Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

entry May 2003, part 2 added May 2019

1.Film Dubbing     &     2. Ghost Singers
                                         cartoons           real

This model of Oliver Hardy is on via S. Gregorio Armeno. The Italian voice of Ollie was Alberto Sordi. It was a spectacularly successful example of dubbing.

model of
              Oliver HardyI was watching a skit with Neapolitan comic Massimo Troisi the other night on TV. Although I should know better, I was upset that I didn't understand the uncompromisingly authentic Neapolitan dialect. There were, however, subtitles to make the dialect intelligible to viewers from elsewhere in Italy who might be watching. For a long time, I had assumed that foreigners were the only ones who had such troubles. Not so. Italian dialects can vary considerably from standard Italian, so it is common to see such films with subtitles.

[Also see: The Neapolitan Language]

Interestingly, that is about the only time in Italy that you see subtitles in films. Foreign films, unlike Italian dialect films, are always dubbed into Italian. Films are dubbed so well and so consistently in Italy, that it is common for a single dubber to shadow the career of a foreign actor for years. For example, with your back turned to the screen, even if the film is in Italian, you know that Woody Allen is speaking, because his dubber is always Italian comic Oreste Lionello. If Marlon Brando, Robert Redford and Paul Newman all sound the same in Italian, it's because the same dubber, Giuseppe Rinaldi, does all three of the voices. Emilio Cigoli does both John Wayne and Clark Gable, so you may actually have to turn around and look at the screen to find out if you're watching Stagecoach or Gone With the Wind

Dubbing a film is much more expensive than simply slapping subtitles at the bottom of the screen. Dubbing involves a sound studio, hiring voices for each character and doing take after take in an attempt to get the original inflections into a voice, and then making sure that the new language synchronizes as well as possible with the lip movements on the screen. Nothing is worse than bad dubbing, where the emotions of the voice don't fit the action, and where the synchronization is so out of whack that half the time the actors look like poor souls on street corners making silent fish-like mouth movements to themselves. 

The biggest reason why Italians choose to dub films rather than subtitle them goes back to when "talkies" started in the late 1920s. In a nation dealing with drastic differences in dialects, dubbing was a way to help create a sense of a single national language.* Thus, even Italian actors with easily identifiable regional accents have been dubbed into more "standard" Italian. (At the beginning of her career, Sophia Loren was dubbed, apparently because of her regional accent from Pozzuoli, near Naples.) Interestingly, after two decades of good dubbing, Italians were so used to standard Italian in films that when the wave of post-WW II Italian films known as "Neo-Realism" came in, with their dialogues recorded live in Sicilian, Neapolitan and Roman dialects, it came as a shock to many Italians to realize that they didn't really understand many of their own countrymen. ("Precisely the point," said more than one Neo-Realist director.)
*("...a sense of a single national language"... was also fostered by letting viewers as least hear what that language sounded like . There was a high rate of illiteracy among the rural population, so subtitling films wouldn't have done much good anyway.)
Italian dubbing is generally so consistent that mimics regularly "do" foreign actors who have characteristic vocal styles—say, John Wayne or Jimmy Stewart. Such attention is paid to quality dubbing that Greta Garbo, for example, upon hearing herself in Italian for the first time, sat down and wrote a fan letter to her Italian voice, owned by actress Tina Latenzi. And some dubbing, of course, requires the same unusual verbal dexterity as the original voice —witness the tongue-twisting pyrotechnics of Stefano Sibaldi, the Italian voice of Danny Kaye.


Perhaps the strangest sidelight in this whole matter is that dubbed voices can become part and parcel of another culture, evoking allusions and inside jokes just as do the original voices in their own culture. The Italian voices of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy are the best example of this. When talkies came in, Laurel and Hardy had already achieved world-wide fame on the basis of their short silent movies. There was such a new demand for them speaking, however, that for a time they actually reshot their scenes hurriedly in other languages, pronouncing their lines from scripts written in phonetic English. These scenes would then be sent abroad to be spliced into the rest of the film, which had been remade in the target language using local actors. That soon proved impractical, especially for longer feature films. Consequently, for the Italian market the decision was made to dub the films of Laurel and Hardy in American studios using Italian-American actors, who, presumably, thought they were speaking standard Italian. Their own Italian, however, had been maimed by at least one generation of nasal semi-vowels, unrolled r's and Wrigley's Spearmint. 

