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Get Me Rewrite: Class Warfare on 'Titanic'

January 04, 1998|Steven J. Ross | Steven J. Ross, a history professor at the University of Southern California, is author of "Working-Class Hollywood: Silent Film and the Shaping of Class in America," due out next month

For all its money and modern technological wizardry, "Titanic" is an extremely old-fashioned movie that reinforces conservative ideas about the inevitability of class hierarchies and class injustice in America. Its approach to class relations, in fact, is remarkably similar to the seemingly liberal but ultimately reactionary cross-class fantasy films that accompanied the rise of the Hollywood studio system in the late 1910s and early 1920s.

In 1912, when the real Titanic went down, movies were far more concerned with portraying the genuine hardships of working-class life than at any subsequent time in cinema history. Immigrants and blue-collar workers--ostensibly the heroic figures of "Titanic"--comprised the bulk of the nation's movie audiences; and filmmakers appealed to them by turning out hundreds of liberal and radical movies that showed workers, unionists and socialists defeating employers, solving the problems of the day and achieving justice for all Americans. These movies made workers the heroes and heroines of their own entertainment.

Far from auguring a new era of liberalism, the rise of Hollywood pushed American films in increasingly conservative directions. As studios attempted to attract greater numbers of prosperous middle-class viewers, movies about conflict between the classes were superseded by cross-class fantasy films--telling stories of poor boys marrying rich girls, or rich boys marrying poor girls, and emphasizing love and harmony among the classes. Presenting a point of view that fit well into the conservative Republican politics of the day, cross-class fantasies of the '20s stressed acceptance rather than change, and suggested that love--not political action--was all one needed to achieve happiness. By so doing, these films helped legitimize the class inequalities that dominated American life.

Focusing on romantic involvements between upper-class and working-class men and women, these fantasies offered audiences voyeuristic glimpses of the extravagant life styles of the American aristocracy, while also revealing their deeply flawed nature. These films frequently spouted a populist rhetoric that fed into public hostility toward the idle classes. Films such as "The Idle Rich" (1921), "Fools and Riches" (1923), and Cecil B. DeMille's "The Triumph" (1924) worked viewers into a feverish pitch of vengeful glee as they saw wealthy protagonists get their comeuppance.

DeMille and his modern-day counterpart, James Cameron, portray working people as salt-of-the-earth types who frequently best their so-called "betters." This is evident in "Titanic," where scenes show working-class artist Jack Dawson triumphing over wealthy Cal Hockley in dinner conversation and in winning Rose DeWitt Bukater's love. The genuine fun had by the poor but happy immigrants in steerage leave us with a sense of the moral superiority of the working class. Rose would be a dope to choose Cal over Jack.

Yet, beneath the liberal veneer of "Titanic" and cross-class fantasies of the 1920s are highly conservative attitudes toward class relations. Cameron concedes a sense of moral superiority to his blue-collar protagonists--but in the end it is the rich who triumph, while the poor return to their "proper" place. Unfortunately, in "Titanic," that place is at the bottom of the ocean: Most of the working-class passengers perish while the rich survive. What sort of triumph is that?

There is a fatalism at work in "Titanic" that suggests this is the way it was and always will be; there is nothing anyone can do to remedy the situation in which the so-called superior class is constantly oppressed by the inferior class. It is this sense of class despair and defeat that makes "Titanic" politically conservative.

Could "Titanic" have been any different? Sure. If working-class people are the betters in the film, then let the rich die and poor survive.

But this still would not change the film's basic class pessimism. To do that, Cameron and his peers would have to learn from earlier labor-capital film-makers who told audiences that nothing was inevitable and offered them visions of how things could be different. Rather than simply acknowledge the inequalities of wealth and power in society, their movies offered viewers blueprints for change. They made films that depicted a unified working class using strikes, unions and third parties to transform a nation. In a era of growing poverty and corporate downsizing, these are messages worth telling again and again.

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