The sinking of the Titanic a century ago this month has inspired countless films, but none quite like Saved From the Titanic, made by the Éclair American Company, a long-ago movie studio in Fort Lee. Released just a month after the disaster, it was the first Titanic movie and the only one to star an actual survivor, New Jersey’s own Dorothy Gibson.
Gibson was born in Hoboken in 1889 at her parents’ home on Willow Avenue, according to Titanic historian Phil Gowan. By her late teens she was singing and dancing on Broadway, and by 20 she was modeling for the popular magazine illustrator Harrison Fisher. She was nationally known as “the original Harrison Fisher Girl” when she signed with the movie studio.
“I am a daughter of Hoboken. There’s pride in that,” she told an interviewer in a 1911 article reprinted on the website Encyclopedia Titanica. “But as to becoming a favorite in the moving pictures, that remains to be seen.”
Éclair specialized in one-reel movies, about 15 minutes long, and often applied colorful tints to its black-and-white film, says Richard Koszarski, a Rutgers professor and author of Fort Lee: The Film Town. In all, Gibson would make more than a dozen pictures there.
Gibson and her mother were returning from vacation when they boarded the Titanic in Cherbourg, France. On the night of the ship’s fatal encounter with an iceberg, she had stayed up late playing bridge and was about to retire when she heard what she later described as a “long, drawn, sickening scrunch.” After noticing that the Titanic appeared to be listing, Gibson and her mother wasted little time getting into the first lifeboat to be lowered. She also persuaded her male bridge companions to hop in; one would spend the rest of his life denying that he had escaped in women’s clothing.
Within days of her arrival in New York, Gibson was at work on the new film. Though the plot bore little resemblance to her real-life experience, she played herself and supposedly dressed in the same clothes she had worn on the Titanic.
Saved From the Titanic and another film released shortly after, marked the end of Gibson’s movie career. She next tried opera, possibly encouraged by Jules Brulatour, an Éclair executive to whom she was briefly married. In fact, some believe she may be an inspiration for the hapless opera singer in Citizen Kane, though Koszarski thinks Brulatour’s next wife, silent-film actress Hope Hampton, is more likely. After Gibson and Brulatour divorced, she and her mother moved to Europe. She died in a Paris hotel in 1946 at the age of 56.
Regrettably, not a single copy of Saved From the Titanic is known to survive. Koszarski speculates that the prints either wore out or were simply discarded, a common fate for silent films. Some may also have been destroyed in a 1914 fire at Éclair’s Fort Lee facility. But just as the wreckage of the ship was finally located in 1985, Titanic buffs hold out hope that a copy might someday resurface, and Dorothy Gibson will flicker across movie screens once more.