Why were there no subtitles in the beginning of cinematography in silent movies?

I know about intertitles but why were subtitles not common then? Were people not able to read that fast or did creating subtitles cost too much?

I don't understand why the moviemakers in silent film didn't want to show everything that actors say.

  • 18
    Because this.
    – user7812
    Commented Dec 13, 2015 at 20:58
  • 2
    You must understand that subtitles are a product of our times. They make sense to us, but would not have been applicable in the early 1900s.
    – Walt
    Commented Dec 13, 2015 at 21:13
  • 3
    Because they didn't have photoshop :D
    – slebetman
    Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 2:18
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    @Walt, they would have made perfect sense in the 1900s -- movie subtitles aren't too different from the subtitling of political cartoons that's been in use since the 1600s.
    – Mark
    Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 2:23
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    @Walt - there is no reason whatsoever that subs have to go over the picture. That is a trend from TVs which have very limited space, not theaters. It would be pretty trivial to project subtitles separately below the film, and synchronization is mostly done manually even now.
    – Davor
    Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 18:06

7 Answers 7


Film was exposed only once and the quality was not good enough to film the projection of a movie in order to add subtitles underneath in a copy. The only editing tool was cutting and that's why movies had intertitles (text cards) between shots.

As a note, George Méliès, among others, did experiment with multiple exposures but it made parts of the movie blurry and was only useful for adding ghosts or for dream sequences.

  • Melies also was known to hand paint his images to make them in color long before color film was possible.
    – Catija
    Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 3:19
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    I don't really believe this was the only way to do it. You could for example have a second projector, which projects a picture on empty space on the screen below the actual movie. There you would project subtitles.
    – Falco
    Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 11:21
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    @Falco This assumes that the venue considers a second projector and syncronizing the two "cheap", and that the second film - which is just as long as the first - is also "cheap".
    – Adam Davis
    Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 15:27
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    Why would you use two projectors to play one movie when you can play two movies? Does adding subtitles justify reducing your revenue by half? Or double your operational costs?
    – Nelson
    Commented Dec 16, 2015 at 8:24
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    @AdamDavis but the second projector could be a much older model, lower luminosity and even half the framerate of the first, because subtitles are static. The synchronisation doesn't have to be very good, with the slow cuts and short dialogs of movies at that time +/- 1 second would still be acceptable. With lower framerate the second film would be much shorter than the first and thus a lot cheaper
    – Falco
    Commented Jul 29, 2016 at 15:05

You're right about the cost. As recently as 1970, subtitles were expensive. Eg polish budget film Hydrozagadka had an actress recite credits instead of displaying text - just because it was cheaper.

Our mindset is spoiled by computers applying subtitles effortlessly, but in film times it was huge work. Even when the technology was perfected it was expensive. (And as others answered - in silent movies the technology was at early experimental stage.)

  • 4
    It is not true that the technology did not exist. It was possible to use subtitles, but that meant that the film could only be distributed in the filmmaker's native language. If you want some examples of subtitles in silent film, see this thread in Nitrateville. nitrateville.com/viewtopic.php?f=3&t=21308 There is a film called THE CHAMBER MYSTER (1920) which uses "bubbles" like in comic books to show a character's speech. You can see some images from the film at dcairns.wordpress.com/2015/03/01/… . Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 18:55
  • By "technology existed" I meant "used widely enough to be practical". Eg color photography was possible in 1892, but it wasn't technologically matured enough for wide use until like 40 years later. (Prokudin's photos are similarly exceptional as experimental speech bubbles you describe). Sorry for being imprecise.
    – Agent_L
    Commented Dec 15, 2015 at 10:58
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    ah, that movie, a Polish superhero movie )))
    – shabunc
    Commented Jun 8, 2017 at 9:46

Intertitles were never called "intertitles" during the silent era. They were just "titles". We call them intertitles now to distinguish them from subtitles and the main titles of a film.

Subtitles were used occationally, like in Clarence Brown's FLESH AND THE DEVIL (1926), when John Gilbert hears Garbo's character name "Felicitas" over and over.

The main reason that they were not used, is that silent films were translated into many languages and exported all over the world. It would have been a lot of work to superimpose subtitles of different languages over a changing scene. The translations were usually done in the country where they were shown, not at the studio in the producing country. This also came in handy when the movie bombed at the box-office, or was reissued. It was fairly easy to cut in new dialog or intertitles to change the film.

  • 1
    @Moyli Making a movie was very expensive, changing titles was cheap. And you could use actors from anywhere because you didn't have to care about accents (see "The Artist"). I agree that is probably wasn't a major decision factor, but it certainly may have contributed to the thought processes at the time, given that subtitles were more expensive and people didn't even know if subtitles would work with the audience.
    – Peter
    Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 8:41
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    Sure, no-one's denying that, but the claim "The main reason is that silent films were exported all over the world" really needs something to back it up – it seems unlikely that silent films were made primarily for international distribution. Even today, apart from Hollywood blockbusters, the vast majority of films are never exported.
    – Moyli
    Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 13:23
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    It's a well known fact that silent films were made for domestic and world-wide distribution. Just look at all the American films saved in European archives, and now available at the European Film Gateway. (europeanfilmgateway.eu). Many of the surviving American silent films were found with Czech, Italian, French or Dutch intertitles, and repatriated to the USA for restoration. Pathé and Méliès exported all of their films from France to the USA in the early teens. World War I wiped out most European studios, and American films dominated world movie screens for decades after. Commented Dec 14, 2015 at 18:44
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    "Subtitles were used occationally, like in Clarence Brown's FLESH AND THE DEVIL (1926), when John Gilbert hears Garbo's character name "Felicitas" over and over." Also, in "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari," in the flashback when the mad scientist gains his powers and takes on the identity of Dr. Caligari, the screen becomes filled with the word "CALIGARI" superimposed in several places over the action.
    – user24353
    Commented Jan 1, 2016 at 22:36
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    Actually, 'intertitles' (the titles interspersed throughout so-called silent films were called subtitles (titles subordinate to main titles). See The New Historical Dictionary of the American Film Industry. Scroll up a bit for The word subtitles can be used to refer .. to narrative or descriptive titles in silent films. The latter are usually described today as intertitles, but during the silent era they were always called subtitles. Commented Nov 4, 2017 at 3:34

