The Curious Mystery of the Dubbed Voice...Once upon a time, a little unknown named Kathy Sheldon, struggling to make ends meet in Hollywood during the silent era, was brought in by Monumental Pictures, to dub in the voice of tempermental movie queen Lina Lamont in its first singing talkie, "The Dueling Cavalier."
That's the plot of Stanley Donen-Gene Kelly's "Singin' in the Rain" (1952), of course, with Debbie Reynolds as Kathy and Jean Hagen as Lina. The odd thing is that life imitated art, in that Reynolds, a song-and-dance pro, was herself dubbed in the movie - at least, in its 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, of course, because Kathy dubbed both her speaking and singing voice in the film. And so, with Kathy behind the curtain, Lina mimes the lyric of "Would You?," while Kathy actually sings it.
You know all this if you've seen the film - and who hasn't? But the funny thing is that Reynolds herself was dubbed in the scene - by Betty Royce.
So you have a situation of Royce singing for Reynolds who is pretending to sing for Hagen. Got that?
"Singin' in the Rain" was made nearly 60 years ago and film types still complain about dubbing - which, frankly, is nearly as old as film itself and, for me, one of its more magical qualities. Most of these complaints, not surprisingly, are leveled at non-singers who need to be dubbed.
But wait! There are a lot of musically talented people in film who were routinely dubbed. Cyd Charisse 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 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.
Rita Moreno, another trained singer, likes to point out in interviews that Natalie Wood had to be dubbed by the ubiquitous Marni Nixon for "West Side Story," but fails to mention that she - Moreno - was dubbed in that film by Betty Wand (who also did the singing for film-musical regular Leslie Caron in "Gigi"). Co-star Russ Tamblyn, another Metro musical player, was dubbed by his fellow Jet in the film, Tucker Smith. It's odd to hear Tucker's voice come out of Tamblyn's mouth in "The Jet Song" and then hear the same voice come out of his own mouth in "Cool."
And here's the clincher: Juanita Hall sang the role of Bloody Mary on Broadway for Joshua Logan in "South Pacific," but when he made his 1958 film version, Murial Smith was brought to supply Bloody Mary's singing voice, apparently at the request of composer Richard Rodgers.
So get over it, folks, because even the most adept musical talents have been dubbed, as bizarre as that might be to imagine.
Much more troublesome - for me, at least - are those players whose entire vocal performances have been dubbed.
Case in point: The charming singer Joanie Sommers who made her inauspicious film debut in the 1961 Don Taylor film, "Everything's Ducky," starring Mickey Rooney and Buddy Hackett.
Taylor, the affable actor who played the groom opposite Elizabeth Taylor in Vincente Minnelli's "Father of the Bride" (1950), directed a few episodes of several TV series before making his big-screen directorial debut with "Everything's Ducky," a comedy for Columbia.
It's about two sailors (Rooney and Hackett) and a talking ... duck.
Sommers had a distinctive speaking and singing voice - soft, velvety, with a slight tomboyish pull to it. She is perhaps best-known for her hit version of the song "One Boy" from the play and film, "Bye Bye Birdie." But her voice in unrecognizable - alien - in "Everything's Ducky." For some bizarre reason, Taylor (or someone) decided to completely re-record her dialogue using another actress's voice. They even dubbed over Sommers' giggles in the film. It's an insane conceit - akin to replacing the singular voice of, say, a Debra Winger or a Zooey Deschanel.
It was never revealed exactly who dubbed Joanie Sommers in "Everything's Ducky," although Columbia did manage to credit the actor - Walker Edmiston - who provided the voice of the duck. Go figure.
Yes, shades of "Singin' in the Rain."
This wasn't the first time that a studio did something drastic with an actress' voice. When Ingrid Thulin's voice in Minnelli's 1962 version of "The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse" was considered too thick and indecipherable for the average American moviegoer, Metro recruited no less than Angela Lansbury to read all her lines.
At least, Thulin was already an establish actress - well, certainly in Europe. But Sommers was brand-new to acting. And so was Jacqueline Bisset, who had one of her more memorable early screen roles in Stanley Donen's "Two for the Road" (1967) and her voice, also very familiar, was dubbed. Word is that Donen actually needed Bisset to reloop her dialogue but, as she was already off, working on another film, and unavailable, another actress was brought in, also never identified.
I personally find all this distracting and disturbing. I mean, a person's voice is a big part of his or her performance - nay, it's 100% of the performance. I don't know how it can be easily replaced.
Is any artistic excuse legitimate?
Most disturbing of all is what director Hugh Hudson (strangely silent lately, but not missed by me) and what he did to Andie MacDowell in her first screen role in his "Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes" (1984). He took MacDowell's charming, enticing twang and replaced it with the dull patrician tones of Glenn Close. His decision was never explained.
And neither MacDowell nor Close has ever discussed it, although I spent most of my career as a working critic dying to ask Close exactly why one actress would do that to another.
Hudson's dubious decision could have derailed MacDowell's acting career and ruined her reputation. Luckily, it didn't. She flourished in some very good films ("Groundhog Day," "Unstrung Heroes," "The Muse," "The End of Violence," "Green Card" and, yes, "Four Weddings and a Funeral").
Hudson, meanwhile, hasn't made a film in more than a decade.
And according to Hollywood legend, James Keach dubbed the voice of then-newcomer Klinton Spilsbury in the "Legend of the Lone Ranger" movie - a move that I think may have aborted Spilsbury's career - and Lindsay Crouse came in and dubbed Lysette Anthony in "Krull."
Getting back to Sommers, she made out much better in her second film, 1964's "The Lively Set," with James Darren and Pamela Tiffin. Director Jack Arnold, always a pro, was smart enough to retain her seductive purr.