Our latest blog comes from stipend holder Dr Carla Mereu Keating from the University of Bristol who visited the museum to explore the post-war history of dubbing versus subtitling in the distribution of foreign-language films in the UK.
"Dubbing allows a foreign film to be seen by those people who are interested only in its entertainment content, and its escapist value. The sub-titled film is excellent for foreign residents here, for bi-lingual individuals, for language students, for intellectuals; and, of course, its snob value is tremendously important." (De Lane Lea, 1953: 10)
In the autumn of 2019, I spent some rewarding hours at the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum in Exeter. The BDCM research stipend enabled me to investigate the British market for non-English-language films before and after World War Two. I visited the archive during my final year as British Academy Post-Doctoral Fellow (2016-2019) in the School of Modern Languages at the University of Bristol, where I teach translation and international film distribution. In my visit to the museum exciting evidence emerged for my research from the pages of British film periodicals such as Continental Film Review, The Daily Cinema, Daily Film Renter and Films and Filming, many of which are not available online in digital format. Alongside these and other treasures, I consulted beautifully illustrated promotional materials including press books, film review supplements and film festival programmes.
My British Academy-funded project, entitled “Hollywood’s Foreign-Language Units: The Film Translation Industry between Los Angeles and New York”, studied the role that language expertise had in the international circulation of films after the transition to sound. I explored Hollywood’s involvement in film localisation experiments between the late 1920s and the end of World War Two. I was interested in the ways Hollywood capitalised on sound recording technology to develop innovative ‘re-vocalization’ or revoicing practices such as voice ghosting, dubbing and voice over narration. I also considered how media policies, filmmaking practices and shifting political alliances favoured the diffusion of synchronous dubbing in Western Europe but led to its critical rejection in the United States.
Initially, I did not plan to consider the UK market. I assumed that Hollywood films would be understood by the British public without an overt need for translation of either dialogue, text-on-screen such as for example credits, prefaces or shop signs, or other paratextual information such as film titles and promotional materials such as posters. As I went on with my research, however, I became increasingly aware of how Hollywood’s transatlantic distribution and the language barrier affected the idiosyncratic UK market, especially after World War Two. If European films needed translation to get screen time across the Atlantic, so did British films, at least to some extent. In the 1930s, for example, there were curious cases of British films dubbed into American English for general release in the United States. The Man Who Changed His Name (Edwards, 1934), produced at Twickenham, is an illustrative example. ‘One of the most continuously talkative talkers ever made’ observed the American reviewer in Variety, the film was dubbed into American English in New York ‘in the hope of overcoming the British accent’. Its dubbing, however ‘was worse than the accent’ (Chic. 1934: 25).
While it is often thought that films are rarely dubbed in the UK, some European films circulated in the UK in dubbed versions as early as the 1930s. The label ‘Continental’ was often used by the British as an umbrella term for non-English language films alongside the phrase ‘foreign-language’. Mixed reviews of these early dubbing experiments emerge from the trade press and from British newspapers. The French-Czecho-Slovakian historical drama Volga in flames (Volga en Flammes, Tourjansky, 1934) was dubbed ‘unsuccessfully’ but it did not overtly annoy the Monthly Film Bulletin (MFB) critic because there was ‘comparatively little speaking’ ( J. W. U. T, 1935: 92). Reviewing the Italian comedy film Seven Sisters (Eravamo sette sorelle, Malasomma, 1937) a few years later, another MFB critic commented: ‘it is oddly disconcerting to watch the speakers’ mouths at first, but one soon becomes accustomed to it, although it detracts from the acting, making the players almost puppet-like’ (MFB, January 1939, p. 24 EXEBD 2362). ‘The ‘ingenious’ dubbing by Mai Harris of The Cheat (Le Roman d’un tricheur, Guitry, 1936) directed by K. H. Frank with commentary by Norman Shelley was instead ‘very successful’. ‘Both translators and commentator deserve[d] congratulation’ conceded Arthur Vesselo (1938: 187), an MFB and Sight and Sound reviewer of European films who was usually hostile to dubbing.
