April 10, 2017
April 12 this year was Anita Ellis’s 97th birthday. A remarkably gifted singer, she suffered from crippling stage fright, but although this severely restricted her career she was fortunate in finding a role out of public sight dubbing the singing voice for film actresses in Hollywood. Among these are Vera-Ellen in The Belle Of New York and Three Little Words, Marie Windsor in Dakota Lil, Jeanne Crain in Gentlemen Marry Brunettes, and especially for Rita Hayworth in The Lady From Shanghai, The Loves Of Carmen and, spectacularly, in Gilda.
I recall pianist Loonis McGlohon telling me that Anita’s stage fright affected her even when she was in the company of friends. He told of a recording date at his studio, which was at his home, and how she was badly affected even though only the accompanying trio and a recording engineer were present. Listening to that album, you would never know. Unhappily, Loonis also told me how he would call on Anita whenever he was in New York although as Alzheimer’s took hold she did not know who he was. Even worse, and revealing just how heartbreakingly cruel this disease can be, she no longer knew that she had been a singer.
Just how good she was can be heard on any of her albums; for example, Thinking Of You, The World In My Arms, and the poignantly titled I Wonder What Became Of Me. All of these and more of Anita Ellis’s albums can be found at walk-in or on-line stores, including Amazon.
Back in 1979 Anita made a 30-minute film talking about her childhood, working with Orson Welles, the origins of music, and singing several songs. The apparent absence of stage fright in this film is striking and surprising. At the close of this film, Anita sings an a capella version of Sometimes I Feel Like A Motherless Child that is quite beautiful. This film can be seen on Youtube.
Singers like Anita Ellis who dubbed for film stars were almost never credited at the time or even later as sometimes publicizing their work was contractually forbidden. In recent years, an actor’s inability to sing adequately has been aided by the latest technology. However hopelessly out of tune an actor’s singing voice might be, it can be altered so that even the most inadequate will appear to be pitch perfect. Way back before these technological adjustments were possible it was the dubber who shone, however secretly. Some of these dubbers were remarkably prolific. Jo Anne Greer dubbed for May Wynn in The Caine Mutiny, Kim Novak in Five Against The House, Susan Kohner in Imitation Of Life, Esther Williams in Jupiter’s Darling, Rita Hayorth in Sadie Thompson, Pal Joey and Affair In Trinidad, and Gloria Grahame in Naked Alibi. Martha Mears was the singing voice for Lucille Ball in The Big Street and DuBarry Was A Lady, Rita Hayworth in Cover Girl and Tonight And Every Night, Michele Morgan in Higher And Higher, Marjorie Reynolds in Holiday Inn and Meet Me On Broadway, Veronica Lake in I Wanted Wings, Isn’t It Romantic?, Star Spangled Rhythm and This Gun For Hire, and Jennifer Jones in Portrait Of Jennie. Bonnie Lou Williams sang songs for Virginia Mayo in Always Leave Them Laughing, Piper Laurie in Ain’t Misbehavin’, June Haver in The Daughter Of Rosie O’Grady and Oh, You Beautiful Doll, Jayne Mansfield in Illegal and Alexis Smith in Montana. Marnie Nixon’s singing voice was heard dubbing songs for Deborah Kerr in An Affair To Remember and The King And I, Margaret O’Brien in Big City and The Secret Garden, Jeanne Crain in Cheaper By The Dozen, Audrey Hepburn in My Fair Lady and Natalie Wood in West Side Story. In the last-named film, Richard Beymer was dubbed by Jimmie Bryant, who observed to me that he and Marnie did not meet for the remarkable and timeless duet they sang, she being on the east coast while he was on the west. You would never know it from the warm togetherness of their sounds. A striking quality that many of these singers had was an ability to adjust their voices so that they resembled the speaking voices of the actors. This meant that audiences would readily believe that they really were hearing the actors sing. Some dubbers had singing careers outside the studios and albums by them have been reissued over the years, some in CD format (for these go to Amazon). When these old films are shown on television they do not always stand up to present-day expectations but even when the films are poor, the unseen contributions by behind-the-scenes singers shine who can now be admired for their remarkable skill.
Anyone interested in the work of singers who dubbed for actors in films should go to MOVIE DUBBERS, a site built by Ray Hagen (with Laura Wagner, Steven Tompkins et al). This is an extensive listing (some 700 films) and it is from there that I have taken some of the details shown above.