Levon Helm, multi-instrumentalist best known for providing drums and both lead and backing vocals for the band, passed on 19 April 2012 at the age of 71. The cause was cancer.
Levon Helm was born Mark Lavon Helm on 26 May 1940 in Elaine, Arkansas. He spent his child hood in Turkey Scratch, a small village outside Helena, Arkansas. His family loved music, so that Mr. Helm was exposed to it at a very early age. At age six he saw his first live concert, one by Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys. The show left an impression on young Lavon Helm's mind. When he was ten and eleven, during those times when he was not working on the farm or in school, he often went to radio station KFFA in Helena to watch blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson in his radio show, King Biscuit Time. By the time he was eleven he could already play both the guitar and the harmonica. Impressed by the drummers in Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis's bands, it would be rock 'n' roll that would lead Lavon Helm to become a drummer. He was only a junior in high school when he formed his first band, The Jungle Bush Beaters.
By the time Lavon Helm was 18 his talent was such that he was able to join Ronnie Hawkins' band The Hawks following his graduation from high school. It was at this time that Lavon Helm's stage name became "Levon Helm." The Hawks had some difficulty pronouncing Lavon's name correctly, more often than not pronouncing it "Levon." It was in 1959 that Ronnie Hawkins and The Hawks were signed to Roulette Records. Ronnie Hawkins and The Hawks would have a significant hit in 1959 with the song "Mary Lou," which went to #26 on the Billboard Hot 100.
It was in the early Sixties that Ronnie Hawkins and Levon Helm formed a new band of Hawks, recruiting Canadians Ronnie Robertson on guitar, Rick Danko on bass, Richard Manuel on piano, and Garth Hudson on organ--essentially what would become The Band. It was in 1964 that The Hawks and Ronnie Hawkins parted over personal differences. In 1965 the band would record two singles, both under different names. "Uh-Uh-Uh"/"Leave Me Alone" was released under the name of The Canadian Squires, while "The Stones I Throw"/"He Don't Love You (and He'll Break Your Heart)" was released under the name Levon and The Hawks. It was late in 1965 that Bob Dylan hired The Hawks as his backing band on his next tour--the first on which he would utilise electric instruments. Unfortunately, folk music fans were none too happy with Bob Dylan's transition from folk musician to rock star, so that his concerts were often met with a somewhat negative reception. Three months into the tour Levon Helm left. While Levon Helm worked on an oil rig, the rest of The Hawks continued to tour with Bob Dylan. When Mr. Dylan was injured in a motorcycle accident and retired to Woodstock, New York to recover, The Hawks joined him there. In Woodstock The Hawks were more often than not called simply "the band." The name stuck.
Eventually Levon Helm returned to The Hawks. The group rented a big, pink house in Woodstock, New York where they set to work on writing original material. What had been The Hawks were signed to Capitol Records under the name "The Band." Their first album, Music From Big Pink (the name taken from the big pink house in Woodstock), was released 1 July 1968. The album received largely positive reviews and would eventually peak on the Billboard album charts at #18. While the single "The Weight" only peaked at #63 on the Billboard Hot 100, it would go onto become one of their most recognisable songs.
Their eponymous second album was released over a year later, on 22 September 1969. The Band contained what may well be the group's best known song, "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down." The single from the album, Up on Cripple Creek, went to #25 on the Billboard Hot 100. The album The Band itself went to #9 on the Billboard albums chart. The Band would have continued success with their next album, Stage Fright, released on 17 August 1970. The album went to #5 on the Billboard album chart. In the Seventies The Band's albums would continue to do moderately well on the charts. They released four more studio albums (Cahoots, Moondog Matinee, Northern Lights--Southern Cross, and Islands), as well as a live album (Rock of Ages). Their single, "Baby, Don't Do It," a cover of the Marvin Gaye song from Rock of Ages, went to #34 on the Billboard Hot 100. By 1976 Robbie Robertson had grown weary of touring, so that The Band decided to retire from touring. They held a farewell concert on Thanksgiving in 1976 in San Francisco, California. The concert was filmed by Martin Scorsese and released as the movie The Last Waltz. A soundtrack album was also released.
