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.

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13 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 […]

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