Tag Archives: Telephones

On the use of handwritten notes in old movies

The Smiling LieutenantOne quirk of old movies, especially those made in the 1930s and before, is the frequent use of handwritten notes to convey information to the audience. I think it must be a holdover from the silent era. In the early thirties, I’ve noticed that important information is often conveyed through signs, posters, letters and newspapers. This practice, however, faded away and by the 1950s, if anyone received a note or letter, they usually read it aloud.

And I am ashamed to admit this, but this has actually caused me some slight inconvenience when watching these films. It is often remarked on how the art of writing longhand is disappearing and is not even taught in some schools. There are people who can’t even sign their names in cursive. I learned in school, of course, and used to write my essays in longhand, but once I hit high school I used the computer exclusively for composing essays. When I wrote for myself in notebooks, I printed because it was quicker for me.

But the real problem is not that I can’t write cursive (I still can, though not often), but that I can’t read it as well. There is (and was) virtually nothing for me to read in longhand…except an occasional letter and my own, carefully studied script. The result is that I am somewhat slow at deciphering old letters (especially from hundred years or more – longhand styles have not remained static over the century). I sound like a five year old, reciting my first lesson.

The first couple of times I encountered this phenomena of showing a handwritten note to the audience, my sister automatically read it aloud. This, however, reminded me of the days when I really was five years old and couldn’t read well and would watch Charlie Chaplin films and I had to constantly nudge my sister or brother to read the intertitle to me. Fortunately, Charlie Chaplin films do not rely heavily on intertitles.

Eleanor-Hunt-on-the-phone[1]To forestall further embarrassment, I decided to take the bull by the horns. One should never give up learning, after all. Whenever there is a letter shown onscreen, I pause the movie to decipher it fully. And I am faster now.

I once read a joke where an elderly person said that cursive was what “old people” were going to use so that young people would think it was a secret code.

Random Thought: Another quirk of early films is how telephone conversations are shot. Usually, in a contemporary film, the focus shifts between the two people conversing. However, in old movies, it’s quite common to only get one side of the conversation, watching only one person speak and leaving the audience to figure out the complete conversation based on context. What this does is allow the audience to fully focus on the characters complete range of reactions or emotions throughout the conversation.

Though perhaps I’m wrong and they still do that in newer movies. I’d love to get further opinions on this. 🙂


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Posted by on May 7, 2014 in Movies


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