The Sunday Intertitle: Dramatis Personae


Reading about cinematographer and effects artist Eugenio Bava in Tim Lucas’ magisterial study of his son Mario encouraged me to look at the 1912 QUO VADIS?, which he shot. It begins, in a manner familiar from many silent films but relatively new at the time, with the cast, represented by title cards and then by portrait shots, allowing the audience to know who they were watching. Very early silent films had no titles, but the audience’s appreciation of certain stars led to a demand to know who they were. Nowadays, it seems like everybody from the caterer to the wallpaper designer gets a credit, but in fact this is not show — really big movies still leave out the names of probably half the people who worked on them. Thank God.


Each of the portraits in QUO VADIS? starts with the actor looking off screen right, then each thesp slowly turns until they are looking right at the camera. The effect is of scanning the movie audience for a particular face, and then stopping once they’ve located US. After a while (cast of thousands = long title sequence), this started to creep me out very slightly. I’m not normally bothered by the fact that movies are populated by dead people, but these ambulatory corpses seemed to know too much. And they were being a bit over-familiar, if you ask me.



4 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Dramatis Personae”

  1. henryholland666 Says:

    I watched the 1922 version of “Oliver Twist” last night, with Jackie Coogan and Lon Chaney. I liked it, it’s obvious that David Lean was influenced by it when he did his great version. However, it’s probably too “talky” of a story to do well as a silent, as there were a lot of intertitles with a lot of text in them, it broke up the flow of the film.

    I wonder if Chaney would have made the transition to sound if not for his early death, he apparently only made one talkie, “The Unholy Three”, which I haven’t seen yet.

  2. Both the original silent Unholy Three and the remake are fascinating and bizarre. MGM had a lot of projects lined up for him, which they then assigned to other actors, most of whom were less suitable (John Gilbert!) — the only project originally planned for Chaney that was a triumph with a different star was the Universal Dracula.

    Mind you, Kongo with Walter Huston reprising Chaney’s part from West of Zanzibar is an eye-popping horrorshow.

    I’ve been meaning to watch the Coogan Oliver Twist for AGES — I even have the T-shirt (bought at Pordenone).

  3. henryholland666 Says:

    Yeah, that “Dracula” worked out OK, I guess. :-)

    “Kongo” is amazing, it’s one of the most perverse pre-Hays Code movies I can think of.

  4. Did Thalberg take a short holiday and Kongo happened the moment his back was turned?

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