Character vignettes in the opening credits

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Wm. Charles Morrow

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Character vignettes in the opening credits

PostSun Jul 06, 2014 9:57 am

The recent thread concerning Alice White in Playing Around brings up a subject I haven’t seen addressed here before: opening credits that introduce the featured players with brief clips, most often using moments from the film, but occasionally employing specially filmed bits. (Or has there been a thread on this topic that I missed?) We’ve all seen examples, especially in feature films of the early ‘30s. I associate the device with Warner Brothers in particular, especially the Busby Berkeley musicals, but I think it can be found in the general run of their features—and those of other studios too, of course—from the Pre-Code era. The device was used off and on through the ‘30s, but it seems to have fallen out of fashion after that, for the most part anyway. The serials continued to use it through the ‘40s, but you don't find it much in “serious” films by that point.

There’s a good example available on YouTube, currently: Three on a Match. Because the story traces the lives of three schoolgirls from childhood into adulthood, the opening credits show us each of the girls, in turn, followed by the adults they become: Joan Blondell, Ann Dvorak, and Bette Davis. Here we can compare the child actors with the grown-ups, and see that whoever was in charge of casting this movie did an unusually good job of finding kids who resemble the adults who play the same characters. The Public Enemy is an example of a film that employed specially filmed vignettes to introduce the cast, giving Jimmy Cagney a moment to demonstrate his Tom Powers stance, with that characteristic punching gesture.

I’ve always liked this device, especially when I see these films in public screenings, in part because it gives us a chance to applaud our favorites. Sometimes there’s a pleasant surprise: “Hey, Ned Sparks is in this!” Or an unpleasant surprise: “Oh no, Frank McHugh is in this!” We also get a sense of the contemporary pecking order, where the actors are concerned: again using Three on a Match as an example, it’s plain to latter-day viewers that Humphrey Bogart was still pretty low on the totem pole in 1932, since he’s billed ninth, after Lyle Talbot. And for viewers then and now, seeing the players up top is helpful when trying to identify semi-obscure character actors.

I have a couple of favorite examples, though neither one happens to be a WB picture. The Paramount Alice in Wonderland of 1933 uses a storybook format to introduce the actors—which is crucial for this film, since many of the actors are so heavily disguised in their costumes we’d never recognize them without assistance. But the most imaginative use of the device I’ve ever encountered can be found in a 1932 Western directed by Raoul Walsh called Wild Girl. The opening credits are presented in the style of an old-fashioned photo album, which opens itself up and then gives us a look at the major characters, one per page. They pose in costume, in deliberately formal, 19th century style, and then each one (Joan Bennett, Charles Farrell, Ralph Bellamy, etc.) delivers a little speech about his or her character, before the page turns to the next one. It’s a charming device in this context, though I can understand why it didn’t become a trend. In any case, when I saw this movie at MoMA a couple of years ago there was a big round of applause when the opening credits were over, something I’ve never experienced with any other film.
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Re: Character vignettes in the opening credits

PostSun Jul 06, 2014 10:28 am

A later, really clever variation of this technique would be the trailer for Citizen Kane.
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Re: Character vignettes in the opening credits

PostSun Jul 06, 2014 10:43 am

Here is a charming variation- in MURDER IN THE RED BARN we open with a 19th C. theater stage and all the characters are introduced in front of the curtain:
Last edited by silentfilm on Sun Jul 06, 2014 3:11 pm, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: Character vignettes in the opening credits

PostSun Jul 06, 2014 11:19 am

Wm. Charles Morrow wrote: The opening credits are presented in the style of an old-fashioned photo album, which opens itself up and then gives us a look at the major characters, one per page. They pose in costume, in deliberately formal, 19th century style, and then each one (Joan Bennett, Charles Farrell, Ralph Bellamy, etc.) delivers a little speech about his or her character, before the page turns to the next one.


The "old-fashioned photo album" device was used often enough to become a bit hackneyed, but such exercises in speechifying is a variation on that theme I've never seen.

