Screen Voices

By Stuart J. Kobak 

wpe1.jpg (81318 bytes)"There's a mystery in you." John Gilbert to Greta Garbo in Queen Christina. The mystery was in Gilbert's voice as far as audiences were concerned.

  Close your eyes and open your memory. Let the moments from your favorite films cross the bridge of time. Now mask the images and listen to the screen voices of some of the great acting legends. The voices can stand apart from the image and stamp the actor firmly in your mind. Perhaps, in many cases, it is the voice and style of delivery that define the actor more than any other trait.   There was a time when it didn't matter whether a brutish villain had the squeaky voice of a popinjay, but with the marriage of sound and image into the talking picture union the incongruity of mismatched voice and appearance was no longer a possibility. John Gilbert was one of the leading lights of the silent screen, a heartthrob who set the pulse of womanhood beating a tattoo in homage to his screen icon. When sound became an integral part of the Hollywood picture, Gilbert's high pitched voice did not fit with the virile image his romantic screen roles had painted for an international audience. Gilbert's career took a voice (sic) dive and his memory as Garbo's favorite co-star was soon eclipsed by the new crop of talking stars whose screen presence combined looks and voice in harmony. Gilbert's was the most visible instance, but many other actors suffered from their inability to deal successfully with sound.

wpeB.jpg (122894 bytes)"People! I ain't people! I'm a shimmering glowing star in the cinema firm-a-mint!" Jean Hagen is a crass delight in Singin' in the Rain.

     The fate of a star of Gilbert's magnitude was hilariously spoofed in Singin' in the Rain. Jean Hagen as Lina Lamont, the reigning Queen of the silent screen has a grating, nasal, crude Brooklyn delivery that belies her screen image. It's a natural for foxy screen moguls to conceive of dubbing the voice of their star to one that more naturally fits with the image already built on the screen. This leads to one of the screen's most wonderful scenes as Hagen performs the new song from her hit film in front of a live audience with Debbie Reynolds behind the theater curtain dutifully dubbing her melodic dulcet tones for the chalk voiced Hagen. When Kelly, O'Connor, and Mitchell surreptitiously raise the curtains behind Hagen, the hilarious deception is unraveled. Not only does Hagen get dubbed by Reynolds, O'Connor too gets in the act in providing the audience with an alternate sound for Hagen. Pure inspiration!
     Talking pictures brought out the Hollywood fishing nets as they raided Broadway theaters for actors who could speak in a manner befitting the changing medium. The steaming movie trawlers pulled in the likes of Spencer Tracy, Mae West, Humphrey Bogart, Katharine, W. C. Fields, Edward G. Robinson, and Clark Gable, from Broadway and extended their reach to Vaudeville as well in finding the players with the linguistic qualities hewn in performances before live audiences.

wpeC.jpg (8294 bytes)"Any of you beauties know where I can steal a horse for a good cause."Clark Gable using his screen charm to get his way in Gone with the Wind.

     In understanding the development of distinctive speech delivery, eccentric, theatrical, defining patterns of patter that lent immediate identity to the speaker, that lit the spark of instant recognition making its audience all the more readily accepting, one cannot discount the incredible influence of radio, which paralleled the growth of movies and was just as an important aspect of daily life to the masses as television is today. Radio had but one dimension with which to capture the imagination of its audience. An actor was left to his vocal skills to communicate every nuance of performance. There were no theatrical movements of the hand to emphasize the words and rhythm of the language. There was no camera to dolly in for a close-up on an actor's eyes, bringing a visual texture of meaning to the words of the actor.
     A variety of actors from Don Ameche to James Stewart to Orson Welles did their star turns on the radio as their indelible voices stamped a lasting impression on audiences, adding to the power of their screen personas. Bing Crosby's mellifluous crooning captured the hearts of generations of pubescent woman and even Judy Garland added dramatic radio stints to her many appearances as a songstress on the radio.

wpe3.jpg (2632 bytes)"You know how it is just before the sun sets? You can look out and that water ain't exactly blue and it ain't exactly purple--it's sort of a color a man can feel but he can't put a name to." Gary Cooper describes his feelings about Lily Langtry to Walter Brennan in The Westerner.

