The most influential movie critic in America, back from an extended cinematic tour in Europe, lost no time in firing a bombshell whose repercussions will be felt for some time. The critic in question is, of course, the New York Times' Bosley Crowther; and the blast was his August 7 column, "Subtitles Must Go!" In it he came out strongly in favor of dubbed English dialogue in foreign language films.
From the mail received in the first few days after the article appeared, the Times last Sunday printed seven letters or epistolary excerpts. Of these, five took issue with Crowther and two supported him. Whether this accurately reflects general opinion on the matter I couldn't say. At any rate, Crowther's column is probably the most potentially damaging Sunday piece he has ever printed. Since his words are received in many quarters as nothing short of scriptural, he should be refuted on this subject by every possible means. So let me touch briefly on the points as he raised them.
"Artistry, commerce and the public's eyesight will best be served" through dubbing, Crowther asserts. Artistry, no; eyesight, no; commerce, doubtful. Can anyone seriously believe that the excision of the speech from the original actors' performances and the substitution of that of a bunch of foreigners outside the supervision of the original director will enhance the artistic result? Are the exact words of the original script, the flavor of the original language, the inflection of the spoken lines, and the timbre of the performers' voices wholly negligible factors?
Of course not. Every actor, whether good or bad, is a unique complex of ingredients, of which his own voice is an essential one; and every actor can be validly judged only when that entire complex is presented inviolate. Otherwise, as Stanley Kauffman put it in his letter of protest, "I would never have heard the voices of Louis Jouvet, Edwige Feuillere, Takashi Shimura, Vittorio De Sica and Victor Sjostrom. These are only a few of the actors about whom I would know much less if Mr. Crowther had had his way." And I myself still recall the disconcerting experience of looking at even such light-weight stuff as a Bob Hope comedy in a Paris theatre a decade ago and being bombarded by an utterly incongruous French-dubbed soundtrack.
Among the Americans who see foreign-language films, more indeed can follow the original dialogue than Crowther maintains. And for those who cannot, subtitles provide the sense without depriving anyone of the vital, special sound of the original. This way, everyone in the audience is served; with dubbing, a large portion of the audience is cheated. Crowther also dismisses completely, as the eminent novelist-critic-essayist Carl Van Vechten remarked in his letter, the sizable number of deaf people, for whom subtitled movies constitute almost the only satisfactory theatrical experience. In addition the preservation of the original sound acts as a check against the insidious kind of distortion and censorship that characterized the dubbed versions of imported films distributed throughout Mussolini's Italy during the 1930's.
Crowther complains of having "to keep darting the eyes back and forth from the images to the subtitles." A moment's reflection should remind him that one does not stare fixedly at one spot on the screen in a non-subtitled film. The eye is constantly on the move, picking up touches all over the (often very wide) screen. So the glancing back and forth in subtitled films is hardly a unique physiological phenomenon.
It is dubious that a dubbed version of a film will, by some magical sort of magnetism, attract more patrons to the box office than a subtitled version. Furthermore, dubbing is a far more expensive proposition than subtitling. And many U.S. importing distributors would hesitate to expend the necessary money for dubbing some films on which they would be willing to gamble subtitling costs. The result would be that we should not be getting to see as many fine foreign imports as we now enjoy.
Now it is true that the synchronization of lips in dubbed films varies widely in quality. But, despite Crowther, even the most skillful jobs are pretty readily detectable as such. And few things so easily destroy illusion in cinema as faulty synchronization of the soundtrack. Besides, languages differ vastly in the time it takes to express the same idea; yet dubbing imposes a temporal sameness, which often cannot be achieved without taking unwarranted liberties with the original text.
Crowther winds up his brief by imploring, "Let's give the general audience a chance to hear what they [foreign language films] are saying." I quite agree; and the way to do that is to give the patrons a chance to hear what the same people they look at are saying. How many persons would attend stage productions if the performers just mouthed their lines while others read them over loudspeakers from the wings? How many would fill a concert hall to hear a late string quartet of Beethoven played by two oboes, a clarinet, and a bassoon? Why single out the cinema for such artistic schizophrenia? At best, the cinema--I guess it needs to be repeated--is a great art-form, and it deserves to be treated accordingly.
Not everyone can be intimidated by Crowther's falling back on the ad captandum rhetoric of ridiculing "the gripes of purists who raise the old voice-of-Jacob cry." Hopefully, Crowther's will prove to be a voice crying in the wilderness.