Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Canadian Who Invented Subtitles



Most comedy writers know this one…

Q: Ask me the secret of writing great comedy!

A: Okay. What's the secret of writing great…

Q: …Timing!

Not a joke that works as well in print.

But nonetheless true -- a key component of comedy is knowing when to surprise the audience and when it's better to let them sense the joke that's coming and enjoy the payoff. Watch any Roadrunner & Wile E. Coyote cartoon for about fifty examples of each.

And like those cartoons, the silent era of Hollywood comedy relied almost wholly on physical humor and slapstick. Because -- well, the movies were silent (hence the name for the era), so it was hard to get the audience laughing through witty banter or quick one liners.

But even physical humor depends on timing the comedic flow. And that's hard to do when the action is constantly interrupted by a B&W title card placed to make sure the audience knows what's going on -- and stays on screen long enough for those less literately skilled to read it.

penelope card

Needless to say, this reality forced early movie studios to rely on comedies that were broad, exaggerated and predictable.

But all of that would change thanks to two brothers from London, Ontario.

Charles and Al Christie were born into show business. By that, I mean that their parents ran the London Opera House, which, despite its lofty title was the local home to Vaudeville and Burlesque. Dad managed the place and mom ran the box office and did the books.

From an early age, each of the boys revealed a particular genius for one of the twin wheels that run all showbiz enterprises, imagination and money. Elder brother Charles was a math whiz and in helping mom discovered a revolutionary accounting method that saved enormous amounts of time and money.

Meanwhile, younger brother Al was hanging around the stage, giving struggling acts pointers on how to be funnier. At first, the comedians brushed off this precocious kid, but then they tried out some of his suggestions and discovered he was right.

Eventually, those travelling players spread word of these two showbiz "Geniuses" around the Vaudeville circuit. Charles began getting calls from other struggling theatres and Al, though barely 18, became a sought after show doctor.

Around 1910, the boys were both hired by a New York producer and first came in contact with the film industry flourishing in nearby New Jersey. Charles began doing the books for a small comedy outfit called Nestor Studios, who made short one and two reelers. One day, Al visited him on set and realized he could make films a lot funnier than those created by the amateur actors and directors on the studio payroll.

When they saw his first one reel film, Nestor's producers realized they not only had a product with style -- it was also funny as hell.

A year later, the brothers moved to Hollywood in order to be able to shoot year round. Not long after that, they branched out and hung their own shingle, "Christie Comedies".

christie comedy

Both Al and Charles remained innovators within the burgeoning industry. Under Charles' expertise at efficiency and cost control, the Christies were almost minting money. They soon built the first permanent studio in Hollywood, the first picture car business and the first stable of stunt performers whom they rented out to other companies.

Back home in London, Al had perfected the recipe for the perfect pie for pie throwing. His pies became so in demand that between Christie Comedies and the Mack Sennett studio, which housed the Keystone Cops and a rising star named Charlie Chaplin, it became the only product manufactured by a nearby bakery.

Although they had become wildly successful, Al still wasn't fully satisfied with the films his studio was churning out. So many of the gags he wanted to use just didn't work on screen and one night he realized that the problem was those damn, sometimes 30 second long, title cards. Like modern TV commercials, they just destroyed the fun and the flow of the action.

Working with the company's film lab, Al finally devised a method of burning the lines the actors were saying right onto the actual frames in which they were saying them. He kept them down low on the screen so they wouldn't be obtrusive. But it would be years before anybody actually coined the name "subtitle".

The invention took the film world by storm. One newspaper critic was so excited he promised his readers, "You can almost hear the voices of the actors in your head".

But while other studios rushed to copy Al's invention, he realized he had created another problem.

Because his process required that the text be shot at the same time as the picture, you needed to have finished scripts before you started shooting. Others may have balked at no longer being able to shoot on the fly or have actors ad lib. But Al realized he now had an opportunity to add legitimate comedy writers to the studio's growing cadre of comic performers and make even better films.

Christie film company

For a few years, the Christie name became synonymous with "classy comedy". With a stable of writers, they effortlessly made the transition to sound, producing 50 full length features in their first year of sound production. And then, like so many others, the brothers were wiped out by the Stock Market Crash of 1929.

They struggled on for a few years, introducing audiences to new stars like Jack Benny, Lucille Ball, Bob Hope and Danny Kaye. But in 1933, they were forced out of business.

Charles, however, realized, on selling his house to pay off creditors, that he was kinda good at the real estate business. A few years later, he was once again a millionaire.

Al went back to being a show doctor and directing comedy shorts for other studios. During WW2, he organized star studded morale boosting shows for workers in the warplane industry.

Al Christie died in 1951, as a post war wave of foreign films began changing the Hollywood industry as they invaded college campuses and what became known as "Art Houses" using the same sub-title technique he had pioneered 40 years earlier. These movies influenced a new generation of filmmakers, most of whom had never even heard of Al Christie.

Most of the silent Christie Comedies have been lost over time. Although loved by audiences, they were never preserved or protected. Last month, however, a few titles were discovered in New Zealand among a treasure trove of 75 "lost" films including one by Alfred Hitchcock and another by John Ford that will be seen this fall by audiences for the first time in 80 years.

But bits and pieces of Al Christie's later work remain. The jokes are old. The routines long since copied (and improved) many times over. But the genius of another forgotten Canadian in Hollywood still shines through.

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