The vignettes leave no doubt about the order of billing, which can't be said about the placement of names first under the title, & after a few intervening credits, on the separate cast listing of principal players. Many times, in early talkies, a name placed 2nd, 3rd, etc, under the title will appear in a different ranking in the complete list, as if the producer couldn't decide upon their relative importance.
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Re: Character vignettes in the opening credits

PostSun Jul 06, 2014 1:00 pm

There's a very nice use of the Photo Album opening in 52nd STREET(1937) where with each turn of the page we see the actor pose in a stiff period manner, then a photographer's flash and the actor relaxes. In the case of ZaSu Pitts she jumps and gets flustered.

Going farther off topic, here's a nice use of the photo album at the very end of a film- you'll have to go to the end yourself:
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Re: Character vignettes in the opening credits

PostSun Jul 06, 2014 1:39 pm

Love that final gag of On Approval, thanks for reminding me! Great movie.

Meanwhile, it occurs to me that the Paramount Alice uses a somewhat different technique than the other films mentioned thus far, because the images are still photos of each actor (in character and in street clothes) rather than live-action footage. But that’s still more or less on topic, that is, if we include credits that display the performers rather than simply listing their names. I recall seeing this on TV when I was a kid, and for some reason the local station showing it couldn’t frame the picture properly: the names at the bottom of the screen were lopped off, which made the whole credit sequence pointless. So they got around the problem by having the station’s resident kiddie show host read the names aloud in voice-over, as the pages turned: “Richard Arlen as The Cheshire Cat . . . Roscoe Ates as The Fish . . .” etc. etc.
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Character vignettes in MURDER IN THE RED BARN

PostSun Jul 06, 2014 1:44 pm

Here is a charming variation- in MURDER IN THE RED BARN we open with a 19th C. theater stage and all the characters are introduced in front of the curtain: [archive]http://www.archive.org/details/MurderInTheRedBarn1935,MurderInTheRedBarn1935_512kb
[/archive]
The video embed above failed because the "[/archive]" did not directly follow, or abut, the "_512kb"




Posting YouTube, Vimeo and TCM videos w/new board format
http://www.nitrateville.com/viewtopic.php?f=6&t=9793
Posting an archive.org clip is a little more complicated. You must know the archive.org URL and the .mp4 filename. You can get the .mp4 filename by clicking the "embed" link on the archive.org page for your film, and then pasting it into a word processor and them pasting it into a text message. It is likely to be similar but not exactly like the last part of the URL:
CODE: SELECT ALL

[archive]http://www.archive.org/details/Lets_Sing_with_Popeye_1936,Popeye_Lets_Sing_with_Popeye_1934_512kb[/archive]





Last edited by JFK on Sun Jul 06, 2014 4:49 pm, edited 2 times in total.
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Re: Character vignettes in the opening credits

PostSun Jul 06, 2014 2:44 pm

I thank you very much.
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Re: Character vignettes in the opening credits

PostSun Jul 06, 2014 4:36 pm

I have often wondered why these vignette style introductions of the cast were never continued? I always thought they were marvelous and certainly helped enormously in providing the "who is what" for later use in comprehending the picture. The Warner Bros., especially, did them very nicely with those "wipes" together with some very nice music in accompaniment. In fact all those early Warner Bros., pictures moved with an absolute flow right from the start.

Of course, in those days, the main titles were actually placed at the beginning of a picture - whoever thought that putting an introduction anywhere else needs his/her bumps read. Sometimes there are no titles in pictures at all and you have to wait to the very end to wade through a re-print of the 'phone book to try and find a name.

No wonder we here all like old pictures! :D
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Re: Character vignettes in the opening credits

PostSun Jul 06, 2014 5:22 pm

The main credits of LILLIAN RUSSELL (1940) opens a theater curtain on portraits of the main actors in character and lists their character names. Pretty neat.

COLLEEN (1936) has the principal players introducing themselves in song and describing their role in the story. "Dumb blonde" Marie Wilson steals the show by singing that she can't remember what she does in the film.

