The Sunday Intertitle: If you want to get ahead, get a hat

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“Do you deliberately wear that hat to look eccentric?” asked my boss. Nothing could have been further from my mind, except spatially. But I do have to remind myself to take the hat off occasionally, when indoors, because it’s so comfortable, and I don’t want to turn into Henry Jaglom, a man who seems to have adopted the same policy as Dean Martin in SOME CAME RUNNING. The sun hasn’t graced that man’s upper cranium since before I was born. He’s probably accumulated a block of dandruff like a sugar loaf.

There are a number of mysteries for me in D.W. Griffith’s THOSE AWFUL HATS, a 1909 Biograph comedy (a genre the earnest Griffith rarely dabbled in).

The whole film takes place in a cinema, and all three minutes of it play out in a single, unwavering longshot. However, the upper left-hand corner represents the cinema screen, and an image has apparently been matted into it. One would expect a split-screen effect in this period, or a double-exposure, but since the entire concept of the film is about people getting in the way of the screen, traveling mattes APPEAR to have been used to allow them to pass in front of the image. (Film stock wasn’t fast enough to allow a genuine cinema projection to be captured on camera, certainly not with well-lit live figures interacting with it.)

To begin with, the onscreen image is another wide shot, such that Griffith COULD have simply built a set on the stage, framed by a rectangle with curved corners, to pretend the existence of a screen, as Buster Keaton later did in SHERLOCK JNR. But at a certain point the smaller image cuts, which would have been impossible to get away with as the foreground characters are moving about so much (Keaton’s audience sit very still, and even then you can see their positions shifts slightly during his artful jump-cuts).

Weirdly, the film-within-the-film has suffered nitrate decomposition, whereas the surrounding picture is fairly clean. This strikes me as an impossibility, unless the film has been weirdly restored and the compositing done more recently. Arguing against this is the rather shonky nature of the matting, with the ladies hats fragmenting into solid bits and invisible bits — they abstract into Rorschach blot jumbles, pinned to the ladies heads by unknown methods. (On the IMDb, one José Luis Rivera Mendoza refers to the technique as the Dunning-Pomeroy Process, but other sources suggest that this was only developed in 1925 by C. Dodge Dunning, and since he was only seventeen at the time. It would be unlikely that he could have invented it at aged one.

Gesticulating wildly in a loud check suit is Mack Sennett. I wasn’t sure I’d recognize him, but the moment I saw the suit and the flamboyant arm-waving, I thought I bet that’s him.

The punchline: a digger’s claw descends and pincers a hat neatly from one woman’s sconce. It at first looks set to pick her up by the head, Rhesosaurus-style. And indeed lowering again, it grabs Woman 2 by the waistline and plucks her away entirely. More gesticulating from the crowd, but I’m not sure if they’re angry or happy. I *think* they perceive this second action as a step too far.

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It’s suggested that this film was commissioned as an announcement to gently remind ladies to remove their colossal head-ornaments when viewing the galloping tintypes, and this is borne out by the inevitable intertitle ~

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I guess the massive hat was the mobile phone of its day.

19 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: If you want to get ahead, get a hat”

  1. chris schneider Says:

    It’s not quite the same thing, but … I’m reminded of Daffy Duck, in an otherwise mediocre Arthur Davis cartoon, standing in front a mirror while trying on one of Elmer’s homburgs and then exclaiming “Pee-yew, what a ri-DICK-ulous chapeau!”

  2. Don’t forget Garbo and that hat in “Ninotchka”

  3. Ninotchka demostrates the Great Hat Arc.

    Good Daffy hat action in Duck Amuck! where the hat is painted onto his head as he speaks, to the tune of Oh, You Beautiful Doll. Or is that in Rabbit Rampage?

  4. Lady’s hats were a recurring nightmare for Winsor McCay too. I think your mobile analogy is spot on. http://www.bpib.com/illustrat/mccay5.gif

  5. I want to see his early version of “Let’s All Go To The Lobby”…

  6. I think women chose to keep their hats on in the cinema as a massive FU to the patriarchy. That, or they were just lazy. (I’m joking by the way)

  7. They could have taken their hats off and then thrust their hat-pins into the derrieres of the men in front, which might have struck a more telling blow.

  8. Since they did not have optical printers in the day, they were obliged to either rewind the film and shoot again, or else leave a black space in the frame in which to print another negative into it. (You probably know that already). I think what we’re seeing here is an example of the latter. They shot the foreground with a black velour square where the stage/screen was to be. They let people walk in front of it, and even had the steam-shovel effect get in front of it. I am sure they tried to use lighter colors in front of the screen, but shadows would come out black as well. Then they shot the insert by taping off the lens, or used a matte-box for that section; they developed both takes, and when they printed it, sandwiched the negatives together so that the one printed through the black velour space of the other. This is also how it was done in THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY. Why the insert has degraded when the foreground has not is — yes, a mystery, unless both film elements still exist, and this is a modern re-creation. I can’t be 100% sure, but I swear I saw this in a Blackhawk print ages ago, and it didn’t look quite this bad; and I don’t recall a French title, either. Maybe this is an alternate negative.

  9. Thanks for jumping in. It IS a bit puzzling to me. Yes, I guess they could print two negs onto one print, and thus one neg might degrade with time while the other was OK, and this print might be made more recently. If so, I suspect they’ve tried to improve on double-exposure by using video, and that’s why it simply doesn’t look like a 1909 effect. If it were a double exposure only the white material would seem solid and anything gray would be ghostly. Here we have stuff either being solid or completely absent, and surrounded by fuzzy lines…

  10. I spoke with an effects artist who reckons they might have used a WHITE square of screen — you can in fact see the edge of it around the cinema screen — and used a camera as a kind of optical printer to combine the two separately shot images.

