Words on images: the Olympic moment (1928)

July 2, 2012 § Leave a comment

Courtesy of the IOC YouTube channel, this thrilling 5,000 m race from the Amsterdam 1928 Olympic games features original use of onscreen titles — and therefore deserves to go into the series, started long ago here at flycz, that aims to catalog moments in silent films when words were flashed on images, as opposed to in-between.


The great Bioscope, to which, once again, I’m indebted for this examples of onscreen titles, informs us that this Olympic footage is part of the 1928 film of the Summer Games in Amsterdam, Olympische Spelen, the first Olympic film directed by a German director, Wilhem Prager with an already established reputation, and thus

Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia of 1936 was neither the first Olympic film nor the first with a notable director, as comes histories would have us believe.

The Bioscope notes that Prager’s film is

no more than efficient, though it does have some innovations such as having the names of athletes in some distance races appear as captions alongside them as they run.

Not for me to comment on the quality of Prager’s film, but on the “innovation” of onscreen titles, I’ll add my two cents: not only had Wilhem Prager already included onscreen titles identifying track athletes as they’re running in his previous kulturfilm sports documentary made 1924-1925, Wege zu Kraft und Schönheit (Ways to Strength and Beauty) — a film I reported on here and here — but the practice of adding caption on shots of running athletes could very well have been fairly standard by 1925, as this other example from the US-produced The Plastic Age shows:

In other (bordwellian) words, we could very well have here a schemata: identifying running athletes, or commenting on a race, is recognized as adding drama to the images — yet interrupting the visuals of the race kills this drama, as the show is about watching people run. How to solve this conundrum ? By doing something usually not part of the canon. The impossible onscreen title, usually relegated to comic purposes on film for its link with comic book dialogue bubbles, becomes then possible, even necessary, and appears again and again (this is merely hypothesis and would need to be checked by viewing other 1920s sports documentary or fiction films). By 1928, it could be standard solution — standard, though Prager’s solution, to have it in one corner below the track, is the most elegant of all I’ve seen so far.


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