Why You Should Learn To Stop Worrying And Start Loving The Title Cards

So you’ve decided to give those funny old black-and-white silent movies a try. You pop in a DVD with a quaint title and relax on your couch (or you rev up the Netflix, either one).  An organ tune plays as you see the scene of a busy town street. There are Model Ts, and people in clothes that look less like a Roaring Twenties party than you‘d assumed, and hey, does that old guy have a handlebar mustache? And was that a streetcar? Why, you could get used to this! And then it happens. The screen goes black…and there are words. Words that you must read. Words that are inflicted upon you. This, my friend, is your very first exposure…to a title card.  

Everyone who watches silent films remembers what it was like to get used to reading the film as well as watching it. Myself, I remember a moment of sheer delight–it was all so old-timey!  Just like I’d dreamed it would be!  In fact, it was so delightfully old-timey that it almost distracted me from the movie itself.  It took awhile to get used to the rhythm of “scene,” “words,” “scene,” more “words”… But I did get used to it.  And to my surprise, I grew to embrace it–far more than I ever imagined I would.  And trust me–so will you.

But how? you ask.  How could I, a jaded 21st-century smartphone user, as removed from the  the ’10s and ’20s as I could ever be, grow to like old-fashioned title cards from the days of my great-grandparents?

There are several reasons why this will happen:

1. You will start looking forward to them.

At first title cards will seem like they’re interrupting your movie. You will get interested in what’s happening onscreen, and then YANK–black screen with white letters in the middle. Then back to the film again. All is well, and just as things are getting good–YANK. Over and over again, depending on how much that particular filmmaker was into prose.

Like this guy.

But once you manage to get absorbed in a silent film (it takes more attention than we’re used to), a moment will arrive.  This usually comes when a character is clearly saying something important, and you’ll wish you could hear the words…and then you realize that a title card must on the way to clear up the mystery for you.  And sure enough, there it is, a savior in a vintage font.

Although there’s still that “old-timey slang” barrier.

You’ll start to pay closer attention to the scenes, the acting, and the plot, and you’ll start to pick up on when the title cards will pop up.  There’s certain moments, you’ll realize, where you can expect them, and without them the film wouldn’t make sense.  You will cross the threshold of freedom–no longer are those printed captions an interruption!  They make sense now!  They’re truly a part of the movie!  And because of all this…

2. You will start participating in the film.

That’s right, no longer just a passive observer, your mind drifting off to “what cheese-dust-covered food should I snack on next?” land while characters on the screen prattle about their latest dates (78% of sitcom dialogue), you will get to participate in the film more than ever before.

Not only will you be paying closer attention, as we’ve established, but you’ll be paying such close attention you’ll be trying to lip-read.  It’s okay, we all do it–because there’s nothing like that feeling of congratulating yourself if the title card proves you right.

In the process you will be picking up on plot points right and left.  The film will draw you in more than most films you’ve ever seen–because there’s no way you’re going to get distracted.  You’ll become absorbed into that world, and you’ll be cheering your heroes on in a way you never thought possible.

“That Asian guy played by Richard Barthelmess truly respects Lucy’s purity!”

And there’s a great side effect to all of this close-attention-paying…

3. Your brain will thank you.

A silent newbie once remarked to me after a night of Buster Keaton shorts: “Wow! Watching silent films is kind of tiring!”  And I agree–it is more tiring.  That’s because all of this close attention is making your brain work double time.  No longer is the film doing all the work for you, with all that high-falutin’ “actual talking” that you can “hear” and whatnot (lol).  With silent films, you have to earn your enjoyment.  Honestly, how often can you say that sitting around all day watching movies will actually make you smarter?

Related image

Pictured: one smart cat.

Like someone training to run long distance, the workout will seem hard at first but it will get better.  You will become stronger.  As your brain gets whipped into shape, silent films will become a part of you “normal” movie-watching diet.  Along with Pirates of the Caribbean, Despicable Me, The Notebook and Inception you’ll start to get in the mood for The Black Pirate, Sherlock Junior, Flesh and the Devil, and Intolerance.  

Ain’t nothing like getting down on a Friday night with a few brewskis and Intolerance.

A hobby will be helping you become a more cultured person.  When people ask what you did on Friday night, you’ll be able to say you watched movies all night and feel 100% proud. 

Lastly, there is one more important and vastly-overlooked reason why title cards are awesome…

4. You can eat crunchy snack foods and not miss out on any dialogue.

This is truth.  You may think I jest…and maybe I am slightly.  But only slightly.  Just wait until you experience that level of freedom.

Now go give your brain a cultured workout.

23 thoughts on “Why You Should Learn To Stop Worrying And Start Loving The Title Cards

  1. You are SO good, girl! You certainly make the case, and I’m going to share this with some people who have never seen silent films. You nailed the joy!

  2. I would add that the next key step is seeing a silent movie with an audience of other fans in a theatre, hopefully with some live musical accompaniment. That’s the true sublime silent movie experience.

  3. Pingback: How To Watch a Silent Film (If You’ve Never Seen One) | silent-ology

  4. I LOVE title cards! And so many of them were written by women! Like you said: you look forward to them! They can be everything! And they can be so funny!!!!! When you’re in the hands of a good title card writer, you know you can sit back and enjoy the film.

    One of my favorite title cards is from Mary Pickford’s “M’Liss”. She’s carrying around a doll, and someone says “Hey there Missy, what you got there?” and the next title card is “None of your !#@*$ !@#!* buisiness!” Cut to the crowd gasping, ha!

