Why aren't silent movies subtitled?

I’ve been trying to get into silent movies, but the lack of…umm…SOUND makes it a tedious process. Especially since the title cards only give you one or two lines per conversation (if you’re lucky), so the story’s not that easy to follow.

I suppose subtitle technology wasn’t available before 1927, but obviously that’s not a problem now. So why don’t they try and reconstruct the original dialogue by digging up the original shooting script, or failing that, hiring lip-readers? Removing the title cards I’m sure would make a lot of silent film purists go ballistic, but with current DVD technology you can always have a branching version that features two versions of the film – one with the lousy cards, one without.

Plus, a tangential question: I notice a lot of obvious “jump cuts” in silent films, where a certain shot will suddenly “jump” to another take of the same shot. For example, Charlie Chaplin’s waddling down the street, and all of a sudden JUMP! he’s ten feet further down the street. Was this a standard stylistic device back then, or is it a case with certain frames of the negative being lost forever?

Is this a bald-faced attempt to draw Eve back to the board?

If so, let me add this: Why don’t they just dub those old silent films? That way you could listen to them. And they should colorize them as well. Then they’d practically be like real movies.

Just a thought on Jump cuts. I think it had to do with hand run cameras running out of stock, damaged stock and lost stock. I don’t think any of them were considered “style”

I don’t know if I’d get into a subtitled silent movie. Half the appeal is the quirkiness of the whole thing. Even without subtitles I follow along just fine.

I often wonder if what they say matches a script of any kind or if they’re just saying “ok, this is the part where I wave my arms about and hit you with this big mallet. Watch out, here it comes” CLONG!

It’s not a jump cut. It’s the lack of modern editing technology. I’ve seen these in Marx Brothers films too.

As to the main question: well, there’s the issue of expense. Would it attract enough people to silent films to be worth it? I doubt it. I also don’t know if you could find enough scripts, and Seven may be right about the dialogue. Not much point in writing a detailed script if nobody’s going to be able to hear it.

That famous cut in “Hooray for Captain Spaulding” in Animal Crackers came to my mind immediatly when the word “Jump Cut” was mentioned.

At least, that’s what I think you were talking about.

Yeah, I think it is. But there are other spots where people just ‘move’ a little because of clumsy editing.

These days, sadly enough, the jumps may not have been in the original movie. There is a rampant problem of old film stock degrading over the decades since it was first put in the can, and whole sections of movies are gone past restoration due to decay. This is especially bad if the show was cut up to reduce run-time or for other reasons: Metropolis is impossible to see in its full form because it was a long movie and it was mercilessly slashed into a much shorter one. There are whole sequences (the scenes in the pleasure district come to mind) that only survive as a sequence of stills and some plot elements.

As for subtitles: You’d need to write all of them completely de novo, and you’d miss a good part of the style and artistry that went into movies from that era.

This isn’t a film snob’s take. I have no patience for people who dislike things because it isn’t fifty or eighty years old or because ‘those damn long-hairs’ like it. This is the take of a person who understands that technology and art work together in every genre to create a specific effect that reflects conscious intent if the artist is at all competent in his craft. If they had the ability to record sound at the time, they would have made different movies. They wouldn’t, on average, be better or worse, but the filmmakers would have approached them differently and made different choices that go beyond the amount of dialogue in a given show.

I think creating new work by modifying what already exists is a valid and interesting field of expression. I enjoy Negativland and rx and others (The Freelance Hairdresser has a hilarious take on Slim Shady.) who sample in musical works, and I hope copyright laws are fixed to make sampling more common in general. But you must always keep in mind that it is a new work, created in a new era both socially and technologically, by new people.

There are several issues involved.
First, as discussed in this old thread, it’s difficult to generalise about whether what the actors were actually saying closely corresponds to anything in a script. In some cases they were speaking lines in much the same way an actor in a sound film would, in others they might be roughly improvising.
Secondly, there are differences between how the titles were created and modern subtitling. Writing the titles was a nontrivial job that was part of writing the film and it was a job that could be done with flair and talent. They can be just as much a part of the film as good dialogue in a later film.
Thirdly, in some cases the intertitles provide crucial plot details or explanation that won’t be covered in the actual scenes. To a modern viewer this may seem lazy storytelling, but if titles are part of the style with which you’re forced to work then this can be more of an elegant solution in some cases.
Fourthly - and most importantly from a purist’s point of view - the titles are part of the pacing of the film. The films were edited taking them into account.
Fifth - and most important in practice - it’s cheaper just to use the existing cards rather than go to the expense of what you propose. As Marley23 has already said.

As an aside, it’s not that uncommon to see modern prints of silent films in which the titles are themselves subtitled: in cases where the best available/most interesting surviving print has foreign titles, this is often the cheapest option.

Jumps from poor film stock are possible (even with brand new film, it still may skip a couple frames every once in a great while), but I’d be willing to bet 99 times out of a 100, it’s because there was significant nitrate damage to those few frames and there were no other copies to get the missing images from.

However, if you see it often (not just in a couple places in the film), it may be your copy. Silent films are plagued by being largely in the public domain, resulting in many sub-par copies of them floating around. Are you watching a DVD you got for a dollar from a bargain bin? You may find watching a decent transfer of it with an original score a much more enjoyable experience. In the case of silent films, there really is a difference between the $1.99 and the $49.99 DVDs.

The jerky, jumpy, grainy, scratchy, fast-motion idea most people have of silent films are actually more representative of cheap transfers and no restoration than they are of what the film would have originally looked like.

Usually, the director put all the dialogue he wanted you to have in the titles. With the other dialogue, all you really need is to understand the gist of what’s happening, and you can use context and facial expressions for that.

I watch TCM all the time, and I have always loved silent movies. I always say to those in the household who can’t get into them, that it’s more like looking at art than getting caught up in a mystery or suspense or whatever. That being said, I have managed to get my Mom to watch them with me occasionally. She doesn’t like watching old movies a lot because seeing her old favorite actors makes her too sad. But since she was born in 1919, a 1918 or 1920 movie doesn’t have that emotional baggage for her.

Anyway, as it turns out, she has found that she enjoys watching silents as much as any movie since she can easliy follow what’s going on without straining to hear the words. Her hearing’s a little shot these days. The story is there in the action and the faces. It’s hard for us modern folk to see that, but it is really there.