After The Band's retirement Levon Helm continued to perform as a solo artist. From the late Seventies into the early Eighties, Mr. Helm recorded the solo albums Levon Helm & The RCO All Stars, Levon Helm, American Son, and Levon Helm. In 1983 The Band reunited without Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm was part of the reunion. Sadly, Richard Manuel committed suicide in 1986. Messrs. Helm, Danko and Hudson would continue to perform as The Band. In 1989 Levon Helm and Rick Danko performed as part of Ringo Starr's All-Star Band. In 1990 Levon Helm, Rick Danko, and Garth Hudson performed as The Band at Roger Water's "The Wall-Live in Berlin in Germany. In 1993 The Band released their first new studio album in years, Jericho, without Robbie Robertson as part of the group. The Band released two more studio albums, High on the Hog in 1996 and Jubilation in 1998.
It was in 1998 that Levon Helm was diagnosed with throat cancer. It would be some time before he could sing again. He would return to singing in 2004 with the launch of his Midnight Ramble Sessions. The Midnight Ramble Sessions were a series of live concerts performed at his studio, "The Barn," at his home in Woodstock, New York. Levon Helm also returned to touring. In 2005 two albums collecting The Midnight Ramble Sessions were released (Midnight Ramble Sessions Volume I and Midnight Ramble Sessions Volume II). In 2007 Levon Helm released his first solo album since 1982, Dirt Farmer. On 17 September 2009 Levon Helm performed at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, Tennessee. The performance was recorded and released as the album Ramble at the Ryman in 2011. In 2009 he released his final studio album, Electric Dirt.
Levon Helm also had an acting career. He made his film debut in 1980 playing Loretta Lynn's father in Coal Miner's Daughter. He would go onto appear in such films as The Right Stuff (1983), Best Revenge (1984), Man Outside (1989), Feeling Minnesota (1996), The Adventures of Sebastian Cole (1998), Shooter (2007), and In the Electric Mist (2009).
It is probably impossible to adequately assess the importance of Levon Helm to the history of rock, folk, and Americana music. Indeed, it must be said that without Levon Helm, The Band would never have come into being. Aside from being the founder of one of the most influential bands in the last half of the 20th Century, he was also an extremely talented multi-instrumentalist. Although best known as The Band's drummer, Mr. Helm could play guitar, harmonica, mandolin, bass, and banjo, and he was good at all of them. What is more, he was one of rock music's most distinctive vocalist. He had a strong tenor voice with a touch of roughness about it and his Arkansas accent could often clearly be heard. Levon Helm's band would have an influence on several bands over the years, as diverse as Crosby, Stills, Nash, & Young; Led Zeppelin; Elvis Costello, The Black Crowes; and The Hold Steady. Multi-instrumentalist and vocalist, Levon Helm would have a lasting impact on rock, folk, and Americana music.
Character actor William Finley, perhaps best known for the lead role in Brian De Palma's cult classic Phantom of the Paradise, passed on 14 April 2012 at the age of 69.
William Finley was born on 20 September 1942 in New York City. At the Collegiate School in New York City he worked as a theatrical set designer on school productions. He graduated from Columbia University. It was while he was doing graduate work at Sarah Lawrence College that he met director Brian De Palma. William Finley made his film debut in Mr. De Palma's short Woton's Wake, on which he also worked as a set designer.
Mr. Finley would also make his feature film debut in a movie directed by Brian De Palma, 1968's Murder à la Mod. Over the next few years he would appear in Mr. De Palma's films The Wedding Party (1969), Dionysus (1970), and Sisters (1973). It was in 1974 that the film for which he was best known was released, Phantom of the Paradise. Phantom of the Paradise was a modernised, rock version of Phantom of the Opera, with elements of Faust and The Picture of Dorian Gray thrown in for good measure. In the film William Finley played singer and composer Winslow Leach, who after his face is damaged by a record press, takes revenge on the music mogul (Swan, played by Paul Williams) who wronged him. The movie received mixed reviews and bombed at the box office upon its initial release, but go onto develop a cult following and also grow in reputation as well.
Following Phantom of the Paradise, Mr. Finley would appear in such films as Eaten Alive (1977), The Fury (1978), Wise Blood (1979), Simon (1980), Dressed to Kill (1980), The Funhouse (1981), Silent Rage (1982), Double Negative (1985), Night Terrors (1985), and The Black Dahlia (2006). On television he appeared in the TV movie Last Hours Before Morning as well as the shows Tales From the Crypt, Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and Masters of Horror.
William Finley also wrote the screenplay for the film The First Time (1985). With Marion Weinstein he co-wrote the book Racewalking, essentially a guide to the sport of racewalking.
