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The Translation of Films, 1900-1950$

Carol O'Sullivan and Jean-François Cornu

Print publication date: 2019

Print ISBN-13: 9780197266434

Published to British Academy Scholarship Online: September 2019

DOI: 10.5871/bacad/9780197266434.001.0001

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PRINTED FROM BRITISH ACADEMY SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.britishacademy.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright British Academy, 2020. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in BASO for personal use.date: 29 May 2020

The reception of dubbing in France 1931–3: The case of Paramount

The reception of dubbing in France 1931–3: The case of Paramount

(p.221) 12 The reception of dubbing in France 1931–3: The case of Paramount
The Translation of Films, 1900-1950

Martin Barnier

British Academy

Abstract and Keywords

The international film trade changed dramatically with the generalisation of sound films. It became more difficult for Hollywood to export English-speaking films than during the silent era. One solution was multiple-language films, which helped French stars to become even more popular in France. The Hollywood studios quickly opted for dubbing as the best solution. The first two Paramount films dubbed into French were Derelict (as Désemparé) and Morocco (as Cœurs brûlés) in 1931. How were these dubbed versions received by critics and the trade press in France? Popular film magazines did not object to dubbed versions so much, while cinephile magazines considered they were rushed jobs. This chapter studies the evolution of the reception of dubbed films in France in 1931–3, using evidence from the trade and popular press. It traces the beginning of the opposition between original-language versions for upmarket movie theatres, and dubbed versions aimed at popular neighbourhoods.

Keywords:   Dubbing, film export, film history, film reception, Marlene Dietrich, stars, synchronisation, voice-acting, audiovisual translation history

THIS CHAPTER PRESENTS THE different ways in which the first dubbed versions were received in France, especially those of films produced by Paramount. As there were no statistics on cinema-going audiences, nor direct opinion polls at the time, press reviews and reports from the period are the only sources available to study the reception of French-dubbed versions of foreign films.

From the beginning of 1929, feature films were presented in France with synchronised sound in the form of music, sound effects, and speech. The Jazz Singer (Alan Crosland, 1927) was one of the first feature films to be presented with synchronised dialogue in English. Other features, such as Marcel Vandal’s French film L’Eau du Nil (1928), included only music, songs, and sound effects. In the United States, Warner pushed for synchronised sound with The Jazz Singer and, later, The Singing Fool (Lloyd Bacon, 1928), heavily advertising its Vitaphone system, while Fox marketed its Fox-Movietone in the beginning of 1928. The few theatres wired for sound were making huge profits, which contributed to the popularisation of the talkies. Prior to this, many French critics and filmmakers had criticised talkies in interviews and articles, although very few French people had seen and heard sound films. A number of French journalists and filmmakers went to London in 1928 to find that, as with silent films, there were good and bad (sound) films.1 It was only in the spring of 1929, when the biggest movie theatres became wired for sound, that many French people could discover by themselves what they had only heard about so far. However, the controversy remained very strong during the period 1928–30.

By the beginning of 1930, very few French films had been produced and screened with sound; and these were produced not in Paris, but as multilingual (p.222) versions in London or Berlin. The majority of talkies were American. Some producers, such as MGM’s Louis B. Mayer, hoped that everybody would understand English.2 Journalists feared that the spread of films would promote an English-speaking world. Lucie Derain, a famous film critic of the 1930s, explained in the biggest French trade paper La Cinématographie française that she liked The Broadway Melody (Harry Beaumont, 1929), one of the first 100 per cent talking pictures shown in France. Derain was moved by the film, which was presented in its original English version, and could follow it, even if she stressed that she did not speak the language. At the end of her article she expressed the fear that ‘in six months from now, English will be known in the entire world thanks to this universal propaganda … medium that film is’.3 However, filmgoers were not ready to accept English as a universal language. According to American and French trade magazines, riots seem to have occurred in several movie theatres presenting films in English during that period.4 When ‘Enough with English’ was shouted in a film theatre in Paris in 1929, the police had to calm down angry spectators.5 Fox Movietone Follies of 1929 (David Butler, 1929) was booed when shown at the Moulin Rouge music hall, which was turned into a film theatre for a few months at that time.6 An article in La Cinématographie française specifies that, at the end of 1930, hostile reactions were still seen in France against foreign-language films.7 Film critic Marcel Carné considered that it was impossible to read subtitles and watch the actors at the same time, and he deplored the growing number of subtitles.8 Many people were not able to understand a word of English, and protested against the projection of foreign-language films.

At first very confident that it would go on exporting films in English, the Hollywood industry began to fret that its films could be rejected for (p.223) language-related reasons, and looked for solutions. Adolf Zukor, head of Paramount, declared in June 1930 that ‘Europe doesn’t want English talkers with superimposed linguistic translations’.9 Subtitled original versions seemed to have been rejected because people were not used to hearing English in film theatres (or on the street, for that matter). It is also important to remember that, at the time, many people had reading problems, especially in economically disadvantaged families. Subtitles appeared on screen at a faster speed than the intertitles of silent films, which might put off viewers with literacy problems. As a consequence of these negative reactions two solutions were tested simultaneously: multiple versions and dubbed films. It is intriguing to look at the first French-dubbed films and the reception in the press.

Solutions to export talkies

Trade papers reported rumours that the European markets might be abandoned in the future, but of course box-office money from Europe was too important to be overlooked. Hollywood companies managed to keep exporting to Europe.10 One solution was the production of multilingual films in the USA, in France (Paramount), and in Germany (Universal). Around 30 multilingual films were produced in French in Hollywood and dozens (shorts and feature films) in Paramount’s Paris studios.11 Films were shot in different languages, with actors from different countries, using the original English version, which had usually been made in Hollywood, as a model, and reproducing it shot for shot. A total of 300 films were made in the French Paramount studios, most of them in languages other than French (German, Italian, Romanian, Spanish, Polish, Hungarian, Swedish, Czech, Dutch, Danish, and possibly Japanese).12 In 1931 production focused only on German, Spanish, and French. In 1932 only two of the 24 French-language films released were also filmed in another language. In April 1932, Paramount decided to produce only French-language films. Paramount production in Paris stopped in 1933.13 The idea of producing 100 per cent French talkies in Paramount’s Joinville–Saint-Maurice studios received great publicity in the French trade press and other media, such as the luxury magazine L’Illustration. To avoid imposing imported English-language films on the audience, another solution (p.224) was dubbing, which is still widely used in France today.14 Both methods were tried at the same time.15 Here, I consider the Paramount multiple-language output before examining the dubbed versions.

