Sunday, October 18, 2015

to dub or not to dub

Roz singing in "Gypsy" - But whose voice is it anyway?

Those moviegoers who don't like film musicals - or, more accurately, don't understand them - find assorted reasons to support their clueless bias.

The most common excuse is that musicals are simply unrealistic. "No one just bursts into song in real life!," they'll say.  But exactly how many movie genres, particularly those popular with audiences, are realistic?  SciFi?  Superhero flicks?  Action movies?  Easy answer:  Few of them.

Then there's the usual snark about who should be allowed to sing on screen.  There's this rigid dictum among casual moviegoers that only professional singers should be in film musicals - a Frank Sinatra or a Judy Garland.  Whenever someone not known for singing is cast in a musical, the put-downs, criticisms, eye-rolling and snickering are immediate and relentless, no matter how well the non-singers acquit themselves.

And if an actor's singing voice is dubbed, the drubbing is even worse.

Well, I beg to differ - about all of the aforementioned complaints and petty gripes.  Why do singing voices on screen have to be perfect anyway?

There have been many theories about why "Together, Wherever We Go" was excised from the release print of "Gypsy" and why "You'll Never Get Away from Me" was shortened - both of which featured Karl Malden singing. But the film's director, Mervyn LeRoy, told me that at the New York preview for the film, the audience laughed whenever Malden opened his mouth to sing and he simply wanted to protect his actor.

Hence, the decision to edit.

There was nothing wrong with Malden's singing voice; in fact, it was much better than Jack Klugman's. (Klugman originated the male lead in "Gypsy" on Broadway.) At least, Malden could carry a melody. The problem was the audience - or rather, audience expectation. Again, the average moviegoer becomes uncomfortable when confronted by a musical performance by a personality not known for singing. Anyway, Malden's songs were cut/shortened simply because  audiences couldn't handle the idea of Karl Malden singing. (But at least, they survive in DVD/BluRay outtakes and on the soundtrack CD.)

Sure, Audrey Hepburn may hit a sour note or two in "Funny Face," but it's a kick to hear her sing.  And her own voice, which was distinctively hers, is certainly preferable to the souless one (Marni Nixon's, natch) that comes out of her mouth in "My Fair Lady."  And that lovely moment in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" wouldn't be as special if she didn't sing "Moon River" herself.

Someone at the New York Times who probably works on the features copy desk and occasionally writes movie shorts once complained in a capsule that Clint Eastwood "sings like a moose" in "Paint Your Wagon."  What?  A moose? That would be incorrect.

Think about it: If Clint has such a soothing speaking voice, how can his singing voice sound like a moose?  No, Eastwood gives near-definitive readings of his renditions of Lerner and Loewe's "I Still See Elisa" and "I Talk To The Trees." (And for the record, Eastwood has also sung in "Honkytonk Man," "Any Which Way You Can" and "Gran Torino." So there.)

The hasty Times writer probably confused Eastwood with his co-star Lee Marvin who does sound like a moose - and is supposed to. Marvin's version of "Wand'rin' Star" has become iconic in the decades since the film's release.  It's irresistible - and much better than Harve Presnell's voice-trained "They Call The Wind Maria" in the film.  But that's just me.

More recently, the snide remarks flew when Pierce Brosnan sang in "Mamma Mia" and, earlier, when Julia Roberts sang in "Everyone Says I Love You."   I love Brosnan's voice in his film. He sounds like an old rocker. More to the point, he sounds like Pierce Brosnan.

Same with Roberts.

Peter O'Toole did fine with his own voice in the musical remake of "Goodbye, Mr. Chips," but he was dubbed - badly - in "Man of La Mancha."

As for the reviled dubbing process, it's just another bit of movie magic, especially when it's done right and with creativity.

