Intertitle(s) of the Week: a film in intertitles

One of the many agreeably odd things about the Edison Company’s 1910 FRANKENSTEIN, OR LIFE WITHOUT SOUL, is the way the story is told entirely in a series of intertitles, with the imagery merely fleshing out the textual description. Quite often the title cards contain “spoilers,” describing what we are about to see before we see it, which might seem to detract from any sense of dramatic tension. But this isn’t all that uncommon for the era, an age in which DW Griffith’s RESCUED FROM AN EAGLE’S NEST can give away the ending in the title itself. Of course, involvement in a story doesn’t absolutely require ignorance of what’s going to happen next, otherwise we’d be unlikely to watch narrative-centred movies a second time, and Hollywood’s generic approach to story would be a lot less popular than it is.

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This almost sounds like a cheeky ’80s frat comedy. Starring Anthony Michael Hall as Frankenstein, with Jeffrey Jones as Dean Pretorius. I figure John Landis to direct.

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Probably the finest elision in screen history. Although we see Frankenstein heading out the door in his beanie, bound for Ingolstadt University of Macabre Science, we see precisely nothing of his investigations into the mystery of life. Director J. Searle Dawley has decided that the mystery of life is uncinematic.

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The intertitles not only pre-empt the action here, but they provide plot motivation and moral uplift. It’s kind of a distortion of Mary Shelley’s message, but it’s in the same rough area: creating human life is bad, unless your name happens to be God. We then get the creation scene (a dummy burning, filmed backwards) and Charles Ogle the monster, wearing the makeup that he designed himself (flour, fright-wig: a good look). But you don’t need to see that, when you can have this:

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He knows it’s evil, see, because it’s ugly. A natural though not inevitable pitfall of silent cinema was to portray deformed characters as wicked. Chuck Jones pointed out that in Disney’s THREE LITTLE PIGS, the pigs could all look alike, because they sounded different, and this was a development made possible by sound. I think it was always possible, but less obviously so. In fact, a lot of modern cinema still stereotypes characters based on appearance, not always in a horrible way. Cinema has such a strong visual component that this kind of thing is always going to be tempting. The important thing is to be conscious of it.

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Good composition here, with a lot of action seen in the mirror. Mrs. Frankenstein enters the narrative and becomes a bone of contention between monster and creator. Tragedy is averted when Ogle is appalled by the sight of his reflection, and flees.

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This one is starting to sound like a saucy ’70s sex comedy. Robin Askwith is Frankenstein, the sex-mad scientist, Dave Prowse is his horny sex-monster, Madoline Smith is a busty wench. One can actually imagine Hammer attempting this, perhaps instead of HORROR OF FRANKENSTEIN, to boost their ailing franchise. And perhaps it would have worked better than the wretched H.O.F.

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A happy ending! Brought about by totally supernatural means, violating the principles of science fiction which Mary Shelley adhered to, even though the genre hadn’t officially been invented yet. Mary clearly thought that Frankenstein’s crime was too great to be forgiven, however penitent he became, and not only exterminates the Baron, but all those near and dear to him. Her gothic novel is practically a revenger’s tragedy. The movies have always been partial to rescuing the creator, but I think for a truly satisfactory ending he has to die: the point of the story is that he’s sinned by playing god, and typically innocent lives are lost because of his creation. This is a remarkably bloodless, victimless version of the tale, so I suppose we can say that Frankenstein hasn’t really hurt anyone. Except the monster.

These intertitles are obviously modern repaired versions, surrounded as they are by crackly decaying nitrate stock. Still, they’re reasonably handsome.

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26 Responses to “Intertitle(s) of the Week: a film in intertitles”

  1. Arthur S. Says:

    Another insane exegisis on spontaenous outbursts of surrealism.

    ON THE BRIDAL NIGHT, FRANKENSTEIN’S BETTER NATURE ASSERTING ITSELF is one of the greatest intertitles of all time.

  2. It’s even better with the film removed, because your imagination can take it wherever you please!

  3. This peeked my interest!

  4. Are you sure MS kills off Frankenstein? I thought he got picked up by a trawler and then narrates.

  5. Then there’s Frankenstein Created the Varsity Drag the Hammer version of Good News

  6. He’s picked up, narrates, then heads off into the ice after the monster, I think. No wait, I just checked. He narrates, then dies, then the monster shows up, talks a bit, and goes off to die on the ice. I can see why absolutely everybody changes it.

    If you want a Frankensteinian musical, what about Grave Diggers of 1833, For Me and my Ghoul, and The Gay Dissectee?

  7. Arthur S. Says:

    Don’t forget THE MERRY WIDOWED!

  8. Arthur S. Says:

    Or…THE MERRY WIDOWER!

  9. Gravediggers of 1933 was my title for the Herbert Ross version of Pennies From Heaven.

  10. David Boxwell Says:

    I especially love those intertitles of early Hollywood sound films and part-talkies that announce the obvious: “The Next Morning” or “Paris” (over a shot of the Eiffel Tower).

  11. As for Shelleyan musicals …

    Would it be too ’50s Mad Magazine to imagine Igor in SLIPPIN’ ON THE BRAIN?

    (Wish I could remember the name of the *actual* ’50s M.M. parody of FRANKENSTEIN, with the doctor slapping his goonish assistant and “Smekkity-Smekk!” as the sound effect. )

    *

    Perhaps “The creation of an evil mind …” is a synopsis of the plot of HOLD BACK THE DAWN? Not that I’d call George Iscovescu *evil*, but …

  12. I quite like Pennies from Heaven! Obviously they copped out on some of the TV show’s darkness bus… compared to dreck like Moulin Rouge! it’s a stone-cold masterpiece.

