The Thoroughly Lost Art of the Title Card
A few months ago I wrote a brief overview on silent films title cards, covering both their practical use and their artistic side. Now I’m going to delve a little deeper into that artistic side, giving a peek into the trends that popped up throughout that creative era.
When you think of jobs that have gone the way of the dodo, certain ones spring to mind right away. Chimney sweeps. Switchboard operators. Bowling alley pinsetters. Organ grinders’ monkeys. Almost every flea circus ringmaster. Well, just imagine what it was like to have a career as a title card artist or title card writer in the late 1920s when talkies were starting to take off. Either way, it must’ve been intense.
It must’ve been a little sad, too. For even though titles (or “captions,” or “subtitles,” or “leaders,” as they were variously called) were sometimes considered a tad intrusive even back then, they did evolve into their own skilled art form.
It’s tough to track the early stages of that evolution since many of the oldest silents are missing their titles–the main titles, at any rate. Usually, this is because they were damaged by being threaded onto projectors countless times, or because they were printed on cheaper film stock that didn’t hold up over time. And foreign theaters often swapped English titles for ones in their own language.
So from what we can tell, 1900s and early 1910s films seemed to mainly use plain black backgrounds with white lettering. This was the standard since they didn’t strain the eyes the way white backgrounds did. Since piracy became an issue almost the second Louis Le Prince and Thomas Edison got twinkles in their eyes, studios soon began adding their logos to the titles.
Notice the plain, sans-serif font. As studios began churning out alarming amounts of one-reel and split-reel films, they found one of the quickest ways to make titles was by arranging simple white metal or cardboard letters on a black velvet background. There were also special printing machines available just for creating title cards, helping to further streamline the process.
At times, early titles could be a bit experimental. In this still from Alice in Wonderland (1903), the title is overlaid over a live action shot of Alice:
And in the famous The Great Train Robbery (1903), we see what are either hand-drawn or perhaps artfully arranged letters complete with flourishes:
In time, studios starting adopting a specific template for their titles, putting the words inside an artistic frame. Each studio had their own style, whether it was the same frame for every film (like Keystone) or several frames with similar motifs (like the work of Segundo de Chomón):
By the 1910s, film was rapidly growing more sophisticated, and so were title cards. While typed letters were still used, hand-drawn lettering was very common since filmmakers felt it had more character. Stencils with openings for rows of words ensured everything was properly spaced and centered. Designers began utilizing more of the empty spaces, adding painterly backgrounds or “pictorial embellishments” and trying different fonts, as in this example for From the Manger to the Cross (1912):
In time, someone (wish I knew who) came up with one of the most popular trends of the silent era — adding little cartoons or paintings that served as humorous illustrations or visual commentary. Slapstick comedy and light comedies especially tended to gravitate toward these charming touches:
These kinds of “art titles” became so common that directors of “serious” dramas would sometimes deliberately opt for titles with plain backgrounds–a 1922 book called Photoplay Writing explained: “There is a mighty good theory on the part of some producers that the plainly lettered title devoid of ‘art’ or the trick photography is better calculated to carry along the story, for, after all, the play is the thing!” Well, that was an opinion, anyways.
Other trends were temporary. Starting in 1912, many of the major studios would add a film’s name to the top of all its title cards. This was mainly done for people who would stroll into the theaters in the middle of the movie (a common occurrence when films were replayed all day). It also helped solve the problem of wear and tear eventually wrecking the main titles.
Other things like textured backgrounds became very common, a nice break from the usual black velvet. Wallpaper, watercolor paintings, wood panels, burlap, carpeting, and different types of cloth could all be used, with the actual titles superimposed using double exposures.
And as the plain backgrounds became more decorative, the plainer fonts of the 1900s gradually gave way to the quainter letters that we tend to associate with silent films today. These often included modest flourishes:
Probably the most widely-used type of lettering was what I’ve dubbed the “lazy ‘E’ font,” neat and rounded with a slightly tilted “E”. Note the extra tall “illuminated capital” in the example below, also a very common embellishment:
There were animated titles too, such as this famous “watery” example from Sunrise (1927):
And of course, in the meantime the avant-garde world tended to do precisely what it wanted to:
Towards the end of the silent era, titles grew more slick–along with the rest of the film industry. Main titles started condensing as much information as possible, including the names of producers and directors with the main stars featured in bold lettering:
Title cards did linger into the talkie era a little bit, popping up sparingly in comedy shorts and dramas, and of course main titles were essential. But the heyday of printed captions was over, and the artists and writers behind them (hopefully) transitioned into set design and screenplay writing.
And that takes us to Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), sometimes considered the very last silent film. And if we consider it the last silent film, then perhaps this is the very last official title card–a plucky message of hope as the Tramp and his love walk off hand-in-hand, and, for me, a tinge of nostalgia for the title card itself:
Note: A “thank you” to historian Paul Gierucki for assisting me with some of the information on Keystone title cards!
–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.