Thoughts On: The Moonshiner (1904)
Today we will be exploring inter-titles in early silent films.
We will open without too much introduction. Our subject for today is a Biograph film made by Wallace McCutcheon, who is best known for his collaborations with William S. Porter in pictures such as Dream of A Rarebit Fiend, The ‘Teddy’ Bears and Three American Beauties. McCutcheon worked in many American studios (Edison’s, Biograph as well as the American Star Film branch) often creating narrative films until 1908 when he son took his place at Biograph. His son, however, was quickly replaced by D.W Griffith. Whilst he is overshadowed by the mentioned filmmakers, McCutcheon made a selection of notable films, contributing to the development of narrative cinema and the chase film whilst sometimes trying his hand in early animation. One of his films, our subject for today, is The Moonshiner:
Within this film, we see McCutcheon’s impressive employment of cinematic language with intricate framing, real locations, a striking use of blocking and planes of movement as well as many pans. Though this film is, technically speaking, slightly clunky with the pans often failing to keep up with subjects or retain the tight framing (which never concerns itself with anything other than wide shots), it certainly feels like a significant jump away from basic 30 second or multiple-shot comedies, novel trick films and even Porter’s most iconic film, The Great Train Robbery. In fact, there is something that separates this rather anonymous silent film from the likes of both The Great Train Robbery and A Trip To The Moon, the most famous early silent films. Maybe you’ve already picked up on this…
Inter-titles, or, as they were commonly called in the silent era, titles, emerged from the turn of the century and the initial rise of the narrative or story film. The Moonshiner is not an example of the first titles used in a silent film. The first use of inter-titles is often attributed to a film made by British magician, Walter R. Booth, who worked with other pioneers such as Charles Urban and Robert W. Paul. This film was the first adaptation of A Christmas Carol and was called, Scrooge, or, Marley’s Ghost:
Best known for being an early adaptation of Dickens’ iconic story and for its special effects, the titles in this film go rather unnoticed. This is possibly because they feel so naturally placed thanks to the literary foundations of the film. There is nonetheless a cohesion and flow to this movie, much like The Moonshiner, due to the structural segregation of the narrative. However, before further discussing inter-titles in such a way, we should recognise that this film was made in 1901, whilst How It Feel To Be Run Over was made in 1900.
Made by another British filmmaker, Cecil M. Hepworth, this doesn’t have the same kind of titles that we see in Scrooge. The “Oh! will be pleased” in the end (which should in fact be “Oh! Mother will be pleased”) could be seen as a piece of dialogue from the characters within, or possibly a commentary from the filmmaker on the trick and shock spectacle that the film is. Though these cards come at the end and so aren’t strictly ‘inter-titles’, this means that Scrooge is not the first film to contain cards of such a nature. (We can find cards in even earlier films than this with certificates and copyright notices in kinetoscope shorts – though, these have little to do with the content of films). However, whilst the words in How It Feels To be Run Over By A Motor Car are certainly titles in a film that pre-dates Scrooge, they seemingly are like speech bubbles in a comic book. In such, they break the traditional expectation of the silent film title cards, which would resemble something like this…
However, that is not to say that the titles used in this film aren’t ‘actual inter-titles’, or even that title cards weren’t subject to artistic treatment in the silent era. As the silent film evolved, and especially in the montage and expressionist movement films, title cards would be given specific designs and the dialogue would be italicised, emboldened, enlarged, shrunk and manipulated in various ways to give character and greater meaning to, what would commonly be, dialogue. So, in many ways, the titles in How It Feels To Be Hit By A Car aren’t so much questionable because they aren’t formally placed, but are instead ahead of their times thanks to the expressive nature of their design.
The fundamental purpose of titles is exactly this: expression. In How It Feels To Be Hit By A Car, there is character and emotion placed into the film by the dialogue. Even though the subject matter is utilised flippantly and the characters are exploited for mere shock, the difference between this film and, for example, Explosion Of A Motor Car, also from 1900, is stark.
