A version of this article was originally written for Classic Movie Hub, where I write a monthly column on–you guessed it–silent films. Hope you enjoy!
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 coming in–it must’ve been pretty intense.
It must’ve been a little sad, too. For even though titles (or “captions,” or “subtitles,” or “leaders,” as they were variously called–today we often call them “intertitles”) were sometimes considered a tad intrusive even back then, they did evolve into their own skilled artform.
Forbidden Fruit (1921)
While combing through an online copy of a 1920s magazine just for amateur movie makers (it’s called, in case you’re curious, Amateur Movie Makers) I stumbled across a name that seemed familiar: “Norman McLeod”. Hmm, why did that ring a bell?
He was mentioned in an article on “art titles” (title cards with illustrations) which referred to “the famous skeleton cartoons” which “were made familiar by the clever pen of Norman McLeod, who has illustrated Christie Comedy titles for a number of years.” (You might be picturing Silly Symphony-style skeletons, but they were actually stick figures.) Having seen a few of the Christie Comedies, I had a little “ah-ha!” moment of now knowing who was behind those funny cartoons.
Loose Change (1928)
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. Continue reading