Trademarks, Titles, Introductions
Trademarks, Titles, Introductions
The Down Express is on the wrong line. My God! It's bound to crash into the local!
—An intertitle in "A Partner to Providence," number 8 in the series The Beloved Adventurer, September 1914
To prevent the piracy rampant in the early days of the industry, the production companies began to place their trademark on the sets of nearly every scene, on the walls of the set, or even on trees when the scene was shot outdoors. The practice began in American films around 1907, as a way of avoiding the expense of copyrighting, since infringement of a trademark was a felony, and if someone made an illegal duplicate copy of a film, it could be easily identified. Vitagraph had a winged "V," Lubin had a bell, Biograph used an "AB," Essanay had a circle with "S & A" inside of it, Pathé a cock (or rooster, as it was called in refined American circles), Kalem a sun (which, when used as an "end title," was an animated sun with rays that revolved). Thanhouser used a wreath enclosing comic and tragic masks as well as intertwined company initials, and American had a winged "A," These trademarks were sometimes made of wood or metal in order to be easily moved from scene to scene. The design of the trademarks often changed slightly from one year to the next, which has sometimes made it possible for film historians to arrive at an approximate date for an unidentified film.1
The importance of showing a trademark in the film is underlined by the fact that it was required by the licensing agreement that producers signed with the Motion Picture Patents Company at the beginning of 1909. According to article seven, the licensee agreed "to photographically print the licensee's trade-mark in each picture of at least one scene of each subject." This rule was changed only in the renewed agreements signed on 6 June 1912, which still required the trademark to be printed on the film, but not on the image. The new regulation stipulated that the trademark must be placed on the title of each positive, a practice that was already widely followed by this time.2
During the struggle between the licensed and independent producers, many an exchange man or exhibitor switched the main titles of films to cheat the rules, pretending a film was licensed when it was not, or vice versa. This did not fool viewers much because the trademark was still there on the wall of the set. The use
of trademarks in the scenes didn't prevent piracy, either, if one were really determined. Fred Balshofer has recounted how he began his career in the motion-picture business in the basement of Lubin's Philadelphia store, painstakingly brushing out the trademark from every frame before proceeding to duplicate films from such producers as Georges Méliès.3
Of more significance for the production of films after 1908 was the fact that the trademark appearing in the film was inconsistent with the illusion of reality. As long as the trademark was on the wall of an artificial set, it might not be very obtrusive, but nailed to a tree, it became ludicrous. Nevertheless, it lingered on in the films of most producers until mid 1911 or 1912. Probably it remained in use beyond the period when such inconsistencies were really acceptable because of the tensions of the distribution-exhibition systems of the license-holders versus the independents.
In February 1911 the Moving Picture World called the attention of producers to the anomaly. Ridiculing the practice because it destroyed the illusion, the author of this criticism blamed the continued use of the trademark on the advertising departments. I don't know whether this accusation betrayed ignorance of the original reason for using the trademark or whether indeed the trademark had come to be used to emphasize brand-name values as well.4
Nevertheless, some companies continued to use the trademark within their films during 1911. In The Penniless Prince, one of the films the IMP Company produced in Cuba in early 1911, the heroine is walking with her lover through the grass. When she passes the large IMP trademark stuck into the ground, she is compelled to lift her skirts and to step around it. It would be impossible for a spectator of the film to ignore its presence. The scene is so awkward that it would probably have been retaken if it weren't that these films were being made as cheaply as possible. The producers were sending the negative back to New York for processing and would not have seen how obvious her move to avoid the trademark was until much too late. The IMP trademark can still be found in the other surviving Cuban productions of this year, including In Old Madrid and Sweet Memories. (These films are among the first group of pictures directed by Thomas Ince, as is The Penniless Prince.)