I suspect this is not unique but the credits for ON THE NIGHT STAGE (1915) pictures each actor as themselves then dissolves to show each in costume and in character.
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Re: Character vignettes in the opening credits

PostMon Jul 07, 2014 6:48 pm

bobfells wrote:I suspect this is not unique but the credits for ON THE NIGHT STAGE (1915) pictures each actor as themselves then dissolves to show each in costume and in character.


This device was re-used from William S. Hart’s debut feature The Bargain (recently discussed in the ‘Best of 1914’ thread) where each actor stands before a curtain, in street clothes, bows low, and then—thanks to a cross-fade—arises in his or her costume from the story.

Another film from the same era that cleverly introduces the actors before the show begins is Maurice Tourneur’s Alias Jimmy Valentine (1915). This one starts out with a brief bit of footage showing the actual warden of Sing-Sing, who permitted the filmmakers to use the facility for some scenes. Then we see each of the lead players in a brief vignette that gives us a sense of their role. In particular I like the way they introduce Johnny Hines, who looks through a grimy window, with his name scratched into the wall above his head, like graffiti. Very stylish!
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Re: Character vignettes in the opening credits

PostThu Dec 29, 2016 9:54 pm

Seeing the Fox comedy Pleasure Cruise (1933) on TCM last night inspired me to revive this thread. The opening credits feature a clever device I’d never seen before, or at least, not exactly. Here, the featured players (Roland Young, Genevieve Tobin, etc.) are introduced on shipboard, as each performer steps into view through a porthole, pauses, strikes a characteristic pose, and then walks on. It’s smoothly edited in such a way as to make it appear it was done in one take, although I’m sure that wasn’t the case.
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Re: Character vignettes in the opening credits

PostFri Dec 30, 2016 7:06 am

Just discovering this neat thread! Thanks Mr. Morrow.

I always loved these opening credit "portraits" too, and wondered when some of them were shot during production. More than a few have their time lengthened by either reversing the brief action or freezing the shot for a few moments.

I would love to see a book totally dedicated to the making of film titles. How they were doe, lettered, lots of examples, etc.

Here is my friend Peter Mintun's recreation of what the opening credits of the still lost CONVENTION CITY (FN/'33) might look like....

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Re: Character vignettes in the opening credits

PostFri Dec 30, 2016 7:39 am

vitaphone wrote:Just discovering this neat thread! Thanks Mr. Morrow.

I always loved these opening credit "portraits" too, and wondered when some of them were shot during production. More than a few have their time lengthened by either reversing the brief action or freezing the shot for a few moments.

I would love to see a book totally dedicated to the making of film titles. How they were doe, lettered, lots of examples, etc.

Here is my friend Peter Mintun's recreation of what the opening credits of the still lost CONVENTION CITY (FN/'33) might look like....

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=l9HYkU0xFFg" target="_blank

Thumbs up, V-P! Now, if he could just re-create the rest of the film...
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Re: Character vignettes in the opening credits

PostFri Dec 30, 2016 8:29 am

Might Keaton's THE SAPHEAD be included in this number? The opening of the film is really quite charming as the actors emerge from silhouette, nod and murmur to each other (and, in Buster and William Crane's case, shake hands) before retreating to silhouette again.
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Re: Character vignettes in the opening credits

PostFri Dec 30, 2016 9:32 am

Let's not overlook the credits in The Women-1939. I have often wondered what the actresses thought about being depicted by an animal??? Especially Marjorie Main being represented by a horse???
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Re: Character vignettes in the opening credits

PostFri Dec 30, 2016 12:53 pm

There are similar "animal comparison" titles on MURDERS IN THE ZOO.
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Re: Character vignettes in the opening credits

PostFri Dec 30, 2016 12:59 pm

I always liked this device to introduce the featured players. Seems an early to mid-30s usage since it was pretty much gone by the late 30s, early 40s.
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Re: Character vignettes in the opening credits

PostFri Dec 30, 2016 1:38 pm

What we all should do is sign a long petition with thousands and thousands of names and send it to the big studios who release films - and ask that they bring back this ideal and sensible way of opening films! :D Although one gets used to it, the practice of placing titles over live action is rather annoying - especially if it goes on for ten minutes or so. Then there is the other bright idea someone had of putting the main titles on after we had watched a bit of the picture. How clever! :( The latest idea is to not put on any main titles at all - to just disclose everything at the end when the usual list of names (re-printed from a 'phone book) is reeled off. How many times have we been at the pictures and thought that the actual beginning of a picture is just another advertisement?
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Re: Character vignettes in the opening credits

