Thursday, July 20, 2006

Voices of the Screen

Time Warner took pity on our DSL connection about two weeks ago, but there is no television at the Siren's house, a situation she will probably rectify soon. So as events unfold in Lebanon, all she has are voices, from the BBC news service and on bad phone connnections. We have friends and relatives there. I was married in this hotel, six years ago. Everyone we love is safe, so far. It is hard to concentrate on blogging or anything else. It will be another couple of weeks before we get a TV, and I suppose that has its advantages at the moment. The images on my computer are bad enough. For once, I don't want to see the pictures moving.

In times like these, distraction is probably as good as it gets. During the first Gulf War I read all of Bruce Catton's Army of the Potomac trilogy, blocking out one set of hostilities with the echoes of another. I am at the point now where any war reading is out of the question, and without movies on a screen what I have are voices in my head, lines and scenes I can replay. I suppose I take it for granted that people who read my blog miss the Golden Age of movies as I do. We talk about old stars, directors, the incredible beauty of black-and-white, the snap of the dialogue, but so far we haven't discussed voices.

Early talkies did the human voice no favors, hitting the squeaky high notes with a frequency that gelded male stars and made female ones sound like Kewpie dolls. Once technicians got the sound more under control, though, performers began to stand out on the basis of their voices. Vaguely aristocratic tones like that of Ronald Colman were especially coveted. You strove for that mid-Atlantic accent, meaning not Delaware and Pennsylvania but somewhere in the middle of the ocean, between England and the former colonies. Eventually individuality blossomed, and the full spectrum of American accents was heard. The Siren thinks you hear a much wider variety of dialects in 1930s movies than you do in modern ones (notwithstanding, however, the ghastly parody that stood in for most black dialect, and the way Asian and some other foreign speaking patterns were mocked).

Anyway, all this got the Siren thinking about her favorite screen voices. And she started thinking about criteria. Is it sheer beauty that makes a great screen voice? is it enough to be memorable, even if the voice screeches like a rusty hinge?

Well, beauty counts for a lot with the Siren, so most of her list is easy on the ears. Many of them were stage-trained voices, that particular discipline seeming to bring out the best in a speaking voice.

I am not putting these voices in any particular order, save to list my favorite of all time, Orson Welles. The Siren sees some eyes rolling. Well yes, it is quite dreary, his being a genius all the time, as ex-wife Rita Hayworth is said to have sniped. And his voice may be cheapened a bit for those who had to listen to his Paul Masson spots in childhood. But his narration for The Magnificent Ambersons is an intrinsic part of that film's greatness. His voice focuses as deeply as the camera, with a similar interplay of light and dark. The Siren can, at will, turn on a recording in her head, hear him speaking the first lines, and be enveloped by that atmosphere once more: "The magnificence of the Ambersons began in 1873. Their splendor lasted throughout all the years that saw their midland town spread and darken into a city..."

There never was and never could be another voice to give the climactic lines their sense of waste and inevitability, turning the much-anticipated fate of the Ambersons into the loss we all suffered when the great god Aut O'Mobile first took us for a ride. The bitterness and regret is there, but so is the gallows humor. We brought this on ourselves, as surely as George Minafer ever did:

Something had happened, a thing which, years ago, had been the eagerest hope of many, many good citizens of the town, and now it had come at last. George Amberson Minafer had got his comeuppance. He got it three times filled, and running over. But those who had so longed for it were not there to see it, and they never knew it. Those who were still living had forgotten all about it, and all about him.
The faint tone of mockery was seldom absent from the voice of Welles, whether he was discussing the relative merits of Swiss and Italian civilization or growling at an unlikely gypsy, "Come on, read my future for me." It's as much a part of the voice's allure as its baritone register. Gifted with an instrument that could (and often did) shout down the biggest-screen house, Welles was most effective when quiet--when a friendship ends with two words ("Sure we're speaking, Jedediah. You're fired") or a offhand observation to a bank examiner carries the weight of an entire failed life ("If I hadn't been born rich, I might have been a really great man").

So much for Mount Everest. Let's look at some other peaks.

Sydney Greenstreet. A delicious purr of evil, demonstrating that a slight touch of the effeminate can be as sinister as any macho growl.

Claude Rains. The stage-trained Rains had one of the most beautiful voices in the history of movies, able to convey sympathy in Now Voyager or gleeful malevolence in The Adventures of Robin Hood.