The thirties and forties, at the apex of Hollywood's "golden era," produced a plethora of memorable screen voices. There was the deep, monosyllabic utterances of lanky Gary Cooper whose "Yup" was repeated amongst schoolboys in a shorthand that instantly conjured up "Coop." Gary Cooper's guttural simple style seems to have grown out of the earth, fused with the sand and rocks and stones of the desert. James Cagney's in your face delivery of dialogue, at times almost sung in rhythmic staccato cadence, produced an extraordinary energy on screen. Katharine Hepburn's New England nasal crossed over from sophisticated ladies to madcap rich gals. Hepburns's vocal style conveys a worldliness and sophistication whether playing a spinster woman in the jungles of Africa or Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine. 

wpeE.jpg (5286 bytes)"If I can act, I want the world to know it; if I can't, I want to know." Katharine Hepburn makes a typical Hepburn comment on life in Stage Door.

It was Hepburn's voice and style of speech that distinguished her from being just another pretty face. Do you think you could separate Hepburn and her voice? Subtract that essential element of the equation of screen magic and is she the incandescent star of five decades? Edward G. Robinson, a most gentle and erudite man used his vocal instrument to help create an entirely different screen persona. The pathological deviants that Robinson often captured on the screen were crafted around a voice shaped into hostile delivery by the actor. While is his off screen life the most dangerous use of his voice might be to emphasize an auction bid for a hotly contested oil painting, Robinson took the words supplied by the writers of his movies, rolled them around his mouth and expelled them with a vehemence through thickly curled lips.
     The signature snarl of Robinson was much imitated by masters of impersonation or kids playing gangster on the street.

wpeA.jpg (7799 bytes)"Made it Ma. Top of the world." James Cagney goes out in a blaze of hate in White Heat.

     No one to my memory has close to the uniqueness of James Stewart's voice. The delivery of his dialogue was his own signature. There is a cracked element to Stewart's voice suggestive of an adolescent turning to manhood and it emphasizes a screen image of innocence and purity. Often, as the words form in Stewart's mouth, they are blown out like bubbles. Separate the man from voice? What's left? Does the alteration irrevocably diminish the power and success of the actor. James Stewart uses his voice as a consummate aspect of his actor's tools. Stewart is a master of controlled interjection. The slight hesitation between words and phrases, the reedy quality of a soothing wind instrument which imbues the actor with that special star substance instills the moviegoer with Stewart's reassuring honesty and integrity.

wpe2.jpg (3946 bytes)"By what right did you decide that the boy in there was inferior and therefore could be killed?" James Stewart in Alfred Hitchcock's Rope. Stewart's vocal hesitation and slight twang connoted a screen honesty.

Often, an actor's voice is the defining characteristic of their screen presence. Blond Jean Arthur who starred opposite James Stewart in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and You Can't Take It With You had her own uniqueness of pitch that set her aside from other actresses. Arthur's raspy, raw radish of a voice helped create the characters that she was famous for. Margaret Sullavan, another co-star with Stewart in The Shop Around the Corner, Mortal Storm, The Shopworn Angel and Next Time We Love had a soft throaty, purr of a voice that combined sexiness with a little girl innocence and fragility.
     An actor's voice can be a short cut for an audience to begin understanding the actor's screen persona. Henry Fonda's lilting casual delivery could best be described as "home spun." Fonda's wide eyed innocence is thoroughly believable in The Lady Eve and his voice and delivery assure us of his honesty and integrity in The Grapes of Wrath. Fonda has to be The Wrong Man in Hitchcock's study of an innocent man falsely accused. There is never a doubt in the moviegoer's mind that John Wayne means business and has the guts to prove it. 

wpe6.jpg (7221 bytes)"I don't hate you. I only have contempt for you. I always have." Bette Davis to Herbert Marshall in The Little Foxes. You can catch Davis at her bitchy best in a new HBO DVD of The Little Foxes.

The clipped tones of Bette Davis's frigid femmes fatales might fool a co-star or two, but audiences were usually quite sure where this ice queen's relationships were leading. Spencer Tracy's is the voice of authority. An audience sympathizes and respects the powerful honest rhythms of Tracy's voice. Humphrey Bogart was a tough guy cynic, spitting out his words often through clenched jaw, lisping sibilants with venom.
     In criticizing one actor, I have often heard the argument that he always sounds the same. Whether he is playing an aristocrat, a sophisticate, a dust toughened Indian scout or acrobatic pirate, the voice, the inflection, the style of delivery is unerringly consistent. In this case I'm referring to Burt Lancaster. But it is the authority of Lancaster's voice that makes him the convincing actor that he is. The power of Lancaster's instrument resounds with truth. There is never a question of whether he fits the part and the man has played roles in an astonishingly range of parts from cold hearted killer to loving grandfather.

wpe12.jpg (4900 bytes)"I'm beginning to think old is a dirty word." In the twilight of his career Lancaster did a fine comic turn in Tough Guys.

