Things they said in silent movies

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The Independent Online
When I was a boy of 10 or 11 we had a French teacher called Joe Richardson who used to lure some of us into his study and close the door and draw the curtains and show us silent films.

He had a projector and a membership of some film library which used to send him early silent comedies.

Thus it was that I became introduced at an impressionable age to the works of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, and not just the great threesome of solo performers - he also got films by Laurel and Hardy, and Harry Langdon and Chester Conklin and Wallace Beery and others.

I don't know what the rest of the school thought was going on behind those closed doors, what dreadful concealed practices, but I can reveal now that we were almost certainly engaged in the passionate pursuit of deciding whether Harold Lloyd was a better physical artist than Keaton, and whether Keaton was better than the lot of them.

Joe Richardson did not only bring us comedies. He also occasionally showed us war movies, full of endlessly trudging soldiers and broken trees in no man's land, from which I can remember that the sight of cannon roaring soundlessly is not as impressive as it later was in the talkies. He also procured one or two early science fiction films, of which the only one that I can clearly recall is an early version of Conan Doyle's The Lost World. Even then, in those innocent pre-Jurassic Park days, I found the jerky dinosaurs and rubbery pterodactyls less than fearsome, and I am not sure the actors themselves were much more convincing. But the reason I always preferred the comedies was that nobody did any talking, or very little; there was just enough dialogue to establish the plot and the rest was talk-free action.

In the serious films there was much more dialogue, and this meant many more captions. Every now and then an earnest-looking girl or a handsome man would open his mouth and say something crucial, at which point the picture would clear from the screen and a caption would appear saying something like: "Oh, father, I will get you the money somehow!" or "Don't forget to be at the station at dusk."

Most of the dialogue went unrecorded, of course.

Unscripted too, a lot of it. Someone wrote to Playboy magazine years ago to ask if people in love scenes in silent movies actually had scripted dialogue to follow or if they just improvised a bit of canoodling, and the next month there was a surprise answer from a deaf person who remembered the old days and said that if you lip-read the dialogue in those scenes, not only was it clearly off the cuff, but pretty close to the knuckle as well.

What I objected to in the captions, though, was the amount of time they stayed on the screen. I had enough time to read most of them two or three times through.

Sometimes I tried to force myself to read them very slowly. On other occasions I made myself look away for a few seconds before reading them, just to avoid the tedium. I couldn't for the life of me see why they kept the captions up for so long. After all, the end credits rolled past at a fairly impressive speed, so why such slow captions? Did people in the 1920s perhaps talk unusually slowly?

No, it was because, as I should have known, some people read at that speed, and therefore the film company felt it had to go at the speed of the slowest reader. I didn't think I was a particularly fast reader, so all I could imagine was that the slowest readers were pretty damn slow.

I had forgotten all about this for years and years, until the arrival of things like Ceefax, when I find that the same problem has come back to plague me again. The pages of news on those TV data sources are so painfully slow, one after the other, that whenever I consult an item, I never have the patience to read to the end. If, as often seems the case, I switch on just in time to catch the third page of a four-page report, I know it will take another minute or two to get back to the start and find out if it is worth reading from the start.

Somewhere, in some small room, there is a viewer with leisurely reading speed for whom Ceefax was designed, and who can only just keep up with this trickle of information, and I wish him luck, but what I would like is the exhilarating feeling of reading at speed, with the wind in my hair, and more spectacular information just round the next corner, instead of this feeling of being perpetually stuck behind a slow lorry in the slow lane of the information highway.

And if someone writes in and points out that all along there's been some gadget you can easily use to accelerate the turnover of pages, I shall search them out and throttle them.