James Abbe deserves his place in the hall of fame of great photographers for the two important strands of his career: as portraitist to the glittering stars of the 1920’s world of theater and film, and as a pioneer American Photojournalist observing firsthand the dramatically changing European cultural and political situation in his various travels throughout the late 1920s and 1930s.
Abbe was lured to the limelight of the east and west coast film studios of America and the theater stages of New York, London and Paris. In each place, he managed to encapsulate the illusions of performance into still visions of enchantment.
The first film star Abbe photographed was Marguerite Clark. Although now more or less forgotten, Clark was one of the highest-paid and most popular stars of her day. The New York Times ranked his as one of “the big four”, her fame rivaled that of Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, and Douglas Fairbanks Sr., all of whom Abbe also captured.
Perhaps his most enduring relationship in the film world was with the Gish sisters. Lillian Gish is thought to be the greatest dramatic actress of the silent era, and her sister Dorothy, capable of a wide range of acting styles, was one of the greatest comediennes of the time.
Abbe visited Hollywood in 1920 and 1922 where he took portraits of Mary Pickford and Charlie Chaplin, and also directed a film for Mack Sennett. After working for seven months on location in Italy with Ronald Colman – Lillian Gish film ‘The White Sister“(1923), Abbe made his base in Paris. His main reputation as a theater photographer preceded him and soon he was gravitating towards the best in French theatre and revue, including the Dolly Sisters, and Mistinguette, introducing them to a worldwide audience through his picture syndication.
Abbe soon became one of the leading celebrity photographers of the 1920s and is best known for these iconic portraits of both cinema and stage. He quickly established an international reputation, appearing in Vanity Fair, Ladies Home Journal,Vogue,British Tatler, French Vu, and many other publications.
Throughout the 1920s, Abbe made regular trips back and forth between London, Paris, and London to photograph theatre and film-making activities. He also traveled to Spain, Germany, Russian, the USA, and Mexico as a correspondent.
When you think of jobs that have gone the way of the dodo, certain ones spring to mind right away: chimney sweeps. Switchboard operators. Bowling alley pinsetters. Organ grinders’ monkeys. Almost every flea circus ringmaster. Well, just imagine what it was like to have a career as a title card artist or title card writer in the late 1920s when talkies were coming in–it must’ve been pretty intense.
It must’ve been a little sad, too. For even though titles (or “captions,” or “subtitles,” or “leaders,” as they were variously called–today we often call them “intertitles”) were sometimes considered a tad intrusive even back then, they did evolve into their own skilled artform.
Tracking the early stages of that evolution is tough, since many of the oldest silents are missing their titles–typically the main titles. Usually this is due to being damaged by countless threadings on countless projectors, or because the film stock was cheap and didn’t hold up over time. Plus, foreign theaters often swapped English titles for ones in their own language.
From what we can tell, 1900s and early 1910s films often used plain black backgrounds with white lettering. This was the standard since they were thought to be easier on the eyes than white backgrounds (eye strain was a big concern in the early cinema dadys). Since piracy became an issue almost the second Louis Le Prince and Thomas Edison got twinkles in their eyes, studios soon began adding their logos to the titles.
Notice the plain, sans-serif font above. As studios began churning out alarming amounts of one-reel and split-reel films, they found one of the quickest ways to make titles was to arrange simple white metal or cardboard letters on a black velvet background. There were also special printing machines available just for creating title cards, helping to further streamline the process.
At times, early titles could be a bit experimental. In this still from Alice in Wonderland(1903), the title is overlaid over a live action shot of Alice:
And in the famous The Great Train Robbery (1903), we see what are hand-drawn (or perhaps artfully arranged) letters complete with flourishes:
In time, studios started adopting specific templates for their titles, putting the words inside artistic frames. Each studio had their own style, whether it was the same frame for every film (like Keystone’s main titles) or several frames with similar motifs (like the work of Segundo de Chomón):
By the 1910s, film was rapidly growing more sophisticated, and so were title cards. While typed letters were still in use, hand-drawn lettering was very common since filmmakers felt it had more character. Stencils with openings for rows of words ensured everything was properly spaced and centered. Designers began utilizing more of the empty spaces, adding painterly backgrounds or “pictorial embellishments” and trying different fonts, as in this example in From the Manger to the Cross (1912):
In time, someone (wish I knew who) came up with one of the most popular trends of the silent era–adding little cartoons or paintings that served as humorous illustrations or visual commentary. Slapstick comedy and light comedies especially gravitated toward these charming touches:
These kinds of “art titles” became so common that directors of “serious” dramas would sometimes deliberately opt for plain titles–a 1922 book called Photoplay Writingexplained: “There is a mighty good theory on the part of some producers that the plainly lettered title devoid of ‘art’ or the trick photography is better calculated to carry along the story, for, after all, the play is the thing!” Well, that was oneopinion, anyways.
