Why not subtitles in silent movies?

I was thinking of how jarring it is when watching a silent movie and they swap out the dialog frame. And the actors really have to overemote to convey the scene without dialog. Why didn’t they use subtitles? Foreign movies make great use of them and it’s much more fluid. Was it a technological limitation, or did they just not think of it?

When watching silent movies today, I wish they would cut out the dialog frames and just make them subtitles instead. I think it would make the movies easier to watch.

I think the problem would be tecnology of the day. Everything had to be done in the camera.

If you get a chance, watch the camraman chapter from the “Hollywood” series from Thames.

A simple dissolve would involve fading out a scene, cranking back (rewinding) the film and then fading into the next scene. Make a mistake and you have to reshoot both scenes. And you won’t know about it until the film is developed and you can check the results.

In the case of subtitles, you’d need to keep a bottom portion of the film frame unexposed. Then you’d need to keep very, very good numbers on where each scene would be taking place on the film so the dialogue (which you would now shoot with the top part of the lens blacked out) would match.

You’re correct about the dialogue card being intrusive. That’s one reason the pro’s tried to use as few of them as they could.

It’s only jarring from a modern perspective: you’re looking back at them from your experience watching a 21st Century film.

Consider the context of the time: motion pictures weren’t considered an almost-but-not-quite representation of reality, as they’ve become now. They were considered just what they were called. Motion pictures. A picture. That moved. That was astonishing enough: someone had invented a way to take a simple photograph, that captured one moment in time, and found a way to bring that photograph to life, to act out stories even.

In the context of the time it was such a huge leap forward that no one was really thinking in terms of “What does it lack compared to real life?”

During the peak years of silent pictures, the art of visual storytelling was perfected to a degree that dialogue was simply unnecessary; not a lack, mind you, unnecessary. Some of the greatest works of art of the 20th Century are silent movies, and they don’t need subtitles any more than a Monet or a Picasso needs subtitles.

I actually prefer the silent movies which don’t have the dialog cards. I’m able to get lost in the movie easier. What got me thinking of this is I was watching “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” last night. I wish they didn’t have the dialog cards at all since I kept getting pulled out of the movie. Sometimes I thought the cards were really unnecessary, too. For example, a joyful Tom is talking to his wife over dinner. A card comes up that says “Da Lord’s been good ta us”. But that was completely evident in the scene when he’s holding her hand and smiling. Then Eliza comes in and a card comes up that says “Shelby has sold you and Harry”. I already knew that. It was just established in the previous scene. So it just seems odd that they would break up the movie to show unnecessary and non-critical pieces of dialog. If they wanted that level of dialog, I would think they would have come up with a less intrusive way to show it.

It probably could be done (double exposure techniques were developed pretty early), but there was no reason to. It was cheaper and easier to use title cards. Even better: you could change the language simply by splicing in new title cards. This allowed for cinema in places like Germany or Sweden to be played everywhere in the world, and American films to be shown on the continent.

US films often had to be shot twice once sound came in – once for the US; the other time in Spanish for South America. Laurel and Hardy were big south of the border, partly because they spoke Spanish phonetically with what was evidently a very funny accent.

And, of course, films were shot in order to please the audience at the time, not audiences a century later.

Maybe this is a stupid question but I’ve always wondered why, instead of the usual piano riff background music, didnt they simply have actors dub over the lines as the movie played? They obviously were able to merge sound with the pictures, why not have someone actually reading the lines?

Most of it didn’t really have fixed dialog. If it did, it would have to be shipped along with the movie, and rehearsed many times to match the picture.

Sure, now every silent film you watch has a music track “built in”, but back in the 20s the film would’ve sent to the theatre with music sheets and it theate would have a live pianist play it live during the presentation.

I work for a subtitling company. Although I can imagine a laborious, manual, frame-by-frame process replicating what computers do for us today, I can’t see how any studio would have invested that much time, effort, and money into it when they could use title cards instead.