For the Hollywood studio executives the important thing was to break into film markets abroad by making films in local languages. Paramount is reported to have paid $10 million for the film complex of Joinville–Saint-Maurice (built on the boundary between two suburban towns, Joinville and Saint-Maurice), 26 kilometres south-east of Paris, which it turned into six sound studios.16 Paramount’s vice-president Jesse L. Lasky reassured the film industry: ‘You can readily see that the so-called Americanization of the world’s screen will no longer be true. Instead, we will … serve each country with talking films in its native tongue and by its own actors.’17 This quotation suggests that the ‘Americanization of the world’s screen’ was indeed considered by the Hollywood studios to be a reality. The importance of the films produced by Paramount with French actors such as Saint-Granier, Noël-Noël, Raimu, Louis Jouvet (whose first film was Topaze, a ‘100 per cent French Paramount production’, not a multilingual film), and Edwige Feuillère is not yet well understood. With their abundant dialogue, they may have had an impact on the French audience’s taste for comedies. Many of the actors under Paramount contracts in Paris were comics coming from music halls and light-comedy theatres (théâtres de boulevard). They were famous on stage and became vedettes (stars) on screen, influencing the taste of the French audience. Paramount product allowed French spectators to develop a preference for films made in France rather than in America.

The talkies saved the French film industry after the stiff competition from American and German films in the 1920s. After 1930, the demand for French talkies helped the industry to produce more films than in any one year in the previous decade.18 A recent study provides evidence that, during the 1930s, French films dominated screens in France.19 The number of spectators was higher for local films, and the most popular actors were always French during that period. One could argue that it was ultimately unproductive for (p.225) Hollywood studios to produce films in French, because it fostered the French audience’s preference for their local vedettes.20

However, while a number of French actors became famous thanks to the Saint-Maurice Studios, the dubbing into French of Paramount productions such as Morocco and Shanghai Express (both Josef von Sternberg, 1930 and 1932 respectively) helped Marlene Dietrich become one of the biggest stars in France. A 1933 article in Cinémonde explained how deeply fascinated by the German actress French légionnaires were.21

Only a few films were dubbed before 1933, partly because of the limitations of the technology before that date.22 I now look at some of these early Paramount dubbed versions, and at the reception by journalists and readers of popular and highbrow film magazines. It seems that studio executives wanted to impose a high standard in the films they dubbed in French not through dubbing itself, which was initially of poor quality, but through the selection of films. Responses differed. Popular fan magazines acclaimed stars such as George Bancroft in Derelict (Rowland V. Lee, 1930), although Désemparé, its 1931 French-dubbed version, was poorly received. Intellectual film journals praised filmmakers such as Von Sternberg or Ernst Lubitsch, particularly with the latter’s The Man I Killed (1932), even when shown in its French version, L’Homme que j’ai tué.

The first two Paramount productions to be dubbed in French were Derelict and Morocco, then known in French as Coeurs brûlés (Burned Hearts). Both were films of adventure and romance. Both had big stars: Bancroft in Derelict, Marlene Dietrich and Gary Cooper in Morocco. The dubbed French versions were, however, received rather differently.

A voice-matching problem: Bancroft’s ventriloquist’s voice

It is difficult to find accurate information on the way the audience reacted to dubbed versions in France, except when letters from readers were published in magazines. However, reviews and critics’ opinions do exist. The majority of articles I have found say nothing about the sound quality or the language used. Many times we do not even know if the critic in question saw the original version or the dubbed one. Although it may seem strange to us today that articles from the period had nothing to say about the language used in films, one must remember that the talking era was only just beginning. This may be (p.226) because, according to the type of magazine (popular or highbrow), journalists assumed their readers knew the films they reviewed were either in French or in their original language. For instance, when reviewing Désemparé in Cinémagazine,23 critic and future filmmaker Marcel Carné wrote for cinéphiles and was implicitly talking about the original English-language version. On the other hand, popular fan magazines such as Ciné-Miroir or Mon ciné were mostly responding to dubbed versions.

Derelict is one of the first films released in France in a dubbed version, under the title of Désemparé. The only enthusiastic review of this version was published in April 1931 in Pour vous, a fan magazine: ‘Désemparé speaks French … with a synchronisation formula that is, of course, amazing.’24 But this magazine also expressed the fear of unfair competition with the French film industry because of mass export of American dubbed versions to France.25 Six months later, in September 1931, Pour vous had to admit, ‘Bancroft’s voice synchronisation was not excellent.’26 It is possible that the April article on the film was referring only to the overall synchronisation of sound (especially sound effects), and not to the French dialogue.

