What came first? Talkies or subtitles?

Every film I’ve ever seen from the silent film era had full screen title cards for dialogue. Nowadays, that same dialogue would be displayed via subtitles so that viewers could both see the action and read the dialogue. Did any silent film directors ever release silent films with subtitles or did the invention of subtitles only happen after the launch of talkies?

Subtitles require mixing two images (the film and the title.) It wasn’t impossible to do in the early days of film, but it was time consuming, which added to the production cost, which was an unnecessary expense when a title card could carry the necessary information.

Says here, there was a crude method of subtitling used as early as 1909, but it wasn’t until 1930 (and the need to translate talkies into multiple languages) that methods to actually print the subtitle onto the film strip were developed.

Silent films had the advantage of being “universal” because they could be circulated around the world with nothing changing except the translated intertitles, which were separate from the action of the story and easy to cut out and re-insert from one version to the next. Creating subtitles (an optical effect) would be completely counterproductive because they would automatically limit a film’s commercial value in foreign markets.

Every once in a while, you’ll see an animated word flashed on top of the action in a silent film (usually used as a joke) but that was still pretty unusual.

Subtitles only became feasible after the invention of the optical printer in the late 1920s. Before that, the only way filmmakers could possibly superimpose titles over an image was to double expose them in the camera. Since you couldn’t be sure that you would want to use a given take until you developed it, you would have had to shoot the scene, then wind the film back in the camera and double expose the titles for every take. Extremely time consuming and wasteful, plus you ran the risk of ruining an otherwise good take if you messed up the title pass.

And as MovieMogul points out, doing titles this way would have limited the distribution of the film to territories that spoke the language of the titles.

So in addition to being cumbersome, expensive, time consuming, and risky, it would have reduced the profitability of the film. Needless to say, it was virtually never done.

In the early days of the talkies, it was cheaper to SHOOT THE WHOLE DAMN MOVIE again, with Spanish-speaking actors, overnight, for the lucrative Mexican market, rather than to do subtitles.

See Universal’s classic Dracula, released on Valentine’s Day in 1931. The Spanish version is universally (heh) considered better than the English one, Béla Lugosi regardless. The absolutely luscious Lupita Tovar (RIP, 2016!!!) eclipsed the blond flat-chested flapper version of Mina Harker played by Helen Chandler.

“What came first? Talkies or subtitles?”

Slide shows. With large format, hand tinted, glass slides, including dialog cards.

Then slide shows with dialog cards and intercut (b&W) full action video!

Then single projector multi-reel movie shows with full-color slides to give color, cover the breaks, and (originally) to bulk out the running time.

Then feature length films with slides — which is where I came in, in the 1970’s. In the 1970’s movie theatres no longer had slide shows, but they still had slide projectors, as they always had, and used them to show advertising slides before the shorts, which were before the feature.

So the dialog shots in movies continued an existing tradition that audiences were familiar with.