Titling at windmills


I’ve always loved the titles in French films of the ’30s and ’40s. Partly because I like the films, I suppose — the appearance of the titles signifies that I’m about to see a French film of this era, and I start to feel good, and that feeling gets associated with the titles. But also, they ARE lovely titles. They have a pleasing heterogenous set of styles, and always give the impression of being uniquely hand crafted, and having a real existence as physical objects.


Not many people know this, but in fact all of these titles were indeed constructed by teams of trained artisans, and they had to be built at least forty feet high so that they could fill a cinema screen. Oftentimes, the cost of constructing a film’s main title would be equal to the above-the-line costs of production. Rumour has it that when Jean Renoir had trouble raising finance for one film (I think it was THE CRIME OF M. LANGE), he sneakily commissioned a title, and by the time the producers at Films Oberon discovered this, it was cheaper to make the film than otherwise. certainly, they needed to make a film that fit the title, and Jacques Prevert’s script was the only one that resembled it.

In an extreme case, Billy Wilder’s first film, MAUVAIS GRAINE, a micro-budget production, the title cost four times the rest of the budget. Marc Allegret made himself unpopular by insisting that the titles of ENTRÉE DES ARTISTES be completely redone after an accent grave was placed over the third E of ENTRÉE instead of the second.


Sadly, many of these gigantic pieces of lettering were destroyed during WWII, or have since decayed due to unstable materials. Famously, the main title of Pagnol and Allegret’s FANNY was sculpted from coagulated jam, which had already begun to attract flies when the first release prints of the movie were being made.


During the period of German occupation, the once-proud French titling industry was scaled back, as wood was needed for construction of coffins for the Eastern front. Film-makers reached an unsatisfactory compromise, making smaller titles and filming them from closer up. There was also a fashion for shorter titles, since fewer letters meant less timber had to be used. Hence titles like LE CORBEAU were looked on with more approval by producers than long-winded stuff like DROLE DE DRAME OU L’ETRANGE AVENTURE DU DOCTEUR MOLYNEUX. Marcel Carné was only able to get permission for the lengthy four-word title LES ENFANTS DU PARADIS by promising to use the same title on two different films.


15 Responses to “Titling at windmills”

  1. Pity that titles like Renoir’s charming ”La Chienne” which means, as you are no doubt aware…The Bitch. Short, punchy, succint. Pity it went out of fashion. Damn Nazis.

  2. You neglect to mention the famously militant French trade union movement’s extreme reaction to the studios’ decision not to revert to the practice of full-screen-scale title construction after the war, which saw the Champs-Élysées blocked by massive piles of used film titles. The fourth republic was very nearly brought to its knees.

  3. La Nuit Fantastique is really something. It merits extended “Shadowplay” analysis, as does the career of its auteur Marcel L’Herbier.

  4. La Nuit Fantastique — I’m on it.

    Yes, the great title-strike of 1946 was another major episode in this history. For a year films had no titles at all, and resorted to either credits sung by a young Yves Montand, or having Jacques Tati form the titles with his body, one letter at a time. This system of corps-titrage resulted in very lengthy titles, which often had to be shown separately. It was fortunate that so many French performers only had one name, as with Raimu and Arletty.

    I also omitted Henri Langlois’ doomed plan to have all the left-over titles assembled into a giant 50-ft wide flip-book.

    Yes, it’s surprising to think of Renoir directing The Bitch. I wonder if anybody ever confused that one with the other version starring the underrated Ms Collins?

  5. Lang who loved ”La Chienne” complained to Bogdanovich about how you can’t call a film ”The Bitch” in America. He chose ”Scarlet Street” for his remake which Renoir disliked(although the reasons for it according to Dido Freire, his wife, was that Lang’s remake threatened the existence of the original print). Lang’s remake as great as it is can’t compare with Renoir’s because Renoir basically makes the very dark story of the original into a really cutting, funny comedy. And as the end makes clear, the story would continue…in ”Boudu Saved From Drowning”. Lubitsch wanted to do the American remake at first and he’d be perfect for it. Lang’s film is great although way too serious.

    I’ve always noticed that titles in French films of the pre-war era were more vibrant than the later ones. Things picked up in the New Wave with Godard’s daffy credits for his films.

    The greatest 30’s French titles scene is that of ”La Grande Illusion” with that sombre beautiful music in the background. Thanks to the Nazis and the film being banned by Goebbels, audiences around the world were denied these titles until the recently discovered original negative. It’s something else. The way the titles are choreographed, creates the perfect mood for the film.

  6. Hard to think of a French film post ’45 that isn’t titled with an elegant script, rather than the more dynamic stuff of the war years. Arguably this coincides with the slackening of the pre-war filmmakers, who were no longer the young rebels they had been. But as you know I don’t quite subscribe to this view.

