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By Phil Hall | August 17, 2012

BOOTLEG FILES 441: “A Night to Remember” (1956 television drama directed by George Roy Hill).

LAST SEEN: An unauthorized posting is on YouTube.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: It seems to have fallen through the proverbial cracks.


This year marks the 100th anniversary of the ill-fated voyage of the Titanic, and the event has been commemorated with the re-release of several Titanic-related productions on DVD and the theatrical return of the James Cameron lollapalooza. Curiously absent from this mix is the 1956 version of “A Night to Remember,” which was broadcast to great fanfare on the NBC anthology series “Kraft Television Theatre,” only to be forgotten when the source material was adapted into a now-classic 1958 British film of the same title.

Viewed today, the television production is a severely uneven endeavor. Due to the technological limitations of live television during the 1950s, this version was unable to offer any cinematic-level special effects to recreate magnitude of the great disaster. One might imagine the production would try to camouflage that deficiency by creating a meaningful human drama centered on a core number of characters. Instead, “A Night to Remember” tried to inflate itself into a mini-epic that ill-suited the still-primitive medium of that distant era. Factor in that the production was limited to an hour’s running time (with minutes shaved off for commercial breaks), the result was congested and, despite some late pangs of anguish, ultimately unsatisfying.

Based on the best-selling 1955 book by Walter Lord, “A Night to Remember” is introduced on-screen by Claude Rains, who serves as the production’s narrator. This creates something of an intrusive problem, with Rains constantly commenting on the action even though it is rather obvious to the viewer what is transpiring. Rains also punctuates the narration by citing the time that each key sequence occurs. However, the program’s somewhat leisurely pacing plays against the minute-by-minute countdown to the inevitable catastrophe.

“A Night to Remember” employed a 107-member cast – according to TV historian Stephen Bowie, 72 actors had speaking parts – and it was staged for live broadcast over 31 sets that occupied two full studios. That was certainly an impressive feat of planning for 1956, when most live dramas were chamber pieces with small casts on a few sets.

Unfortunately, none of the characters were given any depth and scope, which makes it difficult to connect on an emotional level with the on-screen action. Even worse, the human element is reduced to near-caricature: all of the men in the first class passenger sections seem to be imitating the upper crust stereotypical English aristocrat perfected in films by Sir C. Aubrey Smith, while the women appear to be channeling the distracted matron act that Margaret Dumont brought to the Marx Brothers movies. The steerage crowd isn’t much better: they smile and dance merrily to rickety folk music while the ship is at sea, and break into angry faux-Cockney screams when the iceberg smacks the vessel.

The actual collision with the iceberg and its initial impact on the ship is shown via very brief clips from another production. (It may have come from the 1943 Nazi Germany production “Titanic,” but I cannot confirm that.) Rather than show the ship filling up with water, the production focuses on the ship’s designer, played by a then-unknown Patrick Macnee, who studies blueprints intensely before calmly explaining what happened and why the ship was ill-prepared to handle the full impact of the collision.

When the inevitable finally occurs, “A Night to Remember” finally begins to have some dramatic power. As lifeboats are slowly lowered one by one into an unseen void, Rains’ narration calmly notes how many people were in each vessel and how many vacancies were unfilled. At this point, the one-dimensional acting is abruptly replaced by frighteningly real displays of emotion. The expressions of barely concealed contempt on the actors playing the Titanic’s crew and the anguished looks on the abandoned steerage passengers who stare off-camera while the last of the lifeboats depart are impressive feats of acting, and one can only rue that the rest of the production never reached this level of intensity.

Back in the day, however, “A Night to Remember” was praised as a breakthrough in television drama when it was broadcast on March 28, 1956. Critical and public reaction was so strong that it was presented again on May 2 – some sources claim it was staged anew, others say that NBC simply reran the kinescope of the original broadcast. Much of the show’s acclaim was aimed at its then-unknown director, George Roy Hill, who would use the production to build a successful career on Broadway before heading to Hollywood in the early 1960s.

In 1958, “A Night to Remember” was adapted into a British feature film directed by Roy Ward Baker. Thanks to an expanded running time and a significantly larger budget than the television version, this adaptation offered a superior retelling of the Titanic’s demise. Earlier this year, the British version was released on Blu-ray as part of The Criterion Collection.

As for the 1956 TV version, it all but vanished from sight after its second broadcast. To date, there has never been a commercial home entertainment release of this title. However, a copy of the surviving kinescope has been posted on YouTube in a four-part installment.

It is possible that “A Night to Remember” will eventually turn up on DVD. But, to be perfectly cruel, its home entertainment release is not a priority – especially in view of the glut of other Titanic-related productions currently on the market.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either for crass commercial purposes or profit-free s***s and giggles, is not something that the entertainment industry appreciates. On occasion, law enforcement personnel boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and distribute bootleg material, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. Oddly, the purchase and ownership of bootleg DVDs is perfectly legal. Go figure!

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