    The Richard Schickel Chaplin documentary identifies a great redundant intertitle: “Tar.”

  13. Not evil, Chris, just pragmatic!

    I remember a Mad Magazine story spoofing later Karloffs, called The Man Who Died a Lot. The perfect title, really.

  14. Christopher Says:

    …”I’m assertin’ I’m assertin’ tho my head is bending loooowww…”

    Frankenstein Leaves for College…I get this image of a 1920s william haines character all decked out in a bear coat,pork pie hat,pennent in hand and a bottle of bootleg hooch in the other…23 skidoooo…(Flirtation Walk playing inthe background..”We’re working our way thru college.dadadada da da da..”)He descovers the mysteries of life!-Dames and more booze!..Hes a Frankenstien party monster!..outta control..mary shellys novel has become a Prodigal Son musical

  15. The redundant locator title hasn’t left us. The new DUPLICITY shows us several shots of red double decker buses and then a nice angle of Trafalgar Square … and a title fades up reading “LONDON”.

    Episodes of TV’s POLICE SQUAD! nailed this issue with purposely contradictory locator titles. A fade-up on the Eiffel Tower is quickly covered by a superimposition of the helpful caption, “ROME”.

  16. Hollywood movies have always deployed redundancy as a conscious policy, giving the audience the same information through different means. Sometimes this can get pretty dumb, but clarity is important.

    I like Bertrand Tavernier’s idea of using Martin Scorsese in Round Midnight, because “as soon as we see him we know we’re in New York.” A one-man establishing shot! I think part of the plan was also, we know we’re in trouble…

  17. Compared to Baz Luhrman anything’s a masterpeice. The Ross Pennies has its moments — especially those involving Tommy Rall and Christopher Walken.

    But then I “have issues” with Dennis Potter. There isn’t a damned thing he’s done that hasn’t inspired me to stand up and scream “Yes life’s a bitch — GET THE FUCK OVER IT!!!!!”

  18. Something like The Singing Detective is maybe the most successful, because it’s about getting over it — although he could never write a really convincing healing process, being so screwed-up himself, I think.

    Walken’s dance/striptease is stupendous. Rall is the one who mimes Pennies from Heaven? Also amazing.

  19. I believe the latter is Vernel Bagneris. I love it, in any case. I also have fine memories of seeing it in a one-screen movie theater (remember those?) and thinking that the images of Martin and Peters in “Let’s Face The Music … ” were just about the right size for individuals who might’ve risen from audience and joined the screen. (Those initial dancing images, that is.)

    Gone are the days!

  20. I don’t think Potter’s work is just about how “life’s a bitch”, surely that’s more the miserablism Mike Leigh. Potter’s more about how we mentally try to escape life being such a bitch-fantasy, nostalgia, dellusions, obsessions etc and where these things come from

    Not that he’s flawless of course, but at his best he’s fascinating. For me the Bob Hoskins Pennies is simply the best British musical (unless you count Distant Voices)

  21. I count Distant Voices AND The Long Day Closes.

    Also Performance.

    But not anything by Potter.

  22. Fiona W Says:

    Not on the subject of British musicals, but on topic with Potter – I’m extremely fond of ‘Dream Child’, scripted by him. (but directed by Gavin Miller – is that right David?) We met the director years ago at some do and he was just very grateful that ANYONE at all had seen it and liked it.

  23. I like Baz Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom.

    I was never much of a Dennis Potter fan. Give me something like Coppola’s One from the Heart, with Tom Waits, any day of the week.

  24. David, a correction, if I may… The title of the Edison Company film is, simply, “Frankenstein”. The title “Life Without Soul” belongs to another Frankenstein adaptation, now lost, made in 1915.

  25. Arthur S. Says:

    I’ll take Martin Scorsese’s NEW YORK, NEW YORK. Or Jacques Demy…his UNE CHAMBRE EN VILLE in the 80s is a musical that features prostitutes, labour disputes and a crazed Michel Piccolli as a razor-weilding masochist(in contrast to his touching performance in LES DEMOISELLES DE ROCHEFORT).

    The film opens with a recreation of a riot that happened in Nantes in the 50s between the workers and cops. The cops shown with the contempt that’s characteristic of the Molotov Cocktail weilding, car-burning French dissenters. It’s extremely inspiring, almost makes ME want to start a riot, “a riot of my own”. It does all the stuff that Dennis Potter tries to do in his musicals and but works in the manner of the musicals as well.

    Actually Dennis Potter was largely surpassed already by a MGM musical like IT’S ALWAYS FAIR WEATHER which deals with sorrow, disappointment and even existential themes but is as feet-tappingly hip as ever.

  26. Thanks, Pierre! Interestingly, the theme of “Life Without Soul” DOES belong to my very next post. —>

    Fiona, yes, Gavin Millar was the man. Maker of an excellent BBC documentary on Fellini, whose cellophane sea found its way, delightfully, into Dreamchild. Shame about the stock footage shots of old New York, but everything else is a pleasure, especially Coral Browne.

    It’s Always Fair Weather does indeed anticipate a lot of Potter’s themes. It doesn’t go into such dark territory, but it makes the territory it DOES go into SEEM just as dark. A matter of conviction, I think.

    Fiona and I saw Ken Adam speak publically and he was very proud of his Edward Hopper sets, beautifully lit by Gordon Willis.

    Strictly Ballroom was perfectly nice. But who could have guessed the horrors it would lead to?

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