Wednesday, March 25, 2009


By Luella O. Parsons, Motion Picture Editor, Universal Service
Hollywood, March 19, 1932

Just entre nous, these foreign versions haven’t proved as much of a panic in Europe as the film producers had a right to hope. Germany, Italy, Spain, Sweden, France, et cetera, used to the personality of a Douglas Fairbanks, a Harold Lloyd, a Norma Shearer, a Janet Gaynor, a Marion Davies, a Charles Farrell, or a Gloria Swanson put up a howl that circled the globe when substitutes were offered.

Lured into a theater to see an American screen play, these foreign folk expected to see one of their favorites. Lo and behold, strange actresses held sway. No longer did a Joan Crawford bid for interest in a dramatic play but some stranger without Miss Crawford’s looks and figure.

Business fell off to such an alarming extent that certain of the film companies started making linguists of their most popular players over night. “How is it possible?” you ask. The technical expression is “dubbing in.” It means when Germany has a yen to see Norma Shearer, some German actress speaks the German words for her. Her personality remains, outwardly at least, intact, but the voice is different.


Shopping for a voice is a new one, but when any actress is about to appear in a foreign version a substitute is sought who has the same voice quality.

By way of example, when Wallace Beery speaks French in “The Champ” or any of his successes, the voice obtained to parlez vous Francais is as nearly like his own as it is possible to find.

I won’t attempt to describe to you the technical process. It’s too involved, but to the studios it’s easy. There is no black magic connected with giving foreign speaking voices to English speaking persons. It’s all very simple.

The foreign substitute who is called in to talk for the American star must familiarize herself with the screen story first. Then she must study the particular star for whom she is substituting. She looks at the picture carefully four or five times. Then she studies individual scenes. She gets the mouth expressions of the star and fits her own dialogue to match the spoken English words.


Not only must the vowels match but there must be perfect timing. Sometimes the foreign words are changed to meet this exigency. The actual meaning of the dialogue when this is done must not be changed.

I met Greta Meyers just after she had talked German for Marie Dressler in “Emma.” Miss Meyers is a fine actress herself. She played the maid in Gloria Swanson’s picture, “Tonight or Never,” and she has made a success in character parts on the stage. She told me voice substituting is the most tiring work in the world.

“I sat for hours watching Miss Dressler,” she said. “I had to be careful not to let monotony creep into my voice. I had to feel the same emotion that she did so that no inflection in my voice would betray that it was not Miss Dressler speaking.

It’s a job that few actresses would enjoy.

Paramount is one of the few large companies that does not exploit its American stars abroad. An entirely new cast is used in each of its foreign pictures. This is possible for Paramount because they have a studio in Paris, one in England, and one in Germany. When a picture is made they employ foreign talent.

A complete plan of the American-made film is sent abroad, photographs of the sets and detailed scripts as well as instructions that are not difficult to follow. In most cases the foreign version is not as expensive as the American film.


Anonymous said...

That is definitely true about Paramount not promoting their U.S. stars abroad in the early 30s. In 1931 when Gary Cooper took a lengthy trip to Europe to recover from being overworked by Paramount, he was surprised to find that no one recognized or knew him. He wasn’t a media hog so part of him probably appreciated being left to his own devices in relative anonymity, but for the sake of furthering his career he was pretty upset about it. I’m not sure when Paramount made the shift though to simply exporting their American made films and that would be interesting to find out.


Evangeline Holland said...

How neat. I had no idea foreign language dubbing had begun so early. I did read about Claudette Colbert and Maurice Chevalier redubbing a movie or two in their native French, but not this. Great blog!

GAH1965 said...

Interesting comments - thanks.

I tried to see if I could learn more about Paramount's European studios but couldn't come up with anything from a quick internet search. All the references I found were to Paramount's European film distribution today.

I had no idea that dubbing started as early as '32 either, but when I stopped to really think about it, I was also surprised it took so long after the advent of sound to finally figure out that this was going to be the most lucrative method of foreign distribution. Tha's part of what I love about this era - the turbulence of the transition to talkies was still underway.