Recently, it was reported that a German film, "In Nacht und Eis" (1912) had turned up in a private collection in Berlin ("Titanic Discovery," Morning Report, Feb. 20). The film (the title translates as "In Night and Ice"), a dramatic telling of the sinking of the Titanic, has long been considered a lost film, and it's always a small miracle to recover a movie of this vintage. Because it was released mere months after the tragic sinking of the ship, news reports have claimed that it is the "first Titanic film."
In fact, it's the second.
The first dramatic moving picture about the sinking of the Titanic was "Saved From the Titanic," released by the Eclair Moving Picture Co. of Fort Lee, N.J., on May 14, 1912--exactly one month to the day after Titanic struck its iceberg.
Unfortunately, this version remains lost, which is a shame because a film released in such proximity to its subject--particularly this subject--would be inherently important. But what is more interesting still is that the star of "Saved From the Titanic" was actress and model Dorothy Gibson, a Titanic survivor.
Gibson was returning with her mother on the Titanic to New York after a European vacation. On the night of April 14, they played bridge with two friends and returned to their first-class cabin at 11:40 p.m. Gibson later recalled, "No sooner had I stepped into my apartment than there suddenly came this long, drawn, sickening scrunch."
Although few passengers of the Titanic took the situation seriously at first, when the order was given to lower away lifeboats, Gibson and her three bridge buddies were the first to go. They left the Titanic in Boat 7, four of only 28 passengers--less than half the boat's capacity.
Once back in the U.S., Gibson wasted no time in adapting her thrilling story for the movies. What plot there was in this one-reel film was taken up with a romantic complication--Dorothy, traumatized by her experience on the Titanic, wants her naval officer fiance (future director John Adolfi) to give up the sea. But the film would be fascinating today because of its incidental documentary features--an actual survivor of the Titanic playing herself in a film about the disaster, costumed in the very clothes (a white evening dress, long sweater, gloves and a pair of black pumps) in which she abandoned ship. That all this was committed to film within days of the sinking is enough to make any Titanic enthusiast sigh with frustration.
We can rejoice in the recovery of "In Nacht und Eis," from the viewpoints of both film preservation and Titanic history. But the first film on the subject--and arguably the more important of the two--is still gone.
Maybe one day The Times will report again that the "first Titanic movie" has been found--and that this time it will indeed be the first--"Saved From the Titanic."
Author and film historian Frank Thompson devotes a chapter to "Saved From the Titanic" in his book "Lost Films" (Citadel, 1996).