Multiple-Language Version Films: The Ultimate Buyer’s Guide

Q: What do the following have in common?

Laurel and Hardy, Greta Garbo, Buster Keaton, Marlene Dietrich, Alfred Hitchcock, John Wayne, Dracula and Fritz Lang.

A: They all made or starred in multiple-language version (MLV) films.

“Huh?”

MLVs are films shot in several different languages, often simultaneously, and were a short-lived solution to managing the transition from the silent to talkie eras. Following on from our recent introductory article, The Multiple-Language Version Film: A Curious Moment in Cinema History, here’s a unique guide to the best examples on Blu-ray and DVD.

The main criterion for inclusion on this list is that an MLV should be easily available to buy or view, in whole or in part, in at least two different versions. There are literally dozens of others, most often the domestic versions, that are available on disc in one language only – usually English, French or German – but even the survival of their counterparts is far from assured.

Greta Garbo in Anna Christie (1930), filmed in English and German multiple-language versions, MAFrezzaDesign.com redux

Greta Garbo in Anna Christie (1930), filmed in English and German multiple-language versions

As with the sad fate befalling the silents before them, it appears that of the hundreds of MLVs produced in the early sound era, the majority, usually the foreign export versions, have not survived. Those that are extant are scattered around the world in various archives and private collections. MLVs have particular appeal for fans of silent film, as most of them were made by casts and crews that had risen to the top of their respective professions during the silent era. However, unlike with silent films, no one has yet attempted to catalogue all those that are extant, let alone restore them, other than for a few noted exceptions – which are among those detailed in this guide.

Here we cover MLVs released in 1930; films dating from 1931 onwards are included in Multiple-Language Version Films: The Ultimate Buyer’s Guide, Part 2, while Stan and Ollie’s many MLVs are covered in Laurel and Hardy’s Multiple-Language Version Films: The Ultimate Buyer’s Guide (coming soon). I sincerely hope our series on MLVs will help in some small way to reawaken popular interest in this fascinating yet unjustly forgotten chapter in cinema history.


Contents


MLV availability

MLVs were produced in the US between 1929–1933, after which Hollywood studios abandoned the practice altogether. Of course they’re all, by definition, Pre-Coders; many are considered perennial classics and have been released on home video by numerous companies worldwide. Though there are far too many to list individually, increasingly a significant number of the rarer ones are emanating from the Warner Archive Collection.

Germany’s UFA studio was by far the most prolific producer of MLVs overall, being involved in around 160 versions of 75 titles between 1929–1939. Many of their domestic versions have been released there both on VHS video and DVD, though seldom with any subtitles at all. In addition, many of UFA’s French productions have been released in that country but usually only on rare, long-deleted VHS videos.


Region coding

Most DVDs and Blu-rays cannot be played in other countries without region free audio/video equipment. Some, but not all, region codes have been indicated; in particular, if a DVD is noted as “R0/NTSC” that means it will play anywhere in the world. Region 0/free discs have no coding and discs mastered in the NTSC format are compatible with all TV systems worldwide. PAL format DVDs (and PAL standard definition Blu-ray menus and extras) will not play on most US or Canadian equipment. Here’s more detailed information. Collecting films on disc becomes a whole lot easier when you get a multi-region A/V setup!


Anna Christie (1930)

“Garbo talks!” for the first time, went the marketing and so she did – after becoming an international silent screen superstar – in English and German, as it happens. Greta Garbo certainly wasn’t afraid of tackling grittier roles: here she plays a fallen woman seeking love and redemption. Naturally she somehow accomplishes this portrayal while ever shimmering like the silver screen goddess she was.

The German version was made and released a year later than the English; only Garbo remained, while the rest of the cast were replaced by native speakers. Garbo, clearly more comfortable speaking in German, preferred that version, which was helmed by renowned filmmaker Jacques Feyder. As was still often the case, a silent version was also prepared for cinemas not yet converted for sound. Anna Christie has the rare distinction of being the only MLV to have exactly the same title for both of its versions and all international releases.

Anna Christie (1930) starring Greta Garbo, US lobby card

Anna Christie (1930) US lobby card

Both MLVs have been included on either side of a US region 1 double-sided DVD, but elsewhere it was issued as a single-sided disc containing the English version only. Several Garbo collections also include the DVD of Camille, all of which feature both Garbo’s 1936 talkie and the 1921 silent version starring Alla Nazimova and Rudolph Valentino.


