There’s something magical about discovering a long-dead writer’s voice so fresh, it could be talking to you from the next room. It makes you realize that beyond the words you use, clarity makes language come to life — and that the lifetime of a perfectly sharpened thought is essentially limitless. That’s wit, in slippery definition #37 of an ongoing tally, and that’s what Anita Loos had.
Loos is most famous for writing Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, but today’s focus is her early career as the world’s pre-eminent writer of intertitles, those cards that explained the action in silent films. The very first moving pictures needed words, and she figured out a way to make them sing. It was for this skill that Photoplay Magazine deemed her “the soubrette of satire,” an enviably alliterative title.
You can see these intertiles in action in the 1916 Douglas Fairbanks movie The Matrimaniac, available in its 46-minute entirety on YouTube. This was a great bit of verbiage for a tongue-tied lover, for instance:
Whereas this card could be reused should Tarantino ever choose to work silent:
The actress Gillian Jacobs has been one of Loos’s most eloquent modern boosters, sharing the writer’s best work on Instagram. Here, she highlights Loos’s possibly apocryphal account of her personal favourite intertitle. It introduced a character named “Count Xxerkzsxxv”, and contains the following footnote:
To those of you who read titles aloud, you can’t pronounce the Count’s name. You can only think it.
What was Anita Loos’ secret? Helpfully, she explained it in a zippy 1920 book called How to Write Photo Plays. (Technically, she co-authored the book with her husband John Emerson, but by all accounts he was dead weight — as one suitably clever Hollywood saying had it, “John Emerson lives by the sweat of his frau.”)
The book is full of gems, and the crown jewel is a piece of advice that’s useful for anyone interested in wit, even those who don’t aspire to write for Douglas Fairbanks:
“Above all things the scenario writer should keep alive. Just keep yourself with lively, laughing, thinking people, think about things yourself, and cultivate a respect for new ideas of any kind. Take care of these small ideas and the big plots will take care of themselves.”
Quick quips; lightning
“A woman’s mind is cleaner than a man’s; she changes it more often.”
— Oliver Herford
Herford (1863-1935) was once known as the American Oscar Wilde, but in the words of Wikipedia, citation needed. We include this somewhat retrograde observation because it echoes Anita Loos’s advice above, and because it stretches a metaphor just so.
“She tells enough white lies to ice a wedding cake.”
— Margot Asquith
Witty British prime ministers are sixpence a dozen; Asquith (1864-1945) was certainly the wittiest British prime minister’s wife. More on her in a future issue. And speaking of PMs, here’s my recent piece in Canada’s Globe and Mail on the wit of Boris Johnson, the windy charmer who is scheduled to start running the U.K. next week.
“Never try to keep up with the Joneses. Drag them down to your level. It’s cheaper that way.”
— Quentin Crisp
Sadly, this line from the perfectly named British raconteur (1908-1999) sounds like a modern re-election strategy.
Thanks for reading the third issue of Get Wit Quick, the weekly newsletter about pulling the lever of clever. Each week, I aim to drop so many turns of phrase in your inbox that you end up a bit dizzy. How’s my driving? LMK at email@example.com.