Monologuing in Silents

In some early silent films one of the main characters will face the camera or at least what it appears they think is an audience, and will talk through the screen’s fourth wall. Makes me think of that moment in “Animal Crackers” (?) when Groucho turns to us and takes a step toward the camera and says “Pardon me, while I have a ‘Strange Interlude’.” Silent Film found a way to get around these during the early ‘teens.

I’ll discuss this a little more when I cover intertitles — originally called sub-titles — and how they were and weren’t used.

This device of a character letting us know their thought machinations by telling us in words and sometimes gestures came from a theatrical convention many moviegoers would have been familiar with. Whether the language barrier of cinema’s initial melting-pot audience was an issue, as lip-reading can only get you so far, or if enough people realized a title card was more expedient may not be documented. But it’s clear that this convention was replaced by the used of a carefully worded title card.

I’d always been puzzled that Ford Sterling never caught on to this in his many performances in Keystone shorts where he’d stop and tell us that he knew what the other characters were plotting, that he had an idea that’d fix them, and outline what that was. Until I realized that he, like many Keystone plots, was spoofing a known convention of stage melodrama. Namely, the “Snidely Whiplash“ villain of the piece. Even Rube Miller does this in Shot in the Excitement (1914), a Keystone with Miller, Alice Howell and Al St. John.

A title card that would read something like “Determined to stop the wedding, he purchases a harpoon” was a much more economical way of conveying information to the audience. It certainly had fewer words to translate. And it kept the film’s forward motion going.

I’d had another concept planned for today’s post, but a question posted to yesterday’s entry prompted me to add this little sidebar to the discussion of physical performance and how information is conveyed to the audience. Your comments or questions may inspire topics I hadn’t thought to include, and I thank you for these.

The first post in this series is here.
The previous post (#12) to this one is here.
The next post (#14) is here.

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