    Another is “Amarilly of Clothesline Alley”, Mary Pickford goes off with a guy on his motorcycle; cut to the neighborhood girls on the fire escape calling out to each other “Hey Madge! Come quick! Amarilly’s getting gay with a dude!” How’s that for some 1918 lingo!

    (Both of those gems courtesy of Frances Marion, one of the greatest!!)

    • Some of that lingo is just priceless! Especially when it goes along with spunky characters like the ones Mary always played. 😉 One of the greatest title cards ever has to be the one from Intolerance: “When women cease to attract men, they often turn to reform as a second choice.”

  5. I love the cards too. I also love framing in fiction (and wrote a book on it about Wilkie Collins). Sometimes the fiction titles cross into film, as when E. M. Forster’s chapter titles in A Room With a View were used as title cards in the Merchant Ivory film of his book. I wish more contemporary filmmakers would make use of title framing.

    • There’s more than one silent film technique that could be used creatively nowadays–iris shots, for example. No one ever seems to use anything like that anymore. And heck, even glass shots (where scenes are painted on glass and put in front of the lens to, say, make it seem like a castle is in the background). I’ll bet some artsy filmmakers could come up with some incredible effects using that kind of technique.

  6. Reblogged this on Silent-ology and commented:

    Happy Thursday, y’all! Here’s a Silent-ology “oldie-but-goodie,” my impassioned defense of the old-timey title card. My readership has definitely grown since the last time this was published! By the way, point #4 is always worth sharing with any silent film skeptic friends.

  7. Start loving the title cards? You gotta be kidding me! Actually, there are 2 kinds of title cards, one which is necessary to set the scene and the other – actors mouths moving, an eternity of time passing in unheard blabbering both before and after the card comes and goes – is unbearable, Further, only if the set-the-scene card is brief and remains on the screen just long enough to speed read can I tolerate the interruption. As my powers of hearing drop away bit by bit into the dustbin of time, my appreciation and gratitude for silent films increases.

    The best directors of the silent era were those that told their stories in pictures, not words. Directors who believed that actors standing/sitting/lying down, their mouths opening and closing ad infinitum was a good idea, who thought that it increased the realism or made the star human – if that’s what they were thinking – were directors who didn’t understand how to make a .story come to life. Much of Valentino’s appeal is that he kept his mouth shut and expressed what was on his mind with movement and eye contact. Now there was a man who didn’t need words to communicate with women.

    Have just discovered and ordered the book ‘Chain of Fools’ by Trav S.D. published in 2013 about silent comedy. Amazon’s “Look Inside” has this quote from the author’s introduction: “Cinematic storytelling does not require dialogue and never has.” He further says that Chaplin knew this – as did the other great silent comedians – and understood that voices and dialogue detracted from the story and so he refused to speak until ‘The Great Dictator.’ But even then, the wonderful balletic scene of Hitler keeping a large inflated ball of the world afloat is silent. After the sound revolution, Lillian Gish said that the evolution of movies was backword – that the direction of film should have been from sound to silence – which would, of course, had meant the elimination of title cards.

    • Interestingly, there were a few silent films (like THE OLD SWIMMIN’ HOLE, 1921) that experimented with using no title cards at all. It always turned out to be harder than anticipated–THE OLD SWIMMIN’ HOLE I think had to use a closeup of a sign to keep the story going, or something like that.

      In general, I’d say title cards became an art in and of themselves, often working seamlessly with the images onscreen. Sometimes there were the overly wordy cards you mentioned (MONSIEUR BEAUCAIRE, 1924, had waaaaay too many long titles, just make a stage play already). but more often than not there was a nice balance. They could also contribute a lot to the atmosphere of a film–think of BROKEN BLOSSOMS with its poetic titles. Then there’s the artwork a lot of the title cards had, another art in and of itself.

      I know there were times when subpar films were often rescued by witty titles. Ralph Spence was a master of “fixing” movies with his title cards. They used to say “All bad little movies when they die go to Ralph Spence.” 😀

  8. Agree with your points. However . . .

    Subpar directors with subpar actors and subpar stories leaned heavily on title cards, sometimes to the point where the actors were illustrating the cards. And then there is Lubitsch, who set an example for his less talented peers showing what could be done without a blizzard of cards. His ‘Lady Windemere’s Fan’ is a sophisticated film. A.drawing room comedy. A genre that relies heavily on words. A genre that was a staple of early 30s ‘talkies.’ In contrast, Lubitsch’s silent ‘Fan’ is FABULOUS. He dealt with Wilde’s words by eliminating every single one of them. Instead, Lubitsch used Wilde’s plot, which needed no words for the audience to follow the action. Although, admittedly, there were title cards, but they were brief and few in number.

    The opening scene is of Lady Windemere arranging name cards for seating her dinner party guests. We learn, with no help from title cards, that Lady W enjoys the company of Lord Darlington (the wonderful Ronald Colman), and considers seating him next to her for a bit of flirtation, but then thinks better of this. No words. No words needed. No words that could have enhanced this scene. I’m guess that this scene is an example of the ‘Lubitsch Touch.’

    After watching the movie I read Wilde’s 1892 play. Lubitsch made the right decision to jettison Wilde’s words. The film is hugely enjoyable. The play is – too put it kindly – disappointing.

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