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BFI (2012) - Restoring Hitchcock 2: reconstructing intertitles




Restoring Hitchcock #2: reconstructing intertitles

Kieron Webb, Monday, 20 August 2012

In the second of our series following the BFI National Archive’s restorations of Hitchcock’s surviving silent films, archivist Kieron Webb explains the surprisingly complex task of restoring intertitles.

The Farmer's Wife (1928) was the first of the nine Hitchcock silents to begin digital restoration. A rare excursion into romantic comedy for the future Master of Suspense, it’s the story of a faithful housekeeper (Lilian Hall-Davis) who attempts to find a new wife for her master, a widowed farmer (Jameson Thomas).

Unfortunately, the original negative no longer exists, but the BFI National Archive holds two master-positive copies made from it in the 1960s. One of these was scanned completely, but reels 5 and 6 (of the 10-reel feature) were themselves scratched. These long, continuous scratches are impervious to digital repair without unpleasant ‘artefacts’, so those reels have also been scanned from the second copy. The best parts of each copy will be used and combined. All reels have been scanned with pin-registered accuracy on an Arriscan film scanner.

Simultaneous with the restoration work on the picture, reconstruction of the intertitles got underway. Intertitles are, of course, a crucial part of the narration of any silent film, but in The Farmer’s Wife they are exclusively used as dialogue, not exposition, since Hitchcock’s direction is so assured in portraying time, setting and character.

As is commonly the case, the intertitles in the original negative of The Farmer’s Wife exist as ‘flash’ titles. This means there are only a few frames of each title – the original distributors would have ‘stretch-printed’ them each time a rel...