Case in point: Rosalind Russell had sung both on screen ("The Girl Rush") and on Broadway ("Wonderful Town") when Jack Warner cast her as Madam Rose in "Gypsy," whose Jule Styne-Stephen Sondheim score was written specifically for the stage Rose, Ethel Merman.  In the finished film, Russell handled as much of the singing as she could, with the great Lisa Kirk enlisted for the more demanding musical moments. Kirk successfully approximated Russell's inimitable voice and there are moments when the two voices are seamlessly blended by vocal coach Harper McKay. Yes, movie magic!

The point here is that Russell was the right actress for "Gypsy," if not exactly the right singer, and Warner Bros. accommodated both Russell and the film with the perfect compromise.  Frankly, I can be rigid myself and, from where I sit, it is much better to cast the right actor, not necessarily the right singer, in a film musical.  While a studio can make allowances for singing limitations, it is hamstrung by a lacking performance in general.

Unfortunately, more often than not, dubbing can leave a lot to be desired.  Both Hepburn and Natalie Wood wanted to do their own singing in "My Fair Lady" and "West Side Story," respectively, and actually test recorded their songs - but both were ultimately dubbed, and poorly so.

Wood was dubbed in WSS (again by the ubiquitous Nixon) but, inexplicably, so was her multi-talented co-star, Rita Moreno, another trained singer. Moreno was dubbed by Betty Wand. And her co-star Russ Tamblyn, another musical player, was also dubbed in WSS by his co-star, Tucker Smith. It's disconcerting to hear Smith's voice come out of Tamblyn's mouth in "The Jet Song" and then hear the same voice come out of his own mouth later in the ensemble number, "Cool."

Wand also did the singing three years earlier for film-musical regular Leslie Caron in "Gigi." Ah yes, one of the great movie secrets from the past, oh, fifty years, is that Caron, mainly a dancer, did not do her own singing in "Gigi."  She was traditionally dubbed, although she did manage to handle the slight title song that highlighted "Lili" and rather charmingly.

And here's a jaw-dropper: Juanita Hall sang the role of Bloody Mary on Broadway for Joshua Logan in "South Pacific," but when he made his 1958 film, Murial Smith (who played the role in London) was brought to supply Bloody Mary's singing voice, at the request of Richard Rodgers. (Huh?)  Why was Hall hired in the first place?  Why not go directly with Smith?

And then there are those actors routinely tied to musicals - but also routinely dubbed.

Mostly dancers, like Caron.

Rita Hayworth's house dubber at Columbia was Jo Ann Greer, whose voice was so remarkably close to Hayworth's that most people have assumed that the star did all her own singing. She didn't. Never. Cyd Charisse, meanwhile, was an MGM contract player who made musicals almost exclusively. She could dance but she couldn't sing. India Adams was brought in by Metro to fulfill that aspect of her performance. And Vera-Ellen's singing voice was often supplied by Anita Ellis.

The plot of Stanley Donen-Gene Kelly's "Singin' in the Rain,"considered by many to be the most effective film musical, tackled the singing/dubbing situation in a shrewd, clever way.  In it, a little unknown named Kathy Sheldon, struggling to make ends meet in Hollywood during the silent era, is brought in by Monumental Pictures, to dub in the voice of tempermental movie queen Lina Lamont in its first singing-talkie, "The Dueling Cavalier." Of course, Debbie Reynolds played Kathy and Jean Hagen was Lina.

The odd thing here is that life imitated art: Reynolds, a song-and-dance pro, was herself dubbed for a couple songs in the movie - but not, as initially reported here, in the film's climatic scene.

That's when Lina, who has a cartoonish, high-pitched voice, is brought on stage following the premiere of "The Dueling Cavalier" and is cheered on by the audience to sing live. She can't.  That's because Kathy dubbed both her speaking and singing voice. And so, Lina quietly takes a bow and, with Kathy behind the curtain, she mimes the lyric of "Singin' in the Rain," while Kathy actually sings it. The curtain is lifted and the fraud is revealed.

You know all this if you've seen the film - and who hasn't?  And yes, that is indeed Reynolds doing the singing.

However, for the songs "Would You?" and "You Are My Lucky Star," Reynolds' was dubbed by Betty Royce.