When the studios in Rome reviewed the first dubbed-in-America Laurel & Hardy film to see what they had, the American English accented voices were so hilarious, that someone came up with the idea of redubbing everyone else into normal Italian, but leaving Stan and Ollie with accents. There followed a nation-wide contest to find the voices of Laurel and Hardy in Italian. One winner was the now famous Italian comic, Alberto Sordi, whose career started as the voice of Oliver Hardy. His anglicized Italian as 'Ollie' has become so much a part of Italian popular culture that an Italian, today, can do Oliver Hardy by saying, with a broad English language accent, 'stuPIdo' (accenting the second, instead of the first, syllable, in imitation of Sordi's version of Oliver Hardy) and have it recognized as instantly as an English-speaker would recognize, "Well, here's another fine mess you've gotten me into!" Indeed, Italian mimics still regularly pay tribute to Laurel and Hardy, imitating the dubbed voices. (The Italian voice of Stan Laurel was Mauro Zambuto, who, after WW II, moved to the United States and became a professor of Electrical Engineering at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.)

So, without taking anything away from the universal nature of the humor of Laurel and Hardy, it is fair to say that in Italy, much of their popularity was —and still is— due to the spectacularly successful way they are dubbed. There is no Italian comic (not even the great Totò) who, by voice alone, is as recognizable as are Laurel and Hardy in Italian. The only competition in recognizability might be the Italian voice of Donald Duck! Most of the voices in those cartoons are, indeed, dubbed into relatively normal Italian—except for Donald. He still quacks, but his Italian dubber is none other than Clarence Nash, the original English voice of Donald Duck for the Disney studios and who dubbed himself into many foreign languages, including Japanese. Apparently, Nash was one of the few persons to have truly mastered the difficult trick of compressing air in the cheek cavity and producing articulate quacks. (Phoneticians call this the "buccal voice". To the rest of us, it's known as "duckspeak". More on Nash in part 2, below.

Anyway, gotta run. I hear the sultry, breathless tones of Rosetta Calavetta on the tube. Marilyn Monroe, to you.



2. Ghost Singers   (added May 23, 2019)

Adriana Caselotti,  voice of Snow White

These people never get any credit since some people like to think that Snow White was and maybe still is a real person with a nice voice and that Marilyn Monroe could actually sing (ok, she was a nice person.) A ghost singer is a professional singer who dubs the songs that appear to be sung by someone else. That is, Famous Celebrity moves his or her lips and you sing the part, pick up your paltry paycheck and leave with the warning that "if you ever tell anyone about this, you'll never work again. Have a nice day. Get lost."


An early detour, having mentioned Snow White. Obviously cartoons can't sing, so does it really matter if a studio tells you who the voice of, say, Bugs Bunny is? Or Donald Duck?  Yes. It depends on the studio. The most famous cartoon voice "ghost" ever was Mel Blanc (1908-1989) who spoke the voice and sang the songs when necessary for every* Warner Bros. cartoon for decades. His characters, of course, are famous. Bugs Bunny, ok? But Blanc, himself, was famous as well, because every cartoon started with credits that read, "Voice characterizations by Mel Blanc." Everyone knew his name.


*(Mel Blanc voiced every character but one. Spoiler coming. Close your eyes. Elmer Fudd. The voice of "Be vewy quiet. I'm hunting wabbits" and "Wascally wabbit" belonged to Arthur Q. Bryan. I told you to close your eyes!)


Perhaps more famous than Bugs, but from another studio, Disney) was Donald Duck, but the ghost voice was virtually unknown for decades. Walt Disney liked the idea of preserving the fantasy of his work. It took a team of research sleuths until the 1980s to finally reveal to the general public that the master of duckspeak (the buccal voice
the larynx does nothing and your cheeks do all the work) was an amiable man named Clarence Nash (1904-1985), mentioned in part 1. He quacked his way through 120 shorts and films for Disney for 51 years and almost no one knew who he was. Disney was so intent on the illusion that he refused to let the ghost singer for Snow White (Adriana Caselotti, photo, above right) appear on tv shows where she might talk about her career. (Disney's studio, Disney's prerogative, I guess.) Caselotti (1916 – 1997), by the way, had a real connection to Naples. She was born in Bridgeport, Connecticut to an Italian-American family, but her mother, was from Naples and was a singer in the Royal Opera Theater of Rome.


Real Humans


For Laura P., a fine singer and dear friend, who told me about Marni Nixon.*

Here are a few from the real world, in no particular order except that the first one is certainly the best-known.