Peter Ustinov, Audrey Hepburn and George Sanders. "'Her English is too good,' he said. 'That clearly indicates that she is foreign.'" All three of these performers, possessed of exotic backgrounds, wound up speaking more aristocratic English than any Windsor. (Impossible to imagine any of these three locking the jaw and strangling consonants the way the royals do.) Ustinov, British-born son of a German father and a Russian mother, had occasional quavers that became part of his comic effect. The Dutch-raised Hepburn made her tendency to overarticulate a strength when she played comedy. Example: her somber, nun-at-vespers intonation of "It was as close to heaven as one could get on Long Island," in Sabrina. The artists at Disney managed to draw what a voice sounds like when the studio had the Russian-born Sanders give voice to a scheming, indolent tiger late in his career, in The Jungle Book.

William Powell and Jean Arthur. Two superb light comedians, both with voices that could have been grating, but used to marvelous effect. Powell showed that an unapologetically American accent could still be elegant. Arthur frequently played women frantically trying to maintain dignity in an absurd situation. Physically, she wasn't a flutterer. It was her voice that betrayed her, cracking slightly as she tried to gain control.

Charles Boyer and Marlene Dietrich. The Continental accent, married to a naturally resonant speaking tone. Forever thrilling and (to borrow a line from Clive James) forever calling Americans across the sea to a place so sophisticated that people have sex with the lights on.

Robert Mitchum. Enough about the eyes. That silky voice seemed to veil just as much depravity as those heavy lids.

James Cagney. Pure New York, a rapid-fire delivery that suited the slang of the time like no other.

Charles Laughton. One of the most versatile voices the movies ever had.

Irene Dunne. Dunne, possessed of a very high-toned and vaguely Southern speaking manner, often swallowed words, and some of her best deliveries are sotto voce, as in The Awful Truth: "Well, I mean, if you didn't feel that way you do, things wouldn't be the way they are, would they? I mean, things could be the same if things were different."

Margaret Sullavan. Sullavan's marvelous hint of a rasp helped show the inner strength of doomed characters like the ones in Back Street or Three Comrades.


Gloria said...

I'd sign for any of the voices you have mentioned, and I agree that Mitch's voice is usually -regretably- underrated.

The first foreign film I saw in the original version -that is, non-dubbed- was "The African Queen" I was pleasantly shocked by the personality of the player's voices... I've been in love with original versions since!

Exiled in NJ said...

"If they move, kill 'em." Sam Peckinpah allowed us to hear the pipes of William Holden in full range again. His narration makes Sunset Boulevard go. Gregory Peck may have been more stentorian, but to me Holden had the perfect mid-century American tone.

So glad you mentioned Powell too, and for sheer ripe decadence, Claude Rains in Deception is hard to beat.

The Siren said...

Gloria: Mr. Campaspe was talking about the same thing--the shock of pleasure hearing Orson Welles's voice for the first time, after hearing it dubbed on French TV. He still isn't sure he's seen
Ambersons undubbed so I hope to rectify that.

Exciled: You're right about Holden. I also like Gil Stratton's narration in Stalag 17 and Fred MacMurray in Double Indemnity. Wilder had an ear not only for American dialogue, but American accents as well.

The 'Stache said...

I think of the great secondary character actors ? Edward Everett Horton, Robert Dudley, Jack Carson, Edgar Buchanan, William Demarest, Franklin Pangborn (what a name).

And I especially think of Henry Fonda ? that midwestern twang ? and Barbara Stanwyck ? with that slight, Bronx burr together in THE LADY EVE:

He: You certainly are a funny girl for anybody to meet who's just been up the Amazon for a year.
She: It's a good thing you weren't up there two years.

Ah, Sturges!

The Siren said...

ah, TLRHB, how could I forget Carson? talk about a grating voice. But I'll drop everything to listen to it. The age of the character actor is dead, alas.

Uncle Gustav said...

Don't forget the sophisticated hiss of James Mason!

"That wasn't very sporting, using real bullets!"

The Siren said...

Flickhead - Mason sounded sinister even when he was playing a good guy, didn't he?

Gloria said...

Indeed, in Max Ophüls "Caught", where he played the good guy, he remains a shadowy fellow (I love it anyway!). BTW, another remarkable British actor who went unhonoured by the crown: but I suppose knightoods are reserved for more compliant types.


The Siren said...

Gloria, I think Mason had two misfortunes. He was from an era where knighthoods were handed out much less frequently, and he was seen as having deserted Britain for Hollywood, which I guess he did.

Exiled in NJ said...

Growing up, I remember impressionists doing imitations of actors: Cagney, Robinson, possibly Bogart [who was almost too easy], Cary Grant. These guys would go broke doing Kevin Costner.

Gloria said...

Campaspe, sometimes I have the impression that there was a time when any British actor having a bit of sucess in California was dubbed "deserter". I believe that the epithet was uttered by those envious, spiteful... and lesser talented.

