SECRET VOICES OF HOLLYWOOD

An excellent BBC documentary on the great singers who provided the voices of many Hollywood stars.

image The studios saw it this way: “Rita Hayworth could dance,she could act. It would take something away to say,oh by the way,she cant sing.”

So Rita had several dubbers. Anita Ellis is the singing voice of Gilda.

For decades,the stars and their singing stand-ins were sworn to silence.

In the late 20s,the ever inventive dream factory developed a technology that would later be used to replace the songs of vocally challenged stars – it was called playback. Not only could all the songs in a musical be pre-recorded,but the technicians could transpose voices over images.

Ghost singing became one of Tinsel Town’s best kept secrets. These singers were usually only paid the studio singer standard rate of pay.

India Adams,the voice of both Cyd Charisse and Joan Crawford was interviewed and said: “When I did the dubbing, we were paid weekly – very weakly! 

I’ll never forget the first time I was in a room with the MGM orchestra.”

Speaking of the number, “Two Faced Woman” (filmed with Cyd Charisse and cut from THE BAND WAGON  , and subsequently used by Joan Crawford in TORCH SONG), India said: “The only time in movie history that two actresses had lip-synched to the very same vocal track.”

India herself,during the interview,sang a few bars of ‘Two Faced Woman’.That beautiful deep,rich tone.

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Marni Nixon was the singing voice of Deborah Kerr, Natalie Wood and Audrey Hepburn. But I didn’t know she did some dubbing for Marilyn Monroe. Marni described how she sang the beginning of “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend” in GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES:

“…I did some of her higher notes. it was just a matter of me imitating her exact sound.”

Marni Nixon

Marni Nixon

For THE KING AND I ,Marni and Deborah Kerr made the results seamless. Marni said:”In ‘Getting To Know You’,the opening spoken verse is Deborah’s voice, then it’s me – I would stand next to Deborah and watch her….” Deborah Kerr refused to keep quiet about being ghosted and came clean shortly after the film’s release.

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Robert Wagner was interviewed and said: “Natalie was thrilled at getting that role and was very anxious to do her own vocals.” (Natalie Wood.WEST SIDE STORY). Both Natalie and Marni recorded separate versions of the songs,but in the end Marni’s voice was used for all Maria’s songs.The trained singer produced a sound the studio felt was right.
Also in West Side Story,Jimmy Bryant dubbed Richard Beymer and said; “It is a little strange to see somebody singing, and your voice coming out of the screen.”

In SOUTH PACIFIC, only Mitzi Gaynor did her own singing. Bill Lee, as prolific a dubber as Marni Nixon,dubbed John Kerr. it is Bill’s wonderful voice you hear in “Younger Than Springtime“.Rossano Brazzi was ghosted by operatic base, Georgio Tozzi.
Musical historian, Miles Kreuger spoke of the dubbing of Juanita Hall by Muriel Smith (the part of ‘Bloody Mary’): “It makes no sense at all and I can tell you Juanita Hall was not happy at all.” (Juanita had actually originated the part of ‘Bloody Mary’ on Broadway. Muriel Smith played the part on stage in London.)

Bill Lee also dubbed Christopher Plummer in THE SOUND OF MUSIC (‘Edelweiss’), and Marni Nixon could finally be seen on screen doing her own singing, as one of the nuns,Sister Sophia.

Bill Lee

Bill Lee

Soundtrack albums were best sellers,but the royalties weren’t shared by the performers. And the secret singers were not even credited. Marni Nixon asked for royalties on the West Side Story record but director Robert Wise refused. Marni: “I hired a lawyer who said if they want to use an iota of your voice, you tell them you will not do it without credit. Leonard Bernstein gave up a quarter percent of his royalties – which established a precedent.”
Now, on re-issues of film musical CD’s and DVDs these wonderful singers are identified. Marni smiled: “Time magazine called me the ‘Ghostest with the Mostest’!”

A fascinating documentary (screened on BBC4 in October 2013). it could have been a series – so many other ghost singers could be profiled.
There is a marvellous list of movie dubbers compiled by Ray Hagen,Laura Wagner and Steven Tompkins, entitled MOVIE DUBBERS LIST.

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6 responses »

  1. Fascinating stuff, Vienna. These ‘ghost singers’ really do deserve more credit than they get for their great voices, even though it is understandable that the actors whose voices were being dubbed often felt upset over the whole thing. Marni Nixon in particular should be recognised as one of the Hollywood greats!

  2. It’s great that these singers are finally getting the recognition they deserve.
    What we don’t know is how the public back then would have felt if they had been aware of the dubbing .
    Nowadays,I am quite happy listening to Rita Hayworth and I never stop and think it isn’t Rita singing! The dubbing is so good and accurate.

  3. I love Marni Nixon– I REALLY do. But did she REALLY sing the intro to ‘…Diamonds…’ for Marilyn? I ask because those notes– IMO– weren’t that far removed from the ones MM was already singing. And who provided MM’s high notes for all those other musical? I’m skeptical. Oh, and BTW, how come nobody mentioned JoAnn Greer?

  4. I love JoAnn Greer’s voice for Rita Hayworth in Affair in Trinidad.
    It does seem strange that Marilyn would need any help.

  5. Marilyn Monroe had a reasonably pleasant voice, but the high register introduction notes on DIAMONDS ARE A GIRL’S BEST FRIEND are obviously not her. However, I have heard that singer Gloria Woods did those notes, and that Marni was called in the replace the phrase “these rocks don’t lose THEIR shape – diamonds are a girl’s best friend” (that one little section) – Marilyn for the most part did most of her own vocals – on the song “One Silver Dollar” [from River of No Return] there is a tiny high note portion (oooh oooh) that is supplied by Gloria Woods but aside from that it was all Marilyn.

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