Auditorium DAMSLab > 12:00


Dossier about intertitles in USA mute films, curated by Philippe Garnier



Title writing is a new art in motion pictures, the functioning of which the public little understands.”
The Hollywood Vagabond, August 5, 1927


Title writing in silent motion-pictures became an art around the mid-1920s and had only a few years to attain perfection before the arrival of sound rendered the craft obsolete. MGM’s top man Joseph Farnham became the first Academy Awards winner for Best Titles in 1929, and the last. The category was dropped the next year.

It was a craft that varied widely according to the product, and to some extent to the studio it came from. It was practiced by a strange breed of men and women who came mostly from journalism, but not always. There was an ex-Navy captain in the bunch who had dabbled with submarines during the Spanish-American War and WW1; an ex-Sennett gagman, a Harvard educated multi-linguist scholar, a few publicists, and one or two future directors. They even had their own hierarchy in Hollywood at one time, a self-appointed all-male association rather wittily called The Titular Bishops. Although it counted among its members a few giants of the profession (MGM’s Joe Farnham, Universal and First National’s Malcom Stuart Boylan, Paramount’s George Marion, Jr., to name only three), this mock conclave was far from being representative. Women, always very present at crucial writing and editing posts in picture producing in those days, were also called upon to write titles, since they were already involved in scriptwriting. Frances Marion and Anita Loos both wrote about title writing in their scriptwriting manuals they published later in their careers . Jeanie MacPherson wrote a 1926 article called: “Titles: Friends or Foes?” And before she became a valued scripter at MGM with her husband John Emerson, Loos had handled intertitles for both Griffith and Fairbanks in the early days.

Title writers could be men or women who held highly paid positions at studios, or cheeky freelancers like the irrepressible Ralph Spence, an alcoholic natty dresser from New York who boasted on full page ads in the trades: “ALL BAD LITTLE MOVIES WHEN THEY DIE COME TO RALPH SPENCE”. He specialized in salvage jobs, but soon integrated the Paramount staff, which already counted on Marion, Jr. and Herman Mankiewicz for titles. Each also had functions that varied greatly. They were often credited as “editors”, as well as title writers. Indeed, this is perhaps the least understood part of their work, as they were the editors of last recourse before a picture was released. Katharine Hilliker and her partner-husband H. H. Caldwell (the captain), for instance, were even more valued for their story sense than for writing titles. They were “fixers”, commanding high fees to help shaping things like Ben Hur into releasable pictures. At Fox they re-edited as well as titled many John Ford, Raoul Walsh and Frank Borzage pictures. And, from their collaboration with him on Sunrise (on which they did only the titles), they became such valued and respected collaborators to F. W. Murnau that, just one month before he died, Katharine Hilliker could address him in a letter as “You poor dodo !”

Then there were the comedy title writers, masters of the aphorism and the memorable one-liner. A man like H. M. “Beanie” Walker wrote the titles of every one- or two-reel comedies churned out by the Hal Roach Studio for more than ten years. In 1927, the Moving Picture World could call him the “Daddy of Title Writers”, estimating that he must have written more than 25,000 titles so far, starting with his work for Harold Lloyd when his one-reelers were not even made at the Culver City studio, but in downtown Los Angeles. Even in comedies the editing of a picture had to be tweaked by the title writer: as with gags, timing was essential for one-liners like “The amateur-burglar – not quite crooked but beginning to bend”.

The best analogy to describe this vanished art was suggested by the Harvard educated George Marion, Jr, one of the few practitioners of the craft who seems to have taken himself seriously. This son of a very famous stage actor who wrote titles for Clara Bow and Colleen Moore vehicles, as well as for directors like Joseph Sternberg, was also a prolific songwriter, teaming with composers like Fats Waller or Johnny Green. He once described his idea of the perfect silent moving picture intertitle: “The secret of titling is to eliminate; it is a great deal like song writing. In both there is a striving for the correct word or phrase in the shortest possible space.”

There are many aspect of title production to be discussed, such as length of the line and the time given to read it; the illustrated title; the typographical effects, indicating sound levels; down to the Sunrise “drowning” and dissolving titles that Charles Rosher was tasked to film, under whose instruction we would very much like to know. Otherwise, we won’t be able to resist reeling in some of these unsung craftsmen and women and tell their story. There will also be photographs: Hilliker and Caldwell in tennis outfits, Farnham receiving his Oscar from Doug Fairbanks, towering over the actor, as well as an array of favorite titles, which we’ll try to put in context.

Philippe Garnier


Thursday 29/06/2023