During WW2 Brits in Hollywood were dubbed "deserters" by some who worked in Britain: the sad thing is that the younger actors hailed as "heroes", albeit in uniform, mostly never saw action in a battlefield, and actually spent the war doing films and theatre... By contrast, many older actors in Hollywood -and hence dubbed "deserters"- had not only seen real war service in the previous conflict, but were wounded as well, I could mention Basil Rathbone, Charles Laughton, Ronald Colman or, indeed, Herbert Marshall who lost a leg there.

goatdog said...

I'll second (third?) James Mason, especially in Bigger than Life ("God... was WRONG!"). Basil Rathbone also had a great voice, and I'd throw Leslie Howard in too.

Alex said...

You could make a case that it is Welles' voice (more so than his physical presence) unifies his body of work - in F for Fake, the voice of Welles lying to you (or is he lying?), in The Trial the voice of Welles telling the story of Before the Law, etc.

I would mention Joel McCrea (no, not just because he went to my alma mater - Pomona '27) as an exemplar of American-speak, to the point that his voice stands in for all of America in Foreign Correspondent.

Uncle Gustav said...

I think that Rod Steiger was eighty percent voice.

Uncle Gustav said...

Glynis Johns, anyone?

andyhorbal said...

Alex, I immediately thought of Joel McCrea as well. His voice is just a bit world-weary, just a bit wiseguy: perfect for the straight man, Everyman, American With A Capital-A roles he played for Preston Sturges.

The Siren said...

Exiled, I agree. The blanding of big Hollywood movies even extends to accents.

Goatdog & Gloria: you have me smacking my forehead, as I knew I would at some point in the comments, wondering how I could have forgotten the obvious. In this case, Basil Rathbone, whom I love. There was a chilliness to his delivery that was perfect for villains, and perfect for Holmes too.

Alex and Andy: Joel McCrea did have a great voice, and it was versatile too. He could sound convincing in Palm Beach or out West.

Flickhead: Steiger was another vocal chameleon, and like some others he was superb when soft. "Did you see that? ... What are you gonna do about it?" Long pause, then very quietly, "I don't know." And Glynis Johns ... another slight frog in the throat, like Sullavan, and completely adorable. I love her in The Court Jester.

Gloria said...

Do you notice that most people mentioned here is from the ole Golden Age? I suppose that the microphone-bred new generations of actors (many unable to vocalise properly)are unable to develop a "voice" in the way these old actors did. They usually learnt to use their voices in the theatre (without micros!), and then were wise enough to adapt their instrument to the requirements of sound films.

Exiled in NJ said...

The mix of sounds in Wilder's Love In the Afternoon is almost perfect. Cooper's totally American Country, Hepburn's boarding school reach, Chevalier English with a French twist and John McGiver, who tone is close to Audrey's but with enough of a difference. I know Wilder wanted Cary Grant, who was more of the great lover type, but I love the film the way it is and think Grant would have overplayed the final acts after hearing the recording of Audrey's lovers. But what voices, and that wonderful gypsy quartet!

The Siren said...

There was a man with a violin playing Fascination in the Toronto subway a few months back. I was so delighted I threw $5 in his case.

Brian Darr said...

Can I say Mel Blanc, as a shameless plug for a Friz Freleng Blog-A-Thon August 21?

The Siren said...

brian, that's fabulous. I will definitely try to make it.

andyhorbal said...

Some wonderful contemporary voices:

-Carol Kane
-Steve Coogan
-Shirley Henderson
-Seth Rogen

Mr. Middlebrow said...

Sanders' Shere Khan is one of the reasons THE JUNGLE BOOK enjoys permanent status as favorite animated feature. But let's not forget his deliciously skeevy Jack from REBECCA.

I know it's a bit cliche but Peter Lorre's voice always delighted me. Probably because, like Bogart and Laughton and Hepburn, it was lampooned to great effect, and with great affection, in so many old-school WB cartoons.

For incluison on the list of today's great voices, I nominate Alec Baldwin and Steve Zahn.

Exiled in NJ said...

Another wonderful contrast in tone: Audrey Hepburn and Albert Finney in Two for the Road, with the added bonus that the script allows Audrey to break into wonderful sarcasm.

Though he is getting on, no one today tops Alan Rickman.

katiedid said...

I'll mention Rupert Everett. Despite many of his apallingly awful movie choices, I feel vocally he is one of the best actors working currently. He's just got this way with words rhythmically, as well as just the good timbre of his voice.

Donna said...

Well, I must add one of my favorites from scross the pond, the delicious Joan Greenwood.

Tony.T said...

I'll second the James Mason comments - Salem's Lot: "Go ahead, preacher, do your stuff" - and propose Anthony Quayle.

Tony.T said...

And since I like 'boysy" films: Warren Oates.

JUAN. said...

I love Celeste Holm's voice over in "A letter to three wives" and "All about Eve". John Barrymore's voice is also enjoyable in films such as "Gran Hotel".