The very popular film magazine Mon ciné, generally favourable to American films, was disturbed by the way Bancroft spoke through his dubbed voice. The reviewer considered that the film was technically good: special effects for the storm worked well, the photography was fine. This favourable short review did not comment upon the voices, but mentioned that the film was parlé français (speaking French).27 However Mon ciné’s editor-in-chief had a different view on the dubbed voices:

Alas, what is called synchronism is not enough for me … It did work in some cases, but these were exceptions. The problem is not only the voice. When an artist speaks in a fake way it is shocking. But when he is given the organ of a stranger who speaks unnaturally, while the actor on screen has always produced a well-judged performance, then it is much harder to accept.28

Here Lucien Wahl expresses how uncanny the gap between body and voice was, and considers that dubbing film should be reserved for parody. Wahl was (p.227) probably sensitive to ‘character synchrony’,29 a concept from translation theory which states that the physical figure of the actor does not necessarily match the dubbed voice. Because Wahl expected a certain type of voice, he was disappointed. A month later, Mon ciné insisted on the fact that, although Bancroft was a very powerful actor, ‘his voice, which really wasn’t his, clashed with his figure’.30

Ciné-Miroir, another popular magazine, came to the same conclusion:

Why was Bancroft not as successful with his admirers in his latest film, Désemparé? Because Bancroft’s French voice sounded a wrong note, instead of helping to understand the story. It didn’t match with the physical figure of the actor at all. … One expected a loud, powerful and quiet voice, with muffled growling, but one only heard a tinny voice coming out of this ample body.31

Rémy Garrigues, editor-in-chief of Ciné-Miroir, added that the dubbed dialogue was mainly heard when the actor had his back to the camera, as a way to avoid problems in lip synchronisation. But he maintained that it was a bad idea to replace a human being with the help of an ‘industrial technique’.32 This article does not specify whether back-to-the-camera shots were filmed during shooting or if this was a specially edited version for the dubbing process, with shots where the mouth was visible edited out. Further research is needed to find out how such versions were transformed. Also, the assimilation of dubbing with an artificial and technical process that prevents the actors’ own way of expressing themselves from being conveyed to the audience is a recurring topic in reviews.

In Cinémonde, an expensive magazine with a mix of popular and artistic views on films, Cecil Jorgefelice doubted that Bancroft and the other actors in Désemparé spoke in English with the theatrical tone that their French doublures (voice stand-ins) had: ‘It is not impossible to speak naturally in (p.228) front of a microphone.’33 The problem of stage actors dubbing screen actors was recurrently commented upon in the first years of dubbing. In La Revue du cinéma, a magazine targeting a much more intellectual audience, Louis Chavance came to the same conclusion: ‘Bancroft has a falsetto voice … All the films dubbed to this day are absolutely unworthy of being released, being so ludicrously out of all proportion with the original films.’34 However, Chavance hoped the system would be improved in the future.

Le Trafiquant Horn, the dubbed version of W. S. Van Dyke’s Trader Horn (1931), released in September 1931 in France, was thought to be even worse than Désemparé. It was one of the first feature films with footage shot in Africa. The dubbing was directed by French filmmaker Claude Autant-Lara at the MGM studios in California. Autant-Lara had been working on multiple versions in Culver City. In his memoirs, he describes how the studio executives were keeping a close check on what he was doing and cut any form of personal input he added to the films. When MGM tried to shift from multiple versions to dubbing, Autant-Lara was supposed to direct actors, who were chosen for their voices and their ability to speak French but, as it happened, they were not trained actors. One was even an ex-coachman.35 Trader Horn was chosen for dubbing because it had little dialogue. According to the American trade press the dubbed version was a success.36 But for many French critics it was a disaster. La Revue du cinéma described it as ‘a hilarious dubbing’:

What kills the film and stops us from enjoying its most enjoyable moments, is the dubbing. We are lost for words to describe the people responsible for the shameful diction of an utterly stupid translation. … One conversation reached the height of the grotesque. It was like hearing people who haven’t seen the film and are reading a text they don’t understand … Let the case of Trader Horn remain a serious warning of what not to do.37

A few months after the introduction of the new technique, dubbed films were not improving in quality as might have been expected. And critics were (p.229) sometimes very hostile to the process. Different systems were used, experiments were made, and the results were very different from one film to another.38 In films other than Trader Horn the amateurism of the dubbing teams was still a problem. For example, Henri de la Falaise de la Coudraye, a French aristocrat and ex-husband of Gloria Swanson, directed several dubbings for MGM, although he was never trained as a film director.39 The dramatisation and direction of these early experiments in dubbing were reportedly poor as viewers were expecting to hear a voice that matched the body on the screen.40

The critics’ negative reactions were prompted both by the theatrical performances of the voice actors and by technical problems. Some critics referred to problems with the reverberation of sound. The technique of dubbing was not yet accurate enough to produce the same aural impression as the original films. Like dramatisation, sound accuracy is a quality standard required in dubbing.41 The sound sometimes had a metallic resonance, which gave ventriloquist-like voices to the dubbing actors. However, some films were better received. Dance, Fools, Dance (Harry Beaumont, 1931), the second film dubbed by Autant-Lara, titled in French La Pente (Downhill), was a real success because much more time was put into making the dubbed version. The American actors shot each scene twice: first in English, then mouthing the French lines, while French-speaking actors simultaneously recorded the words off screen.42 The French trade press was enthusiastic about this method. Yet one film was even more acclaimed for its dubbing: Josef von Sternberg’s Morocco (1930).

Morocco: one of the first well-dubbed versions

When Morocco was released as the French-dubbed Coeurs brûlés, it was much more acclaimed by the press than it had been in its original English version. In the nationalist and conservative weekly magazine Gringoire, Georges Champeaux ended his review of the film with this comparison: ‘I would likely protest against the dubbing. But we are far from Désemparé. Most of the time the illusion is perfect.’43 In Mon ciné, which had been so harsh about (p.230) Désemparé, Raymond Villette was convinced by Coeurs brûlés: ‘The dubbing of the voices was very wisely done, and it is difficult to realise that the characters we watch don’t actually speak the language.’44 Villette praised the work done by the dubbing director, and made it clear that Marlene Dietrich sang in French in both versions and was not dubbed. He used the word ‘doubling’ instead of ‘dubbing’: until 1932–3, there was no set translation for this new term in French, and Villette borrowed an American term.45 The south-western weekly magazine Bordeaux-Ciné was of the same opinion (‘The work is very well made’),46 while Pour vous insisted that it is impossible to hear the difference between Marlene’s real voice when she sings in French, and the French dubbing actress in the spoken dialogue (who was probably Henriette Marion);47 the result was considered close to perfection.48