Kalem still used their trademark in Tangled Lives (filmed in Florida and released in May 1911). Thanhouser used it in The Pillars of Society (May 1911), and it can be found in a Solax film, Greater Love Hath No Man (July 1911). The Vitagraph Company, usually in the forefront of industry practice, was nonetheless criticized for the absurdity of their winged "V" plastered against a column in a temple of ancient times in Fires of Fate (June 1911).5
I have noticed the trademark rarely when viewing the surviving films later than mid 1911, despite the Motion Picture Patents Company agreement, but even at the beginning of 1913 a trade periodical commented that "some manufacturers have not as yet eliminated their trade-marks from the doors, walls, trees and other settings in the pictures. Some way should be devised to forego this custom, which so frequently spoils an otherwise artistic setting."6 The trademark continued to be used to distinguish the film company even later than this, but producers began to place it on the intertitles instead of on the picture. Titles were not considered part of the illusion; therefore trademarks could be accepted on titles more easily than within the images.
Back in 1907 film narratives were becoming more complex, in spite of the limited narrative modes then in existence. As a result, more and longer intertitles soon began to be used to fill the gaps in the means of expression. In an earlier period, when every shot was to some extent self-sufficient, films often used a title to announce each change of shot. When the time came that the producers began to consider a group of shots more closely related, they found that one main title could be used to label the group. The term "leader" was frequently used for intertitles, the same word that is now in use for the blank film used to thread up the film in the projection machine before the picture starts. In its very name is the perception that it "led" the scene, that it announced what the scene was going to be before it started. In the variety show, a sign announcing the act was placed onstage before it began. The "leader" was this kind of sign. The first concern in putting "leaders" in film was that the type should be large enough and the title run long enough to be read, allowing for the projectionists' all-too-frequent tendency to speed up when there was a crowd waiting outside to get in.7
Some films made in 1907 and later still provided titles for every shot. Producers, in order to make a film that was a self-contained unit, to be sent where no lecturer would be provided, often increased and lengthened intertitles. In 1908 and 1909, one could "read" many a film. All the key events and facts were conveyed by the leader, and the image that followed merely illustrated the title. This was the way that Vitagraph, for example, managed to convey the complexities of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream to its audiences in December 1909.
Intertitles were also found useful for covering great lapses of time, and for compressing time to suit the one-reel narrative. Vitagraph's An Alpine Echo (September 1909) told its story of childhood sweethearts in the Alps meeting again in America as adults with no less than five such titles in one reel: "A year later," "Ten years later," "One month later," "Two years later," and "One month later." When multi-reel films arrived, they didn't eliminate the need for such titles, but fewer were necessary.
There were two compelling reasons to change or eliminate the intertitles when the new narrative system was introduced. First, with the technique of editing alternate scenes the suspense that could be created would be harmed by titles that told in advance what was going to happen. Second, intertitles could interfere with the illusion of reality by reminding the spectators that they were being told a story instead of actually seeing it happen.
By 1911 some producers were trying to tell stories with an absolute minimum of words, and this was thought of as the artistic ideal. Great Northern s Danish import The Son of the Executioner was admired because it told its story successfully without "the aid of those funny sub-titles." It would be better, thought Robert Grau, to eliminate the need for subtitles, and also written inserts such as letters and newspapers, which interrupted the illusion and harmed the clarity of the recital. As an alternative, Grau proposed that the spectator lip-read the lines spoken by the actors. Some producers actually tried this expedient: Grau commended Pygmalion and Galatia (June 1911), directed by Francis Powers, because the cast literally mouthed all the lines.8
S. E. V. Taylor achieved an even greater feat by making a feature-length film without any titles. While I cannot be sure from the context whether the film was deliberately made without intertitles or whether it was being shown to critics before the titles had been put in, I think it was intentional. The film in question was Marion Leonard's effort for Monopol As in a Looking Glass (February 1913), and the critics who saw it in preview were reported to be of the unanimous opinion "that the story told itself remarkably well." The impetus to make films with no intertitles has been ascribed to the aesthetic movements of the twenties, so it is interesting to find that the desire actually arose much earlier, although with slightly different motives. Where a later generation looked for unity and purity of form, the earlier filmmakers were most concerned with the illusion of reality.9
In July 1911 Everett McNeil advised aspiring scenarists, "Use sub-titles or leaders sparingly—only when necessary to the proper understanding of the play. Make the action in the pictures tell the story. … Never use a note or a letter, unless the action absolutely demands it." The trend to eliminate intertitles was pervasive enough that later in the year Epes Winthrop Sargent found it necessary to warn, "Don't be stingy with the leaders that clarify the plot." He urged that the titles be left long enough on the screen for everyone in the audience to read them. The letter
inserts should be written realistically in order to be retained as part of the illusion. However, the intertitle was more than just the narrative information it included: one use of "leaders," he explained, is to "break" scenes, like a sort of drop curtain, so you can get people on and off stage for the next scene or shift scenery. Nonetheless, he agreed that the fewer the better.10 "Leaders," he said, interrupt the action:
For this reason many directors hold the action slow for a moment following the leader, just as they refuse to let in a leader in the middle of a scene, even though a word or two at the moment would clear the plot and obviate a later and more lengthy leader. Sometimes the line is flashed before the scene opens, but this is objectionable in that it removes the element of suspense. Leader is also used to "break" scenes where required. It may happen that two scenes are to be played in the same setting with an interval between. Without the leader the two scenes would follow with nothing to show the lapse of time. The action would be continuous and the characters would either leave the stage to reappear immediately or another set of characters would fairly jump into the scene. … Leader … serves as a drop curtain to separate the scenes (Moving Picture World, 12 August 1911, p. 363).