In a letter to her newspaper, Leonard Hicks from Norwich, disagreed with The Observer’s film critic Caroline Lejeune, who also frequently took a vigorous position against dubbing in her regular film column:
"The practice of “dubbing” may seem indefensible to Miss C. A. Lejeune. She is fortunate; she hears Continental films in their original tongue, but if “dubbing” is to be discouraged how are provincial film-goers to see such productions at all? Provincial managers will not book foreign films in their original tongue; dubbing may encourage them to leave the Hollywood-Denham track occasionally." (1938: 11)
After the war, a larger number of European films, especially French and Italian, reached British screens in a subtitled as well as in a dubbed (British or American) English version (Marcarini 2001; Mazdon and Wheatley 2013). Picturegoer’s post-war readers express different perspectives on the film translation quandary in letters to the fan magazine, which can be sourced in the museum:
"While in France recently I had an opportunity of seeing The Third Man with French sub-titles. It was very interesting to follow the film by the written word, but I realized what a lot we lose when we see French or Italian films similarly treated. Might it not be a good idea to abolish sub-titles on foreign films and to have instead a discreet commentary at intervals during the film?" - Ernest Wratten, London E15 (1950: 3 EXEBD 83809)
"The French picture, Vengeance, dubbed in English, is simply pathetic. A great deal of authenticity was obviously lost. The lines sounded as if they were being read, as indeed they probably were, and half the cast had cockney accents. Please stick to sub-titles, there’s nothing like them". - C. Prin (Miss), Roath, Cardiff. (1951: 3 EXEBD 83848)
"That excellent Italian movie, Bitter Rice, convinced me that other English language versions of foreign films would be equally successful if given as good a dubbing" - 3123012 A. C. Douthwaite, R.A.F., Poling, Nr. Arundel, Sussex. (1951: 3 EXEBD 83848)
Trade debates about language barriers and European films were published throughout the 1950s.
In 1959, for example, the need for market research was strongly stressed at the Cinematograph Exhibitors’ Association (CEA) General Council meeting at Brighton. Market research, it was agreed, would enable producers, distributors and exhibitors “to keep a finger on the pulse of the British public” (The Daily Cinema 1959: 1 EXEBD 75145). The question of dubbing versus subtitling was also debated when assessing filmgoers’ tastes and habits. If subtitles “were enough to keep patrons away”, dubbing was “so cheaply done that it was not good enough for critical audiences”; however, specialised cinema audiences “preferred” to hear films in their original version (The Daily Cinema 1959: 5). On the issue of quality, independent distributors and exhibitors made clear that if they were to spend several thousands of pounds on a good dubbed version, they needed to be assured of a market. “There is a latent untapped audience in every district”, argued R. S. Camplin, Secretary of the British Film Institute, “but there must be enterprise and showmanship in selling these films to a vast potential new audience” (p. 5).
Film producers and distributors could perform language dubbing in-house. Julia Wolf, active since the 1930s as a film subtitler (Mazdon and Wheatley 2013: 71) was in charge of selecting and preparing foreign films for distribution throughout Britain for General Film Distributors, Arthur Rank’s distribution branch (Rose 1948: 7). Distributors could also outsource the dubbing of films to specialised companies. A dubbing company might have included sound technicians, script translators and editors, dubbing directors and voice actors who localised film content before films were screened publicly.
William De Lane Lea found and directed a successful independent dubbing company in London, De Lane Lea Processes Ltd. Former student of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, De Lane Lea had practiced with De Forest technology during the early days of sound long before moving to the UK (1952: 11). Contracting directly with foreign production and distributions companies (e.g. Unitalia Film, Sovexportfilms) and with UK distributors and exhibitors (e.g., Archway), by the early 1950s De Lane Lea worked with a team of fifteen who could handle twenty-five different languages. Speech recording was done at the RCA sound recording studios at the Hammersmith Towers.
Figure 1 Advertisement for De Lane Lea Processes Ltd., The Daily Film Renter, 8 April 1957, p. 7, EXEBD 78689]
Molly Stevens worked in De Lane Lea’s company as script editor. In the early 1950s Stevens and De Lane Lea shared dubbing credits for a number of foreign films including the Mexican The Devil is a Woman (Dona Diabla, Davison, 1950), the Swedish High Tension (Sant Hander Inte Har, Bergman, 1950) and the Italian Behind Closed Shutters (Persiane Chiuse, Comencini, 1951). Her credit as English dialogue writer seems to disappear from press reviews after 1953 when the “English version” of a film is credited only under De Lane Lea’s direction. Sound editors and voice actors were also rarely acknowledged.
[Figure 2 Opening credits for Behind Closed Shutters]
To the educated film critic, the practice of dubbing seemed tolerable if actors were looping themselves, that is to say, they re-recorded their own voice after shooting had taken place. An illustrative example is found in Two Women (La Ciociara, De Sica, 1961), an Italo-French co-production, distributed by Joe Levine’s Embassy, starring Sophia Loren, whose dramatic performance awarded her the first Oscar given to an actress in a ‘foreign-language’ film (see featured image Daily Cinema 9 August 1961 EXEBD 75385). This wartime drama was released in a double-version, subtitled and dubbed in English, across the US and the UK. In the dubbed version, Loren revoiced herself in English, validating the traditional demand for authentic correspondence between voice and body.
Another evocative example of the complex transnational dynamics at play in film coproduction is The Golden Coach (La carrozza d’oro/Le Carrosse d’or, Renoir, 1952), a Technicolor Italo-French co-production filmed at Cinecittà with direct sound and in English (Bergstrom 2009). As specified twice in the back cover advert published by Continental Film Review, Jean Renoir’s “Italian masterpiece” starred Anna Magnani expressing herself directly in English, “not dubbed”.
