Film Review: SS United States: Lady in Waiting

Feb 20, 2009 12:00 AM

Film Review
SS United States: Lady in Waiting
by Kristian Schmitt

The bridge, radar mast and funnel were illuminated by lighting artist Robert Wogan for the film. (Photos courtesy Big Ship Films)
SS United States: Lady in Waiting is the hopeful story of one of the most historically important ships in the United States, aptly named the SS United States.

The film opens with images of the Philadelphia landscape, where the protagonist of our film, The Big U, sits idle at Pier 82 in Philadelphia. Although her red funnels are a prominent feature of Philadelphia's skyscape, early interviews in the film make clear that little is known about the United States by the general public. One man interviewed says that the ship looks like "a little tugboat." Another is surprised to learn that she is bigger than Titanic.

Producer Mark Perry laments that knowledge gap in the dockworkers interviewed, "None of them really knew anything about that massive old ship that forms the centerpiece of the entire dock area," despite the ship's important history.

With its sharp bow and thin waist, United States was designed to cut through the water. (Photos courtesy Big Ship Films)
But the history of The Big U certainly isn't left a mystery. The film truly takes off when it launches into the ship's fascinating story. United States was designed as a troop ship, and she was able to transport an entire Army division from San Francisco to Asia without stopping for fuel or fresh water. Given her Navy sponsorship, United States was built with some unique qualities. William Francis Gibbs, the ship's designer, was famously fastidious in fireproofing the ship. Nearly all fittings, accessories, surfaces and furniture were made of metal, glass, or spun glass fiber. It has become legend that the only two things on the ship that were made of wood were the butcher's blocks and the Steinway pianos.

United States' top speed has become an almost mythical part of her history and has been reported as anywhere from 36 to 50 knots. Although her top speed is widely debated, there is no doubt that the United States was the fastest liner of her time. In 1952, she broke both the east and westbound transatlantic speed records. These records had previously been held by Britain's famous RMS Queen Mary. Although United States lost her eastbound transatlantic record to Hoverspeed Great Britain in 1990, to this day she still holds the westbound record. For Robert Radler, the film's director, this proves that "she is arguably the epitome of maritime engineering, and the greatest ship ever built in the United States."

Speed wasn't the only thing that made United States significant. In a time when sea travel was synonymous with glamour and luxury, The Big U was also a strong contender in these categories.

Top, The interiors were completely gutted in the early 1990s to remove asbestos. Above, the ship's mid-century modern interiors are long gone. Nearly all the furnishings were made of nonflammable materials such as metal or glass.
Susan Gibbs, president of the SS United States Conservancy, and granddaughter of the ship's designer, said, "Traveling across the Atlantic on the SS United States was like being at the Waldorf-Astoria, or the Ritz Carlton, or the finest luxury hotel. There was a ratio of one crewmember to every one or two passengers, so there were just teems of people to ensure passengers traveled in the utmost comfort."

In Lady in Waiting, several passengers aboard the ship recall their experiences, and it's clear that passengers' needs were taken care of. One passenger recalls that, as a child, he jokingly requested a sirloin steak when asked if he cared for anything; 15 minutes later, said steak was presented to him.

Bill Krudner, bell captain from 1952 to 1962, recalled, "You could order anything in your room anytime in the night — whatever you felt like having."

And what goes better with luxury than celebrity? The passenger list of SS United States includes many of the most important political figures, Hollywood stars and artists of the day — a young Bill Clinton, Jackie Gleason, John Wayne, Bob Hope, Marilyn Monroe, Charleton Heston, Gary Cooper, Presidents Truman and Eisenhower, LeRoy Neiman, Salvador Dalí. Even Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa was a passenger in 1962. The ship herself became somewhat of a celebrity as she was featured in a Disney film and in a famous LeRoy Neiman painting.

With the advent of air travel, United States' records for speed no longer seemed relevant. Marketing themes for the ship changed from speed to luxury and relaxation. Slogans like "Arrive Relaxed and Refreshed" to "Sail With the Unrushables" were all used, but were ultimately unsuccessful. Laid up indefinitely following the ship's final 1969 voyage, United States was sold and resold several times, but nothing ever came of the changing ownership. United States' celebrity quickly faded.

Asked why The Big U 's refurbishing has never come to pass, Perry replied, "The No. 1 reason, I believe, is simply the cost of refurbishing the ship — particularly when you have to consider the kinds of amenities modern-day cruise passengers are accustomed to, as well as the new SOLAS (International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea) regulations."

"Size is also a factor," he continued. "The Big U is smaller and thus has a smaller passenger capacity."

Less passenger capacity would translate to less revenue, making it difficult to recover the costs of restoration, estimated at around $500 million, a statistic Perry cites in the film.

Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) has owned United States for about five years, but does not appear to have any immediate plans for her putting her back into service. Many worry that she will be forgotten and eventually be taken abroad to be scrapped.

United States' future is complicated by the fact that her fate may depend on the success of two NCL U.S.-flagged Hawaii ships. AnneMarie Matthews, director of public relations for NCL, said in a statement to Professional Mariner, "When NCL purchased the SS United States in 2003, we stated that only with the success of our U.S.-flagged ships in Hawai'i would we be able to move forward with the even more complex challenge of bringing back the SS United States."

According to the company, market conditions and high turnover for the U.S. crew hurt NCL's U.S.-flagged operation. Two ships were withdrawn from Hawaii service, Pride of Hawai'i and Pride of Aloha. The remaining U.S.-flagged ship, Pride of America, is generating a profit.

For the moment then, it is unclear when, if ever, NCL will be able to return United States to passenger service.

"The SS United States has a great maritime heritage, and we believe that she could have a great maritime future as well. In the meantime, we are taking good care of her," Matthews said.

Despite the complicated circumstances under which NCL must decide her fate, those involved with the film are all still hopeful for United States' eventual return to the seas. Radler hopes that by reviewing her history in his film and educating people on what an important piece of United States history the ship truly is, there may be a chance to save her and to bring her back into the hearts and minds of the American public.

"If she were to go to the scrappers," he said, "there will never be another like her. Right now, in Alang, India, much of the history of the ocean liner is being erased every day. Unless we educate people now, The Big U will certainly meet the same unthinkable fate."

Perry observed, "In a perfect world, she'd be completely restored to her maiden voyage configuration and put back in service. But that ship has sailed, so to speak. If NCL can carry out their intended plans of refurbishing the ship while retaining as much of her original lines as possible, that would be a wonderful scenario as well. The most realistic future for the ship, in my opinion, would be to have her restored as a stationary attraction in New York similar to the Queen Mary in Long Beach. One of the advantages of the fact that the SS United States was stripped of all her interiors is that she's a clean slate on the inside."

For now, the pride of the United States in the 1950s and '60s patiently waits at Pier 82 in Philadelphia for her return to the seas and to America's hearts. With the help of the film Lady in Waiting, public awareness is sure to grow.

As Radler said, "It's important for Americans to be reminded of what's possible in our great country. Forgetting this technological accomplishment is akin to forgetting the Empire State Building, the moon rocket or the Statue of Liberty — she was no less a symbol of our nation, and a mirror of its technological and industrial power."

To find out more about the film, visit www.bigshipfilms.com. For more information on the SS United States Conservancy group, visit http://ssunitedstatesconservancy.org

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