William Finley was an actor who had a talent for playing roles that were somewhat left of centre. In this respect his role as Winslow Leach in Phantom of the Paradise was the rule, not the exception, to the sort of parts he played throughout his career. In Silent Rage he played the eccentric scientist Dr. Paul Vaughn. In Tobe Hooper's Eaten Alive he played the somewhat disturbed Roy. Mr. Finley was quite good at playing characters whose sanity was at times lacking, taking characters who could have been mere stereotypes and making them three dimensional. In this respect he was perfectly cast in Phantom of the Paradise. While it is the movie for which he was remembered, William Finley played many great roles throughout his career.
Jonathan Frid, the Canadian actor who gained lasting fame as Barnabas Collins on the Gothic horror soap opera Dark Shadows, passed on 13 February 2012 at the age of 87.
Jonathan Frid was born John Herbert Frid on 2 December 1924 in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. During World War II he served in the Royal Canadian Navy. He attended McMaster University in Hamilton in 1948. Afterwards he attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. In 1954 he moved to the United States, where he received a Master of Fine Arts degree in Directing at the Yale School of Drama.
Jonathan Frid established a thriving career on stage in the Fifties and Sixties. He appeared alongside Katharine Hepburn in a production of Much Ado About Nothing. He also appeared in productions of Murder in the Cathedral and Dial M for Murder. In 1964 he appeared on Broadway in the play Roar Like a Dove. In 1966 he appeared in a production of Two Gentlemen of Verona.
It was in 1967 that he would assume the role for which he was best known, that of Barnabas Collins on Dark Shadows. Dark Shadows was originally a soap opera based on the Gothic style romance novels popular in the mid-Sixties. Debuting in 1966, the show had only been on for around six months when it took a turn towards Gothic horror in a story line involving an immortal, humanoid creature termed a phoenix. Having taken a turn towards the supernatural, it was perhaps inevitable that a vampire character would join the cast. Barnabas Collins first appeared on the 18 April 1967 episode. As portrayed by Jonathan Frid, Barnabas Collins was a vampire who deplored his immortal life and was disgusted by his blood lust. Quite simply, it was one of the earliest portrayals of a sympathetic vampire, pre-dating similar portrayals on Forever Knight and Buffy the Vampire Slayer by decades.
Barnabas Collins would transform Dark Shadows into an outright phenomenon. Unlike many soap operas at the time, there would be a good deal of Dark Shadows merchandise, from games to comic books. The show was successful enough to inspire two films while it was still on the air. In the first, House of Dark Shadows (1970), Jonathan Frid reprised his role as Barnabas Collins. Barnabas would not be the only character that Jonathan Frid played on Dark Shadows. He also played Bramwell Collins, the son of Barnabas Collins in a parallel timeline in the last few months of the show's existence.
Sadly, ratings for Dark Shadows would drop dramatically in its last two years on the air. Despite protests from the show's fans, ABC then cancelled Dark Shadows in 1971. Following its cancellation Dark Shadows would do something no other soap opera had done before or since--its reruns would see success in syndication. It would even air on the Sci-Fi Channel for years. The series would see a new, primetime version on NBC in 1991 and an attempted revival on the WB in 2004. It is currently the basis for Tim Burton's latest film, Dark Shadows, to be released in a few weeks.
Following Dark Shadows Jonathan Frid appeared in the television movie The Devils Daughter (which aired in 1974) and Oliver Stone's directorial debut Seizure (1974). He has a cameo in the upcoming feature film Dark Shadows (2012). As an outgrowth of his appearances at Dark Shadows fan conventions, in the Eighties Mr. Frid created a number of one man shows under the heading Reader's Theatre and toured the United States. In 1986 and 1987 Jonathan Frid appeared as Jonathan Brewster in a revival of Arsenic and Old Lace. The production was successful enough that after it's Broadway run, Jonathan Frid toured with it for ten months afterwards. In 1993 he directed a production of The Lion in Winter, which starred fellow Dark Shadows cast member Marie Wallace. Later in the Nineties he formed Charity Associates, an organisation through which he could raise money for charities using his Reader's Theatre performances. In 2000 he appeared in a production of Mass Appeal in his hometown of Hamilton, Ontario.
It is quite possible that Barnabas Collins is the most famous character to ever emerge from a television soap opera. He also remains one of the most famous vampires to appear either on television or in motion pictures. While much of this is no doubt due to the decision of the production staff of Dark Shadows to make the initially monstrous Barnabas into a sympathetic, tragic protagonist. Indeed, Barnabas Collins was one of the first truly sympathetic vampires in any medium and the first to receive mass exposure five days a week. While the production staff of Dark Shadows was then largely responsible for the impact Barnabas Collins would have on pop culture in the late Sixties, it was mostly the considerable talent of Jonathan Frid that would make the vampire an outright phenomenon.