Other trends were temporary. Starting in 1912, many of the major studios would add a film’s name to the top of all its title cards. This was mainly for people who would stroll into the theater in the middle of the show (a common occurrence when films were replayed all day). It also helped solve the problem of those easily-wrecked main titles.
Other things like textured backgrounds became very common, a nice break from the usual black velvet. Wallpaper, watercolor paintings, wood panels, burlap, carpeting, and different types of cloth could all be used, with the actual titles superimposed using double exposures.
And as the plain backgrounds became more decorative, the plainer fonts of the 1900s gradually gave way to the quainter letters that we associate with silent films today. These often included modest flourishes:
Probably the most widely-used type of lettering was what I’ve dubbed the “lazy ‘E’ font,” neat and rounded with a slightly tilted “E”. Note the extra tall “illuminated capital” in the example below, also a very common embellishment:
There were animated titles too, such as this famous “watery” example from Sunrise(1927):
And of course, in the meantime the avant-garde world tended to do precisely what it wanted to:
Towards the end of the silent era, titles grew more slick–along with the rest of the film industry. Main titles started condensing as much information as possible, including the names of producers and directors and proclaiming the main stars with bold lettering:
Title cards did linger into the talkie era a bit, popping up sparingly in comedy shorts and dramas. And of course, the main titles were essential. But the heyday of printed captions was over, and the artists and writers responsible for them (hopefully) transitioned into set design and screenplay writing.
And that takes us to Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936), sometimes considered the very last silent film. And if we consider it the last silent film, then perhaps this is the very last official title card–a plucky message of hope as the Tramp and his love walk off hand-in-hand. For me, there is perhaps a faint tinge of nostalgia for the title card itself:
A “thank you” to historian Paul Gierucki for assisting me with some of the information on Keystone title cards!
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Lea Stans writes this wonderful blog and it can be read at HERE!
By the end of 1914, Charlie Chaplin had become the most popular actor in films, and reporters were clamoring for interviews with the comedy sensation. But no reporter had more access than Fred Goodwins. A British actor who joined Chaplin’s stock company in early 1915, Goodwins began writing short accounts of life at the studio and submitting them to periodicals. In February 1916 the British magazine Red Letter published the first of what became a series of thirty-seven of Goodwins’s articles. Written in breezy prose and reproduced here for the first time, the articles cover a two-year period during which Chaplin’s popularity and creativity reached new heights. Only one copy of the complete series is known to exist, and its recent rediscovery marks a significant find for anyone who has ever been touched by Chaplin’s artistry.
‘Charlie Chaplin’s Red Letter Days: At Work with the Comic Genius’ is a vivid account of the ebb and flow of life at the Chaplin studio. Goodwins was an astute observer who deepens our understanding of Chaplin’s artistry and sheds new light on his personality. He also provides charming and revealing portraits of Chaplin’s unsung collaborators, such as his beloved co-star Edna Purviance, his burly nemesis Eric Campbell, and the other familiar faces that populate his films. Goodwins depicts Chaplin in the white heat of artistic creation, an indefatigable imp entertaining and inspiring the company on the set. He also describes gloomy, agonizing periods when Chaplin was paralyzed with indecision or exhaustion, or simply frustrated that it was raining and they couldn’t shoot. The shadow of WWI looms over every page, as Chaplin, a British subject, was being slammed by the British tabloid press for his controversial failure to enlist.
The articles have been exhaustively annotated to highlight their revelations by mime artist and Chaplin expert Dan Kamin, who trained Robert Downey, Jr. for his Oscar-nominated performance as Chaplin and created Johnny Depp’s physical comedy routines in Benny and Joon. Illustrated with a selection of rare images that reflect the Chaplin craze, including posters, sheet music, and magazine covers, Charlie Chaplin’s Red Letter Days provides a fascinating excursion into the private world of the iconic superstar whose films move and delight audiences to this day. It will appeal to movie buffs, comedy fans, and anyone who wants to know what really went on behind the screen.
Fred Goodwins (1891–1923) was a former New York Times London correspondent who became an actor, writer, and director during the silent film era.