The singing films of tenor Joseph Schmidt. Finding a way to determine the different versions of his films. - Elisa Mutsaers 2006
The sound film, and the existence of multiple language versions, already existed before its official introduction around 1927. During the so-called silent period in Germany for example short sound films were made between 1903 and 1913. These were called Tonbilder and were shown in vaudeville programs and up from 1905 in specially built Tonbild-theaters. These short films showed actors and actresses like Henny and Franz Porter while they were singing. On records the accompanying singing, most often popular opera-aria’s, was recorded. The songs were not sung by the actors and actresses themselves, but by ‘real’ singers. To increase the export possibilities, the singing was recorded in several languages, while the actors were kept the same. These Tonbilder were the precursors of the singing films Joseph Schmidt made, to which I will return later on.
After these MLV’s avant-la-lettre, the first ‘real’ MLV’s originated with the coming of sound on film at the end of the twenties. These multiple language versions were meant to be able to continue the export of films in the way that had happened before the introduction of sound. In order to be understood ánd accepted by the audiences abroad, the films had to be translated one way or the other. An alternative for making MLV’s was dubbing an existing film in the language(s) of the audience(s) abroad. It is often thought that the faulty techniques of dubbing were the cause of choosing the alternative solution of MLV’s. This is not true, dubbed films have been made since 1929 like for example an English and French version of the German DIE LETZTE KOMPAGNIE (1929/1930 Kurt Bernhardt). Contempory critics judged the quality of those films, despite ‘a certain metallic sound’, as good. In those early days of sound film the techniques to achieve lip synchronity were also already sufficient. The most important reason why at that time the industry did not choose for the (cheaper) dubbing of foreign language versions had a cultural cause: the audiences abroad could not believe that the voices they heard actually belonged to the characters they saw on the silver screen. They did not (yet) accept that there was no unity of body and voice. In 1930 film theorist Siegfried Kracauer wrote:
“Soll der tönende Film die Internationalität des stummen bewahren, so muß man entweder das Schwergewicht von den Dialogen zurück auf die Bilder oder auch auf die Geräusche verlegen oder jeden Film von vornherein in allen hauptsprachen drehen. Der Versuch amerikanische Sprecher für deutsche auszugeben, ist ein Unding.”
He was not the only one who criticized the dubbing of foreign films, most critics agreed. Getting used to dubbing appeared to be a learning and adjustment process for the audiences. In 1933 was written:
“[that] audiences have gotten used to German conversation dubbed to American lip movements. The critics do not even mention it in their reviews, unless it happens to be particularly ineffective, which is seldom the case today. Despite the campaign against dubbing which filled the German press when the first synchronised pictures appeared here, there is no doubt that it has come to stay and that the average public accepts it without worrying about who owns the voice that comes out of the loudspeaker.”
Since subtitling was less expensive than dubbing, for smaller language markets like for instance the Dutch, producers often preferred to make a subtitled version of a film.
Other, less common solutions to the problem of exporting sound films abroad were the so-called polyglot and phonetic films. In polyglot films every actor spoke his own language (for instance in ALLO BERLIN? ICI PARIS from 1932). Polyglot films were also made in countries where different languages were spoken, like Switzerland. Phonetic spoken films were often difficult to understand. The actors did not really speak the foreign language, but had learned the dialogues phonetically by heart (for instance THE LAUREL AND HARDY MURDER CASE from 1930 of which, besides the American original, Laurel and Hardy also made a phonetically spoken German, Spanish and Italian adaptation).
Until dubbing became common (notably in France, Germany, Spain and Italy) and subtitling won the competition in other countries, some films were produced in multiple language versions and distributed abroad. Of course a producer only did this in case he thought it would be profitable. That is why one sees that for certain (larger) markets a MLV was made, while for other (smaller) markets was chosen for a subtitled or dubbed version of a film. For example: of a German ‘original’ a French MLV was produced, but for the Dutch market the producer decided to make a subtitled version.
Germany started making the first MLV’s in 1929 and the production of it was on its peak in 1931. After that, the number of MLV’s diminished, but they have certainly been made till the beginning of the Second World War. The slow disappearance of MLV’s was related to the advent of two other alternatives that, together with dubbing and subtitling, meant the definite end of the production of MLV’s in the fifties. The first alternative was to sell no longer the film as a whole, but only the rights to re-shoot the film abroad. The result can hardly be called a MLV, but more a remake. When making a MLV, the control over both the ‘original’ and the ‘adaptation’, is in one direct hand: that of the producer. With selling the rights of a film to another country, the producer in the ‘motherland’ naturally trusted his right of say about the newly to be made film out of his hands. This diminished the risk for a producer considerably. In the case of a MLV for a producer the success of a film depended directly on the success of the film with the audiences. To selling the right of a film to another producer no risk was attached, the producer in the ‘mother country’ got a certain amount of money that was agreed upon and the risk whether a film would or would not catch on with the audiences abroad, was the risk of the foreign producer. With that type of remakes the possibility existed to change the story in such a way, that, for instance, the story was placed in a different environment or social background.
A second alternative consisted for instance of a German production company that chose to make a film in France for a French audience with German supervision on the production floor.
Besides the fact that MLV’s are only one of many solutions to the problem of making films understood ánd acceptable to foreign markets, there is another remark I would like to place in order to moderate the position of MLV’s in a wider context. MLV’s are of course not the only type of versions that have been made and kept. Since the beginning of cinema different versions of films have been made by producers, distributors, directors, exhibitors, censorship organs and even audiences. Film archives have to deal with all these kinds of versions or adaptations, specifically on two levels: cataloguing and restoration. Knowledge about the existence of all these different versions and its seperate characteristics and contextual background is important for deciding which title to give to a film in the catalogue of the archive. In the case of the films of Joseph Schmidt it is important to know that MY SONG GOES ROUND THE WORLD (UK 1934) is not just the English title given to the German film EIN LIED GEHT UM DIE WELT (Germany 1933), but that we are dealing with a MLV, which means that the English adaptation is a self-contained film. And when restoring a film one should be aware of all possible adaptions of a film in order to be able to decide on the base of which of those versions the restoration will be carried out. The MLV is only one varation on the existence of many, but because of the nature of the variation, one that is very important, not only to specialists but also to the practice of film archives.