The Sunday Intertitle: Doodled

Somebody will have to explain to me the career path that led Norman Z. McLeod from doing crap cartoons on intertitles for Christie Productions’ comedies, to directing A-pictures at Paramount. (OK, he made his first at Fox, where you could get a big break just by having the right blood type.) I mean, he went on to helm MONKEY BUSINESS and IT’S A GIFT, so we should feel grateful, but how do you get promoted from the bottom job to the top in one move when you couldn’t even do the bottom job adequately? It’s like the Peter Principle gone nuclear.

What we have here is a Dorothy Devore short — I got interested after seeing another of her films at Bo’ness. Weirdly, the intertitles are in Italian, and have scratching on them that doesn’t match the rest of the film, almost as if it had been added on… but the cartoons are authentic, and authentically rubbish. I’ve seen McLeod’s “work” on too many knockabout shorts not to recognize it, even if I can’t always recognize what it’s meant to represent.

The action of the film is fairly clear, but since I can’t speak Italian, there’s a level of mystery created by the title cards that’s only heightened by McLeod’s gnomic doodles. If I understood the words, maybe the stick figures would make sense. At 0:48, why is the bow-legged man thinking about a happy bull? At 2:02, why do we see sketch of a lady clown berating a dog with a sweaty tale? At 5.21, as Dorothy chats amicably with a smiling man, why does McLeod present us with his impression of one man kicking another in the pants, or part of the pants?

I could go on, so I will. At 6.10, what can you make of the embarrassed person begging for change from a gnome crouching on a laundry cart? Oh wait, he’s not a gnome, he just has his arm bent at an impossible angle so it looks like a conical hat. At 7:10, can you explain why the man just shot with a cannon at point-blank range is still standing? Or why he’s been shot at all? (For the purposes of this investigation, being Italian counts as cheating.) At 10:15, can you account for the medieval page-boy using super-breath to fire smoke rings at a dog?

At 10:49 the twins from THE SHINING show up, which makes as much sense as anything else. At 12:01 a drunkard trying to silently dispose of a telescope and a binoculars seems relatively clear. It’s taken most of the film, but I think I’m finally on McLeod’s wavelength.

A few years before his death, McLeod got a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. Did he etch one of his pictograms into the cement with a deft fingertip, and if so, will we ever be able to decode it? It might tell us who killed William Desmond Taylor, or something.

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4 Responses to “The Sunday Intertitle: Doodled”

  1. Hal Roach reported seeing a German showing of a silent Laurel and Hardy. Puzzled by some of the audience laughs, he discovered that the intertitles were not merely translated but “improved” with additional jokes, some of them dirty. He cracked down on the distributors.

    A fair number of surviving silents come from foreign prints. Sometimes studio records of the original intertitles exist; other times they translate back to English. In the latter case there’s often a strange formal blandness, with the Americanisms filtered out in the round trip through another language.

  2. Yes, Buster Keaton personally intervened to restore some of the nuance to The General after its titles underwent translation back and forth. When Buster is trying to get drafted, it’s important he say “bartender” and not “barkeeper.”

  3. Add trivium: Babe London was in the Laurel and Hardy talkie “Our Wife”. She was eloping with Ollie, and of course Stan procured a midget sedan for the three of them.

  4. When “Babe” met Babe…

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