There must be some cost/benefit considerations. Some Australian and some BBC products from the 70s on DVD do not have subtitles or captions. I think I would really like the Australian DVDs if they had subtitles or captions. Because of my old age, the idiom and the accent I cannot understand enough to really appreciate them without subtitles or captions.

The dialog blackout cards were used for decades before in magic lantern slide shows and other outdoor amusements like sing-alongs, projected on a white sheet. Vaudeville would also have giant cards announcing changes of scene: “Outside Juliet’s balcony”
Thus, that was the standard format promoters were used to.

Someone’s already mentioned the ability to use intercards in other languages, so I’ll just add that the intercards with dialogue on them actually grew quite artistic – they used different lettering styles on them, and sometimes had pictures on them. In the 1928 re-release of The Phantom of the Opera (which had limited technicolor scenes), the intertitles in that portion were colored themselves – which looks pretty impressive in the middle of a black nd white movie – and had huge decorated initial letters, like illuminated manuscripts.

Only in the top-flight movie houses. The neighborhood theaters would have the pianist play whatever he thought was appropriate for a scene.

Really? There were technicolor silent movies? I thought the technology for color was developed after “talkies” were the norm (consider, for instance, the impact in Wizard of Oz when color was brought in). Did it just take a long time for color to catch on?

Two-strip technicolor was developed during the silent era.

As a general rule, any film technology was developed much earlier than you think (at least, until you start studying film history).

Color really didn’t “catch on” until the 50s. It was expensive, so studios stuck with black and white as much as possible until TV became a competitor

Not sure what you mean by this. Often technology existed but didn’t come into common use for a while. Sometimes the reason is expense, but sometimes it was an artistic choice. For example, B&W was for a long time considered more “serious” by many filmmakers. If you look at the films of the 30s on, grittier dramas were always in B&W, where musicals and other “spectacles” or flashier movies were in color. Gone with the Wind and Wizard of Oz were both released in '39, for example, and even WoO uses color only for the fantasy portion of the movie. Another 1939 movie, The Women is a B&W film with a fashion show in the middle done in color.

What I mean is that the general moviegoer usually thinks that any new film technology was first developed years after it actually was first developed.

There were color films prior to 1910 (Wikipedia say the first commercially successful process was introduced in 1905). Technicolor was first developed in 1916, though first used commercially in 1922 (but there were other processes before that).

Same with sound. Most people cite The Jazz Singer, but sound film systems were first publicly shown five years earlier.

Everyone thinks 3D films were a product of the 1950s, but there were public performances of tests back in 1915 and a full-length feature in late 1922.

In all cases, the technology was there years before the dates that the general moviegoer would guess. Color actually was fairly common in silent days, but since silent movies were usually transferred to black and white, modern audiences don’t realize they existed.

You sure about that? I was under the impression that pianists nearly always improvised. The top flight movie houses had orchestras, usually palying the classics, or in the cases of really ambitious conductors, original scores.

Phantom of the Opera, as I say. Ben Hur had color sequences, too. And, as I learned on this Board, The Ten Commandments had color sequences, too. The color had bled so much in that film that I thought it had been hand-colored.
There were other processes besides Technicolor. There were hand-painted films. I’ve seen a few of these. I have a piece of Windsor McKay’s first released cartoon that purports to be hand-colored, but I think they fixed it up digitally – it looks too clean. The good DVD of the silent Phantom of the Opera not only has the Technicolor “Bal Masque” sequence, but has the scenes on the top of the Opera House afterwards with the Phantom’s cape colored using the Handschiegl color process:


At any rate, they say it’s this process. I suspect that they did it digitally for the DVD, because, again, it looks too “clean”.

And, of course, a great many silent films were printed on tinted stock – I’ve seen the silent [B\Peter Pan** and The Lost World this way. And I strongly suspect that the night scenes in Nosferatu were supposed to be on tinted stock, because they look stupid in plain black and white. (But none of my copies are on tinted stock – even the supposedly “restored” version)

Here are some of the titlecards ffrom Phantom, contrasting the color and black and white versions: