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Silent Movie Novelties as Social Media Expressions

As a child, I used to spend hours in my grandmother’s attic, flipping through ‘vintage’ magazines, imaging how it was back in those days. Nowadays, I do not have to go to attics to read vintage magazines. Thanks to digital publishing. The mode has change, content stayed. Doing some research on the history of screenwriting, I came across digital back issues of the Photoplay magazine dated 1910s-1920s. Reading them turned out to be a real fun. For, the first two decades of cinematographic development were the most interesting ones. They represent innovative technological and screenwriting solutions, unique points of view, and the process of moulding a new art – moving pictures or photoplays. Among the innovations and developments of the time, I found some that can be observed in the present day. They concern forms of creative self-expressions linked to a technological advancement of social media. Here are some of them.

Sub-titling of images

A sub-title consists of a word, phrase, sentence or paragraph thrown on the screen to indicate a lapse of time, a change of locale, or a description of action which takes place ‘off the screen’. – Anita Loos (1888-1981), (Photoplay magazine, July 1918) [Also, see article ‘Vocabulary of A Screenplay’]

In silent movies, sub-titling and spoken-titling was a necessity, as there was no other means of expressing certain actions or story developments on screen. Back in 1910s, the art of sub-titling was a new form of writing and there were no gurus to consult with in the subject. Sub-titling and spoken-titling were considered a serious business that can break or make a movie, and screenwriters strived for perfection. They learnt the art as they went, on the job.

Nowadays, applying subtitles and spoken-titles to movie stills, illustrations, or photographs is a form of self-expression, communication, and fun for many. One does not have to be a screenwriter or any kind of writer, in fact. People post sub-titled images on their social media accounts such as Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram. Images for such posts are taken from a variety of sources - movies, cartoons, illustrations, magazine photographs, and generated computer graphics. Recognising this trend, Adobe offers creative tools and templates for various social media usage on Adobe Spark platform. There are also free mobile applications of similar nature available.

On Twitter, whole conversational threads on various topics maintained purely with subtitles or spoken-titled imagery. Visual image combined with written word seems to be a powerful tool of contemporary communicating.

Poetic sub-titling

Poetic subtitling as opposed to ordinary sub-titling differed in that that it offered literature like expressions that ‘are in harmony with the pictorial scenes that they flow into each other with so much ease and facility that the impression given is of a perfect, co-ordinated structure.’ – Anita Loos (1888-1981), (Photoplay magazine, July 1918)

In 1910s poetic and literature like sub-titling and spoken-tilling was as novel as it could be. That is, of course, when applied to photoplays. The first writer to do poetic sub-titles for a silent movie Cabiria’ (1914) was an Italian poet, playwright, orator, and journalist - Gabrielle D’Anunzio. Such approach was admirable, fresh, and innovative. It also was unexplored subject, and majority of screenwriters could not do it as successfully as Gabrielle D’Anunzio did. Poetic sub-titling was a rare skill to be yet learnt and perfected.

In the modern days, ‘poetic sub-titling’ is not as novel as back in 1910s. It is predominantly used in gif or still collages posted on social media by many a teenage ‘poet’. But, one does not have to be a poet to use poetic sub-titling for self-expression. It can be successfully done using existing book and movie quotes and poems. Tumblr is a popular platform to exhibit one’s poetic subtitling skills. On there, one can find both subtitling with no images or gifs or collages to illustrate it, just quotes and poems, and subtitling that is combined with imagery. Poetic sub-titling seems to be popular among tender romantics, poets at heart, and sensitive artists. By following them on Tumblr, one can absorb a daily dose of short ‘silent movies’, depicting various emotional and existential states.

Storytelling collages

Suspense (1913)

Modern social media collaging stems from a split screen technique. Split screen was innovated by a female film director and producer, Lois Weber, as early as 1913 (Suspense, 1913). Split screens helped tell a story and show simultaneous actions that took place in different locales or showing different emotional expressions of two or more characters in close-ups.

Online collaging of today can be mostly observed on such social media as Pinterest and Tumblr. It tells emotional stories and stories of expressive actions, as well creates an ambiance, appeals to senses, retells movies, and illustrates books with a sequence of movie stills. Collaging can be made of still images or looped gifs which, sometimes, can be accompanied by sub-titling or spoken-titling. But as a rule, collages do not require any words as pictures on them speak a thousand words.


‘Memes’ can be referenced back to the silent era subtitles that were inserted between associated with them scenes. Here is an example of such subtitle: ‘After Many Thrilling Adventures in Which He Outwits the Agents of Black Boris, Alex Arrives in Vulgaria, Where He is Acclaimed by His Loyal Subjects’. It describes action ‘which is supposed to take place between two scenes, and which, for any one of various reasons, it does not seem wise or expedient to visualize.’ - Anita Loos (1888-1981), (Photoplay magazine, July 1918)

As a rule, wordy sub-titles were avoided by the silent era screenwriters, since it was believed that the audience went to movies to see ‘moving images’, depicting action and emotions, and not to read texts on screen. However, in modern times, such sub-titles paired with right images – humorous or using intentionally misspelled words - can tell all sorts of stories, which otherwise would be impossible to communicate. For, how else one would tell on social media a story that has a pre-story in a quick and concise way, so that everyone gets what the author aims at?

TikTok videos

Between 1896 and 1900 silent movies were about 30 to 60 seconds long. However, film directors like Alice Guy Blanche (1873-1968) came up with various fun stories to be shown in such a short space of time – The Cabbage Fairy (1896), Disappearing Act (1898), Serpentine Dance (1902).

The first cinematographic movies found its reflection in TikToking. The TikTok is the Chinese video-sharing social networking service, which is used to create short music, sync-lip, dance, comedy, and talent videos of 3 to 15 seconds, and short looping videos of 3 to 60 seconds.

My favourite TikToks are the ones that showcase themed lists of movies to watch, books to read or songs to listen to. Some fashion and beauty related TikToks in presentation style somewhat remind of The Cabbage Fairy (1896). In a good sense of it. Songs and music accompanying TikTok videos can be linked to live music playing during the showcase of silent movies. The live music ranged from piano playing to orchestra performed compositions. Normally, as in TikTok videos, the music for silent movies was not particularly synched with the happenings on the screen. However, some film directors like Alice Guy Blanche successfully experimented with sound and music synching for her movies.

While TikTokers are mastering synching, music video creators are making real masterpieces mixing shots from their favourite movies with melodies of their liking.

Music clips

To my mind, the perfect combination of all the mentioned social media expressions linked to silent era novelties is music clips. Made up of shots from a movie or several movies they create new story lines that differ from the originals. The music clip shown above is a perfect example of such a combination. Based on the movie Damage (1992), it has a stream of remixed silent scenes made up of close-ups and flash backs, and sound synching.

The silent era innovations planted the seeds of a new form of creativity that first grew into the few cinematographic explorers and trail blazers, then developed the ‘guru’ buds of the industry, and, finally, in the past two decades, flourished into masses of artists and creators with an iPad, smartphone, or laptop at hand, and an account on a social media platform as their ‘silver screen’.

Seraphima Bogomolova

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