Figure 3 Advertisement for The Golden Coach, Continental Film Review, January 1954 [back cover, from the BDCM collection item number EXEBD 33237
This physical and aural correspondence between the body of the actor and their own voice could not always be achieved. From the mid-1950s onwards, big budget co-productions, which often cast actors from the United States and various European countries, were post-synchronised in the language of the main production country. Increasingly, these multilingual films travelled to the UK under the American distribution flag or thanks to Anglo-American deals (e.g. Gala partnered with Columbia in 1962). Low-budget genre films such as the spaghetti westerns and mythological pepla were also dubbed in American English and usually edited heavily for the American second and third-run circuits, and for the British double-bill programme.
The predominance of American-English accents in dubbed films annoyed the British critics even further. Caroline Lejeune’s review of the Italian religious drama Secret Conclave (Gli uomini non guardano il cielo, Scarpelli, 1952) starring London actor Henry Vidon and international star Isa Miranda, is a good example. Secret Conclave was screened at the Marble Arch Pavilion in London, known for showing Continental films:
“It is perhaps unfortunate that we should be compelled to see this film [Secret Conclave] in the ‘English-speaking version’, dubbed with American voices although the leading part if admirably spoken by an English actor […] for apart from the distracting nature of dubbing as a whole, the American voice has so long been associated in our minds with Hollywood that it seems slightly out of concord with the dignity and decorum of the subject.” (1954: 11)
British film critics seem to have despised dubbing, in general, and the American-English sounding variety in particular. Yet dubbed Continental films enjoyed wide distribution in the UK between the 1950s and the 1970s. Whereas specialised theatres in London and other major urban centres showed mostly non-English-language films with subtitles, dubbed films circulated in a broader range of venues outside the art circuit and central London to attract a larger number of patrons. Londoners watched their share of dubbed films too, especially from the late 1950s onwards, when more and more cinemas lured moviegoers in with the promise of sexualised X rated content. That “kind of appeal”, suggested Gordon Reid’s Continental Film Review in May 1958, knew “no language barriers”.
Figure 4 “Fraulein - Signorina - Mademoiselle”, Continental Film Review, May 1958, p. 21, EXEBD 33378
Many thanks to the museum curator Phil Wickham and to all the archival team for their generous support during my short visits. Here’s to more time spent at the archive in the not-so-distant future. Special thanks to Carol O’Sullivan, who continues to inspire me with her research on the history of subtitling.
Anon., “A Constructive Idea on Market Research”, The Daily Cinema, 15 May 1959, p. 1.
Anon., “De Lane Lea Processes Ltd.”, The Daily Film Renter, 8 April 1957, p. 7.
Anon., “Chances of dubbed or sub-titled”, The Daily Cinema, 15 May 1959, p. 5.
Anon., “Fraulein - Signorina - Mademoiselle”, Continental Film Review, May 1958, p. 21.
Bergstrom, Janet, “Genealogy of The Golden Coach”, Film History, 21 (3), pp. 276-94.
Chic., “Film Reviews”, Variety, 23 October 1934, p. 25.
De Lane Lea, William, “The Art of Dubbing. Hear All See All”. Kinematograph Weekly, 19 February 1953, pp. 10–11.
Douthwaite, A. C., “Focus on Films: Dubbing”, Picturegoer, 3 March 1951, p. 3.
J.W. U. T., “Volga in Flames”, Monthly Film Bulletin, 2 (13), 1 January 1935, p. 92
Hicks, Leonard, “From the Post Bag: Dubbing”, The Observer, October 1938, p. 11.
Lejeune, Caroline A., “Royal Progress”, The Observer, 23 May 1954, p. 11.
M. M. W., “Seven sisters”, Monthly Film Bulletin, 6 (61), 1 January 1939, p. 24.
Marcarini, Elena, 2001, The Distribution of Italian Films in The British and American Markets 1945-1995, unpublished PhD dissertation, the University of Reading, Reading.
Mazdon, Lucy, and Catherine Wheatley, 2013, French Film in Britain. Sex, Art and Cinephilia, Berghahn, New York-Oxford.
Prin, C., “Focus on Films: Dubbing”, Picturegoer, 3 March 1951, p. 3.
Rose, Tony, “Continental Invasion”, Picturegoer, 14 February 1948, p. 7.
Vesselo, Arthur, “The Cheat”, Monthly Film Bulletin, 5 (49), 1 January 1938, p. 187.
Wratten, Ernest, “Focus on Films: Commentary for Continentals”, Picturegoer, 20 May 1950, p. 3.
W. J. S., “Dubbing from Bronx to Mayfair”, Kinematograph Weekly, 26 June 1952, p. 11.