One of the best half-hours in radio these days is “Operavore,” which precedes the Saturday afternoon opera broadcasts on New York’s WQXR. And without fail, the most interesting feature of the show is always Marilyn Horne’s interview with a singer or conductor of note. A few weeks ago the Fascination Meter hit an all-time high when she entertained an old friend, soprano Marni Nixon, best known as the “Ghostest With the Mostest.” As the singing voice of leading ladies in a number of classic Hollywood musicals, Ms. Nixon swapped some wonderful anecdotes with her old pal (Marilyn Horne is also a veteran ghost, having enjoyed her first professional success at age 20 by dubbing Dorothy Dandridge in “Carmen Jones”). If you missed it, never fear—you can catch up via Marni Nixon’s memoir, “I Could Have Sung All Night”, which chronicles her career as the voice of Deborah Kerr, Natalie Wood and Audrey Hepburn, not to mention the source of Marilyn Monroe’s high notes in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.”
Ms. Nixon reminds us that when talkies arrived, so did dubbing. The Hollywood films of the 30’s and 40’s films frequently featured at least one scene set in a nightclub, with some chanteuse (make that “shan-toosy“) burning away in a torch song. In musicals the star dancers, such as Cyd Charisse, Vera-Ellen and Rita Hayworth, were always dubbed, as were six each, respectively, of the “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.”
But it didn’t stop there. Check out Ray Hagen’s “Movie Dubbers” site for an astonishing list of dubbers and dubbees. That’s not Joan Blondell pouring her heart out in “Remember My Forgotten Man.” On the other hand, it is Lauren Bacall, not the teen-age Andy Williams, singing “How Little We Know” in “To Have and Have Not.” While some of these substitutions were publicized at the time (Larry Parks’s performing to Al Jolson’s soundtracks in two films about the singer’s life, Eileen Farrell’s singing for Eleanor Parker in “Interrupted Melody”), most were hidden behind the walls of the studio system and the confidentiality provisions that kept contract performers quiet.
The roster of dubbers includes such singers as Benny’s Goodman’s Martha Tilton and Anita Ellis, a fabulous jazz singer in her own right (and Larry Kert’s big sister), whose “Put the Blame on Mame” comes out of Rita Hayworth’s mouth in “Gilda.” Not surprisingly, “White Christmas” has Rosemary Clooney dubbing Vera-Ellen in “Sisters,” resulting in her singing a duet with herself. But my all-time favorite has got to be Jean Hagen dubbing Debbie Reynolds dubbing Jean Hagen in the looping session featured in “Singin’ in the Rain,” because Hagen, a former stage and radio actress, had the cultured speaking voice needed for “The Dancing Cavalier.” Lina Lamont’s revenge!
Marni Nixon, who began her career as a classical musician, has an incredible list of credits. Possessing that invaluable asset, perfect pitch, she had the good fortune to perform with a number of the so-called Hollywood exiles—composers and musicians who had fled Nazi Germany and settled in California in the 1940’s. She started her dubbing work while still in her teens, but her first big assignment was working with Deborah Kerr on “The King and I.” Nixon’s description of their intense rehearsal process is fascinating, and when it came time to shoot “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?” (unfortunately cut from the film), Nixon was able to imitate her perfectly.
My favorite Marni Nixon movie moment occurs during another ghosting job she did for Deborah Kerr, this time in “An Affair to Remember.” Her rendition of “Our Love Affair” in the nightclub scene is flawless. The way she plays the subtext of the song (don’t forget, this is the night before the appointment at the Empire State Building), her phrasing, and most amusingly, the way she can sing in Deborah Kerr’s accent, all add up to a stunning performance (And speaking of stunning, Ms. Kerr never looked more glamorous on film than she does in this scene).
Marni Nixon’s Hollywood career also included “West Side Story” in which she sang for Natalie Wood in addition to dubbing a few of Rita Moreno’s phrases in the “Quintet” (“We’re gonna mix it tonight”). Of course, the job that brought her the most notoriety was dubbing Audrey Hepburn in the film version of “My Fair Lady,” in a role that every one in the world with the exception of Jack Warner thought should have gone to the woman who originated it on stage, Julie Andrews. Nixon relates all this with a refreshingly objective eye, and it’s wonderful to learn that she later “came out” by playing Eliza Doolittle, as well as Anna Leonowens and “The Most Happy Fella”‘s Rosabella, among other roles, on stage.
As a change of pace, here’s a chance to experience Marni Nixon’s artistry as a classical musician. Her appearance with Leonard Bernstein and the New York Philharmonic at a time when his “Young People’s Concerts” was teaching a generation (namely mine!) about music is wonderfully exuberant and a pure pleasure. Enjoy!