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article imageReview: ‘Secret Voices of Hollywood’ Special

By Alexander Baron     Oct 1, 2013 in Entertainment
Los Angeles - When you see people singing in a film, do you think it is for real? Probably not, but there are a few surprises in this BBC documentary.
Most people over the age of about 12 realise that if someone or a whole group of people is singing in a film, that neither the voices nor the music are live. Unlike a Britney Spears "concert", there are very unsinister reasons for this.
Many realise too that in some musicals the voice they hear in a song may not belong to the star who is apparently singing it. Playback has been used since 1929, two years after the release of the first talking picture, The Jazz Singer. Ghost singers have been around nearly as long.
The 1952 classic Singin' In The Rain makes a big joke of this with the teenage Debbie Reynolds as Kathy Selden providing the voice for Jean Hagen's awful Lina Lamont. The joke is that Reynolds was dubbed herself by Betty Noyes. Noyes died in 1987, but her daughter spoke to the documentary makers.
Marilyn Monroe's voice in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was dubbed by the now 83 years young Marni Nixon (the Ghostest with the Mostess); that's her singing Diamonds Are A Girl's Best Friend. She also provided the singing voice for Deborah Kerr in the 1956 The King And I. She received a $10,000 fee for that, which appears to have been exceptional. So does Kerr, who quite blatantly let the cat out of the bag.
Ghost singer Marni Nixon.
Ghost singer Marni Nixon.
Creative Commons
In South Pacific, the only member of the cast who sang was Mitzi Gaynor; all the others were dubbed. In the same film, one female ghost singer, Betty Wand, actually sang the part of an eight year old boy.
Unsurprisingly, Julie Andrews did not require a ghost singer for The Sound Of Music, but her leading man Christopher Plummer did, although his vocal survives.
The 21st Century has seen a surprising abandonment of the ghost singer, and this is not all down to 21st Century production techniques. The reason appears to be that nowadays we don't expect our heroes and heroines to be perfect, something that can be seen elsewhere as for example with Daniel Craig's acclaimed portrayal of a very human James Bond. The recent Les Misérables sees not only the abandonment of ghost singers but the abandonment of playback with the cast performing live, a brave decision indeed, but today's sophisticated audiences demand and indeed deserve nothing less.
There is a lot in this hour and a half documentary including interviews with many of the men and women who were there, and with the children of those who are no longer with us, including Robert Wagner, the widower of Natalie Wood.
Secret Voices of Hollywood is currently on iplayer for those who can receive it, and will probably find its way onto YouTube in due course for those who can't.
More about ghost singers, ghost singing, betty noyes, marni nixon
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