Sargent also suggested using a cut to another scene to give a time lapse: while the lady changes her clothes, while the man digs a hole. "For some reason," he observed, inserts of letters are better accepted than leaders; they are part of the action. "When the erring wife confronts her wronged husband and he is seen to take her back, the vision of a dead child will explain his reasons."11
The intertitles, then, could be used to perform some of the same functions as alternate scenes and as inserts, described in chapter 4, but were less realistic. They could also be a great economy. A title reading "After the storm," in Selig's A Tale of the Sea (December 1910), could take the place of a very big, expensive, and difficult scene, or cover a failure in trying to film it.
One exception to the rule of employing as few titles as possible came when a film was based on a poem. In that case it was thought desirable to quote the lines of the poem before most of the scenes, as was done in the IMP Company's first film, Hiawatha, based on Longfellow's poem Hiawatha (October 1909), directed by William Ranous. The use of Longfellow's lines here, like the use of Charles Kingsley's lines in Griffith's The Sands of Dee (July 1912), adds greatly to the rhythmic pacing and the poetic mood. Lois Weber, an experienced screenwriter, was the one who called attention to these poetic exceptions to the rule. She believed that one should not throw out all the subtitles in any case, but should manage to write some better ones than those that commonly appeared.12
Charles Gaskill, director-manager of the Helen Gardner company, shared this belief:
I have never seen a motion-picture drama in which it was not necessary to explain some part of the action by word. … It must be used not only to define the action; it must indicate the logic, the poetry, the sentiment, the philosophy and other abstract quantities found in the picture—it must illuminate. … It may be stated as a principle that the interscript should be used to carry the action over a hiatus, when it will serve to intensify the power of the story, whenever its presence proves a grace in the story, whenever its use will grip the point intended by the action of the story. Too much attention has been paid to the scarecrow … that a word should never be used in a motion picture unless it is necessary to "help" the action ("Function of the Interscript," New York Dramatic Mirror, 8 January 1913, p. 31).
D. W. Griffith himself was not at all averse to using titles to comment on the story, point out a moral, or instruct the spectator. Although the intertitles in the Biograph films are not excessive compared to those of other producers, the narrator's voice that is such an important part of his editing structure is sometimes heard in the titles as well. The Biograph Bulletin subheadings often represent a title that appeared on the film itself and made an editorial comment on the story: A Child of the Ghetto is presented as "An Innocent Victim of Fate's Cunning"; The Way of the World as "A Lesson in Christian Charity," and Her Awakening as "The Punishment of Pride." The introductory title to Biograph's Ramona (May 1910) not only credits the author, but offers the additional information that "this production was taken at Camulos, Ventura County, California, the actual scenes where Mrs. Jackson placed her characters." By the time of The Birth of a Nation, Griffith's titles were supplying history lessons.
The Gaumont Company, releasing through the Film Supply Company late in 1912 and represented in America by Herbert Blaché, attempted to use good intertitles as an advertising point and proposed a contest for the best ones:
To be able to tell an exhibitor that one's pictures have titles that really tell something and tell it well is a talking point…. Audiences are bound to get more pleasure from pictures whose text matter is congruous with the photography and the story, titles which strengthen the atmosphere and spirit of the delineation, adding point, verve and connection (New York Dramatic Mirror, 13 November 1912, p. 35).