Margaret Nixon McEathron (1930 – 2016), (photo, right, is from 2009) known professionally as Marni Nixon. Her brilliant soprano voice "ghosted" actresses in many musical films: Deborah Kerr in The King and I, Natalie Wood in West Side Story,** Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady, and a famous series of pin-point precise "No!-No!-No!-No!"  high notes for Marilyn Monroe (in "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend" from the film Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.)*** She got the usual "You'll never work again if you talk" from the studios, but Deborah Kerr spilled the beans -- "I don't care if they know I can't sing." And bless you, Deborah Kerr!


Marnie Nixon was a classically trained, acclaimed concert singer. She was a specialist in modern music and sang as a soloist with the New York Philharmonic and in recitals at Carnegie Hall, among other venues. She had perfect pitch and was a flawless sight-singer. She said she once felt she had lost part of herself by being anonymous all the time but came to grips with it and even warmed to it in a one-woman show, Marni Nixon: The Voice of Hollywood (image, left) with which she toured the country for years. Her memoir, I Could Have Sung All Night, was published in 2006. It was written with a ghost writer (!), Stephen Cole, whom she credited prominently on the cover and the title page! But when Time called her the "Ghostess with the Mostest," it stuck and became the worst-kept secret in Hollywood.**** Leonard Bernstein, composer of Westside Story, didn't like it that a fine musician such as Nixon was stiffed with a lousy $400 for all her work in the film. He gave her a share of his take. That's class.

* Laura adds, "She once described her career to me as 'botched up' but now a whole generation loved her voice and wanted her to know they admired her. I suggested she give a Master Class, so she sent out invitations to a Master Class in her apartment! She scribbled on my flyer, 'Look what you started!' Then she started to do guest appearances at various conservatories. We all loved her and she helped me enormously! She was a great lady."

** Natalie Wood was angry that they dubbed her singing. If you listen to her screen test for "I Feel Pretty," she had a good singing voice and could have handled the part. Movie Mogul gets what Movie Mogul wants, I suppose. They wanted a powerhouse voice, the best in the business, and that's what they got.
[This YouTube link is Natalie Wood's real voice from her screen test.]

*** added: March, 2020. The 'high-note' scene has been cut from every version of the film I can find. The scene had MM walking down a broad flight of steps, shaking and pointing a folded fan at her worshipful and tuxedo'd suitors arrayed along both sides. With each shake she sang a high "No!" (voiced by Marni Nixon). I think a studio head must have said, "Look, I'm tone-deaf and even I can hear that is not the voice of Marilyn Monroe."

**** "...'worst-kept secret in Hollywood'. By 1965, Time had already called her the "Ghostess with the Mostest," Deborah Kerr had already talked, and Marni had appeared on a TV quiz show, To Tell the Truth. She was one of three women introduced as the ghost singer for various celebrities in musical films. Four panelists tried to guess the real Marni Nixon from how the three answered questions. Two of the four panelists pegged her correctly. It's not that no one knew who she was or what was going on. Here is a  "Tribute to Marni Nixon" with stories of her life and examples of her work.

Annette Warren is best known for her ghosting of such stars as Ava Gardner in the 1951 version of Show Boat and Lucille Ball in both Fancy Pants and Sorrowful Jones.


India Adams dubbed the singing voices of Cyd Charisse and Joan Crawford in the mid 1950s.


Jo Ann Greer ghosted the vocal tracks for Kim Novak, Esther Williams, and June Allyson at Columbia Pictures.


Martha Mears with a lovely contralto voice has the distinction of introducing to the world the song "White Christmas". She ghosted actress Marjorie Reynolds in the 1942 film, Holiday Inn, in which the song first appeared.


Anita Ellis dubbed, most memorably, the singing voice of Rita Hayworth (notably in Gilda, 1946). Ellis is best remembered for the song from that film, "Put the Blame on Mame". Maybe it was the ideal profession for her. This peerless jazz stylist suffered from terrible stage fright all her life and was almost unable to sing in public.


Male ghost singers include:


William Jesse "Bill" Shirley. He is best known as the speaking and singing voice of Prince Phillip in Walt Disney's 1959 animated classic Sleeping Beauty and for dubbing Jeremy Brett's singing voice in the 1964 film version of My Fair Lady.


Bill Lee ghosted voices in many films generally and especially for many Disney characters. Lee also provided the singing voice for Christopher Plummer in The Sound of Music.


There are others. Obviously, the studios may luck out and a get an actor who is also a great singer: Paul Robeson and William Warwick (in the 1936 and 1952 versions of the film Showboat, respectively). They acted in the film and sang "Ol' Man River". Warwick's magnificent version was one of the few times I've ever seen an audience in a movie house erupt in applause.

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