg. Gibson left on the first lifeboat launched and was plucked from the sea by the Carpathia. When she arrived in New York to a mob of reporters, she had just one thing on her mind: Make a movie.

Gibson could not have realized the grand narratives that would follow as she hastily put together a script and acted out a tragedy that was only days-old at the stages of the Éclair studio in Fort Lee, N.J., then-center of the American movie industry.

Original footage of Gibson on a derelict transport vessel in New York harbor was spliced together with footage of Titanic's deceased Captain Edward Smith on the bridge of the RMS Olympic, Titanic's sister ship, images of the launch of Titanic, and stock footage of Icebergs.

The finished film was a tremendous success on both sides of the Atlantic. A one-reel quickie, the silent drama attracted huge audiences and received glowing reviews, though some questioned the way the disaster was commercialized so soon after the event.

What happened next has been described by film historians as one of the greatest losses of the silent era.

Two years after its release, a fire at Éclair destroyed the only known print of Saved From the Titanic. Renewed hope came in 1998 amid the release of the James Cameron blockbuster when it was thought that a copy of the Gibson film was found in Germany. It turned out to be a second Titanic film called In Nacht und Eis that was created in the months following the disaster.

The tale of what happened to Gibson after starring in the re-telling of her own tragedy is even stranger still. The effort of making the film appeared to have brought on an existential crisis for the young star.

According to a report in the Harrisburg Leader, she had practically lost her reason by virtue of the terrible strain she had been under to graphically portray her part.

Gibson abruptly ended her acting career soon after the film's release. At the time, she was the highest paid movie actress in the world.

The next year, Gibson crashed her married lover's car in New York, killing a man and critically injuring his wife. The scandal surrounding the crash forced Gibson to escape New York for Paris where she was later arrested as an anti-Fascist agitator and jailed during World War II. She died in Paris in 1946.

These days, Gibson is best known as the Titanic survivor that created the word's first fictionalized account of the events in Saved From the Titanic.

The film that ruined her life set the stage for a century of Titanic narratives that transformed the ship into an all-purpose metaphor. With each generation came a new iteration of the story to fit the mores of the time and to this day, no matter how many times people see the Titanic sink, their interest in the Titanic tale remains unsinkable.

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