      European actor imports flourished during the thirties and forties when the likes of Charles Boyer, Paul Lukas, Paul Henreid, Greta Garbo, Luis Rainer, Ingrid Bergman and Hedy Lamarr parlayed their accents to exotic images blending into a special screen appeal. Many character actors, such as Peter Lorre added a European flavor to American productions often produced on studio sets that limited the reality of place.
     A entirely separate group of defining voice signatures exists in the ranks of the supporting stalwarts of yesteryear. Eugene Pallette comes to mind as possessing the most distinguished foghorn to bellow its full blown tones through theater speakers around the world. Pallette' booming instrument, playing several octaves down from whatever one might reasonably expect, established screen characters from Friar Tuck to patriarch in black tie Alexander Bullock in the wonderful spoof on the foibles of the rich My Man Godfrey or as Mr. Pike, Henry Fonda's wealthy brewery magnate papa who blithely blasts his brewery jingle, "Pike's Pale, the ale that won for Yale." Lionel Stander, another stand-out character actor produced the sound of dying rooster with its throat slit when he opened his mouth. Audiences easily recognized his presence before they actually saw him.   

wpe11.jpg (4345 bytes)"This is a bachelor establishment. It means I don't like women around the place." James Mason takes charge of Ann Todd in The Seventh Veil.

The Englishmen were another matter altogether since they brought a natural vocal baggage with them across the Atlantic. The diversity of accents from the mellifluous delivery of the eloquent James Mason to the sharply clipped phrases of Cary Grant's Cockney heritage runs the gamut of sound and style that have defined for generations the image of our European cousins.
     Foreign films have long had a history of dubbing the English language for the foreign tongue and thereby avoiding the box office death knell of subtitles. Voice became a particular bone of contention in these circumstances. Matching a voice to an actor's appearance and style in itself can be an art. This is further compounded by the fact that an audience may already be familiar with an actor's voice and hearing a dubbed voice that does not approximate the actor's natural speaking tones can be a disaster. I remember seeing a dubbed version of a Japanese film starring Toshiro Mifune

wpe16.jpg (16373 bytes)Toshiro Mifune gave the screen grunt new meaning as the masterless samurai in Yojimbo and Sanjuro.

 Mifune's distinctive, powerful delivery had become a rather high pitched whine. Needless to say that whatever chance the film had of succeeding in my eyes was destroyed just as the illusion of power in Mifune's character was undermined by the wrong voice interpretation.
      La Strada, Fellini's marvelously poignant road film starring Giulietta Masina, Anthony Quinn and Richard Basehart presents an interesting opportunity under unusual circumstances to examine the concept of dubbing. The Criterion Collection edition of this film presents the Italian language version of La Strada on one audio track and the English language version on the other track. Normally, I am reluctant to watch films that have been dubbed into English from another language. In this case the dubbing had been done under the supervision of the filmmakers. Here I had a choice which was not as obvious as it might seem at first. Fellini is known for dubbing the dialogue of his films after all the celluloid is in the can, so whether in English or Italian, the dialogue of La Strada was going to be dubbed. However, in the Italian version, both Anthony Quinn and Richard Basehart were dubbed by Italian actors.

wpe17.jpg (17015 bytes)




Fellini's leading lady on and off the screen, Giuletta Massina enriched the screen with an incredibly magic face.

 In the English version, Guilietta Masina was dubbed by an English speaking actor. Neither solution was wholly satisfying but I wound up opting for the English language version mainly because of Anthony Quinn's distinctive voice. Quinn and Basehart dubbed their own parts for the English language version and while the substitute for Masina's voice was not altogether pleasing, I felt it the lesser of evils offered. Another unusual aspect of this experience was listening to an English soundtrack with the addition of English subtitles. This was admittedly distracting and the titles and voices did not always concur in their line readings.
     Not only is La Strada an extraordinary film that should not be missed, this laser disc edition provides the opportunity to carefully compare the impact of the actor and his voice. Watch some of the film with Quinn dubbed into Italian. Watch it again with Zampano spoken in Quinn's own voice. How is the performance adulterated. Would Quinn have been the star he was with the Italian's voice. Not in my book.

wpe13.jpg (27788 bytes)"I coulda been a contender. I coulda had class and been somebody." Unforgettable lament from Brando to Rod Steiger in On the Waterfront.