A skilled stage actor, Jonathan Frid was able to bring out the vulnerable side of Barnabas Collins and explore the tragic nature of the character's existence. He made Barnabas Collins three dimensional not only in a way few vampires on film ever had been, but three dimensional in a way few characters on soap opera ever had been. If Dark Shadows became a phenomenon with Barnabas Collins at its centre, then Jonathan Frid deserved much of the credit.
Of course, it must be kept in mind that Jonathan Frid played many more characters than Barnabas Collins. On Dark Shadows he also played the tragic, romantic hero Bramwell Collins in the parallel timeline story arc. Over the years he played characters ranging from the Duke of Milan in Two Gentlemen of Verona to Father Tim Farley in Mass Appeal. He did all of these parts well. While his fame may largely due to one character on one television show, Jonathan Frid did so much more in his career.
Dick Clark, long time host of American Bandstand and television producer, died today at the age of 82. He passed after having a heart attack following outpatient surgery at St. John's Health Centre in Santa Monica, California.
Dick Clark was born on 30 November 1929 in Mount Vernon, New York. He started his career in radio in the mailroom at WRUN in Utica, New York. The station was owned by his uncle and managed by his father. Mr. Clark was only 17 when he started reading the news and weather reports. Dick Clark attended Syracuse University, from which he graduated with a degree in business in 1951. It was in 1952 that he went to work at the radio stations Initially Bandstand aired short musical films of the sort produced by Snader Telescriptions and Official Films (essentially a primitive version of music videos). This format only lasted about a month, and it then became the dance show it would remain for the rest of its existence. Originally Bandstand was hosted by popular disc jockey Bob Horn. It was on 9 July 1956 that Bob Horn was convicted of driving while intoxicated. This resulted in Mr. Horn's dismissal from Bandstand. It was Dick Clark who was hired to take his place
That Dick Clark became the host of Bandstand was fortunate for both Mr. Clark and the programme. It was in 1957 that ABC was looking for new afternoon programming. Thinking that Bandstand could air on the network, Mr. Clark went to New York City with a kinescope of Bandstand to pitch the show to ABC executives. The show was given a seven week trial run on the network. Renamed American Bandstand, it debuted on ABC on 5 August 1957. Dick Clark would remain the host of American Bandstand until 1987. The show continued to air on weekday afternoons until 7 September 1963, when it moved to Saturday afternoon.
The success of American Bandstand would lead Dick Clark to other shows. In 1958 Mr. Clark received his own prime time show, The Dick Clark Show. The show featured musical performances, as well as interviews (not just of musicians, but also of such show business personalities as Bob Hope and Tony Randall). It lasted until 1960. From September 1959 to December 1959 he hosted Dick Clark's World of Talent, essentially a music competition programme. From 1963 to 1964 Dick Clark was the host of the short lived game show The Object Is (it was the first game show he hosted). About the same time he hosted ABC's edition ofthe game show Missing Links. In 1965 Dick Clark once more became the host of a weekday, music programme. Where the Action Is was a half hour programme shot at various places around California and featuring performances by the biggest music artists of the day. The show had several regulars, with Paul Revere and the Raiders more or less the show's house band in everything but name only. Where the Action Is lasted until 1967.
Starting in 1972 Dick Clark produced and hosted Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve, which would become an annual special aired every New Year's Eve on ABC. Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve consisted of live remotes at Time Square in New York City as well as musical performances (both live and recorded). Dick Clark hosted the show every year except 2004, when he was recovering from a stroke. After 2004 he co-hosted with Ryan Seacrest. In 1973 Dick Clark became the host of The $10,000 Pyramid (which, though inflation, would eventually become The $100,000 Pyramid). Dick Clark hosted the daytime version of the show in most of its incarnations until 1988. In 1978 he hosted a short lived variety show on NBC called Dick Clark's Live Wednesday. In 1980 he was the host of the short lived variety programme The Big Show on NBC. Beginning in 1984 Dick Clark co-hosted TV's Bloopers & Practical Jokes with Ed McMahon. The programme would air at times as both a regular series and as a series of specials. Mr. Clark would continue as a co-host on the programme into the Nineties.
In 1990 and 1991 Dick Clark hosted the syndicated game show The Challengers and in 1993 he hosted the short lived game show Scattergories. From 2001 to 2003 he was the host of the daily, NBC talk show The Other Half.