Why? Who knows.  I can't imagine Reynolds not being able to handle either of those songs. But  I would bet the rent money that directors Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly were playing around with an inside joke here.  My hunch is that they were simply being creatively mischievous.

And perhaps Debbie was in on the joke.

In his response here, reader Jimbo noted that Lina's speaking voice in ""The Dueling Cavalier" is also dubbed - but not by Reynolds.  For the spoken part of "The Dueling Cavalier," Donen and Kelly recruited Hagen to dub herself, using her regular (i.e., non-cartoonish) speaking voice.

Got that?

Anyway, "Singin' in the Rain" was made more than 60 years ago and film types are still complaining about dubbing, something nearly as old as movies themselves.  So get over it, folks, because, as bizarre as it might be to imagine, even the most adept musical talents have been dubbed.

Note in Passing: We can't discuss singing and dubbing in movie musicals without at least mentioning the art of lip-syncing - something which all film musical stars have to do whether they do their own singing or are dubbed.  Barbra Streisand is a great star and an even better singer, but in her debut film, "Funny Girl," her lip-syncing is off.  Her words and mouth are rarely together during the big, pre-intermission "Don't Rain on My Parade" number, for example. Sure, Streisand can sell a song, but for lip-syncing, she should have studied non-singer Natalie Wood's precision in "West Side Story." (Wood did do her own singing in "Gypsy," however.)


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Brian Lucas said...

When Rita Moreno accepted her lifetime achievement award from SAG last year, she sang a large portion of it and sounded pretty darn good. I couldn't help but wonder if this was sort of a belated middle finger to whoever insisted she be dubbed in WEST SIDE STORY.

Kiki said...

I don't think dubbing is a good idea. Would rather have had Audrey's reedy voice in MFL than that soprano type who dubbed everything since Birth of a Nation.

Charlotte said...

It's funny how times change, Joe. No one raised an eyebrow when both Rex Harrison and Robert Preston did musicals on Broadway, something which I would think is taxing even for a trained singer - singing "live" on stage every night and having to project over the orchestra - let alone an amateur. By the time they made the films of their shows, they were both accepted as musical stars. Anyway, I agree with you about Eastwood in "Paint Your Wagon" and Brosnan in "Momma Mia!" They both sounded pretty good to me. Thanks for calling out all the film-musical bigots!

joe baltake said...

Thanks, Charlotte. I forgot to add Burt Reynolds to the mix. He was very light and appealing in his musical roles in "At Long Last Love" and "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas." He not only sang well but moved like a singer.

wwolfe said...

Although I prefer to hear an actor sing with his or her own voice, there is one exception for me: film bios of famous singers. As the critic Greil Marcus has noted, the primary, if not the only, reason we care about the person being depicted is that person's singing voice; as such, it's illogical, and even somewhat disrespectful, to substitute the actor's voice for the singer's voice. If the subject of the bio deserves the bio because no one else sings like that person, then let's hear THAT voice, not the voice of the actor portraying the singer.

joe baltake said...

I also agree with Greil - but up to a point. There really are no hard and fast rules here. Sissy Spacek is one good example of an actor who did her own singing in a biopic and quite effectively. Was "Coal Miner's Daughter" damaged by its makers because they did not use Loretta Lynn's voice for the songs? Did they disrespect her? I think the safe answer to both questions is "no." Of course, admittedly, that film is a rare exception. For years, I've been saying that Justin Timberlake would be a good choice if a Sinatra biopic is ever made. No one can duplicate The Voice but, frankly, I'd love to hear what Timberlake would do with Sinatra's standards. Disrespectful? Perhaps. But it could also be seen as a tribute.

Mike in KC said...

Joe! I couldn't believe that Russ Tamblyn's voice was dubbed in WSS by a fellow actor and then I dug out my old soundtrack of the film and, yes, the two voices are exactly the same. Weird!

Sheila said...