    I notice that early on there is nitrate decomposition on the film within the film, and then later there is damage that crosses the join between both bits. That’s REALLY weird. And none of us can explain the white halo around the actors, which is very much like a matte line.

  11. […] age comedy is something of a departure for Griffith, who had rather steered clear of comedy since THOSE AWFUL HATS in 1909. Apparently it’s rather good, and the buzz of a live audience and live score make it […]

  12. Tim Smyth Says:

    Jumping into this a bit late. This is certainly not a Dunning shot for the very fact that he would have been 3 at the time. There were no traveling mattes to my knowledge at this early date, so I believe it is not one at all, or at least at the time it was not.

    The Blackhawk version does indeed have the film playing in the background.

    Another thing, this effect is really pretty good, but if one looks at the rest of D.W. Griffith’s film, one hardly ever finds effects shots, and the few that are there, like in BIRTH OF A NATION, one does not know if that is supposed to be an effects shot, or a montage.

    Another thing, this is way before optical printers, so the shot would have had to been accomplished through using a Bi-Pack camera, the problem with that idea, as well as the Dunning shot, which would also be accomplished that way, is that there would be a background element, and then the finished composite. One would never be able to see a scene of the people without it being married to the film playing in the background.

    That is saying, they add the film playing in the background, in bi-pack, while shooting the live action of the folks in the seats.

    And since the paper print in the Library of Congress has just the people reacting in front of a blank white screen, that leads me to believe that that is how the film was made and presented, and at a much later date, someone added the movie into the background, maybe thinking that is how it was supposed to be.

    I also see what looks like video artifacts int he frame, that someone else has mentioned, not sure if that is real or just an optical illusion.

  13. Tim Smyth Says:

    As far as THE GREAT TRAIN ROBBERY goes, I believe those shots are created using one piece of film. They shot the live action on a set, with the fake window, (no glass in it), but a black curtain behind it, after the shot, the rewound the film, put some sort of early Matte-Box on the camera, blocking out everything but the window, then went to the train yard and filmed the train. Same thing goes for the boxcar scene, by having a black curtain behingd the opening, it allowed for the actors, smoke, and whatever to appear over the matted areas, making a more complete effect.

    I don’t believe they shot both elements on separate pieces of film, and combined them with a printer, though I could be wrong. Both shots look like originals and not dupes.

  14. I always like it when an old post comes back to life.

    I think you’re right and Those Awful Hats MUST have been messed with some time quite a while after release.

    Re Great Train Robbery – since characters move slightly in front of the train doorway without losing bits of their anatomy or even becoming transparent, I’m thinking it HAS to be rear projection. The moving landscape must have genuinely been behind the actors. In theory, rear projection is fairly basic technology, though it didn’t become popular until the development of the translucent screen in the early thirties. The rather dark appearance of the landscape would support this.

    Using a black curtained area on set would work for the smoke of the explosion, but not for the bandit’s black boot, which would end up with the landscape printed over it if this were done by winding the film back.

    But it so happens I have a special effects artist friend, so I’m going to ask him…

  15. Hello,
    I’m French so sorry if my english is not perfect !
    When you see this movie you can see that all the white flowers in the womens’hat disepear when they pass through the screen, and alla the blacks elementns of their hats are still appearing, all this means that its’ not a rear projection or a black curtain dubbed exposure, but that means that the film was shooting in front of a white screen.
    Also, if it was a black screen with a double exposure or a rear-projection, the grab-hook could not bee seen passign trhoug the screnn, i souhld also had been double exposed wich is nit the case.
    If you look closely, only the white elements passing throug the screen dissepear, that means that the screen was white at the time of shooting.
    Also, if you look closely the actor’s plays , the are absolutely not in correspondance with the film on the screen.
    An other argument is that the film placed on the white screen is absolutly still and stuck in the upper left corner, whereas the rest of the frame move sligthly, a rear projection or a dubble exposure could absolutly not give such a motionless compositing.
    According to me, the film on the screen was placed much later with video means: they placed a square zone on the upper left corner, and use the white screen as we use blue screen today, that’s why all the white elements are dissepearing passing through the screen.
    So i think this version is at 80% probably made with video supplies during it’s restauration at the beginin of the 2000 decade.
    Concerning it’s original version, maybe it have never been showed only with a white screen ? But its is sure that this version is absolutly not the original, all the little details prooves that it have been made with a technology ( silver-nitrate matte or video ) much more posterio to its shooting and distribution.
    Hope i am clear enough ^^!

  16. Thanks, I agree with your reasoning, and your English is very clear.

    I do think inserting footage into the movie via techniques not available to Griffith constitutes a form of vandalism rather than restoration, but at least it has a created a mystery for us to scratch our heads over.

  17. Hi guys,

    I also like old threads revived.

    Again the only old print of Those Darn Hats is a paper print, which is a copy from a film print, and it has no movie playing on the screen, just a white blank screen. We can also see the white screen in this version as the movie does not cover the entire screen.

    The old effects techniques would have married the original elements of the crowd in the theater, with the new element the movie playing in the background, on the piece of film. So there would never would have been a shot of the crowd with a blank white screen to begin with. So it is most likely post done.

    The beauty of the two multiple exposure shots in The Great Train Robbery is that parts form the first shot are indeed double exposed onto the second pass.

    The window frame in the first shot with the train, and the men, smoke, and money, in the train car in the second shot. The men can go in front of doorway, but they just barely do. If they did a dance in front of the open door you would see right through them. In fact you do see right though them as it is but it is so fast, and so little of them appear in front of the door that one does not notice. The same with the smoke and money, it is see through, but it is all moving so fast one does not notice.

    Rear screen did not come into being for many many years after these films were made.

    As one who has done these types of shots, I do recognize the techniques.

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