There is an economy to the text in the sub-titles in Silent Film. Even in the wordy expositional titles, there’s a care and often a precision taken to expressing what needs to be gotten across in a sentence, or two. After all, the title card is something of an interruption, and we’d like to get back to the action.
It’s a use of prose whose expressiveness and brevity lies somewhere between writing verse and writing haiku. Dialog titles are the same, with just enough words to let us know what we need to – just enough – to follow what’s going on. They always don’t spell everything out, or to into great details, but just the detail we need so we don’t get lost.
The insertion of a sub-title also unwittingly asks us to access our imagination. It fills in a bit about what we’ve been watching, just at the moment before we way begin to wonder “who is that?” or “what’s she doing here?”. It may also occur in the moment that just precedes something that could be taken to be coming out of left field.
Sometimes it’s both.
We synthesize the sub-title card with what has just preceded it and/or with what follows.
With dialog titles, it’s more of a linear or literal use, of course. But with dialog we are just getting the distillation of what might be said in reality, and only a piece of the whole conversation. “Hand me that apron.” “My husband!” “Serve the salad undressed.” “Zorro!”
Just enough. Just enough to fill in what we might not be able to ascertain or decode from the live-action we are watching, whether it’s dialog or exposition or the mentioning of a detail.
Did anyone plan this out, think it through, sit around smoking a pipe and scratching their chin in 1910 at a salon of late-nickelodeon-era moving picture directors? I doubt it. And yet, the style of the economy of sub-title writing in Silent Film and the usages of title-insertions is pretty consistent from a point in the early-to-mid ‘teens through the end of the silent era.