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and the Legendary Paul Frees

Reader Bob Gutowski writes in with a Tony Curtis tale. (Reader Responses below)

Sometimes Savant gets letters that are practically ready-made Savant columns as-is. This is one of them, from frequent and gracious contributor Bob Gutowski:

Dear Glenn, Great column! I love those little bits of movie ephemera. In this vein, I was lucky (and happy) to catch TCM's showing yesterday of the 1945 pre-release version of The Big Sleep, along with a discussion afterwards showing the revised and edited sequences. Fascinating! (Bob is referring to the Twin versions of The Big Sleep, as discussed a couple seasons back in Savant)

So - my own personal favorite untold story is the dubbing of Tony Curtis' drag performance in Some Like it Hot by Paul Frees. Ed Sikov's recent book on Billy Wilder doesn't address it, though he goes into Wilder's bizarre (and, in retrospect, stupid) redubbing of both Hildegarde Knef's and Marthe Keller's performances in Fedora with the same German actress, a Miss Bunsch - Helga? Inga?

I had noticed on my own a long time ago that there was something fishy about "Josephine's" voice. My ear was used to Paul Frees' vocal gymnastics from any number of cartoons, commercials, etc., and I suddenly realized that that was whom I was hearing. A year or two later, Curtis himself appeared on the summer television series "The Copycats," which, as you may remember, featured impressionists. He "recreated" a scene from Hot with Rich Little portraying Jack Lemmon as "Daphne." And, the odd thing was, Curtis couldn't do that wonderful, Eve Arden-like voice he'd had in the film!

Eventually, VCRs appeared, and I was able to tape the movie and study it. Yes, the room tone changed whenever "Josephine" spoke. Yes, there was a lack of synchronization from time to time. And, yes, there was even a brief moment that didn't seem to be redubbed, with "Jo's" voice a shrill falsetto, unlike the velvety purr it was otherwise.

Years later, The New York Times ran an article on famous re-voiced performances, such as Glenn Close dubbing Andie McDowell in Greystoke, and James Keach doubling for male model Klinton Spilsbury as the voice of The Lone Ranger. They later printed a letter from a gentleman in Chicago in response. It seemed that he'd interviewed voiceover artist Paul Frees on his radio show, and Mr. Frees spoke at some length about how he'd been called in to dub "Josephine," when it became clear that Tony Curtis' efforts wouldn't do.

I got the Chicago man's number from information and, feeling vindicated, called him long-distance that afternoon to talk about it. I'd been right, all those years! And yet, not one word of the story has ever appeared in print, aside from that letter. What do you think? ... Bob Gutowski

Savant: I think it's yet another facet of filmmaking many people don't readily understand. A great many of the voices heard in films are not those of the original actors, and in the 50's and 60's Paul Frees practically had the voiceover market to himself, along with people like Marvin Miller (Robby the Robot). The listing in the Internet Movie Database doesn't begin to plumb the depth of Frees' presence in those years. You can see Frees acting onscreen as one of the scientists in Christian Nyby's The Thing from Another World, and as the French Fur Trader McMasters in The Big Sky, but most of us know him from his immediately recognizable narration for hundreds of movies and television shows. Frees' voice recordings from as far back as 1956 are still heard on Disneyland rides and old Disney TV shows. His is the portentious voice of doom heard in most of George Pal's films. He doesn't narrate The War of the Worlds, but is an onscreen radio reporter serving much the same function in that film. He was the king of science fiction narration: Frees is the warbly voice of the alien invaders that says " Do - oc - tor M - Mar - ar - vin" in Earth vs. the Flying Saucers.

It looks as though Frees was a one-stop shopping narrator for producers with problem characters and quickie line readings. Once your ear is cocked for his voice you never miss it again. He can be heard dubbing almost all the anonymous voices and soldier lines in Spartacus, so much so that after a few viewings you wish producer Kirk Douglas has spread the chore around to a few more actors! But the man could apparently bring forth scores of distinct different voices. For the American release of Mario Bava's Blood and Black Lace Frees seems to have done all the male voices, which gets pretty interesting when four or five men talking in a group are each a variation on the same voice. It seems entirely appropriate that he be chosen to revoice Tony Curtis in Some Like it Hot. Fortunately, Curtis' pride is saved by his perfect Cary Grant imitation as the bogus millionaire!


6/9/99 Hi Glen, I just read, with great interest your column built around Bob Gutowski's letter on Paul Frees' dubbing of "Josephine" in Some Like it Hot. Has anyone out there ever noticed his redubbing of bits and pieces of John Huston's voice-over narration for Freud (The Secret Passion)? It reaches almost ridiculous heights when, during the closing narration over the graveyard scene, Frees is called on to dub over every third and fourth word within a sentence largely spoken by Huston. He also does all of Toshiro Mifune's English in Grand Prix, as well as several driver voices during a meeting later in the same film. I look forward to more fascinating info. Keep up the good work. - - Mark


6/9/99 . . . liked your article on Some Like it Hot and Paul Frees. I remember years ago watching The Thing with a friend, and the two of us being driven crazy by the familiarity of Frees' voice. We knew we had heard it a million times before, we just couldn't place it. I think what threw us off was seeing a face connected to the voice! You left out Frees' extensive work in animation, including doing the voice of Bullwinkle's nemesis Boris Badenov and numerous characters in Rankin/Bass holiday specials. - - Gary


6/15/99 . . .It is great to see that Paul Frees is so well remembered. Please allow me to add a couple of titles to look for: Frees appeared as one of the hitmen in the 1954 Frank Sinatra assassination melodrama Suddenly, as well as providing the English-language dialogue for Toshiro Mifune (once again) in Midway - - T.

Text (c) Copyright 1999 Glenn Erickson

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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