The Big House (1930)

This gritty, documentary-feel prison drama, one of the first, helped kickstart a whole cycle of such films. The sets were reused for Laurel and Hardy’s MLV spoof on the genre, Pardon Us (1931). The Big House was made in English, French, Spanish and German versions. Unusually, all four survive and the first three are included in a US R0/NTSC 2-DVD set (don’t mistakenly get the earlier, English version-only, single DVD). There is a brief clip of the German MLV, Menschen hinter Gittern (Men Behind Bars) in this documentary on the life of its star, Heinrich George.

The Big House (1930) US film poster

The Big House (1930) US poster


The Big Trail (1930)

This was John Wayne’s first starring feature, a truly magnificent, sprawling epic that, though successful at the box office, failed to recoup its huge production costs. It was actually shot in six different permutations, the most of any in this guide. There were two different aspect ratio original English versions: 70mm widescreen and 35mm standard, and French, German, Italian and Spanish 35mm standard versions. There may even have also been a seventh, silent, version prepared from the standard English one.

The widescreen version was shot in 70mm Fox Grandeur, a precursor of the Todd-AO system of the 1950s. The huge cost of producing the Grandeur version and a lack of suitably equipped venues to screen it in contributed to The Big Trail‘s overall commercial disappointment. Ultimately, widescreen wouldn’t become commonplace for more than two decades and after this film, Fox quietly abandoned the format.

Wayne would star in only two more A-list films for Fox: after an argument he fell afoul of studio head Harry Cohn, who saw him demoted back to supporting actor status. It would take another nine years of labouring in mostly B-Westerns and bit parts before he got the lead in John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) as The Ringo Kid. Released in what’s commonly held to be Hollywood’s greatest ever year, it shot Wayne almost instantly to superstardom and he never looked back.

The Big Trail (1930) starring John Wayne, US poster

The Big Trail (1930) US poster

To date The Big Trail has been issued in these countries:

  • US: Blu-ray/DVD dual format set, containing both English versions on the Blu-ray and the widescreen one on DVD – sleeve claims the Blu-ray is region A but it’s actually region 0/free!
    • US: region 1, 2-DVD set with both English versions
    • US: DVD, English standard version only – also in several box sets
  • UK: DVD, English standard version only – repackaged several times, singly and in box sets, but all are identical
  • Germany: 3-disc Blu-ray/2-DVD dual format set, with both English versions and the German version (without subtitles)
  • France: Blu-ray and two differently-packaged DVDs, all with the English widescreen version only
  • Spain: DVD, English standard version only – beware of a Spanish Blu-ray on the “Resen” label: it’s a pirated copy


The Blue Angel (1930)

One of the most well known MLVs of all, The Blue Angel is replete with iconic imagery, dialogue and songs. Marlene Dietrich’s first international starring role and Emil Jannings’ last, this eternal tale of one man’s love and lust dragging him into a downward spiral was shot in original German and an English version.

The Blue Angel (Der blaue Engel) (1930) with Marlene Dietrich and Emil Jannings, US poster

The Blue Angel (1930) US poster

Both versions have been restored and released in these countries:

All releases contain numerous extra features that provide invaluable context, with the UK sets offering the most comprehensive package overall. Be sure to avoid any other US or European discs than these: they will be unrestored public domain versions, pirate copies (especially from Italy) or at most, single disc versions of the above sets, containing only the German version and few or no extras.


Free and Easy (1930)

This is Buster Keaton’s first starring talkie after giving up his independence to work for MGM and, to put it mildly, is not one of his best. Buster’s funny business pretty much plays second fiddle to a fairly standard love story between a young couple. It calls to mind the triangular dynamic of Chaplin’s The Circus (1928) – sadly, minus most of the laughs.

The simultaneously-shot Spanish version, Estrellados (Starry), featuring an awkward, phonetically-speaking Buster with a different cast, is even worse. Buster was contracted to make a total of four of his films as MLVs and reportedly loathed the experience, saying that as if making a damn terrible movie wasn’t bad enough, he now had to do it twice!

Estrellados (badly) reuses much of the footage from Free and Easy, augmented with new Spanish-language scenes. A third version was prepared for the French market, but it was merely the English version with added French intertitles. Estrellados features Carlos Villarías in a minor role, on his way to actually starring in another Spanish MLV the following year: Drácula. Incidentally, Buster also appeared in The Hollywood Revue of 1929, which was subsequently re-edited into the now-lost German MLV, Wir Schalten um auf Hollywood (We Switch to Hollywood, 1931).

