„On This Side of the Virtual“ – Handwriting in Hollywood

I’ll kick off my contributions to this blog with some remarks on handwriting in Hollywood films of the arguably ‘classical’ phase. My illustration of this – somewhat marginal – topic results from a presentation I gave at a conference in Tübingen (Germany) in October 2012, which has just now been published as part of the conference volume. The overall topic of the conference and the book (which is in German) is “On This Side of the Virtual – Handwriting in the 20th and 21st Centuries”.

My contribution (titled “On Handwriting in Hollywood – Technical Progress, Media Competition, and Authenticity”) starts with the observation that handwriting frequently assumes a prominent position in films of the silent and sound eras, even though typewritten script was well established in the early 20th century. Scholars such as David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson in the United States, or Christine Stenzer in Germany remind us that written intertitles in silent film – which were necessary in the storytelling process – often threatened to alienate the spectators. Writing in form of diegetic props, such as letters or newspaper articles, served as an alternative to the more classic titlecards. Thus, intertitles disappear with the advent of sound film. Diegetic letters or newspaper articles, however, remain prominent props.

Both in silent as well as in sound films, there is a qualitative difference between handwritten notes and letters and mass produced texts, for example newspaper articles. Analyses of handwritten letters in Chaplin’s The Kid (1921), Vidor’s Stella Dallas (1937), and Ophüls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948) show that in each film, handwritten letters or notes only exist as originals – as the one single incarnation of the text in circulation. Moreover, they point to one individual author, each time a woman, who takes up agency by writing the letter. Thus, the mother in The Kid places her child in care of a stranger and five years later identifies the child as her own by means of a short note. In Stella Dallas, Stella writes a letter full of lies to estrange her daughter and cause her to live with her father’s wealthier family, and Lisa in Letter from an Unknown Woman writes, instances before dying, a letter to finally illuminate her life and the story of her son’s death to his father, Stefan. Within the melodramatic mode of storytelling that these films employ, handwritten letters serve to give a voice to women who otherwise remain silent. It turns the silent mother figures into active and acting agents.

Lisa's Letter in Letter from an Unknown Woman
Lisa’s Letter in Letter from an Unknown Woman

In this context, the showcasing of handwritten texts on screen appears as a filmic strategy to confirm the individuality of their diegetic authors. In their introduction to Friedrich Kittler’s Grammophon, Film, Typewriter, Geoffrey Winthrop-Young and Michael Wutz consider handwriting as a kind of Ur-medium, which is the simplest form of producing texts but also the only medium that is able to convey individuality. Conversely, Kittler highlights that in the “mechanic process of writing, paper and body drift apart” (my translation). In contrast to machinic type-face, handwritten script in Hollywood films thus stages the individuality of diegetic characters and their physical connection to the written texts as authors. Paradoxically, this individualist framing of diegetic characters takes place within increasingly conventionalized Hollywood productions. In this sense, handwriting highlights characters as individuals, even though or because individualism continues to get lost within the mass mediatized context of modernity.

It would be interesting to cross-reference the design of these handwritten props with Stefanie Seidel’s article on fingerprinting and the analysis of handwriting in crime detection at the turn of the century. Even though dactyloscopy has long been proven unscientific, the design of handwritten props, which often convey more than what is linguistically there, may actually adhere to comparable rules. Whereas analysts of handwriting aimed to detect character traits and information on a criminal case by studying a criminal’s handwriting, Hollywood’s handwritten props seem to be deliberately designed to highlight character traits of, and contextual information on, their respective authors.

More broadly, „Diesseits des Virtuellen“ engages with handwriting at large – its materiality, its relation to individual writers, its historical status, its impact on media studies, and its foregrounding in literature and its paratexts. It aims to stress the physical materiality of texts (in addition to textual meaning and syntax), and it considers handwriting as a practical process and act of expression.

diesseits des virtuellen

Brasch, Ilka. “Zur Handschrift in Hollywood: Technischer Fortschritt, Medienkonkurrenz und Authentizität.” Diesseits des Virtuellen: Handschrift im 20. Und 21. Jahrhundert. Hg. Urs Büttner, Mario Gotterbarm et al. Paderborn: Wilhelm Fink, 2015. 155-166.

Seidel. Stefanie. „Handschrift und Fingerabdruck: ‚Digitales‘ um 1900.“ Diesseits des Virtuellen: Handschrift im 20. Und 21. Jahrhundert. Hg. Urs Büttner, Mario Gotterbarm et al. Paderborn: Wilhelm Fink, 2015. 125-140.


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