Of course, Dick Clark was not merely a TV show host. He was also a very prolific producer who produced several major television shows. As might be expected, the first show he produced was American Bandstand. Over the years he would work as a producer on such shows as Where the Action Is, The Guns of Will Sonnett, It's Happening, You Are the Jury, The Weird Al Show, TV's Bloopers and Practical Jokes, Beyond Belief: Fact or Fiction, American Dreams, and Dick Clark's Rockin' New Year's Eve. In 1973 following a disagreement between ABC and the Grammy Awards, Dick Clark created the American Music Awards. From the Seventies into the 21st Century, Dick Clark produced most of the award show's broadcasts. Mr. Clark also produced feature films, including Psych-Out (1968), The Savage Seven (1968), and The Dark (1979).
Dick Clark also appeared as an actor in some shows. In most of these instances he played himself, appearing on such shows as The Jack Benny Programme, Batman, The Partridge Family, The Odd Couple,and Murphy Brown. He also played himself in movies, including Gidget (1959) and The Phynx (1970). While Dick Clark mostly appeared as himself on TV shows and in movies, he also performed some roles in TV shows and films. He had parts in the films Because They're Young (1960), The Young Doctors (1961), Wild in the Streets (1968), and Killers Three (1969). He guest starred on such shows as Stoney Burke, Burke's Law, Ben Casey, Branded, Honey West, Lassie, Perry Mason, and Coronet Blue.
Even though he was 82, I rather suspect many of us find it hard to believe that Dick Clark is dead. Part of this is due in no part in that prior to his stroke in 2004 Mr. Clark never seemed to age. He largely looked the same in the 1990's as he had in the 1950's. It is also likely that Dick Clark's death seems unbelievable because he was the part of the childhood of at least three generations: the Silent Generation, the Baby Boomers, and Generation X. He was the host of American Bandstand for three decades and the host of various other shows for fifty years. I very seriously doubt that there are very many between the ages of 75 and 35 who have not seen at least one regularly scheduled programme hosted by Dick Clark.
Indeed, Dick Clark's impact on American pop culture is such that I doubt that the vast majority of Americans have heard of him, even those too young to remember American Bandstand. While Dick Clark would produce numerous shows and host many others, his most important position in American pop culture may well have been as host of American Bandstand. Quite simply, as the host of American Bandstand Dick Clark helped bring rock 'n' roll into the mainstream. As a clean cut, non-threatening young man Dick Clark helped allay the fear of older Americans in the Fifties about a music genre many of them regarded as dangerous. While Dick Clark helped ease the fears of older people, even into his fifties he was a figure with whom teenagers could be comfortable. He never talked down to them and always treated them with respect. This made him the perfect host for American Bandstand.
Aside from bringing rock 'n' roll into the mainstream, Dick Clark's position as host and producer of American Bandstand made him significant to American pop culture in other ways. In the Fifties many dance programmes did not include African Americans. American Bandstand did. In fact, it was one of the first integrated shows on American television. And it was largely at Dick Clark's insistence that it became such. American Bandstand itself would prove pivotal in the careers of artists ranging from Fabian to The Jackson Five. As a regularly scheduled, nationally broadcast dance show American Bandstand would also pave the way for other shows featuring rock music, from Shindig to Hulabaloo to Mr. Clark's own Where the Action Is. Indeed, Where the Action Is may have been pivotal in the career of Paul Revere and The Raiders. Already a popular rock band, their regular exposure on the show may have been partly responsible for their string of hits from 1965 to 1968. Of course, Dick Clark also produced numerous shows as well. Dick Clark's New Year's Rockin' Eve would become an annual tradition for many.
In the end Dick Clark's career was such that it is perhaps impossible to evaluate his importance to American pop culture. From the Fifties to the Nineties he was nearly ubiquitous on American television. His position alone as host and producer of American Bandstand made him one of the most important figures in American television in the last half of the 20th Century. That he did so much more made him even more important to American pop culture.
Those of you familiar with the blog Classic Movies know that three times a week KC compiles a group of links related to classic film. For the next two weeks KC is holding an event where links are provided by a series of guest bloggers. It was my honour to provide today's Classic Links.
I also want to take the time to encourage you to subscribe to Classic Movies or add it to your RSS reader. KC not only posts classic film related links, but also birthdays for classic movie personalities, movie related quotes, and articles!
