Dipartimento di Musica e Spettacolo - CONFERENZE, Women and the Silent Screen Conference

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Little Girls in Empire Dresses: The Influence from Women Children’s Book Illustrators on Early Art Titles
Tom Paulus, Vito Adriaensens

Last modified: 2010-05-12


The narrative function of inter-titles in silent film is slowly generating new interest and research. The use of the ‘art title,’ title cards with illustrations on them, however, has largely escaped attention. In part this is due to a lack of information on when the device was first used: the films themselves are an unreliable source, since extant prints were often copied from a reissue. Kristin Thompson proposes 1916 as the year when art titles were first adopted in American film and points to Triangle as one of the earliest companies to use the device, quoting from a review of The Aryan (released April, 1916) that lauded scenes aided by ‘skillful word pictures.’  Art titles  appear frequently in the Triangle releases from late 1916 onwards (the company had a special department for painting the cards). The practice then migrated to other companies trying to upgrade and differentiate their product, like Famous Players-Lasky or its affiliate Artcraft.  ‘Aiding and completing the scene,’ as Thompson’s reviewer suggests, painted title cards could depict significant narrative elements, aid to interpret mood, anticipate a motif, or indicate the setting of a story.

Other than serving  a narrative function art titles were often aesthetically interesting, both in their borrowing from established traditions of book and magazine illustrations of the period,  and in relation to the film’s overall visual design. We want to focus on the art titles from the Mary Pickford film The Poor Little Rich Girl (released March, 1917), directed for Artcraft by Maurice Tourneur, who first trained as a graphic designer and magazine illustrator. We want to argue that the art titles for The Poor Little Rich Girl exceed the convention of the time to use simple decorative scenes as backgrounds or non-diegetic objects drawn in a plain style to convey an idea or mood. While it is uncertain who was actually responsible for these titles (only in 1919 were the creators of art titles given screen credit), the fact that their visual motifs are repeated in the film’s art design (or vice versa), hints at a more than perfunctory function. More importantly, however, The Poor Little Rich Girl is the first instance we could find where the literary source upon which the film was based – in this case the popular novel and stage play by Eleanor Gates – actually informs the aesthetics of the illustrated title: the illustrations on the front and inside covers of the edition published by Grosset and Dunlap in 1916, are recreated in the title cards of the Pickford film. The remaining art cards refer to the rich tradition of women children’s book illustrators from the American ‘golden age of illustration’. The little figures and the children’s clothes are pure Kate Greenaway but the main inspiration seems to have come from Henriëtte Willebeek Le Mair, whose flat drawing style and decorative borders are here minutely reproduced. Willebeek Le Mair was influenced by the illustrations of Maurice Boutet de Manvel , the most successful illustrator of the period in France, whose Chansons et Rondes pour les Petits Enfants from 1883 is another likely source for the design of these titles.


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