The Pour vous article is an early case where it is argued that only snobs preferred original-language versions, although they did not understand a word of the language they heard, while ordinary people would go for dubbed versions because they were much easier to understand. This division between city-centre cinemas, where original versions were aimed at educated audiences, and the film theatres in suburban and working-class neighbourhoods, provincial cities, and towns, showing dubbed versions for less affluent, less educated people, was already emerging. This situation prevails in France: at the time of writing in 2017 original versions are to be found only in cinemas located in the centre of big cities; French-dubbed versions dominate in suburban areas and towns.49

In La Revue du cinéma, an intellectual film magazine associated with the Surrealist group, Jean George Auriol wrote a very good review of the French version of Morocco, adding in a note:

The dubbed Coeurs brûlés is a slightly cut version of Morocco, post-synchronised in French. This delicate operation is now much better achieved (watch for Dishonored), and the strangeness of the voices is nothing to be complained of; they are smoothly fused with the characters’ temperament, and the dialogue is (p.231) clear and correctly adapted. This review was written after watching the French version.50

All of the French film press — popular and highbrow magazines, fan magazines, and trade papers alike — was delighted with this dubbed version. In its issue of 10 September 1931, Pour vous summed up the various opinions; in the conservative daily Le Petit Journal, René Jeanne declared it was the best ‘sonorisation’ (i.e. post-synchronisation) he had ever heard. Charles Jouet, in the socialist daily Le Populaire, shared this opinion (of the film, I hasten to add, not of broader political matters) adding that the French voices perfectly matched the figures and characters of the actors. Today it is difficult to express any form of opinion about the acclaimed French version of Morocco because we do not know whether it is still extant, perhaps preserved in a film archive, but not yet accessible. This specific version highlights the importance of the need for accurate cataloguing data in film archives.

Evolution of critical opinion from 1931 to 1933

The positive reception of Coeurs brûlés was not often repeated. Throughout 1931, many critics inveighed against dubbing. Periodically there were major articles on this question. An article in the regional trade magazine Bordeaux-Ciné claimed dubbing was ‘suppressing artistic creation’,51 quoting Ciné-Journal which considered it was ‘poison’ for the French film industry. This kind of violent reaction was more frequently found in the ‘opinion column’ than in the actual reviews.

By the end of 1931, it seems that journalists became aware that high-quality dubbing was possible. Actors were still sceptical. An actors’ union, L’Union des artistes, fought against dubbing,52 fearing competition from American actors with French-dubbed voices. But their call for a boycott was never applied and quickly forgotten after a few months.

The general opinion of readers of film magazines still seemed hostile to dubbed versions. In July 1931, Cinémagazine published four letters from (p.232) readers, all of them firmly against the dubbing method.53 Their words were forceful: dishonest, crooked, outrageous, shameful.54 In March 1932 in the much more popular magazine, Mon ciné, readers criticised the talkies, whether dubbed or not, and nostalgically recalled silent movies,55 fully three years after talking cinema arrived in France. But the four letters in Cinémagazine and the ten letters in Mon ciné cannot have reflected the opinion of the majority of the audience. Talkies remained very popular during this period, with an increase in attendance compared to the end of the 1920s.

The idea of choosing dubbing actors whose voices would perfectly match those of the screen was systematically adopted from 1932. The trade press explained it clearly, for example in an interview with Roger Goupillières, a French filmmaker in charge of the dubbing of Fritz Lang’s M (1931). The most important aspect was the tone of the voice actors, which had to match the idea the audience had of the characters.56 Even a popular fan magazine such as Ciné-Miroir gave precise details on the sound technique in a January 1932 article: a sound engineer described the process of recording, mixing, and dubbing films. Although the name of the company was not mentioned, the ‘masters of sound’, as the article says, talked about Marlene Dietrich’s French voice.57 The studio visited for this article was probably the Paramount sound department in Joinville. These were long reports, not opinion columns.

Many articles purported to provide technical explanations; the reality is that most journalists simply gave their personal opinion about dubbing. For example, Bordeaux-Ciné’s editor-in-chief, Marcel Lapierre, wrote a series of hostile articles in January 1932. For him, in spite of improvements, dubbing was still worthless.58 Two months later he still insisted that dubbing was devoid of interest.59 In September 1932, Lapierre quoted an article by Jean Pascal, giving his point of view in his Agence d’information cinégraphique, a film industry newsletter. According to Pascal, film theatres showing original versions attracted more people in Paris than the cinemas showing French versions. But outside Paris, very few original versions were screened.60 Both Pascal and Lapierre hoped that ciné-clubs (film societies) would explain to the audience why original versions were better — an argument still in use today in France. In February 1933, Bordeaux-Ciné was still promoting arguments (p.233) against dubbed films.61 These were quick and sharp opinion columns, sometimes provocatively phrased to attract the interest of the readers. For example, in January 1932, Ciné-Miroir’s opinion column (‘Notre opinion’) stated that dubbed films were ‘film substitutes’: ‘From the artistic point of view, dubbing is a heresy.’62 Its writer concluded by hoping it would not become widespread.

