The Sunday Intertitle: If you want to get ahead, get a hat
“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.
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 ~
I guess the massive hat was the mobile phone of its day.