By the beginning of 1912, Selig, Vitagraph, Biograph, and Kalem had begun the practice of adding the main title of the film in small type to the subtitles. At the time this practice was commended for the benefit of spectators who came into the theater in the middle of the film. It was fortunate as well for the subsequent identification of a film, because the first parts of a film to disappear are the main and end titles, through the wear of projection and careless rewinding and packing of the reel. Even then, there was a constant cry on the part of exhibitors: "Where are the titles?" As F. H. Richardson explained, "Under modern practice, since takeups have come into use," the main titles were being used to thread up the film. This was, of course, the wrong thing to do, and the professional projectionist was supposed to add a length of film for this purpose if the exchange did not supply it.13
The reluctance to break into the shot was initially very strong. Dialogue titles, with the spoken words enclosed in quotation marks, would as a rule precede the scene in which they were spoken, following the same practice as ordinary narrative titles. Therefore, one often finds lines of dialogue "spoken" long before the characters seem to say them. Since this time lag might leave the spectator in some suspense as to who was speaking, and consequently create confusion, many producers chose to avoid the use of dialogue as much as possible.
Another solution, however, was to add character names to the dialogue, outside the quotation marks, as in a play script. While the purpose in the beginning was to make clear who was saying the line, when the words appeared before the shot began, this practice was continued as late as 1914, when the dialogue titles were customarily intercut in the scenes, with little possibility of confusion. The intercut dialogue titles of The Spoilers (1914) carry the name of the character speaking the line: for example: "Glenister: 'You have taught me a lesson.'" The same procedure may be seen in Damon and Pythias, the Universal feature released at the end of the same year. The use of the characters' names when they spoke dialogue titles at this late date, when it was no longer needed for clarity, was a reflection of the entry into films of producers from the legitimate theater who were following practices familiar to them in play scripts. This is yet another example of the influence of legitimate theater on film style in the early teens, when, as we shall see in chapter 12, the feature-length film began to be an important factor in the production system.
The Mirror's Frank Woods felt strongly that dialogue should be cut into the image at the very point where it is spoken. He conducted a small campaign on this subject early in 1912. "The only right place for a speech to appear," he insisted, "is when it comes in naturally." As he admitted, "One very capable scenario editor argues with much reason that if the action in a picture at a vital moment be suspended for the insertion of a quoted speech the hold on the spectators will be lost." But while agreeing with this point, he noted that it was only an argument for trying to do away with dialogue titles. "There is this to be added to the claim—self evident as this writer believes—that quoted speeches should only appear in films where they rightly come in: The insertion if made at all should be brief, pointed, and distinctive, and should not be anything that would have been perfectly apparent to the spectators without the insertion." But since the "hold on the spectators" had become such a vital consideration by 1912 that nothing was to be permitted to interrupt it, many producers were not yet prepared to follow Frank Woods's advice.14
In the fall of 1911, Nestor Films briefly employed an alternate method in the Mutt and Jeff comedies. Here dialogue was placed at the bottom of the image on a black background, where it would normally appear in the cartoon strips on which the series was based. Horsley was quite proud of this device and claimed to have entered a patent on it. He advertised the films as "talking pictures."15
It is quite difficult to make definitive statements about the use of intertitles in films of the period 1907 to 1915, not only because few films survive but also because the titles are frequently lost—or, if the print is a reissue or was preserved in another country, because the titles are often not the original ones. Judging from those surviving films which do have their original titles, however, dialogue titles cut into the shot in the place where the dialogue is taking place were quite rare as late as 1913. There are some intercut dialogue titles in A Range Romance, produced by the New York Motion Picture Company in December 1911, in IMP's Shamus O'Brien in March 1912, in Kay-Bee's The Army Surgeon in November 1912. Yet in January 1913 Powers released Mammy's Child with a dialogue title appearing in advance of the shot in which it is spoken, and Solax did the same with A House Divided in April 1913. Even in a very modern-looking film such as Essanay's The Loafer in December 1911, which uses a kind of scene dissection in a crosscut conversation sequence, the dialogue titles still appear in advance of the shot.