Those in the car crash here have no ‘voice’. This leaves this film either comedic or tragic. Comically, the evaporation of the people and the descent of their clothes is uncanny and ludicrous. For the same reason, however, this film may be perceived as horrifying. That said, maybe it is a combination of comedy and horror; maybe its original audiences gasped and then laughed. The very same thing could be said for How It Feels To Be Run Over. Maybe audiences gasped, shocked, maybe they laughed, maybe one reaction followed the other. However, there is something either ominous or ridiculous about the titles of this short. “Oh! Mother will be pleased”, may imply that the driver felt he made a serious mistake; maybe the cards would be read as suggesting the guilt and shame of the characters. However, with the emphasis on “will“, maybe these titles are supposed to imply a young man’s stupidity. This then suggests that this is supposed to be comedic, and such was presumably the purpose of this short. However, if we return to the comparison between this and Explosion Of A Motor Car, we should ask: what works better?
This is something that is very difficult to answer. As in How It Feels To Be Run Over, the cards give a ‘voice’ to the characters and so act as a channel of communication between the audience and them. However, through silence, there can sometimes be great expression – as in Explosion Of A Motor Car. But, it is incredibly difficult to compare dialogue heavy films with silent ones; chose the better film: Pulp Fiction or Rififi; Duck Soup or The General; Gertrud or Au Hasard Balthezar; A Streetcar Named Desire or City Lights. Each of these comparisons are between highly talkative films and antithetically quiet, sometimes silent, pictures. And though you may have preferred one film over another, it is difficult to judge them on the basis of the density of a script. Moreover, it is difficult, irrational even, to dogmatically join one camp, silent or talkative, and remain there alone. The fact is, comedy can work wonders in mime and in motor-mouth theatre – as can romance, drama, action and adventure. What such a paradigm draws upon is the function of ambiguity in narrative film. To a degree, it is best for an audience to join the dots and reflect upon a film. This allows them to better interact a narrative, resulting in a higher levels of affection. However, this form of filmmaking is limited to the scope and depth of an audience member’s imagination and thinking. Because no one knows everything and unique, complex and original perspectives cannot often be translated with mere images, narration and dialogue can enrich a film infinitely. Take, for instance, the famous fast food scene in Pulp Fiction.
Could Tarantino have put this to film without words? Certainly not. He may have used montage and juxtaposition to imply the different names of burgers in different countries, but the expression of this would have no ‘voice’; whilst the idea would be projected and, indeed, expressed, it wouldn’t come from Sam Jackson, who brings a unique quality to the idea. That said, could this famous shot…
… be expressed any better with words? Maybe, but certainly not in my imagination, and not with the same impact. This ultimately suggests that these two kinds of cinema can and should co-exist; sometimes one is better suited to a story than another. And so we come back to How It Feels To Be Hit By A Car and Explosion of A Motor Car. What works better: silence or dialogue? The answer seems to be: either/or; it depends. After all, by jumping far away from the context of these initial instances of expression through ‘dialogue’, we can come to understand how significant, yet simultaneously debatable, the advent of this new ‘cinematic’ (how cinematic are titles even?) language was.
Speech in film seems, looking again at early cinema, inevitable. Not only was sound always a given, but art is something that is talked about; we don’t just watch films, look a paintings or see a play and walk away, we at least critique or praise them and in turn use their essence as a form of expression if we were engaged by them. As a consequence of this, art often talks about itself in all the ways in which it can as to engage its audience. And because cinema is tied to reality, it ‘talking about itself’ seems to be a concept that would materialise literally; with title cards and, when the technology was developed, spoken dialogue. However, there were not only the likes of How It Feels To be Hit By A Motor Car, an example of dialogue in early film, but also the likes of Scrooge.