However, reviews reveal a different situation than ‘opinion’ columns. This sort of paradox occurs in many magazines. In a March 1932 issue of Ciné-Journal, a journalist warned against the unfair competition from American dubbed films towards French films.63 A few months later, in the same magazine, an article about John Cromwell’s Rich Man’s Folly (1931) concluded: ‘We hope this film will be dubbed so that it can be shown in any theatre.’64 And in 1933, the French-dubbed version of Blonde Venus (Joseph von Sternberg, 1932) was considered ‘wonderful’.65

Sometimes, interviews and technical articles gave mixed impression of the process. In August 1932, Pour vous offered an interesting first-hand account by an unnamed French actress dubbing films in Berlin.66 She explained that a French version could be done in only three days! She asked for ‘extenuating circumstances’, because the also unnamed German film she dubbed was poorly reviewed. Such accounts did not encourage readers to favour dubbing. However, the Paramount studios in Paris were reported to produce dubbed versions much more diligently. In November 1932, José Germain in Cinémagazine described, without mentioning the title of the film, how an entire audience laughed out loud in front of a drama whose dubbed version was full of mistranslations, sheer nonsense, and problems with synchronicity. The film was booed at the end. The journalist considered dubbed films were acceptable only because of the shortage of good production in France, and stressed that the choice of voices and the technical quality of the dubbing were essential.67

The veteran critic Lucien Wahl wrote in Pour vous in May 1933: ‘Exceptionally … dubbing can be acceptable.’68 He insisted that the dialogue had to be in the language of the country where the action took place, even if the studio had to dub the actors in the corresponding language. Throughout (p.234) 1933 more technical explanations about dubbing could be found in film magazines. A long interview published in Cinémonde later that year helped explain how songs (and music) in a musical film were dubbed.69 In the same magazine, an article mentioned the names of the actors and actresses dubbing famous stars: Henriette Marion, Marlene Dietrich’s French voice, and Claude Marcy, who used to dub Greta Garbo and young actors such as Jackie Coogan.70 This article reveals that two voice actors were used for the French version of Rouben Mamoulian’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1932). Fredric March was dubbed by Henry Valbel as Mister Hyde, while Valbel’s son, Marc, lent his voice to Dr Jekyll. This was a very interesting solution on the part of the French distributor to highlight the difference between two characters within the same body. For once, dubbing was justified for artistic reasons. This shows how the direction of dubbing could be improved. New jobs were emerging in this field. Some studios became specialised in this post-production process, and some people became voice directors giving indications to actors trained for dubbing.

The voice, a key element of believable dubbing

Other films dubbed later in Paramount studios in Joinville did not receive special comment on the language they used in the film magazines consulted. Reviews dealt much more often with the original versions. During the 1930s, seeing a film in its original version became a sign of social distinction, showing artistic appreciation of the cinema. When attention was given to voices, French journalists implicitly referred to the screen actors’ own voices in their articles. They loved Marlene Dietrich’s ‘husky voice’. Articles used this kind of qualification in Cinémonde, Ciné-Miroir, and many others.71 One critic, disappointed with Shanghai Express, explained: ‘At least, this film is not dubbed … And at least Marlene Dietrich’s admirers can hear her real voice.’72

The beginning of the 1930s is the period when characterisation of actors was also expressed through the voice. Studies show how translation through (p.235) dubbing can deconstruct and reconstruct the characters in films.73 The voice became a fundamental element of the performance and the recognition of actors and actresses by the audience. It may be that some stars were able to stay at the peak of Hollywood fame for years because they had a very special voice. Vocal eroticism was highly emphasised with actresses such as Dietrich and Garbo because of their throaty tone. Greta Garbo’s first talking film, Anna Christie (Clarence Brown, 1930), was famously marketed with the fact the audience could hear the famous actress speak for the first time ever: ‘Garbo Talks!’ Her silent films could let the public attribute any kind of voice to her. Publicity agents fostered anticipation, inciting viewers to rediscover an actress after four years of silent films in Hollywood. However, the first word Garbo uttered in Anna Christie (‘Whisky!’) surprised the audience because of the depth and sensuality of her voice. Anna Christie falls into the category of multilingual films. Jacques Feyder directed the German version on the same set at the same time. In this version, Garbo speaks German with the same deep voice, which made German audiences discover her special tone.

Male actors could also have a deep impact using their voice as a seductive instrument. Similar sensuality can be found in Gary Cooper’s warm tone, for instance in Morocco. Like Garbo, Cooper was afraid his voice would end his career after the transition to sound. He had made more than 30 silent films, including 14 as the lead actor, when he appeared in his first talkie in 1929, The Virginian (Victor Fleming, 1929). Yet his voice became an extra feature of his charm.

Seduction through the specific voice of an actor explains the rejection of French versions by many film lovers. The attraction for very deep voices in actresses can be associated with sex. Some studies explain the importance of the voice in the dark, and its direct action on the mind of the listener.74 Such basic emotions can be reactivated in movie theatres. This could explain the strong opposition to French versions in relation to the fascination for actresses’ voices. Emotions linked to voices were too strong (unconsciously) to accept that another actress’s voice could replace the star’s. More attention was given to the voices chosen for dubbing. The choice of the actors dubbing famous American stars became more and more specific. The voices had to match the bodies. Thus, the quality of dubbing improved quickly during the period surveyed in this study.

Sometimes the dubbing was done several times, but this was unusual. One example is a Lubitsch film. There were two dubbed versions of Lubitsch’s The (p.236) Man I Killed (also called Broken Lullaby, 1932), under the same title of L’Homme que j’ai tué. However, neither Marcel Carné in Cinémagazine, nor Ciné-Journal, Les Grands Films (a magazine similar to Ciné-Roman, each issue describing an entire film), or Cinémonde (with four articles in this magazine alone!) commented upon these dubbed versions.75 In the last of the four articles Cinémonde published on L’Homme que j’ai tué, film critic Julien Sorel mentioned that the film was back in a new exclusive release in Paris, but failed to explain why. He was probably referring to the new French-dubbed version.