PostFri Dec 30, 2016 3:16 pm

Donald Binks wrote:What we all should do is sign a long petition with thousands and thousands of names and send it to the big studios who release films - and ask that they bring back this ideal and sensible way of opening films! :D Although one gets used to it, the practice of placing titles over live action is rather annoying - especially if it goes on for ten minutes or so. Then there is the other bright idea someone had of putting the main titles on after we had watched a bit of the picture. How clever! :( The latest idea is to not put on any main titles at all - to just disclose everything at the end when the usual list of names (re-printed from a 'phone book) is reeled off. How many times have we been at the pictures and thought that the actual beginning of a picture is just another advertisement?


If you think that's bad, try turning off the sound and turning on the captioning. Then try reading the captions at the same time you're trying to read the main titles and trying to watch the visual track. Calling me "four-eyes" just because I wear glasses doesn't mean I have enough eyes to follow all of this stuff simultaneously!

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Re: Character vignettes in the opening credits

PostFri Dec 30, 2016 4:35 pm

Jim Roots wrote:
If you think that's bad, try turning off the sound and turning on the captioning. Then try reading the captions at the same time you're trying to read the main titles and trying to watch the visual track. Calling me "four-eyes" just because I wear glasses doesn't mean I have enough eyes to follow all of this stuff simultaneously!

Jim


Jim, I watch quite a lot of foreign pictures with sub-titling - so I know of your problem and feel empathy. Looks like we two are going to be the first names on the petition! :D
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Re: Character vignettes in the opening credits

PostMon Jan 02, 2017 12:15 am

I'm surprised no one has mentioned "Red Headed Woman" with Jean Harlow. When the film previewed the audience didn't know if it was a drama or comedy so MGM had one of the writers (I believe it was Anita Loos) add a few vignettes at
the beginning of the film to let the audience know it was a comedy. These vignettes set the stage for the film.
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Re: Character vignettes in the opening credits

PostMon Jan 02, 2017 4:14 am

Curiously I saw two different prints of John Ford's "The Last Patrol". In one, the characters were introduced by vignettes. In the other one, with (apparently) re-designed English credits, and a slightly different use of music, no vignettes.
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Re: Character vignettes in the opening credits

PostMon Jan 02, 2017 4:59 am

This device was perhaps used in Stanley Donen's double-pastiche, MOVIE, MOVIE - not seen it for a long time. It was also used in some British sitcoms, such as 'Dad's Army' and 'Are You being Served', but at the end, with the phrase 'You have been watching...' It seems to have been used in series with an old-fashioned / nostalgic air, as the writers clearly remembered it from the films.

For some reason, in recent years, the credits have whizzed by too fast, and even been squeezed to allow for ads for forthcoming shows. Very annoying if you want to check on a player, and insulting to the cast.
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Re: Character vignettes in the opening credits

PostMon Jan 02, 2017 8:52 am

earlytalkiebuffRob wrote:This device was perhaps used in Stanley Donen's double-pastiche, MOVIE, MOVIE - not seen it for a long time. It was also used in some British sitcoms, such as 'Dad's Army' and 'Are You being Served', but at the end, with the phrase 'You have been watching...' It seems to have been used in series with an old-fashioned / nostalgic air, as the writers clearly remembered it from the films.

For some reason, in recent years, the credits have whizzed by too fast, and even been squeezed to allow for ads for forthcoming shows. Very annoying if you want to check on a player, and insulting to the cast.


My wife has been watching the Britcom series Miranda on Canada's geriatric channel, Vision TV. Every episode ends with the actors extending the closing scene by waving at the audience as the camera "introduces" each of them in turn ... a sort of vignette, and it includes the tagline "You have been watching..." as you mention in your post.