The purpose of subtitles is to generally allow audience members to mentally pretend that the words they're hearing are actually in their own language. In most cases, the purpose of intertitles is to allow the audience to pretend that they can hear things that they see the actors saying. In order for the latter mental substitution to work, however, the audience needs to be able to actually watch the actors, which means they can't be trying to read the text at the same time.

Using subtitles would have been a technical annoyance but not an insurmountable one, especially if one was willing to reserve space on the screen for them. Multiple-exposure photography was not difficult, and if one were using interpositives one could produce an internegative with subtitltes in different languages without requiring extra steps in the final printing. Handling multiple languages while using direct printing off camera negatives would have required more complicated printing steps, but nothing insurmountable.

I think the much bigger issue is that even if subtitles had posed zero extra technical difficulty, intertitles would still generally work better for dramatic purposes in silent films.

  • +1 Some films in Europe were created with bilingual (e.g. French/German) Intertitles. In addition, it may be relevant or at least intersting that theatres, in the US at least, had someone read a film's intertitles out loud for the audience, specifically, one assumes, for the illiterate but possibly also for the visually impaired or folks sitting behind women who didnt remove their hats in the theatre. Too bad this answer hasnt gotten more attention. (Regarding technology you say the opposite as the highly upvoted accepted answer, but neither of you back up your assertions.) Commented Nov 11, 2017 at 15:16
  • @Clare: If one wants white subtitles on a black and white film, there are three ways that could be achieved: (1) Shoot the film, rewind it in the camera, and then double-expose the titles onto the film. George Melies was using in-camera double exposures even before 1900, so doing titles this way would have been trivial; (2) Shoot the film, duplicate the negative onto an inter-positive, copy that onto an inter-positive, and copy that onto an inter-negative. Double-expose the subtitles onto the internegative and voila. (3) As above, but replace two of the above steps with one reversal-process.
    – supercat
    Commented Nov 12, 2017 at 14:36
  • @Clare: I don't know when reversal processing would have come into common practice, but generally two steps of negative copying will work better than one reversal-processed step. The fact that film piracy was a problem implies that making an internegative off an intermediate positive would not have been difficult (pirates would presumably not have access to the original negatives, and would thus have to make an internegative from a release print).
    – supercat
    Commented Nov 12, 2017 at 14:39
  • ( I am not a photographer, so I don't understand, at present, the processes as you've described them) But I'm researching this topic. For now: What do you think of the explanation given in the accepted answer of this question? I am not sure what the accepted answer here is even saying/claiming. I don't know what filming a projection of a movie has to do with the issue. And I also believe they had equipment/methods that allowed for other kinds that of editing than cutting. Commented Nov 12, 2017 at 17:15
  • @Clare: See youtube.com/watch?v=Bc02uAidouE for an example of what was possible in 1898 (one man is playing all four roles). Also see youtube.com/watch?v=JOq3Dx4UkhU from 1901. Subtitles would not have been a problem, if they had been considered desirable.
    – supercat
    Commented Nov 14, 2017 at 15:12

It seems to me that, in addition to the various other reasons mentioned, that even if it were a viable option to use subtitles, they might not have been preferred to intertitles for silent films, because they require the audience to choose whether to read or to watch the action. When silent films were current, the moving images were a spectacle, and people may not have preferred having to read the words during the action. Even for audiences used to subtitles, they distract some attention from watching the action. Intertitles also facilitate the style used (of acting and writing) where the words shown are not literally everything that would be said, which works well when sound isn't used.

Edit: As TheBlackBenzKid commented about the reasons why keeping watching the image was particularly important in silent films:

"I would further add to this opinion that is also based on art and body language. The music and the sound played a big part as well as actor facial expressions etc." – TheBlackBenzKid

  • 2
    I would further add to this opinion that is also based on art and body language. The music and the sound played a big part as well as actor facial expressions etc. Commented Dec 16, 2015 at 12:17
  • @TheBlackBenzKid Thanks, yes, great elaboration of what I meant by wanting to keep watching the moving image.
    – Dronz
    Commented Dec 16, 2015 at 18:19

Also films were made for an international audience. Intertitles could be cut out and new ones put in for each language.

  • True enough but not much of an answer per Stack Exchane expectations of an a good answer. Commented Nov 11, 2017 at 15:30

I suspect that part of it was that, for an artistic standpoint, lack of dialogue was just part of the medium and they were all about action and gesture and writing a dialogue script wasn't part of the process.

Even with modern sound films the decision between dubbing and subtitles for foreign language sis difficult and both have pros and cons. A particular issue is that with a primarily visual medium subtitles are a massive distraction.

In fact even with traditional theatre and even opera you get a similar effect. With something like Shakespeare a lot of the writing is about rhythm pacing and putting a hard emphasis on key lines. Traditional theatre acting tends to be quite stylised simply because it is hard to make out every word and nuance from the back row.

So actors and directors were sort of used to the idea that everything had to be big and emphatic.

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