In August 1933, Cinémonde reiterated its views that original versions were aimed at the ‘exclusivity film theatres’ — the biggest cinemas in the centre of Paris which showed films prior to all other theatres — and that dubbed versions were for the poor neighbourhoods, or the ‘provinces’.76 The writer argued that some films should not be dubbed (Laurel and Hardy’s, for instance), but seemed to accept the distribution of versions according to the category of the cinema. The specific case of Laurel and Hardy shows how the history of dubbing includes all types of film. Because the two famous slapstick actors spoke (or merely tried to speak) in different languages in the multiple versions produced by Hal Roach between 1929 and 1931, audiences were used to their comic accent (in French, Spanish, Italian, and German).77 On the set, the duet read foreign-language dialogue on signs off camera. Their Spanish or French was poor, to say the least. Actors dubbing Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy in France and other countries reproduced the American accent they had when speaking foreign languages. Viewers of the French versions of their films were exposed to this accent from 1930 to 1951, when they appeared in their last film, and since then with the repeated broadcast of their films on television. The bodies of the two actors were intrinsically associated with accented voices. When a Hanna-Barbera cartoon series (Laurel and Hardy, produced in 1966–7) was shown on French television in the 1970s, that same accent was used in the French version. Here we can see how French-dubbed voices can create nostalgia. Reviewers sometimes longed for the French version to reactivate childhood memories.78 Although many logical reasons (p.237) are given for and against dubbing, it seems the unconscious feelings of the audience have taken precedence over constructed reasoning since 1929 in France.

The French situation has not changed much since then. Today French versions of theatrically released foreign films are usually considered of good quality. Subtitled original versions (‘VO’) and dubbed versions (‘VF’) can still be found in various kinds of neighbourhood, according to the type of film theatre. In 2016, art houses were mostly located in the centre of the big cities, and screened only original versions. One study found that 95 per cent of the multiplexes showing subtitled films were located in the centre of the major French cities.79 They attracted educated people who could read subtitles quickly and had a good grasp of foreign languages, especially English. By contrast, cinemas attracting the mainstream audience, generally huge multiplexes, were built in the suburban periphery of major cities. These theatres had family audiences, youngsters from working-class families, and people who had dropped out of the education system, with poor skills in foreign languages. They preferred French-dubbed versions because they were used to them through watching television. It has also been said that elderly people have difficulty reading subtitles and prefer dubbed versions.80 The arguments in the press (trade papers, cinéphile and fan magazines) remain the same as in 1931.

Note. I am grateful to Valérie Legrain-Doussau, Paul Berry, Christophe Gauthier, and Armelle Bourdoulous for their assistance in researching this chapter.


(1) See Martin Barnier, En route vers le parlant : histoire d’une évolution technologique, économique et esthétique du cinéma (1926–1934) (Liège, Céfal, 2002), pp. 73–6; Marcel Pagnol, Confidences (Paris, Julliard, 1981), pp. 199–201.

(2) See, for example, Frederic Chaume, Audiovisual Translation: Dubbing (Manchester, St Jerome, 2012).

(3) Lucie Derain, ‘M. G. M. a présenté “The Broadway Melody” film entièrement parlant’, La Cinématographie française, 550 (18 May 1929), 9 (‘Et j’ai bien peur que d’ici six mois l’anglais ne soit connu dans le monde entier par ce moyen de propagande … universelle qu’est le cinéma’).

(4) See ‘France’s Anti-US Spasm: Feeling Flames in Paris Again’, Variety (6 November 1929), 5; Charles Le Fraper, ‘L’Amérique et le film français’, Le Courrier cinématographique, 12–13 (30 March 1931), 9. For riots in other countries, see Variety (26 February 1930 and 28 May 1930).

(5) See Ginette Vincendeau, ‘Les Films en versions multiples : un échec édifiant’, in Christian Belaygue (ed.), Le Passage du muet au parlant (Toulouse, Cinémathèque de Toulouse/Éditions Milan, 1988), pp. 29–35; G. Vincendeau, ‘Les Films à version multiple au début du parlant’, in Jacques Aumont, André Gaudreault, and Michel Marie (eds), Histoire du cinéma : nouvelles approches (Paris/Cerisy, Publications de la Sorbonne/Colloque de Cerisy, 1989), pp. 101–17.

(6) Roger Icart, La Révolution du parlant vue par la presse française (Perpignan, Institut Jean Vigo, 1988), p. 109.

(7) Raymond Berner, ‘La Tâche du directeur se complique : les réactions du public devant l’écran parlant’, La Cinématographie française, 619 (13 September 1930), 15.

(8) Marcel Carné, ‘De l’internationalité du parlant’, Cinémagazine, 48 (29 November 1929), 335.

(9) ‘Hollywood vs Europe’, Variety (4 June 1930), 68.

(11) See Martin Barnier, Des films français made in Hollywood : les versions multiples (1929–1935) (Paris, L’Harmattan, 2004).

(12) Harry Waldman, Paramount in Paris: 300 Films Produced at the Joinville Studios, 1930–1933, with Credits and Biographies (Lanham, MD, Scarecrow Press, 1998).

(14) There were other solutions including the use of ‘cut-in’ titles added between scenes, the ‘sound version’ where dialogue was suppressed but songs and sound effects remained, films with little dialogue and a lot of action, and films where other languages were mouthed by the actors, then dubbed. See Martin Barnier, En route vers le parlant.

(15) See Jean-François Cornu, Le Doublage et le sous-titrage : histoire et esthétique (Rennes, Presses universitaires de Rennes, 2014), pp. 29–30.

(17) Jesse L. Lasky, quoted in Waldman, Paramount in Paris, p. ix.

(18) Jacques Choukroun, Comment le parlant a sauvé le cinéma français : une histoire économique 1928–1939 (Paris, Éditions MSH/AFRHC, 2008).

(19) Marylin Marignan, ‘Évolution de la fréquentation des théâtres et des cinémas à Lyon (1929–1939)’, Ph.D. dissertation (Université Lumière Lyon 2, 2014).

(20) On popular French stars, see Myriam Juan, ‘Aurons-nous un jour des stars ? Une histoire culturelle du vedettariat en France (1919–1939)’, Ph.D. dissertation (Université Paris 1, 2014).

(21) Dany Gérard, ‘Marlène, Vénus des Légionnaires’, Cinémonde, 230 (16 March 1933), 214–15.

