Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Truth About Voice Doubling, Part I

As the earlier post on voice doubling indicates, Photoplay Magazine was well aware of the practice in 1929. In July of that year, they published a relatively long article on the practice. The first part of it is reprinted below.
The Truth about Voice Doubling

When you hear your favorite star sing in the talkies, don't be too sure about it. Here are the facts about sound doubling and how it is done.

Light travels 186,000 miles per second, but nobody cares. Sound pokes along at approximately a thousand feet a second, and still nobody cares.

But when Richard Barthelmess, who is famed as a film star and not as a singer, bursts into song in "Weary River," playing his own accompaniment, folks begin to prick up their ears.

And when Corinne Griffith plays a harp in "The Divine Lady" and acquits herself vocally, with the grace of an opera singer, people commence asking pointed questions.

And when Barry Norton does a popular number to his own accompaniment in "Mother Knows Best," a quizzical light appears in the public's eye.

Then, too, when Laura La Plante strums the banjo in "Show Boat" and renders negro spirituals below the Mason and Dixon line style, the public breaks out in an acute rash of curiosity which can be cured only by disclosing state secrets of the cinema.

Richard Barthelmess did not sing and play the piano in "Weary River." A double did it.

Corinne Griffith did not sing or play the harp in "The Divine Lady." A double did it.

Barry Norton did not sing in "Mother Knows Best." A double did it. He did, however, play the piano.

Laura La Plante did not sing and play the banjo in "Show Boat"—at least not for all the songs. Two doubles helped her. One played the banjo, the other sang.

And so it goes, ad infinitum.

THERE are voice doubles in Hollywood today just as there are stunt doubles. One is not so romantic as the other, perhaps, but certainly just as necessary.

Those who create movies will probably not cheer as we make this announcement. In fact, they may resent our frankness. They may even have the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences write letters to PHOTOPLAY about it.

Richard Barthelmess received what he considered rather embarrassing publicity in connection with the song he did not sing in "Weary River." And, as a result of that, persons who undoubtedly know say that he is effecting a change of policy regarding future pictures. I was told on good authority that he informed Al Rockett, who heads First National's studios in Burbank, that he did not choose to

[33] sing in forthcoming photoplays. "I am not a song and dance man," he explained, "and I don't want any pictures that feature me as such."

Nevertheless, Richard will sing—or rather someone will sing for him—in his forthcoming feature, titled at present, "Drag." That is, he will have a voice double unless they change the story. One never knows, you know, until the picture is released. There's many a slip between the screen and the cutting-room floor!

But Dick will not be seen actually in the act of singing as was the case in "Weary River." Probably there will be only his shadow, and the expression of the man for whom he is singing, this man—in the rôle of a song producer—registering reactions to the song.

Go to Part II.

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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