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Re: Character vignettes in the opening credits

PostMon Jan 02, 2017 9:32 am

Jim Roots wrote:
earlytalkiebuffRob wrote:This device was perhaps used in Stanley Donen's double-pastiche, MOVIE, MOVIE - not seen it for a long time. It was also used in some British sitcoms, such as 'Dad's Army' and 'Are You being Served', but at the end, with the phrase 'You have been watching...' It seems to have been used in series with an old-fashioned / nostalgic air, as the writers clearly remembered it from the films.

For some reason, in recent years, the credits have whizzed by too fast, and even been squeezed to allow for ads for forthcoming shows. Very annoying if you want to check on a player, and insulting to the cast.


My wife has been watching the Britcom series Miranda on Canada's geriatric channel, Vision TV. Every episode ends with the actors extending the closing scene by waving at the audience as the camera "introduces" each of them in turn ... a sort of vignette, and it includes the tagline "You have been watching..." as you mention in your post.

Jim


That reminds me of the closing credits of John Huston’s oddball murder mystery The List of Adrian Messenger (1963). The gimmick of this movie, for those who haven’t seen it, is that five characters are played by five famous actors heavily disguised. At the finale, each one—Tony Curtis, Burt Lancaster, Robert Mitchum, Frank Sinatra, and Kirk Douglas—removes his mask and reveals his identity.

It’s an amusing finale, for several reasons. For one thing, those sticky masks appear to be difficult to remove, which makes things rather awkward for the actors. The final shot belongs to Douglas, who is supposed to briskly whip off his disguise, grin, and announce: “Ladies and gentlemen, The End!” But the poor guy obviously has difficulty with his makeup, and bits of sticky goo are still on his face as he delivers his line. Beyond that, there appear to be inside jokes within inside jokes happening here. Sinatra supposedly plays a gypsy, but if you watch his scene again it doesn’t appear to be Sinatra under the makeup, and his lines were obviously dubbed by familiar voice artist Paul Frees. Even more egregious, we’re supposed to believe that Burt Lancaster appears in drag as a crusader for animal rights—but the woman in that scene does not tower over the other actors, which Lancaster certainly would have done.

Anyway, it’s a memorable finale. The entire movie is available to watch on YouTube at this writing, while the closing credits alone are available in a separate video.
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Re: Character vignettes in the opening credits

PostWed Jan 04, 2017 12:46 pm

Television shows used to do this also. My favorite is the Police Squad spoofs:



It's all because of television. Producers are terrified that you might switch the channel if just the opening or ending credits are playing. Plus (for TV episodes) they have a limited amount of time that they have to share with commercials, so eliminating the separate credits give them more time for story development.

I love how movies on many cable channels (obviously not TCM) have the final credits sped-up and shrunk to a tiny font so that the channel can start the next movie or play a commercial over the credits.
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Re: Character vignettes in the opening credits

PostTue Jan 24, 2017 9:48 am

Just watched Martin Scorsese's effort for Roger Corman, Boxcar Bertha, and it opens with character vignettes in a nod to the old Warner Bros./First National house style of the early '30s, which is when the picture is set. It's a lighthearted way to start a film that gets pretty bleak by the end of it, but then again, so does I Was a Fugitive From a Chain Gang.
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Re: Character vignettes in the opening credits

PostTue Jan 24, 2017 5:27 pm

I watched an M.G.M. picture the other day, and stab me vitals, it opened with character vignettes just like the Warner Bros/First National and Vitaphone pictures. It was "Times Square Lady". I have never seen the style on an M.G.M. picture before?
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Re: Character vignettes in the opening credits

PostMon Jan 30, 2017 9:59 pm

Donald Binks wrote:I watched an M.G.M. picture the other day, and stab me vitals, it opened with character vignettes just like the Warner Bros/First National and Vitaphone pictures. It was "Times Square Lady". I have never seen the style on an M.G.M. picture before?


Another MGM that comes to mind right away is HOLLYWOOD PARTY (1934).
I'm sure there are many others. Without going and checking them, I think GRAND HOTEL and DINNER AT EIGHT present their casts that way.
Last edited by Richard Finegan on Fri Feb 03, 2017 8:17 am, edited 1 time in total.
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