Having a Fair Say: Cinematic Voices and the Politics of Dubbing.

‘You mean it's going to say on the screen that I don't talk and sing for myself?’[1]

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These horrified words from Singin’ in the Rain are uttered when Hollywood starlet Lina Lamont learns that the studio is planning to replace her voice in an upcoming feature with that of another actress. In many ways, this scene from the classic movie musical serves as the perfect jumping off point for reflecting on the past two weeks of my Laidlaw research which has focused on the common industry practices of the early sound era which saw performers disempowered through the dubbing of their voices by other actors.

Singin’ in the Rain addresses notions of vocality through both the diegesis of the film and the method of its production, as the politics of voice are explored through the film’s narrative as well as being present in the behind-the-scenes dubbing of Debbie Reynolds for certain scenes.   

This feeds into my research into ‘The Sonic Body’ by allowing me to engage with the issue of voices in film, specifically: whose voices are heard, and whose are silent. My first summer of research had focused on the more practical elements of film sound, considering how music and sound effects can affect the body of the spectator.  Consequently, for my second research period, I hoped to explore the more political context of film sound.

Working with my supervisor, I was able to access various resources which discussed the politics of dubbing. I was interested to read about the treatment of women’s voices throughout history in ‘The Gender of Sound’ by Anne Carson,[2] which discusses ancient and theoretical receptions of female voices. In particular, the association between female sounds and dangerous monstrosity in Ancient Greek texts was something which struck me as important, as these texts (and by extension their prejudices) continue to play an important cultural role in the present day.  

Similarly, Tessa Dwyer’s article: ‘Mute, Dumb, Dubbed: Lulu’s Silent Talkies’[3] focuses on the film career of Louise Brookes during the transition from silent film to sound. Like Lina Lamont in Singin’ in the Rain, many actors working at this time were fighting for control over their voices, which studios could replace so easily. In contrast, Dwyer argues that Brookes refused to conform to this realistic representation of sound and body and declined to provide a dub for one of her pictures. The film in question had initially been shot as silent, and Brookes did not desire to lend her voice to her character. This refusal led to her being dubbed by another actor, resulting in an unusual effect wherein dialogue and body did not match, whilst her resistance to cinematic norms saw her blacklisted in the industry. In spite of this, Brookes’ continued to display an interest in the effects of dubbing and later starred in a foreign language film which was designed to feature unsynchronised dialogue, as her character was to be re-dubbed in various European languages. This process openly revealed the dubbing of Brookes’ character, challenging convention and foregrounding Brookes’ interest in the artistic potential of non-synchronised dialogue. That such artistic exploration was punished by the industry at the time exposes the sexist structures within which Brookes’ operated, yet her persistence provides a silent contratante.

As my research last year was focused on horror cinema, I am planning to explore the politics of voice within this genre, with texts such as these providing valuable groundwork for future investigations.

[1] Singin’ in the Rain, directed by Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen (1952; USA: Warner Home Video, 2000), DVD.

[2] Anne Carson, “The Gender of Sound,” Glass, Irony and God (New York: New Directions Books, 1995).

[3] Tessa Dwyer, “Mute, Dumb, Dubbed: Lulu’s Silent Talkies,” Politics, Policy and Power in Translation History, ed. Lieven D'hulst, Carol O'Sullivan, Michael Schreiber (Berlin: Frank and Timme, 2016) 157-186.

Reuben Morris-Dyer

Art History and Film Undergraduate, Flat B

Hello! I'm Reuben, an Art History and Film student researching 'The Sonic Body: Technology, Embodiment, Gender' with the University of St Andrews and Trinity College Dublin. I am also a student filmmaker and illustrator, and host 'The Theory of Everything Podcast' for StAR Radio.


Go to the profile of Finlay Langham (she/her)
over 1 year ago

A really interesting take! 🎬

Go to the profile of Reuben Morris-Dyer
over 1 year ago

Thanks Finlay! Hoping your research is going well!

Go to the profile of Finlay Langham (she/her)
over 1 year ago

you too!