Though the first Academy Awards ceremony in 1929 included a category for “Best Writing — Title Cards,” it was also, thanks to the ongoing advent of sound, the last time such an honor was bestowed. (Its winner, Joseph Farnham, had the additional distinction of being the first Academy Award winner to die, in 1931). Aside from this footnote, however, relatively little is known about the many men (and possibly women) who provided the brief textual interludes of exposition, atmosphere and dialogue that populated the films of the silent era. Which makes it all the more tantalizing when the work of a single hand can be identified across multiple films.
One writer, known informally among scholars as “the James Joyce of the Intertitle,” is the most prominent exponent of this phenomenon. His (or her?) work for dozens of films produced by Viceroy Studios throughout the teens and ’20s reflect a clear admiration for the cutting-edge modernist writers of the period, including Joyce, Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot and so many others. Though the efforts never amounted to more than a number of isolated examples (and it remains a mystery how most of them made it past the studio brass), they seem to share the same sensibility, a desire to extend the boundaries of a modest literary format into brazen new territories.
Here are three of this unsung artist’s most memorable word/image combinations:
GRAYBACKS (1923). The climactic scene and emotional center of this Civil War epic features the death of the idealistic young soldier. Though cinema is primarily a visual art form, here we see the unknown author attempting to give it literary merit by recording the character’s death throes in vivid linguistic detail, down to each non-verbal shudder and gasp.
THE MISSING STAIR (1924). Using the ramblings of an asylum inmate as an excuse for intricate wordplay, the author was able to use this eerie horror film as his or her most sustained platform. This is only one of several dozen cryptic statements made by a mysterious old woman who appears to the wrongly incarcerated heroine at portentous moments throughout the film. Several examples pertain to elements of the plot, but some, like this, stand on their own even free of context.
HAZEL MEMORIES (1927). In perhaps our author’s most peculiar statement, this single neologism or onomatopoeia appears between shots in an otherwise conventional love scene in this sophisticated romance. How this title card made it onto the screen at all is nearly as much of a mystery as what it’s attempting to signify.