The Sunday Intertitle: Bubble and Squeak

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An experiment from 1920! THE CHAMBER MYSTERY is a very talkative silent film, whose writer-director Abraham S. Schomer (also a playwright, which explains the verbosity) gets around the speechifying in novel ways. Some dialogue is presented by traditional title cards, but, rather inexplicably, much of it comes at us via rapid-cut closeups of talking actors with speech bubbles pasted, cartoon-fashion, into the shot.

This is quite charming and might be reasonably effective if one had a chance to get used to it. Sadly, all I have of the film is an untitled fragment, heavily spliced so that characters seem to judder around the place like flickering phantoms.

The only other times I’ve seen speech bubbles in silent films is in animated films, or else when the filmmaker wishes to represent the communications of a parrot. I guess the idea of a bird talking was so surprising that the director felt an ordinary title card just wouldn’t cut it, and the dialogue and image had to be tied together more pointedly to make it clear. In a way, this is sort of treating the bird’s speech as a sound rather than as language, which I guess Noam Chomsky would agree is appropriate (though parrots, even if they lack grammar, do seem to understand what they’re saying).

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One bonus here is that you can watch the constable’s growing surprise at what the lady is saying, as she’s saying it.

Meanwhile, over at The Chiseler, the first in an occasional series: Schinkenworter, in which I attempt to distill the essence of certain Great Screen Actors into a single made-up word. Click the blue lettering to read the piece that dares to answer the question, “Who is Knucklehoofer?”

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4 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Bubble and Squeak”

  1. These are some of my favorite screen captures!

    Wish this technique had caught on – if only for certain films, like adventure flicks or comedies where the intertitles slow down the action.

    As a bird owner, my pet-parrot-peeve is when filmmakers dub a “parrot voice” over silent parrot footage… I think speech bubbles would be immensely better.

  2. No dubbing mixer can resist a silent parrot or cat, the assumption being that those beasts have ventriloquial gifts so nobody can really tell if they’re giving throat to utterances or not. This is quite false. While a purr is performed through closed lips, anything more vocal is also visible.

    Best bird tidbit is that Peter Sellers dubbed General Gordon and the other housebirds in The Ladykillers.

  3. DBenson Says:

    “Bobby Bumps Puts a Beanery on the Bum” — A lot of cute stuff here, especially the handling of the balloons. Saw this with a college crowd in the 70s. It killed, especially the waitress and the dog’s encounter with a cat.

  4. Thanks! Gregory La Cava’s early cartoons use a lot of balloonage also — it very nearly caught on in animation (where it would be easier to do). Plus his Krazy Kat toons were derived from newspaper strips anyway.

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