Basically everyone has seen the Leonardo DiCaprio/Kate Winslet take on the sinking of the Titanic, but almost no one alive today has seen the original depiction of the horrifying event on film…and that’s because it was created and released within a month of the disaster in 1912.

It starred Dorothy Gibson, a 22-year-old actress who at the time was exploding as one of the world’s best-loved silent film starlets. Strangely enough, Dorothy was also a passenger on the Titanic’s ill-fated crossing. One of the lucky ones (obviously), she made it into the first lifeboat launched and then to safety in NYC.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia

She began her career modeling as the “Harrison Fisher Girl,” her face gracing magazines, postcards, and Edwardian merchandise for years prior to 1911, when her first break came as an actress. Gibson became the leading lady for Eclair American Company, and starred in The Easter Bonnet and Hands Across the Sea while beginning an affair with producer Jules Brulatour. It was Brulatour who wired her to return from her European vacation in 1912 – which Gibson did by booking passage on the Titanic out of Cherbourg.

She sailed on April 10th. The Titanic sank to the bottom of the Atlantic on April 15.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Upon her return to NYC, the young actress gave a moving account of her experience to the Moving Picture News, recalling the nightmare:

“I will never forget the terrible cry that rang out from people who were thrown into the sea and others who were afraid for their loved ones.”

As a woman who had only recently survived the harrowing night, it’s obvious, logically, that it was not her idea to be a part of Saved From the Titanic. Reports were that she not only balked at starring in the film, but broke down into tears several times during the shooting. Gibson (rightfully so) felt as if she was being forced to relive the experience. In the tradition of classic studios inflicting mental torture on their starlets, Eclair even had Dorothy wear the exact same clothes she’d worn the night the Titanic sank into the Atlantic.

Photo Credit: Wikipedia

Saved From the Titanic was, like most films from the era, a ten-minute affair that was completed in about a week. The story was a romance in which (oddly) Gibson’s love interest was named Jack. Though critics loved the film, the public was not immediately forgiving that a movie studio chose to capitalize on the deaths of over 1,000 people so soon after a major tragedy.

From The New York Dramatic Mirror:
“The bare idea of undertaking to reproduce in a studio, no matter how well-equipped, or by re-enacted sea scenes an event of the appalling character of the Titanic disaster, with its 1,600 victims, is revolting, especially at this time when the horrors of the event are so fresh in mind. And that a young woman who came so lately, with her good mother, safely through the distressing scenes can now bring herself to commercialize her good fortune by the grace of God, is past understanding…”
From The Moving Picture News:
“Eclair, I am surprised that you would utilize such a serious thing as that great catastrophe to put out the studio production you did when you didn’t have one single feature that was real or genuine about the Titanic.”
Even though public reception was lukewarm (at best), the trade publications disagreed. They praised the film and Gibson’s performance, calling it perhaps the best of her 20-film career up to that point. But despite the accolades and the fact that she had become the second highest-paid actress of the day (second only to Mary Pickford), Gibson retired from acting shortly after Saved From the Titanic.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia

She disappeared from the spotlight entirely after striking and killing a man while driving, and the facts of her later life got even more bizarre from there. She moved to France, became a Nazi sympathizer, and was arrested and imprisoned in Italy before escaping in 1944.
Was her fate sealed before she set foot on the Titanic, or did something about surviving that night – and subsequently being forced to relive it for the world to see – flip a switch that set her on such a strange and dark path?
We’ll never know, and sadly, nearly all of her films (including Saved From the Titanic) were lost in an Eclair studio fire in 1914.
History, man. What a bitch.
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