[...] So, currently, I am into wholesale cinematographic lemonade. A first significant result for me would be to straighten out finances jeopardized by all kinds of excess during past years, and I believe that America will be for that quite useful to me. Then, to acquire an essential "practical experience", a know-how, and there again the USA are incomparable, the "best in the world".
[...] M.G.M. you probably known, now swears by synchronizations. This barbarian word designates the operation of "dubbing" American artist voices by French voices to offer you a kind of overhauled film which may be projected in France.
"L'Union des artistes", union of French actors, under the influence of some French artists recently back from Hollywood, has prohibited synchronizations... This measure was taken under the alleged pretext of protecting French Production from an invasion of American synchronizations, but actually because cronies who had made a few dollars in Hollywood would like the rug not to be pulled out from under their feet and still go back there.
Here sync is paid much less than "versions" [films in foreign language]. And, of course, French actors don't like America but they do like dollars...
These same actors proclaim that recording sync is to stoop, whereas it is noble to make a version. For me, it is as uninteresting to do one as the other ! Between: the fact of copying a film already made, even to the point of having a Moviola on the set, used by the director, before each scene, to watch the corresponding scene of the American film in order to copy exactly the acting, of using the very same shooting script, without adding anything original, of giving the French actors the very costumes of the American film, of using the same sets, etc... and the fact of recording dialogue separately so that it will fit exactly to the American film, there is only a different way of making a decal, that's all. None of these ways has anything to do with artistic creation, therefore with Art, neither one nor the other. [...] Let these actors reveal themselves in their true colours and say frankly: sync doesn't pay, we prefer after all to make versions, where, on the whole, one sees our mugs (such hams!) and where we pocket more...
[...] Moreover one should not be mistaken, it is an extremely difficult and delicate work. Annoying and insipid, but very amusing from a technical point of view, funny to bring off as a feat of skill. Lines are matched, i.e. French lines must have exactly the same number of syllables than American lines (since, on screen, it's the American actors who are talking). Even B, P, V, O, I, etc… must be matched. The pauses between the sentences must also be respected. In fact everything...
The actors rehearse facing the screen, on which scenes of the American film are projected, from an external and silent booth. Knowing the dialogue by heart, they strive to say their lines in perfect synchronism with the American actors, without leaving out the necessary "emotions". The projection operator plays the film back as many times as it is necessary and plays the scenes again ten or twelve times, if necessary. When the actors know the pace well enough, the same process is repeated, after that three or four microphones have been placed in front of the actors at different distances. The sound mixer job is especially to record sound from a microphone or another (farther or closer) according to the movements of the actors on the screen, moving away or getting closer, which gives the impression that the voices do the same.
Moreover actors have, on their head, a single-ear headphone connected at low level to the film sound-track. This sound-track has been set 4 or 5 frames ahead of the visual track, so the actor can hear his starting cue, because the sound level is so low that all he hears is a buzz. All that, of course, takes place in the dark of a projection room.
The director (!) is in the sound booth where he sees the film and hears the recording from the microphone. From up there he gives his instructions and his OK.
[...] For my part, I find sync quite insipid and uninteresting and I wonder what the public will say when he will be presented these hazardous patch-up? All the same, I do not think that this sync system will receive a triumphant reception and I consider that, in six months, French versions will be taken up again in Hollywood, but on a more clever basis than what has been done with the first series. And perhaps they will then make some original films...
Hollywood on June 19, 1931
(translated from french)
From 1929 on, to preserve its markets abroad, Hollywood industry started to make films in several versions (Spanish, German, Hungarian…), soon followed by European film industry. At the same time, the first dubbing attempts began, with King Vidor "Hallelujah!" (1929). But as dubbing techniques used were hardly perfect, American companies, for quite some time, preferred to shoot foreign language versions, which were absolute plagiarisms of the original versions.
This was an opportunity for many European actors to begin an American career. Charles Boyer, for instance, made many French versions of American films before he became an actor in his own right, in original versions.
These versions were sometimes shot during the night, in the same sets and with the same staging than the original version by an associated foreign director (such as Jacques Feyder or Claude Autant-Lara), with actors of the same nationality.
In 1930, Paramount opened in Joinville its European studio in order to shoot European versions of its American films. In four years, about 300 films were made there, in all European languages. That same year, 1930, in Berlin, the UFA embarked on the making of multiple versions.
Many of these foreign versions do not exist any more but a few are still rather well known: the Spanish version of "Dracula" (director George Melford did not speak or understand Spanish; Dracula part was played by Spanish actor Carlos Villarías), the French version of "The Testament of Dr. Mabuse" or the English version of "Der blaue Engel", "The Blue Angel".
Irreplaceable Laurel and Hardy were among the rare to play themselves their own roles phonetically in the foreign versions of their films, whereas the supporting roles were played by different actors. Thus Boris Karloff, the future monster in "Frankenstein", played, in French, a supporting role in "Sous les verrous", French version of famous "Pardon Us", the first Laurel and Hardy full-length talking picture. Three more foreign versions of this film were made: in Spanish "De Bote en Bote", in Italian "Muraglie" and in German "Hinter Schloss und Riegel".
It is in fact with them that sound-mixing technique began, when voices and music could at last be mixed, and this, before that dubbing (ADR), advocated by M.G.M since 1931, put an end to the hopes of European actors to make a career in the United States. From then on, these actors were nothing more that anonymous voices and dubbed versions were recorded only in their country of destination.