In a fascinating 1960 interview with Studs Terkel, Keaton explained in concise detail how subtitling was done in the day of the silents.
“Your lips moved. You spoke. And in the cutting room you’d simply run the film through your fingers down to where you just got your mouth open and on the second syllable, you’d cut, slap in your subtitle, [which] explains what you’re talkin’ about. And then when you come back, you pick it up just as your mouth is about to close. So that was the way that was.”
They preferred, however, to communicate the plot with action, and this is where Keaton’s contest with Chaplin came in. The length of films had expanded from five reels to seven, so films were now running anywhere from 75 minutes to an hour and a half. Who was the victor? “I think Chaplin won that,” concedes Keaton. “He got done one of his pictures [in] something like 21 titles and I had 23.”