Talking Pictures

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The Silent Voices of Hollywood

Posted by keith1942 on October 2, 2013

Marni Nixon as Sister Sophie - second from left - in The Sound of Music

Marni Nixon as Sister Sophia – second from left – in The Sound of Music

Over the last couple of weeks the BBC has been celebrating the great music of cinema on both television and radio. The key series has been Sound of Cinema on BBC 4: an excellent trio of programmes written and presented by Neil Brand. Over the three programmes focussing on Hollywood he discussed and illustrated the orchestral style of the 1930s and 1940s: the influence of jazz and pop from the 1950s: and the use in more recent decades of electronic music.

Sunday night [September 29th] saw [besides a repeat of the last Sound of Cinema] a stand-alone programme, The Silent Voices of Hollywood. This was a RDF West Television / Zodiak Media Company production for the BBC. Despite a very interesting subject this TV documentary rather let the standards slip. The ‘silent voices’ were those of the singers who dubbed songs for the stars, mainly in Hollywood musicals, from the 1930s to the 1970s. This was known as ‘ghosting’. These ‘ghost singers’ usually their own concert and recording careers, in most cases they were denied credits, royalties and any acknowledgement at the Oscar Ceremony.

A fascinating history, and there were occasional highlights as when the programme used a split screen to show both the Natalie Wood version and the Marni Nixon dubbed version of a song from West Side Story (1961). There was India Adams dubbing two version of the same song ‘Two-faced Woman’ – one for Cyd Charisse in The Band Wagon (1951), [but not used in the final version] and one for Joan Crawford in Torch Song (1953). Rita Hayworth was seen in three different films, Cover Girl (1944), You Were Never Lovelier (1942), and An Affair in Trinidad (1952) – each with the dubbing by a different vocalist. And then we saw the Christopher Plummer’s version of ‘Edelweiss’ and the version used in The Sound of Music (1965) by Bill Lee. Finally there was a British example, Oliver! (1968) with the Musical Director Johnny Green’s daughter Kathe dubbing for Mark Lester.

However the programme suffered from two major vices of television documentaries: a long series of ‘‘talking heads’’ often onscreen for just a line or two. And a lack of respect for archive material from the past. The programme was screened in the television ratio of 16:9. And a lot of archive material, which was produced in other ratios, was cropped into this frame. This was particularly true of footage from the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s used early in the programme, including Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer (1927). Most of the footage from recent films was treated better, though there were occasional oddities, in part due to the use of stills, trailers and an actual video of the film. West Side Story was at various points seen in 1.37:1, 16:9 and the full widescreen of 2.35:1 [from a 35mm anamorphic print]. Both The King and I (1956) and My Fair Lady (1964) appeared at different points in 16:9 and in 2.35:1. Singin’ in the Rain (1952) appeared briefly in 16:9 and then properly in 1.37:1. The latter, of course, provided a poetic comment. The film’s plot revolves around Debbie Reynolds dubbing for Jean Hagen, whilst at one point the film had Betty Noyes [uncredited] dubbing for Debbie Reynolds. This film does actually get the aspect ratio of the 1920s nearly right, [1.37:1 rather than 1.33:1].

There were other oddities. The programme used a variety of stills and photographs. These were in the right ratio most of the time, but a number had the leader logo from the opening of a film reel flickering in the background! There was a parallel problem with the editing. There were [given the talking heads] frequent cuts: but on many occasions what looked like the tail of a film projection reel or of a video tape running briefly between the two different frames. And late in the programme a couple of clips set in the Moulin Rouge (2001) auditorium were sandwiched around a brief clip from elsewhere in the film.  I did wonder if all of this was the result of a rush in the final stages of post-production, but it recurred right through the programme. I suspect it was some sort of signifier supposedly highlighting the production process? I just found it distracting.

There were similar problems with the rostrum camera which was often shaky and cropped images in an obvious fashion. And the footage was often of poor quality. Some of this seemed justified: for example some footage of Rex Harrison in the Broadway production of My Fair Lady. But a lot of this was stock footage used to fill out the visuals. Since it was often not exactly uninformative or contextual I am sure they could have found better examples. At one point footage of the Vietnam War and the 1960s Civil Rights Movement was offered as a bizarre context to The Sound of Music. And a recurring piece of footage seemed to be a tracking shot through what I assumed was Beverley Hills. It looked as if shot from a car, and was often washed out by the sunlight: and it looked like it may have been speeded up.

All this was a shame as there was some interesting and informative commentary. And there were frequent interviews with the dubbing stars. These included Marni Nixon dubbed ‘Ghost with the mostest’ by Time Magazine. We actually saw her appearance on screen as Sister Sophia in The Sound of Music. We also saw the aforementioned India Adams. And we saw Rita Moreno who appeared in quite a few of the featured films, often singing her own character. The exhibits in this investigation into Hollywood made a pertinent point. Questions were asked as to how much the Studio policy of secrecy mattered. My memory is that on many occasions it was fairly obvious that stars were being dubbed. West Side Story, a musical I really liked, suffered from the disparity between the youthful and naïve stars and the concert trained voices of the songs they presented. I have to admit though that this was not always the case. I was surprised to find out that Rita Moreno had one song dubbed in the same film: even today she was rightly peeved about this indignity.

There was also a recurring problematic in the overall approach of the television programmes. The term ‘playback’ occurred at one point describing the technique of ‘ghosting’. Where this term does apply of course is in the great popular cinema of Mumbai [‘Bollywood’] and in the other regional Indian Cinemas. On the sub-Continent ‘playback singers’ are stars in their own right: with avid fans for their concerts, recordings and television appearances. And this is the great gap in the BBC television programmes. Neil Brand’s series concentrated on Hollywood, and to lesser degree British composers. The latter were mainly those who worked successfully in Hollywood as well. I think the only major figure working in Europe was Ennio Morricone, who is also a Hollywood composer. It would have been good if we could have enjoyed programmes that ventured further afield: not just Europe but India, Latin America and, of course, Japan.

This was where the radio scored over the television. There have been three series of Composer of the Week on Radio 3: the Hollywood Studio era, the British Studio era, and the major contemporary Hollywood composer John William. There were programmes on Silent Film Music on Radio 3 and Radio 2: and Radio 1 hosted a profile of the great Indian film composer A. R. Rahman. Besides which there were a whole rash of concerts on Radio 3.

I enjoyed the whole season, and I am grateful for the high points. I just think the BBC could have invested more.  Still, I may be in for pleasant surprise; future programmes on the music of these other cinemas?

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