Laura Wilkens

Thoughts - A Design and Film Related Blog

The blog portion of focuses on graphic design, film, and travel.

Opening Title Design - the 1930s

Continuing on with looking at opening title design in film, we've made it to the 1930's (check out the blog post on the 1920s era here). While the 20s consisted of mostly static opening titles, the classical period of the 30s brings about many more examples of what can be compared to the interactive and dynamic opening titles of today. Film budgets were growing and more of that budget could be put towards the first few minutes of the movie. The prevalence of sound in movies also meant that title sequences could be better synced with the music of the film, as opposed to when a separate organist was playing live in the theatre.

M (1931)
One of my top 5 favorite films of all time, I had to include M on this list. The interesting that about M is that there are no opening titles, and it's completely appropriate for the movie. All we see is a hand with the letter "M" drawn on it (a very important plot point later in the film) and then a frame listing Lang as the director. After that, we go straight into kids playing a disturbing game of duck-duck-goose while reciting a rhyme about a child murderer. It's a dark and haunting movie, definitely one of the greatest thrillers of all time, and from the first scene you feel uneasy. It's even more powerful that the audience is thrown right into story without seeing a long list of credits first.

Freaks (1932)
Another one of my favorites, Freaks is a very in-depth character study about the lives of those that make their living as freakshow oddities. If you've watched the fourth season of American Horror Story, you should watch Browning's film; character and situation inspiration for the TV show was pulled directly from it. The credits open with a long explanation of freakshows and strong sidebar imagery of some of the people you'll meet later on in the film. It then transitions to one title frame with ornate lettering perfect for a sideshow. A hand (human?) then quickly rips through the frame and we're into the movie. Again, a perfect and swift entry into a strange film that doesn't linger too long in listing production details.

King Kong (1933)
The opening titles for King Kong are literally representative of the ape himself. The text is condensed and backed by a dramatic upshadow, bringing an ominous feel to information as simple as the production assistants. King Kong also uses elaborate shadow work for the main title frame as well (instead of just flat text), proving that more and more creatively talented people were seeing this industry as a valid career move.

Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)
Gold Diggers, a Busby Berkeley choreographed musical about four aspiring actresses and filled with some of the most artistically impressive dance numbers (many filmed via aerial shots looking down on the dancers), works their opening credits right into their first number (the universally known, "We're in the Money"). The title of the film and secondary credits are in a very bold font and backed by silhouettes of dancing women. Each actor in the film is then revealed as a large coin-shaped fan is lifted off the screen, showing actual video of the actors instead of a still image or simply listing their names. Once we make it through all the leading cast, the final fan is lifted to show Ginger Rogers singing and with that the movie has started. It's a very clever way to start the show business feel of the film for the opening frame.

The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938)
It's both a book and a movie! Robin Hood used color beautifully in their opening titles. With a parchment background, a consistent use of red drop-caps and silhouetted illustrations in the background, each change in frame ends up feeling more like turning the page of a withered book. Even the Warner Bros. logo is dramatically flourished to match.

Stagecoach (1939)
Gotta love a classic Western, and Stagecoach really succeeds in bringing its titles into this realm. We can all automatically think of what a font that is stereotypically "Western" looks like: elongated more than needed with bold slabs on each letter. No other font but that would have worked in the Stagecoach titles and it's used perfectly. Yehaw!

Sidenote: One thing that really surprises me is the lack of creativity in the titles for some of the major Charlie Chaplin movies. City Lights (1930), Modern Times (1930) and the older film The Gold Rush (1920) all have fairly basic titles for someone who wrote, directed and starred in his own movies.