Scrooge used a combination of dialogue and structural cards to introduce acts and scenes. With a more complete array of expression, Scrooge as a piece of cinema not only talks about itself with its characters, but the narrative speaks of its own structure. This certainly makes the film more cohesive and understandable, but, there will also arise the “silent vs. talkie” debate: is it better for a film to be structured silently through cuts, or through narration of some form? We can find extremes of either approach across the history of cinema and, as with dialogue, either approach can be successful dependent on the story and the approach. But, this is where we find ourselves debating the concept of ‘pure cinema’. Did films such as Scrooge take away what was unique to this new form of expression and narrative storytelling: singularly, the moving image?
At this point, we should return again to our subject, The Moonshiner. This is not a particularly memorable or highly affecting story. However, what this short has going for it is certainly the fact that the story is digestible and, thanks to its clear structuring, has meaning: this is a film about farmers illegally using corn to make whiskey, and there is a morality imparted upon this through the sympathy we are made to shed for the farmer and his wife. (That said, this film could also be seen to denounce moonshining, but the use of romance and the final shot of grief suggest otherwise). However, because this film has meaning thanks to its structural cards, we not only understand who everyone is, but also what they are doing whilst the filmmakers provide commentary on the narrative as its unfolds. Look, for instance, to the card that reads, “THE LAW VINDICATED”. This means that the law has been served, but the juxtaposition of this with death and tragedy doesn’t shine a positive light upon the moonshine laws. The fact that we have this commentary emerging from the use of titles suggests that this is an expressive piece of cinematic language despite being a departure from a ‘pure cinema’ made up only of silent moving images.
Looking at The Moonshiner in context of its history, we can see this film as a new marker of change in the cinema. Filmmakers are developing the tools to create more expressive narratives. However, there was a tension between narration, dialogue and pure cinema throughout the silent era. This tension was, in part, derived from the influence of class upon the cinema. In Britain, for example, cinema was initially a basic attraction for lower class commoners in musicals halls and at fairs. The same is said of America with immigrants being the foundational audience for films. But, there is also much evidence for the middle class being a significant commercial factor as American cinema (much like British cinema) developed. Conversely, in Germany, cinema began as an attraction for the higher classes and would have to find ways to access a wider market. A problem that emerges from this commercial reach for various classes concerns title cards. For example, though these cards would often be read out by fellow audience members, illiteracy made films with title cards less accessible to lower classes. And in countries that did not speak the language of a film’s country of origin, there would be the language barrier. This could, however, be overcome with translated titles cards or, as in Japan, narration. An issue of another kind would emerge with films becoming more complex; as filmmakers started making greater works of literary significance, often adapting novels and poems, title cards became much more verbose. Whilst this would satisfy audience members who were better read and were interested in prose, long, convoluted title cards were criticised.
The problems with title cards would have to be managed by a use of cinematic language that relied more on the image alone, and such was an idea that really look off in the latter half of the silent era. It could be argued, however, that this evolution of pure cinema only began because of title cards. Cards gave a new kind of structure and expression to the silent film, giving early silent filmmakers the tools to construct more complex stories with confidence; think of Porter, for example, who, because he wasn’t sure that his multi-shot narratives would make sense to his audience, would repeat action. So, whilst title cards took down barriers that complex editing and structuring would erect, they also constructed a new set of hurdles (which we have mentioned). Urged by audiences that not only wanted to understand a film, but would also want the stories expressed to the highest level possible, titles and pure cinema would then have to come into conflict. In turn, to tell their story as best as it could be told, filmmakers would have to choose a specific balance between cards and silence. So, as we moved into the latter half of the silent era we would get films such as A Man There Was, which has a plethora of tittle cards as well as The Last Laugh, which only has a select few; both are considered masterpieces and both sit on opposite ends of this spectrum.
Looking back to where this all began with films such as How It Feels To be Run Over and Scrooge and then to the following years where this new language evolved with, for example, The Moonshiners, we are then seeing a new and important, though conflicting and controversial, form of cinema emerge, one that challenges the notion of ‘moving pictures’ and so was one of the first major instances of filmmakers having to ask “What is cinema?”.
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