The surviving Edison and Biograph scripts and assembly sheets confirm these findings for at least two important companies of the period. In the case of Biograph, it is possible to pin down the change rather precisely. It was as late as December 1914 before dialogue titles were regularly cut into the middle of a scene. The title assembly lists before this month indicated where dialogue titles were to be placed at the beginning of which scene. The first film-title assembly sheet of December 1914 to clearly indicate that dialogue titles should be cut in the middle of a specific scene was for His Old Pal's Sacrifice, production no. 4452. This was the procedure followed on all subsequent productions. In fact, the intercutting is likely to have been in practice sometime before the written instructions began to indicate it systematically. Accordingly, the title lists of the films released in December 1914 immediately before His Old Pal's Sacrifice—The Romance of A Poor Young Man and The Way Back—are ambiguous: they list both a narrative title and a dialogue title to be placed at the beginning of the same shot, which is a most unlikely procedure. I think this may mean that they had begun to place the dialogue titles in the middle of the shot but had not yet altered the format of the assembly sheets to reflect the change.16
Of course it was possible to avoid the use of dialogue altogether, and many filmmakers did, during the period of short one-reel narratives. It was considerably more difficult in the multireel feature film, however, and here the problem had to be faced. Most filmmakers accepted the solution of intercutting the dialogue titles.
In 1911, as indicated in chapter 7, some producers began to use credit titles at the beginning of the film, or at least at the beginning of some of their special releases, to name the actors and sometimes the author or the director. The use of introductory sequences to show the actors as well as name them began in the same year. Pathé American appears to be the company that initiated the practice of showing the actor at the beginning of the film, bowing before a stage curtain, as though at a stage performance, and giving the name of the player and the role. The company may have brought the practice over from France. In any event, it was commented on in a review of A Close Call, released in May 1911; the film apparently showed one actor alone bowing before a curtain before the story began, prompting the writer to remark, "It is hard to understand why he was chosen for this honor among the others." George Pratt has discovered an earlier use of what he describes as "prior curtain calls" in a Vitagraph film of February 1909, Saul and David, which apparently introduced the principal characters before the beginning of the story but did not identify the actors.17
When Pathé American used the device again at the beginning of The Step-Sister (July 1911), it was again worth mentioning in a review, but this time it was asked, whether they shouldn't do their bowing after the film, not before. This point was discussed for some time to come in the trade periodicals, because, of course, if theatrical tradition were followed, actors would only be acknowledged after the play was over.18
In the fall of 1911 the "present method," it was said, was "to flash upon the screen a full-size portrait of the actor in character and costume." This return to the nondiegetic, or emblematic, introductory shot, used before 1907 and mostly abandoned, may be attributed to the incorporation of the star system into industry practice. Gaston Méliès claimed to have applied for a patent in October 1911 on an "invention" that elaborated on the method of introducing characters. This consisted of showing the leading player in his everyday clothes, then dissolving into a shot showing the actor fully costumed for the role. Méliès first used it in Right or Wrong (2 November 1911) to introduce William Clifford and Francis Ford undergoing the metamorphosis from actor into character. Méliès' Mexican as It Is Spoken, distributed with Right or Wrong, employed a precise reversal of the process. After the film was completed, Henry Stanley posed in costume, then dissolved into Stanley in conventional clothes, thus satisfying the notion that the actor should be acknowledged after the play is over, as in the theater.19
Another variation in 1912 led from the nondiegetic opening into the narrative itself with a dissolve, employed in His Life (October 1912), Edwin August's debut film for the Lubin Company. According to a reviewer, it began with
an initial curtain which, being parted, reveals the title of the play and an announcement of the stars; these, in turn, fade into an animated photograph, introducing Miss Hawley and Mr. August, which is all very prettily done, the two shaking hands and bowing and smiling; the photograph dissolves into the opening scene of the play—Mr. August caressing the hand of his crippled mother (Moving Picture World, 26 October 1912, p. 349).