As 1940 shifted into 1950 and the Second World War began to recede in memory, a new breed of actors began to emerge. Some of the familiar, signature voices began to change. The manner of "The Method" spawned its first born and carried atop the backside of Marlon Brando, a not always polished breed of mumblers attempted to emulate the signature sounds of Brando. Marlon stylistically swallowed his words before letting the regurgitated syllables force their way out of his mouth in some semblance of language. And then there was Monroe. I'm not foolish or blind or old enough to suggest that Marilyn Monroe's sexual command of the screen could be attributed to her voice alone. The woman was the essence of obvious sensuality. But listen to your memory of Monroe's delivery: the innocence, the sweet breathy wonder of the moment, all delivered through full red lips pursed in suggestive pose. However, I don't think Monroe would have knocked the socks off Hollywood if she sounded like Rosalind Russell or Meryl Streep.
     Contemporary lead actors whose distinct voices have indelibly stamped their persona on the public's consciousness have been rewarded by often long lasting careers. Clint Eastwood's rough-hewn powerful whisper has grown deeper with the years since he first made his mark in terse mono-syllables as the "man with no name" in Sergio Leone's trio of Italian produced westerns. Eastwood uses his voice to suggest menace, strength, depth of character and a sexiness that has endured the adulation of successive generations. A great part of Eastwood's successful spanning of generations can be attributed to the use of his voice.

wpe14.jpg (4231 bytes)"I faked a little Chopin--you faked a big response." Nicholson defining cynicism in Five Easy Pieces.

 Jack Nicholson uses his vocal instrument as a rapier to dance around his fellow thespians, pricking slight rivulets of blood or slashing long whip-like scars. Nicholson's insinuating snarl, his nasal verbal acrobatics, define his acting style and indelible screen presence more than anyone else on the screen today and quite possibly more so than any of those voices that preceded Jack in the pantheon of prima sound. Nick Nolte is another of this generation's stars whose distinctive voice has helped mold the image in which his public views him. Nolte is a good looking man, but with a nondescript voice, I don't believe his presence would have ignited the same sexual sparks throughout his screen career. Interestingly enough, the same toughness that makes Nolte a heartthrob for the distaff side, makes him an equally appealing star for the male audience. Nolte has been successful in a number of personas, most recently as the driven college basketball coach in Bill Friedkin's Blue Chips. Melanie Griffith is one of the more successful leading ladies of the screen today, though her very squeaky, kittenish delivery of dialogue may be wearing thin, if recent box office results are any indication. It's interesting to compare Griffith, who starred in the remake of Born Yesterday recently, to the woman who created the role, another of the actresses with unique vocal chords, Judy Holliday. 

wpe15.jpg (2886 bytes)Judy Holdiay does a brilliant take on the brassy blond in Born Yesterday. "The country and it's institutions belong to the people who inhibit it."

Holliday, a wonderful comedienne, was clearly limited in the range of roles offered her during her cancer foreshortened career. Holliday could bellow or tinkle in cacophonous tones to superb screen effect. You certainly can't separate the "yo" from Sylvester Stallone. The macho Stallone has used the deep tones that emanate from the very pit of his stomach to great commercial stead. Arnold Schwarzenegger, today's most recognizable foreign born actor, has carried his native accent to the English speaking screen in typically Schwarzenegger bravura style. Shaped by his Mr. Universe body as well as his foreign syllables, he has parlayed the accent to the bank seven times over. It is no wonder that Arnie is best remembered for his short screen utterances, such as "I'll be back." The distaff supporting actress trenches boast Jennifer Tilly and Julie Brown , two actresses working today with distinctive voices. In their cases, it adds up to a typecasting that belies their looks. Both woman are typically cast in roles that blatantly suggest brain damage.

wpe8.jpg (17329 bytes)Orson Welles started out as the wunderkind director of Citizen Kane but later found himself hawking wine on television.

 In a testament to screen voices, many well known actors have become invisible spokesmen for products as varied as wine and automobiles. "No wine before its time," pronounced in roundly authoritative tones by none other than Orson Welles. If you once believed the Martians were coming, its not much of a stretch to accept the suggestion that the wine might be just fine. Welles was long past his productive years as a irascible Hollywood rebel when he did his product hawking, but Michael Douglas, while at the top of his fame, could not resist the lure of an advertiser's megadollars to record his familiar voice behind a car commercial. And why should he when marketers are willing to hand out green stuffed envelopes for work amounting to a tiny fraction of the time spent on movie sets. Perhaps the greatest bonus is that there are no film critics waiting in ambush to tell the world what a disappointing performance an actor has turned in or that a once shining starlet has lost the luster of youth.
     Listen to the screen voices that have shaped the history of Hollywood. Recognize their importance in a predominantly visual medium. Listen to the rhythm the words. Note the varied cadences, the pauses and interjections. For many of us it is the use of the voice that will become the most memorable aspect of an actor when we enter the maze of our memories to recall those wonderful screen moments.


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