It was on 10 April 1912 that the RMS Titanic departed on its maiden's voyage from Southampton, Hampshire, England to New York City, New York, United States. At the time it was largest ship in operation. On board the ship were some of the most richest and most famous individuals in the world: businessman and inventor Colonel John Jacob Astor IV; American millionaire and philanthropist Margaret "Molly" Brown; Scottish landowner Sir Cosmo Duff-Gordon; British fashion designer Lucy, Lady Duff-Gordon; film actress Dorothy Gibson; American businessman Benjamin Guggenheim; J. Bruce Ismay, chairman and managing director of the White Star Line; Macy's co-owner Isidor Strauss and his wife Ida; and many others. Sadly, as history shows, the Titanic would not even survive its first voyage. It was 100 years ago today, on 15 April 1912, that the RMS Titanic sank after hitting an iceberg in the North Atlantic. Out of the 2223 people on board, 1,514 died.
Needless to say, given the magnitude of the disaster, the sinking of the Titanic was the biggest news story at the time. That having been said, in an era before radio was common place and television was yet to be invented, let alone communications satellites, the news of the disaster was much slower to spread than it was today. In fact, early on 15 April American newspapers were mistakenly reporting that the Titanic was being towed into New York City by the S. S. Virginian. It was later that day that the world at large learned that not had the Titanic been lost, but the majority of its passengers had died. Interest in the disaster was so intense that crowds of people actually gathered at the offices of the White Star Line, the British shipping company that had owned the Titanic, in London, Southampton, Belfast, New York City, Montreal, and its headquarters in Liverpool. A complete listing of survivors of the disaster would not be available until 17 April 1912. For the next several weeks news of the survivors' stories would fill the pages of newspapers and magazines worldwide.
Not surprisingly given the magnitude of the disaster, the sinking of the Titanic had an immediate impact on pop culture in the English speaking world and has maintained one ever since. Over the years there have been books, plays, films, songs, and even poetry inspired by the sinking of the Titanic. In fact, I rather suspect that it is safe to say that the Titanic has probably had a bigger impact on pop culture than any other ship ever built.
Given the outpouring of grief that naturally accompanied the sinking of the Titanic and the public's fascination with the ship and its survivors, it made an impression on popular culture almost immediately. In 1912 poetry was still a popular medium, so that perhaps the disaster's most immediate impact on pop culture was an outpouring of poetry commemorating the event. Much of this poetry was largely written by unknowns and much of it has since been, perhaps deservedly, forgotten. Well established poets would and did write about the disaster. Thomas Hardy wrote an eleven stanza poem entitled "The Convergence of the Twain (Lines on the loss of the Titanic)." Harriet Monroe wrote a shorter poem entitled "Titanic Requiem." Both Mr. Hardy and Miss Monroe's poems were published in 1912, but many poems would be published years later. E. J. Pratt's "The Titanic" was published in 1935.
Aside from poems, another immediate impact that the Titanic disaster would have on popular culture would be through songs. In John Wilson Foster's book The Titanic Complex, folklorist D. K. Wilgus was quoted as saying that the Titanic provoked "...what seems to be the largest number of songs concerning any disaster, perhaps any event in American history." In the years 1912-1913 in the United States alone over 100 songs were written about the disaster. The types of songs written about the Titanic were of a large variety, ranging from songs that were mere commercial exploitation of the disaster to love songs to outright religious hymns. One of the earliest and best known songs was the folk song "The Titanic (also known as ""It Was Sad When That Great Ship Went Down"). While its author remains unknown, the song has been dated to around 1915 or 1916.
The sinking of the Titanic would inspire a surprisingly large number of blues songs. In 1927 Rabbit Brown recorded the popular "Sinking of the Titanic." In 1929 Blind Willie Johnson recorded "God Moves on the Water." In 1948 Leadbelly released "The Titanic (Fare thee, Titanic, Fare thee well)." The Titanic would also provide inspiration for performers what might be called country music, but in some cases which may be better described as "old time music" or "hillbilly music." Ernest Stoneman recorded "The Titanic" in 1924. In 1927 Frank Hutchinson recorded "The Last Scene of the Titanic." In 1938 The Dixon Brothers recorded "Down With the Old Canoe."
While the sinking of the Titanic would have an impact on folk, blues, and old time music, it has not had as a large an impact on rock music and other later forms of popular music. Seventies Norwegian rock band Titanic took their name from the ship. The song "Little Titanic" by alternative hip hop band Why? takes its inspiration from the disaster, as does "The Titanic (Let It Burn)" by blues and folk performer Ruthie Foster.
