Thursday, April 23, 2009

The Truth About Voice Doubling, Part III

Here is the third part of the article on voice doubling. (Part I here. Part II here.)

This section notes difficulties Douglas Fairbanks had negotiating the recording apparatus and questions whether Hollywood has any reason to be concerned when people find out that voice doubling is a common practice.

[109] A surprisingly large number of players in the film capital are now training their voices, in diction as well as singing, for the express purpose of avoiding the necessity of voice doubling. Vilma Banky, for instance, spends two hours a day perfecting her English. And James Burroughs, Bessie Love, Carmel Myers, Billie Dove, Gwen Lee, Jaxqueline Logan, Frances Lee, Leatrice Joy, Armand Kaliz and innumerable others are all taking vocal lessons. Most of these have sung professionally at some time in their career.

In that worthy picture, "Alibi," Virginia Flohri, a widely-known radio singer, doubled for Irma Harrison who, you remember, sang a song in the cafe as Toots, the chorus girl. Miss Harrison simulated singing while Miss Flohri actually sang into the microphone off stage. In this instance their timing was not perfect.

MISS FLOHRI also sang for Jeanne Morgan in the Romeo and Juliet vaudeville number, if you remember it, and Edward Jordon sang for Robert Cauterio.

Obtaining suitable voice doubles is often a difficult task. The voice must not only fit the player, it must suit the characterization as well. And good singing voices are not always easily found. One reason for this is that persons of marked vocal accomplishments are frequently reluctant to double. They are afraid their voices will be recognized, that it will cheapen them. A notable case in point was that of Marion Harris, the vaudeville headliner, who turned down an offer of $10,000 from Universal, according to one of her representatives, to substitute her voice for a film player, presumably in "Broadway."

No end of problems develop, of course, in connection with registering the voice. When

[110] Douglas Fairbanks did his bit of talking for "The Iron Mask" his stentorian tones all but wrecked the recording apparatus.

BEFORE beginning, he was cautioned by the sound engineers to speak softly. However, for Doug this was impossible. He could not get dramatic effect with his conversation thus cramped. As a result the first uproarious line of his speech brought the sound men pouring out of the mixing chamber like a swarm of mad hornets. Much argument ensued. Finally Earle Browne, director of dialogue, hit upon the bright idea of moving the microphone thirty feet away and turning it so that it faced away from Fairbanks.

Laura La Plante's problem in "Show Boat" was quite the opposite of Doug's. The most difficult thing she had to learn in working with a double was, not to sing silently, but to finger a banjo perfectly. She realized, naturally, that the eyes of countless trained musicians would be upon her in the audiences the world over. In consequence, she could not fake. She had to be convincing. So she spent several weeks learning the correct fingering of a banjo.

Some of the stars, of course, actually play musical instruments, though few have done so professionally. There's Bessie Love and her ukulele, and a few others. In "Mother Knows Best," Barry Norton actually played the piano while Sherry Hall sang his song. Sherry stood before the "mike" just outside the camera lines and Barry played his accompaniment and at the same time spoke the words of the song inaudibly, putting into them the proper timing, a thing possible to him because of his knowledge of music.

Of course, every effort is made on the part of producers to guard the secret of doubling. Picture-makers feel that it spoils the illusion, that it hurts a production's box office appeal. In this respect, however, they are wrong. I know this from my own personal experience in exploitation work. In nearly twelve years of steering the box office destinies of photoplays—especially film roadshows, some of the largest of which I have handled personally—I have yet to encounter a single set-back or loss because the public had knowledge of a double's work. On the other hand, I found that it often stimulated business to let the public in on a secret or two.

Eva Olivotti, one of Hollywood's most prominent voices, assured a friend that, if it became known that she doubled for Laura La Plante in the singing numbers of "Show Boat," she would never be able to obtain another job. That is an example of the fear instilled into the hears of the doubles by the companies for which they work. They are afraid even to breathe the nature of their employment.

THE fact remains, however, that Miss Olivotti did sing Miss La Plante's songs and sang them very well, indeed.

Part IV here.

Source: Mark Larkin, "The Truth About Voice Doubling," Photoplay Magazine, July 1929, 32-33, 108-10.

NB: It is my understanding that Photoplay Magazine from this era is in the public domain due to not having renewed the copyright.

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