Free and Easy (1930) starring Buster Keaton and Anita Page, Ohio theatre film poster

Free and Easy (1930) Ohio theatre poster

To date, this film has only been released in the US. The English and Spanish versions are both included on an R0/NTSC DVD, while the English version only is part of the extras-heavy R1 3-DVD Buster Keaton Collection, along with The Cameraman (1928) and Spite Marriage (1929), two of his better silents. The Free and Easy disc also includes So Funny It Hurt: Buster Keaton & MGM (2004), a 38 minute documentary co-directed by noted film historian Kevin Brownlow. It charts the artistic and personal decline of Keaton as he struggled to come to terms with working within the studio system. Handily, it also features clips of both the Spanish and French versions.


Murder! (1930)

As with so many of his films, Murder! and its German sister, Mary (1931), are firstly known these days for having been directed by Alfred Hitchcock. They’re densely plotted mystery-thriller whodunits with numerous typically Hitchcockian twists. Mary is almost half an hour shorter than Murder! so somewhat more streamlined. A third version, presumably French, was initially proposed but didn’t transpire.

Murder! (1930) directed by Alfred Hitchcock, US film poster

Murder! (1930) US poster

A common misapprehension is that Hitch’s British-made films lapsed into the public domain at some point between the 1950s–1990s, but this is completely false. However, many companies continue to flout their copyrighted status and extremely poor quality bootlegs of the US edit of Murder! proliferate, along with Hitch’s other British films. If you think I’m exaggerating their awfulness, check out these captures. If you’d genuinely be happy watching that, I’d strongly suggest getting thee hence to Specsavers. What’s more, I’d also suggest you’re probably on the wrong website. Nearly all of Hitch’s British films have been released in restored, high quality editions, often costing no more than the knockoff versions. But always check carefully before buying: there are far more bad DVDs than good ones.

All official DVDs of Murder! feature the British theatrical version, as opposed to the American, which is shorter by around 10 minutes. Several of them also include an extra “alternative ending”, which is actually the last abbreviated 10 minutes of the American version. It is of interest as it includes two brief specially-shot scenes not present (or necessary) in the British version. The numerous bootlegs mostly contain poor quality copy of the American print. Murder! has seen these official releases so far:

All feature the same transfer, but there are two differing restored soundtracks. One was left untampered, while at several points on the other the strange decision was taken to replace foley effects or even add new ones altogether. The US set has original audio, while the Euro DVDs have the altered version. This also applies to Rich and Strange (1931), part of the same set. Hitch suffers particularly badly from the attentions of bootleggers and any releases not listed here are poor knock-offs, so should be avoided.

Mary (1931)

Mary (1931), German version of Murder! (1930); both directed by Alfred Hitchcock. Film-Kurier magazine cover

Mary (1931) Film-Kurier magazine cover

It’s easiest to get both MLVs on the Murder! R2/PAL German DVD mentioned above, which goes under the film’s German title: Mord – Sir John greift ein! (Murder – Sir John Intervenes!). Unfortunately, Mary only has optional German subtitles, while Murder!/Mord has an additional German dub. Mary can also be found on an R2/PAL French DVD of Hitch’s Jamaica Inn (1939). Do beware though: both its films only have forced French subtitles, meaning they can’t be turned off . There’s a second French disc which came with a Hitchcock DVD-magazine series but is a real rarity. Almost needless to say, it too only has French subs.


Night Birds (1930)

This British made, wisecracking detective thriller moves along at a fair old pace, and is about a gang of thieves who target the wealthy and the law’s efforts to apprehend them. Harder-edged than you might expect, it’s set in and around a London theatre; fans of musicals and glamorous Art Deco fashions and interiors should definitely investigate. The film was also produced for German audiences as Der Greifer (1930), starring Hans Albers at the outset of a 15 year tenure as his country’s biggest film star. Rather confusingly, the German MLV was remade in 1958 under the same title, also starring Albers as the same policeman character, but this time on the verge of retirement.

Interestingly, Greifer (‘gripper’ or ‘grabber’) is the German equivalent of ‘copper’, the English slang for policeman, while ‘copper’ derives from the Latin capere, meaning to grab or apprehend.

Der Greifer (1930) starring Hans Albers and German language version of Night Birds (1930). Czech film poster

Der Greifer (1930) Czech poster

Night Birds has been released on DVD by Network in the UK. The original Der Greifer can be had on Filmjuwelen’s German DVD, while the 1958 remake has also been issued in Germany by Studiocanal. Avoid the US Sinister Cinema DVD: it’s a pirate.


If you enjoyed this, I suggest you check out:

See DVDCompare for more in-depth details of any of the discs mentioned.

If you’ve any questions or suggestions, post in the comments below.

About Brent Reid

I started Brenton Film because I love silent film – quelle surprise! For more, see this site's About page.

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