While poems and songs based around the Titanic disaster appeared almost immediately, it would take some time before plays based on the disaster would be mounted. Ernest Raymond's The Berg: A Play (1929) is set on a thinly disguised version of the Titanic. Noel Coward's Cavalcade (1931) would include a final scene aboard the ship. Perhaps the best known play based on the Titanic disaster was the musical The Unsinkable Molly Brown (1960), which centred upon Margaret Brown, the American millionaire who worked to save many of the lives of those aboard the Titanic.
Of course, perhaps no other medium has produced better known works based on the sinking of the Titanic than film. It was only 29 days after the Titanic disaster that the first film based upon it appeared. "Saved From the Titanic" starred and was co-written by Dorothy Gibson, the silent actress who had actually been aboard the ship. The 10 minute film was loosely based on her actual rescue from the sinking vessel. While much of the account was fictionalised, Miss Gibson did wear the same clothing she had been wearing when she was saved. Sadly, the film was lost long ago in a fire in March 1914. The German film "In Nacht und Eis" was also based on the Titanic disaster and released in 1912. It too is believed lost.
Based on the play The Berg: A Play, the 1929 feature film Atlantic was also loosely based on the voyage of the Titanic. It is essentially a romance set aboard what is clearly a fictionalised version of the Titanic (the Atlantic). In 1943 Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels commissioned a propaganda film based on the disaster. Titanic (1943) was essentially Nazi propaganda that sought to discredit British and American businessmen while at the same time glorifying the bravery of German men. Needless to say, the film was not particularly historically accurate! This would also be true of another film entitled Titanic, released in 1953 by 20th Century Fox and starring Clifton Webb and Barbara Stanwyck. Although a well done film, its primary concern is the relationship between an estranged couple, with the Titanic serving merely as a historic backdrop.
What may be the greatest film ever made based on the sinking of the Titanic was A Night to Remember, released in 1958. The film was a result of producer William McQuitty's fascination with the Titanic--who had actually witnessed the launch of the ship when he was a lad. The movie was based on the book A Night to Remember (1955) by William Lord, a non-fiction work still regarded as one of the best sources of information on the Titanic disaster. A good deal of research went into the making the film, so that very few historical inaccuracies appear in the film (the christening of the Titanic is one--the ship was never christened). To this day A Night to Remember is still regarded by many as the greatest film about the disaster.
In 1964 there would be a film adaptation of The Unsinkable Molly Brown, starring Debbie Reynolds in the title role. Like the musical, the movie was a highly fictionalised account of Margaret Brown's life up to and including her time aboard the Titanic. Raise the Titanic from 1980 was not about the sinking of the Titanic, but took inspiration from it nonetheless. Based on a book of the same name by Clive Cussler, the movie portrays a group of Americans who seek to salvage the wreck of the ship. The 1981 film Time Bandits, which involved time travel, included a sequence set aboard the Titanic. What may be the most famous film based on the sinking of the Titanic is Titanic (1997), directed by James Cameron. Titanic is perhaps best regarded as a cross between Titanic (1953) and A Night to Remember (1958). While a wealth of historical detail is portrayed to the look and operations of the ship, the movie itself centred around a fictional romance between a young, poor artist and a wealthy young woman. Among the movie's historical inaccuracies are some of the portrayals of the historical figures who were aboard the ship. Titanic would become the highest grossing film of all time before being adjusted for inflation (after being adjusting for inflation the highest grossing film is still Gone With the Wind), a position it held before being surpassed by Avatar in 2010.
Perhaps because of the sheer cost in mounting such productions, television has dealt less with the Titanic disaster than film. The very first episode of the television series The Time Tunnel (1966-1967) was set aboard the Titanic. The episode found the lead characters, who travel through time in each episode, aboard the Titanic and attempting to prevent the disaster (never mind this would have dramatically changed history). In 1979 the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) aired a television movie titled S.O.S. Titanic. Unlike many version of the disaster, S.O.S. Titanic was for the most part historically accurate, with only a few inaccuracies being portrayed. Nineteen ninety six would see two television movies, both of which were rife with historical inaccuracies. Titanic aired on the American network CBS. No Greater Love (based on a Danielle Steel novel) was not about the disaster itself, but used the disaster as the catalyst for a plot about a young woman who must raised her younger siblings after their parents died in the sinking of the Titanic.