Re wwolfe's comment, it was announced years ago that Anne Hathaway would play Judy Garland in a TV biopic. I've no idea if that project is dead in the water, but I would rather hear Judy's voice than Anne's in the musical numbers.

wwolfe said...

In all honesty, I've never been able to get through "Cole Miner's Daughter," precisely because I find it so distracting to not hear Loretta Lynn's voice during the musical numbers. I wish that weren't the case, since I enjoy the early scenes featuring Levon Helm and the young Loretta, showing life in the Holler. I know I'm in the distinct minority on this, though.

Sean Garrick said...

I respectully disagree with wwolfe. The idea of hearing Loretta Lynn's voice coming out of Sissy Spacek would be a total distraction and would also freak me out. Same with Timberlake if he were to be dubbed by Sinatra. Greil Marcus is a good critic but he's not the final word on this. It's just one person's opinion and I'm sure there are other critics who wouldn't necessarily agree with him.

Pamela said...

How about respecting the actor playing the role and trusting his/her instincts and the effort put in to do a good job, musically. If I'm correct, Audrey Hepburn, Natalie Wood and Rosalind Russell were all lied to by their studios, which assured them that they could do their own singing in their respective films, and then went behind their backs and brought in professional singers. I agree. It's freaky not to hear Hepburn's distinctive voice in My Fair Lady. It's jarring when her little guttersnipe opens her mouth and sounds already like an elegant lady. Jeez!

Adrian said...

I don't know about everybody else, but I feel that when a person's voice is dubbed by another actor, whether singing or speaking, it sounds disembodied, creepy.

Jimbo said...

It has always gotten under my skin how people made such a fuss over Marni Nixon dubbing Audrey in My Fair Lady when not a word was uttered about her dubbing of Deborah Kerr in The King and I or Jeremy Brett being dubbed in MFL or Cristopher Plummer being dubbed in The Sound of Music. It seems as though the Julie Andrews crowd went overboard in condemning Audrey over this common Hollywood practice. I'm sure Julie would have made a wonderful Eliza in MFL but the film itself could have never reached the heights of glamour and elegance it gained by Audrey's presence.

One small correction on the dubbing in Singing in the Rain. Debbie's voice is dubbed in the scene that shows her looping Jean Hagan in The Dancing Cavalier. Oddly enough, it sounds as though Debbie's speaking voice is dubbed in addition to her singing voice.

joe baltake said...

Jimbo! Excellent observation about Lina Lamont's speaking voice also being dubbed in "The Dueling Cavalier." However, Debbie Reynolds did not do the dubbing. Jean Hagen herself dubbed those scenes, using her regular speaking voice for the occasion. And you may be correct - well, almost correct - about Julie Andrews' fans coming down hard on Audrey Hepburn's "My Fair Lady" co-star, Jeremy Brett, and not "The Sound of Music's" Christopher Plummer. I supposed "guilt by association" is the reasoning here. However, I do agree with you that Hepburn is extraordinary in MFL; I'm glad she got the role. But one thing... The reason no one ever made a fuss about Marni Nixon dubbing Deborah Kerr in "The King and I" is because, at least in that film, Nixon made an effort to sound like the star. Her diction and brogue are pure Kerr-like in the songs she sung. The same cannot be said about her work for Audrey in MFL or Natalie Wood in WSS. Thanks for posting!

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Marc Bessette said...

Trivia: Marni Nixon was married to the great film composer Ernest Gold and is the mother of the late Andrew Gold (Thank You for Being a Friend, Lonely Boy.
Marc B

joe baltake said...

Thanks, Marc!

John said...

When thinking back to the musicals of yesteryear and all the dubbing that went on, I get saddened that Tim Burton didn't dub his actors in "Sweeney Todd".

Joe said...

I think it would be more appropriate to list Gene Kelly's name before Stanley Donen's when mentioning the directors of Singin' in the Rain. After all, Kelly's name comes first on screen, and it's not alphabetical! He was the primary director, regardless of the impression that Stanley Donen has spouted over the years.