This sort of thing was considered to be one of "the refinements of the screen," which continued to be in vogue throughout the period. According to a commentator of the time, in the first issue of Runaway June (Reliance, January 1915), the film begins with the authors sitting down to discuss what stories they will write. Two little statuettes on the table, a man and a woman in miniature scale, come to life while the writers talk. The miniature man holds up a bunch of grapes and asks the woman to beg for them.20
By 1913, with the influx of theatrical impresarios and stars to the screen, the use of introductory credit titles spread. "Daniel Frohman presents James O'Neill in his own version of The Count of Monte Cristo" (November 1913) was the title that began that film, and "Daniel Frohman presents America's Foremost Film Actress Mary Pickford in the famous tale of a woman's heroism, Tess of the Storm Country" (April 1914) was the first title of another.
The introduction also began to grow in length. In Tess of the Storm Country, an introductory shot of "Miss Mary Pickford as Tessibel Skinner" shows Mary coming out on a stage in a beautiful and simple white gown against a dark background, in three-quarter shot. She bends to take a graceful sniff of flowers in a huge vase almost as tall as herself. This shot is completely nondiegetic: she is not in costume or character for the film that follows. The producer was getting full star value for his money.
"Jesse L. Lasky presents Max Figman in Harold MacGrath's The Man on the Box" (July 1914) was Lasky's introductory title, but in presenting the cast he went much further than Frohman. We are shown a coachman sitting on his box, and a herald standing beside the carriage blows a horn out of which come the credits in animated letters, such as "Lolita Robertson as Betty Annesly." The actress in costume for her role then steps out of the carriage, bowing to left and right at an unseen audience behind the camera. The same pattern introduces five other actors emerging from the same carriage in turn. The herald seems done with his task when the coachman gets down from the box, pushes him out of the scene, and introduces himself, "Max Figman as Bob Warburton." Fadeout, and finally the film begins. This sort of introduction must have cost more to produce than an entire film in the days of the one-reeler, three or four years earlier.
In The Wrath of the Gods (June 1914) and again in The Typhoon (October 1914), the New York Motion Picture Company used the device of drawing the stage curtain to introduce each actor as himself or herself, and, in the manner of the Gaston Méliès "invention," continued with a dissolve into a shot of the actor in costume for the film. The Bargain (December 1914) similarly introduced "Mr. William S. Hart as Jim Stokes, the Two-Gun Man." When the curtain is drawn, Hart is revealed in full-dress white tie, wearing gloves, in "hip to head" shot. He gazes left, right, then bows. There is a dissolve on his bowed head, and when he raises it he is wearing Western costume, his hand on his gun. Four more characters are introduced in similar but varied ways, concluding with James Rowling, playing a minister. When his introductory shot emerges from the dissolve he is in costume, riding a donkey, carrying an unfurled umbrella.
Universal's ambitious production Damon and Pythias (December 1914) used up the best part of a reel introducing its cast. Each actor has a separate introductory title, such as "Mr. William Worthington, who portrays the character of Damon the Senator and friend of Pythias," and each has a separate bit of business. They don't wear the costumes designed for their roles or step into the character. Mr. Worthington, for example, dressed in a business suit, stands in an arbor in full shot and walks forward. Herbert Rawlinson walks down steps from the arbor into three-quarter shot. Ann Little gets out of a limousine and hands flowers to her maid with a gesture to take them into the house while she walks forward. In these nondiegetic starworshiping shots, there is no acknowledgement of the audience, and there is much solemnity and pretentiousness.
By 1915, the Moving Picture World would write: "It has for some time been customary … to introduce the characters upon the screen one at a time prior to the beginning of the action. When this was first done it was generally in one routine manner—the character appeared before a curtain, bowed and disappeared." The World praised the imaginative innovations showing the characters in some typical pose or action. They thought it "artistic" when the Lasky Feature Play Company introduced The Ghost Breaker with H. B. Warner, the hero, conducting the movie audience through the gallery of family portraits in an ancient castle of Spain. Before each portrait, the painting changed to show the subject's modern descendant. The World also approved when the same company introduced the characters in Cameo Kirby by having Dustin Farnum sit at the gaming table, showing the cards one by one, and from each card one of the characters emerged. Clever introductions amused and entertained the audience in the spirit of the pre-1907 cinema. They could provide an elaborate frame for the production. However, this kind of special trick work could not be permitted to break the spell once the spectator had been drawn into the drama, or until it reached its end.21