(23) Marcel Carné, ‘Désemparé’, Cinémagazine, 5 (May 1931), 64.

(24) René Bizet, ‘Désemparé’, Pour vous, 127 (23 April 1931), 9 (‘Désemparé parle français … avec une formule de synchronisation qui est, bien sûr, extraordinaire.’).

(25) L.M., ‘Il faut mettre au point la question du dubbing’, Pour vous, 129 (7 May1931), 2.

(26) J.M., ‘Une importante question : le doublage’, Pour vous, 146 (3 September 1931), 2 (‘Au surplus, la synchronisation de la voix de Bancroft n’était pas excellente.’).

(27) Raymond Villette, ‘La Revue des films’, Mon ciné, 488 (25 June 1931), 5.

(28) Lucien Wahl, ‘Voix’, Mon ciné, 486 (11 June 1931), 4 (‘Hélas ! Ce qu’on appelle le synchronisme ne me suffit pas … Des exemples ont pu réussir, mais par exception. Et puis la voix n’est pas seule en cause. Qu’un artiste parle faux, c’est déjà choquant, mais qu’il emprunte l’organe d’un étranger qui, lui, s’exprime sans naturel alors que l’acteur qui paraît sur l’écran a toujours prouvé la justesse de ses conceptions comédiennes, c’est beaucoup moins admissible.’).

(29) See Istvan Fodor, Film Dubbing: Phonetic, Semiotic, Esthetic and Psychological Aspects (Hamburg, Buske, 1976); Frederic Chaume Varela, Cine y traducción (Madrid, Cátedra, 2004); F. Bartrina and E. Espasa, ‘Audiovisual Translation’, in M. Tennent (ed.), Training for the New Millennium: Pedagogies for Translation and Interpreting (Philadelphia, PA, John Benjamins, 2005), pp. 83–100.

(30) Pierre Desclaux, ‘Est-il possible de réaliser des films internationaux parlants ?’, Mon ciné, 491 (16 July 1931), 9–11 (‘sa voix, qui n’était pas la sienne, jurait avec son physique’).

(31) Rémy Garrigues, ‘Les Mystères de la synchronisation’, Ciné-Miroir, 318 (8 May 1931), 299 (‘Pourquoi donc dans son dernier film Désemparé ne remporta-t-il [Bancroft] pas le même succès auprès de ses admirateurs ? Parce que Bancroft s’était mis à parler en français et que cette voix, au lieu d’ajouter quelque chose à la compréhension de l’action, y jetait comme une fausse note. C’est qu’en effet cette voix ne correspondait pas du tout au physique de l’acteur. … On s’attendait à ce que Bancroft eût une voix forte, puissante, tranquille, avec des grondements sourds et l’on entendait une petite voix frêle sortir de ce vaste corps.’).

(33) Cecil Jorgefelice, Cinémonde, no date, quoted in Icart, La Révolution du parlant vue par la presse française, p. 119 (‘Il n’est pas impossible de parler naturellement devant un microphone.’).

(34) Louis Chavance, ‘Le Dubbing’, La Revue du cinéma, 26 (1 September 1931) (‘Bancroft a une voix de fausset … Tous les films sortis à cette date sous l’étiquette du dubbing sont absolument indignes de voir le jour, ridiculement disproportionnés avec leur original.’).

(35) Claude Autant-Lara, Hollywood Cake-walk (1930–1932) (Paris, Henri Veyrier, 1985) pp. 350–62.

(37) Jean Lévy, ‘Trader Horn’, La Revue du cinéma, 27 (1 October 1931), 49–51 (‘un dubbing inénarrable’; ‘Ce qui tue le film, nous empêche de profiter de ses plus beaux instants, c’est le dubbing. Quels mots trouver pour qualifier les responsables de la diction infâme d’une traduction littéralement imbécile ? … [il y a une] conversation qui atteint le comble du grotesque … . On croit entendre des gens qui n’ont jamais vu le film et lisent un texte qu’ils ne comprennent pas … Que le cas Horn reste un sérieux avertissement de ce qu’il ne faut pas faire.’).

(38) See the descriptions given by Cornu in Le Doublage et le sous-titrage, pp. 91–133.

(39) See Jean-François Cornu, ‘Hollywood en français : de quelques pionniers des versions doublées aux États-Unis de 1930 à 1932’, in Christian Viviani (ed.), Hollywood : les connexions françaises (Paris, Nouveau Monde éditions, 2007), pp. 53–63 at 55.

(40) Candace Whitman-Linsen, Through the Dubbing Glass: Synchronization of American Motion Pictures into German, French and Spanish (Peter Lang, 1992).

(43) Georges Champeaux, ‘Coeurs brûlés’, Gringoire (c.September 1931): the press clipping I had access to from an archive file at the Institut Lumière gives no date (‘Je protesterais bien contre le doublage. Mais nous sommes loin de Désemparé. La plupart du temps l’illusion est parfaite.’).

(44) Raymond Villette, ‘La Revue des films’, Mon ciné, 506 (29 October 1931), 5 (‘Le doublage des voix a été très judicieusement réalisé et il est difficile de s’apercevoir que ce ne sont pas les personnages que nous voyons qui parlent eux-mêmes.’).

(46) ‘Coeurs brûlés’, Bordeaux-Ciné, 161 (30 October 1931), 3 (‘Ce travail excessivement bien fait.’).

(47) Benjamin Fainsilber, ‘Visages sans voix : voix sans visage’, Cinémonde, 248 (20 July 1933), 602.

(48) J. M., ‘Une importante question : le doublage’, Pour vous, 146 (3 September 1931), 2.

(49) Hendy Bicaise, ‘La VO au ciné : un truc de Parisiens ? De riches ? De snobs ?’, Vodkaster website (19 February 2016): http://www.vodkaster.com/actu-cine/la-v-o-v-f-cine-un-truc-de-parisiens-de-riches-de-snobs/1275889, accessed 21 January 2017.