    The American habit of destroying European films they had decided to remake is one of the most ghastly practices of the studio system. I’m not sure if any films were wholly lost this way, but many were suppressed for years.

    Big fat irony: all the films anybody’s tried to destroy, like Nosferatu, The Devil is a Woman, etc, have survived. The ones that have been lost have been lost due to sheer neglect.

  7. ——————-
    The American habit of destroying European films they had decided to remake is one of the most ghastly practices of the studio system.

    Agreed. I was totally appalled when I heard that. I first heard it regarding ”Gaslight”, how the bosses went on a manhunt trying to toast as many print of the original Dickinson film. Cukor(who I hope had nothing to do with it) made a good film but the Dickinson one is much more harsher and more convincingly British.

    Lang himself faced a similar threat as Renoir’s when Losey’s remake threatened the existence of his own ”M”, where people were hired to destroy the original print and some prints were destroyed. I don’t think ”Scarlet Street” provoked any such attempt at desecration and Lang certainly wouldn’t have been party to it. He used a print of ”La Bete Humaine” to show his crew and some others for ”Human Desire”.

    Then since you are a big Duvivier fan, the people behind the making of ”Algiers” tried to destroy ”Pepe le Moko”. Thankfully, they failed. There are other examples I am sure.

    I didn’t know people tried to destroy ”Devil is a woman”…what’s the dirt on that?

    “Nosferatu” is a perplexing case since Mrs. Bram Stoker(who in a curious ironic twist was once engaged to Oscar Wilde) was legally in her rights to destroy Murnau’s film. Murnau did violate copyright, his film is a superior work of art than her husband’s book but that cut no dice. Goes to show how important film restoration is.

  8. The Devil is a Woman massively offended the Spanish, because it made fun of the Guardia Civil. The Spanish govt demanded that Paramount destroy the film, and it disappeared for decades, Everybody thought they’d really done it. I’m not 100% certain whether the negative was torched, but at least a print or a dupe of maybe the neg, SOMETHING was spared so we still have the film.

    Algiers is a fine example of how a remake can be shot-for-shot and still inferior, although I’m baising that only on the clips on the Criterion DVD. It just doesn’t have the same effect. Even though I love Charles Boyer, I can’t see myself watching that one. Although I’ll give the musical version, Casbah, a try. Peter Lorre as Slimane!

    Murnau had previously adapted Jekyll and Hyde, probably violating copyright, but there was no lawsuit. That film is lost. The one the courts ordered destroyed is still with us, haunting us 86 years later.

  9. The Museum of Modern Art secretly preserved The Devil is a Woman.

    Algiers vs. Pepe le Moko is fascinating. It’s Boyer vs. Gabin — two entirely different great French actors. Pepe is much too touch for American tastes. Gabin here looks forward to his spiritual son Belomondo. Boyer is Boyer at his most Boyer. “Pepe le Pew” is a direct by-product of Algiers

    And you know what? I’m crazy about the third version — Casbah. Directed by John Berry with songs by Harold Arlen and Leo Robin it stars a remarkably perfect Tony Martin who finds himself haveing to choose between Marta Toren and Yvonne DeCarlo while singing some really great songs — the best being the sublime “It Was Written in the Stars.”

  10. Am keeping an eye out for Casbah, the idea of it really appeals to me.

    Pepe le Pew, apart from his obvious charm, is a useful tool when introducing Boyer to students. They find him funny for two minutes and then they realise he’s really something special.

  11. I love Charles Boyer too. He was the best thing about ”Gaslight”, so seductive and dangerous, it’s a bit of a let-down when it turns out that he only did it for the money. Ingrid Bergman pushed hard for Boyer to be in the film. I also like him in ”Love Affair”(his favourite of his American films) and ”History is Made at Night”(best damn Titanic movie).

  12. You might be interested in a few posts by a graphic designer called Mark Simonson, who occasionally dissects a film’s use of fonts. The one on Gangs of New York is worth reading. Geeky, but fun.

    This is a link to a page with all his posts tagged “son of typecasting”: http://www.marksimonson.com/category/Son+of+Typecasting/

  13. David C.,
    Just received an email from Ginette Vincendeau re. the details of the process involving the use of my print, but she did impart something I thought I’d share:

    “Incidentally, I’ve just written notes for the BFI season in February 09 of Carne and Prevert work. Very exciting.”

  14. Cool. It would be nice to see Carne’s other work get an airing too, but anything that brings Les Portes de la Nuit back into the public eye has to be a boon.

  15. Love the filmfonts, Diarmid. Cinema filtered through a particular obsession.

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