Before finding my passion in Graphic Design, I was a film history major at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario. I spent my nights writing out my theories about Kubrick's commentary on the "Male Gaze" in his depiction of the struggle and inherent relation ship between Humbert Humbert and Clare Quilty. However, when I was finished my rambling dissertations I would always get hung up on one final step before I could hand my paper in; the font on the cover page. Script? No that betrays the deep interesting conversation about gender in the film. Serif? Stuffy, old world, too Humbert. Sans Serif? Too new world, too Quilty. This was my emerging love of typography that would carry me to my current career field. In this series of blog posts I'd like to blend these two passions and create a historical overview of where typography meets film: The Title Card. I will be analyzing two to three different films of a particular film era or genre each week and sharing my findings as I go. The closer I get to current films the harder it will be to share clips of the titles in action but the website: Art Of The Title
has a wonderful wealth of resources that I will be linking to. This week, where it all began: The Silent Era.
The General (1926) Starring Buster Keaton
The General is a fantastic film, the comedy holds up extremely well, you'll be hard pressed to find a better comedian to pull off Keaton's deadpan "baffled" look in all of modern Hollywood, and it was a monumental undertaking that really shows off best when you witness armies riding past Keaton as he shovels wood into his locomotive engine. The film is based on the book "The Great Locomotive Chase" by William Pittenger. It is about a bumbling man who attempts to enlist in the Civil War so that his fiancee will look on him with pride, only the army won't let him because his job as a conductor is too important.
The title card for The General is a typical silent film film card, no animation, no real stylization of any kind. So what can we analyze here? The typeface used for the main title is a humanist serif font. The "dark" letters (meaning they have a heavier weighty feeling than other classifications of fonts) have low contrast between thick and thins. This means it is very stable on the flickering screen giving the tone a very sombre, serious feeling. This may be the first instance of the film setting up a punchline by undercutting the humour by "playing it straight." Keaton was a master of this he would adopt a bland look, stare whatever ridiculous thing was happening in front of him dead on and almost refuse to let it enter his reality. This font with its small caps treatment of Keaton's name is a nod to this. The film is saying "ridiculous things are about to happen, this is on purpose, we know what we are doing." The closest font I could find that "fit the bill" was Caslon. The flares on the crossbar of the upper case "T" go out, and the upper and lower bars of the upper case "E" are balanced in the same way as the font shown in the title card. However it differs in the curl of the extension of the upper case "R" the on screen font is more rounded than Caslon.
Studying the Silent Film era affords us the opportunity to studying not only the title card but the inter-titles as well. Here we see a contrasting sans-serif font, also humanist. We can tell it is humanist by much of the same characteristics, low contrast, dark letters, but also in the oblique crossbar of the lower case "e". This font is far more casual than the rigid all caps serif font in the title card. This is likely because these cards were to provide the narrative of the film, to "talk" to the audience for the film. This is supported when examining the x-height of the sans-serif font it is higher than a typical humanist font and so does adopt some openness and relaxed informality that would be needed to communicate with an audience.
As hilarious as The General is, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is creepy. Studying this film in German Film History taught me one of my favourite words: "uncanny". This translate to unheimlich in German which means un-homey. Which we really don't have a word for in english, besides uncanny but it doesn't really do it justice, feeling the opposite of what you feel when you are at home, safe or comfortable. It is an eerie concept, and I broke all of this down for you so you fully appreciate it when I say, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari is uncanny. It is a film told as a story between friends about an eerie interaction with a Dr. Caligari and his precient somnabulist Cesare revolving around a string of murders.
The hierarchy of this title card is nothing if not very clear. The only thing a viewer should get out of this is the name of the movie. It is bold, it is tall and it is bright. The style of this typeface is a sans serif, that almost seems hand painted like a sign painter might when they are in a hurry. The characters are not even that consistent, the upper case "C" on Cabinet and the upper case "C" on Caligari seem to have a different width and a different curve. This creates an extreme contrast between the title and the rest of the typography creating a sense of energy and tension. That energy is supported by the haphazard, bold, painted quality of the main title, it feels off in some way, not quite right. This sets the tone that will pervade the viewers for the rest of the film.
The inter-title formatting is stark and unforgiving. Utilizing Futura here further creates an unease in the audience, as before the inter-titles are meant to connect with the audience and tell a story, only this time the font will work against this feeling. Futura is famous for it's readability failure (yet unstoppable popularity) the audience is told to stay uncomfortable, forever in the realm of the unknown, not being able to connect to the narrative on the screen and trapped in a room forced to co-exisit with this other entity. The font goes a long way to creating a state of suspense in this film.
I believe what we see here is an indication of a fundamental role of typography in film, storytelling. The words and how they are shaped form an indirect yet powerful connection from the audience to a theme or concept that is important to the film. I hope you have enjoyed this first part and stay tuned for the next instalment where we will analyze one of my favourite genre's of film history, the pulp detective story. Let's hope this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship between typography and film.
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