(50) Jean George Auriol, ‘La Revue des films’, La Revue du cinéma, 27 (1 October 1931) (‘Coeurs brûlés, dubbés est une version de Morocco, légèrement coupée et synchronisée après coup en langue française. On réussit mieux maintenant cette délicate opération (vous verrez Dishonored), mais il n’y a pas lieu de se plaindre du caractère étranger des voix ; elles se fondent facilement avec le caractère des personnages et le dialogue est net et proprement adapté. La critique ci-dessus a été faite d’après cette version française.’).

(51) Spectator, ‘Le Dubbing’, Bordeaux-Ciné, 140 (5 June1931), 10.

(52) See, for example, ‘L’Union des artistes proteste contre le dubbing’, Bordeaux-Ciné, 137 (15 May 1931), 5.

(53) ‘Nos lecteurs nous écrivent’, Cinémagazine, 7 (July 1931), 53.

(54) From a letter from P. Le Prince in ‘Nos lecteurs nous écrivent’, Cinémagazine, 7 (July 1931), 53.

(55) ‘L’Opinion de nos lecteurs sur le film parlant’, Mon ciné, 52 (24 March 1932), 8–9.

(56) Louis Saurel, ‘Le Dubbing s’améliore’, Mon ciné, 543 (14 July 1932), 11–14.

(57) Claude Doré, ‘Au studio : les maîtres du son’, Ciné-Miroir, 352 (1 January 1932), 6.

(58) Marcel Lapierre, ‘On reparle du dubbing’, Bordeaux-Ciné, 171 (8 January 1932), 2.

(59) Marcel Lapierre, ‘Contingentement et dubbing’, Bordeaux-Ciné, 179 (4 March 1932), 2.

(60) Marcel Lapierre, ‘La Querelle du dubbing’, Bordeaux-Ciné, 204 (2 September 1932), 2.

(61) ‘Quelques raisons contre le dubbing’, Bordeaux-Ciné, 226 (3 February 1933), 2.

(62) René Manery, ‘Notre opinion’, Ciné-Miroir, 355 (22 January 1932), 51.

(63) L. D., ‘La Question du doublage et le contingentement’, Ciné-Journal, 1175 (25 March 1932), 3.

(64) ‘La Folie des hommes’, Ciné-Journal, 1181 (25 June 1932), 10 (‘Nous espérons que ce film sera doublé afin qu’il soit montré dans toutes les salles.’).

(65) ‘Au Français-Paramount’, Bordeaux-Ciné, 231 (10 March 1933), 3.

(66) P. F., ‘Pourquoi les films sont mal doublés : la tâche ingrate de l’acteur’, Pour vous, 196 (18 August 1932), 2.

(67) José Germain, ‘Doublage vocal’, Cinémagazine (November 1932), 3.

(68) Lucien Wahl, ‘Encore le doublage : quelques suggestions’, Pour vous, 236 (25 May 1933), 2.

(69) Raymond Berner, ‘Comment Ray Ventura et ses collégiens ont doublé 42nd Street’, Cinémonde, 263 (2 November 1933), 900.

(71) See, for example, Rémy Garrigues, ‘Une nouvelle création de Marlène Dietrich’, Ciné-Miroir, 368 (22 April 1932), 267, and M. B., ‘Shanghai-Express serait-il le chef-d’oeuvre de Sternberg ?’, Cinémonde, 183 (21 April 1932), 317.

(72) ‘Le Cinéma : Shanghai-Express’ (undated press clipping, probably from 1932, archive file of the Institut Lumière, Lyon) (‘Au moins, ce film n’est pas doublé … Et au moins, les admirateurs de Marlène Dietrich peuvent entendre sa vraie voix.’).

(73) Charlotte Bosseaux, Dubbing, Film and Performance: Uncanny Encounters (Bern, Peter Lang, 2015).

(74) Krzysztof Izdebski (ed.), Emotion and the Human Voice, Vol. 1: Foundations (San Diego, Plural Publishing Inc., 2007).

(75) See L. D., ‘L’Homme que j’ai tué’, Ciné-Journal, 1,183 (25 July 1932), 10; Marcel Carné, ‘L’Homme que j’ai tué’, Cinémagazine, 8 (August 1932), 47; J. Bruno-Ruby, ‘L’Homme que j’ai tué’, Les Grands Films (Summer 1932), 213–22; René Olivet, ‘Un livre d’or filmé’, Cinémonde, 187 (23 June 1932), 507; Julien Sorel, ‘L’Homme que j’ai tué’, Cinémonde, 196 (21 July 1932), 599; M. B., ‘Un grand film de paix : L’Homme que j’ai tué’, Cinémonde, 197 (28 July 1932), 605; Julien Sorel, ‘L’Homme que j’ai tué’, Cinémonde, 208 (13 October 1932), 838.

(76) Marcel Blitstein, ‘Une solution : version originale en exclusivité, films doublés dans les quartiers’, Cinémonde, 251 (10 August 1933), 670.

(77) See, for example, Juan B. Heinink and Robert G. Dickson, Cita en Hollywood: Antología de las películas norteamericanas habladas en castellano (Bilbao, Mensajero, 1990).

(78) See Eric Neuhoff, ‘Êtes-vous VO ou VF ?’, Le Figaro (3 August 2010), www.lefigaro.fr/cinema/2010/08/03/03002-20100803ARTFIG00482-tes-vous-vo-ou-vf.php.

(79) Figures based on the 50 best-attended cinemas in France for the week 20–6 January 2016 published in Le Film français, quoted in Hendy Bicaise, ‘La VO au ciné : un truc de Parisiens ? De riches ? De snobs ?’, accessed 21 January 2017.

(80) Bicaise, ‘La VO au ciné : un truc de Parisiens ? De riches ? De snobs ?’, and Neuhoff, ‘Êtes-vous VO ou VF ?’ (p.238)