Learning To Love Those Title Cards
So there you are, a wide-eyed silent film newbie, getting ready to pop in a pre-1927 film for the very first time. With your popcorn and beverage at the ready, you settle into the couch and the film begins. There’s the black and white footage (or maybe it’s tinted sepia), running slightly faster than life, and you see women in dresses and men in straw hats, and maybe you catch a few Model Ts going by.
And then…the screen goes black. And there are words. Which you must read. This, my friend, has been your first — and rather sudden — exposure to that unwieldy thing known as a title card. (Or “intertitle,” if you’re feeling fancy.)
But are title cards really that unwieldy? Certainly they can distract you from the film at first, being as old-timey as organ grinders’ monkeys and all. But I can promise you that you will get used to them. And not only will you get used to them, but they will add a level of participation to your silent film viewings that you may not have experienced before.
Just about every silent film had title cards (which are distinct from beginning or end credit titles, might I add), with the exception of the very oldest films, as well as some ambitious dramas and a chunk of the avant-garde. They came into use around the turn of the 20th century, once films had reached the sufficient length to require some means to keep audiences from becoming confused. The earliest intertitles that we know of might be from the 42-second British film How It Feels to Be Run Over (1900), which shows a car running straight into the camera followed by a black background with few scrawled white words exclaiming, in rapid succession, “!!! Oh! Mother will be pleased.” (Let’s just call this an example of that famous dry British humor.)
At first, filmmakers used title cards very sparingly and only imparted the exact amount of information audiences needed to know. Some studios used them to “announce” each shot and describe what would take place, rather like those long chapter titles for serialized Victorian novels (at that time title cards were called “leaders”). As films rapidly grew more sophisticated, decorative frames would often surround the words, with studio logos in the corners. Main characters were sometimes introduced with title cards, which would also contain the names of the actors playing them. At times, the actors themselves were announced via title cards, the film cutting to each one smiling and bowing at the camera–an early version of opening credits.
By the mid- to late -1910s, titles became more elaborate and were an integral part of the overall movie experience. Ironically, the more cinematic language fell into place the more title cards seemed to be in use — they weren’t just for dialogue. Dramas often used romantic-sounding language and even bits of poetry to help convey the mood of the film. Jokey titles added to the humor of comedies. Artsy films would try out edgy fonts. Some backgrounds might be textured instead of black, while others might have paintings or cartoons.
Not only did all this keep audiences from getting eye fatigue from the frequent switches to black title cards (a possible reason why filmmakers started tinkering with painterly backgrounds) but they added to films’ artistry, too.
Why, you might wonder, didn’t studios simply use subtitles right on the images themselves? The technology available to make subtitles did exist (although it was more difficult to do than it is today). The main reason titles stayed in place was to make it easier for theaters in other countries. Simply change the language in the title cards, and presto! The foreign language version was ready to go.
Today, flowery language and textured backgrounds tend to be lost on us at first, since it takes some time to get used to the picture being repeatedly interrupted by blocks of words. You might even feel like it’s a chore. However, there’s a definite rhythm to the way silents used title cards. Let yourself get swept away by the story, and in time you’ll start to sense just when one is coming up–and even look forward to the clarification it’ll bring.
In fact, I can almost guarantee that at one point there will be a magical “ah-ha!” moment. This is when a character begins to speak and for a second you wish you could hear them, and then you brighten, realizing that a title card must be on the way. And there it is, your savior in a vintage font. That, my friend, is the moment when you’ve gone from being merely a passive observer to a participant in the film itself.
If you think of the way many folks watch movies nowadays — half-listening, with a phone in one hand — silents are a welcome change of pace. They require our rapt attention. Miss even one title card, and the film might no longer make sense. And this is a good thing, for when distractions are put aside you can truly absorb the film in front of you. You can focus on characters and plot points uninterrupted, free for a time from the normal stress of modern life (if I may be so cliched). In a sense, silents can be a tonic.
And thus, my friends, I urge you: learn to love those title cards! Far from being just the tools that helped films limp by until the talkie era finally arrived, they were a unique artform in and of themselves. And today, they can help us to more fully experience and more deeply appreciate these wonderful, historic early films.
–Lea Stans for Classic Movie Hub
Lea Stans is a born-and-raised Minnesotan with a degree in English and an obsessive interest in the silent film era (which she largely blames on Buster Keaton). In addition to blogging about her passion at her site Silent-ology, she is a columnist for the Silent Film Quarterly and has also written for The Keaton Chronicle.