The 2007 Christmas special of the long running television programme Doctor Who took inspiration from the Titanic disaster. The episode finds The Doctor aboard an alien spaceship named for and modelled after the historic Earth vessel. Unfortunately, this space bound Titanic also meets with disaster. Given that 2012 is the 100th anniversary of the disaster, it should come as no surprise that there would be two television serials based upon it. Titanic is a four part serial from the creator of Downton Abbey, Lord Julian Fellowes. The serial debuted on ITV on 25 March 2012 in the United Kingdom, 21 March 2012 on Global in Canada, and on 14 April 2012 on ABC in the United States. Titanic: Blood and Steel is a 12 part serial that has not yet aired in the United Kingdom or the United States.
Here I must point out that this article is by no means includes every poem, song, play, movie or television programme inspired by the sinking of the Titanic. Indeed, I have not even touched upon books at all. The fact is that the Titanic disaster has had such a extensive impact on pop culture in the English speaking world that it would take an entire book to even detail a single aspect of it. Indeed, books have been written on the poetry and songs inspired by the sinking of the Titanic alone.
Of course, the question some might ask is why the Titanic disaster still maintains such a grip upon the imagination 100 years after it took place. The most obvious reason is the sheer magnitude of the tragedy. The death toll of the sinking of the Titanic matched that of many natural disasters. While the sinking of the Titanic was not the deadliest maritime disaster even at the time (I believe that would have been the sinking of the S. S. Sultana in 1865, in which 1800 people died), it was definitely one of the deadliest. When combined with the publicity surrounding the ship's maiden voyage, it should then not be surprising that to this day people would be fascinated by the sinking of the Titanic.
That having been said, it is not simply the sheer magnitude of the Titanic disaster that attracts filmmakers, television producers, and writers to the sinking of the great ship. The disaster itself provides for a good deal of drama, with tales of heroism and tragedy, but then one must consider that even if the Titanic had not sunk there would hold possibilities for dramatic interpretation. Not only was the Titanic the largest ship of its time, but it was also one on which the various classes intermingled. Individuals from the very rich and very powerful were on board the same ship as those who were very nearly paupers. The sheer variety of individuals aboard the Titanic has probably always made it attractive to artists in every medium.
Indeed, the Titanic has been used as a springboard for exploring various themes. One of the earliest to be explored was the hubris of mankind with regards to technology. To a degree the Titanic became a symbol of man's arrogance in the superiority of technology over nature, with nature winning in the end. The Titanic disaster has also been used as a condemnation of class differences, with several different books, movies, and television programmes emphasising the divisions in the classes at the time. Even when filmmakers, writers, and television producers are exploring other themes, the element of tragedy is almost always present in portrayals of the Titanic disaster. If romance has always played a large role in portrayals of the sinking of the Titanic, it is perhaps because it brings home the sheer momentousness of the catastrophe.
Of course, much of the appeal of portrayals of the Titanic disaster for modern readers and viewers may well be the sheer heroism of many of those involved. In many ways, this could be summed up by the words of Benjamin Guggenheim, who said, "We've dressed up in our best and are prepared to go down like gentlemen." He later gave a survivor a message to give to his wife, "Tell my wife, if it should happen that my secretary and I both go down, tell her I played the game out straight to the end. No woman shall be left aboard this ship because Ben Guggenheim was a coward." Today it is hard to picture any millionaire willingly dying aboard a sinking ship--they would more likely push women and children out of the way to get to the lifeboats! Macy's co-owner Isidor Strauss also displayed similar bravery. He refused to board the lifeboats so that younger men could do so and sent his wife's maid aboard the boat. His wife Ida refused to board the lifeboat as well, stating, "I will not be separated from my husband. As we have lived, so will we die, together." Margaret "Molly" Brown helped others board the lifeboats until she was persuaded to leave the ship on Lifeboat No. 6. Even then she insisted that Lifeboat No. 6 return to search for survivors, against the judgement of Quartermaster Robert Hichens. The Titanic disaster was the setting for acts of heroism and a sense of noblesse oblige that is sometimes had to see taking place today.
Although it was not even the largest maritime disaster at the time, the sinking of the Titanic was a disaster of such greatness that it has held the public imagination ever since. As early as 1912 it had already become part of the collective unconscious of the English speaking world. The enormous loss of life in the tragedy will always evoke a sense of sorrow on the part of individuals. The many acts of heroism as the disaster unfolded will continue to inspire people. It is safe to say that the most famous shipwreck in history will continue to have a huge impact on pop culture in the English speaking world.