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 films.
Multiple-language version (MLV) films are those 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 Gemma King’s article, The Multiple-Language Version Film: A Curious Moment in Cinema History, here’s a unique guide to the best examples on Blu-ray (BD) 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.
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.
- MLV availability
- Anna Christie (1930)
- The Big House (1930)
- The Big Trail (1930)
- The Blue Angel (1930)
- Free and Easy (1930)
- Murder! and Mary (1930/1931)
- Night Birds (1930)
- The Three from the Filling Station (1930)
- Other media
- Related articles
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 natively both on VHS 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, unsubbed VHS videos.
It would obviously be impractical for their producers to release all of these mostly niche films with multiple subtitle options and many have no subtitles at all. I’ve included each one’s subtitle status where known and recommend you also check with DVDCompare. If all else fails and you’re more technically minded, numerous sites offer downloadable subs in different languages for synchronising to your own copies.
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 in the joint third and fourth of many screen adaptations of Eugene O’Neill’s 1921 play (Gutenberg). The 1923 version starred Blanche Sweet and has been released on US R0 DVD-R (Grapevine, 2011).
Naturally, Garbo somehow accomplishes her gloomy 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 Belgian 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.
Fortunately, both MLVs have been included on DVD but only in the US and Germany.
The US DVD has English, French and Spanish subs on the English MLV and burned-in English subs on the German version, while the German DVD has optional Italian and Spanish dubs for the English MLV, and a whole host of subs in all major European, Scandinavian and other languages. Most other releases only contain the English version, along with the same broad selection of subs and dubs. Beware the cheap Spanish bootleg (Llamentol, box set); all legit versions bar the Japanese IVC come from Warner Bros.
The B&W English transfer looks perfectly acceptable, but is clearly made from an older video master and could benefit from a full restoration. Not least of which because original release prints were distributed on DuPont lavender pre-tinted stock, as perhaps uncoincidentally reflected in publicity materials produced for the original run and 1962 reissue. In all, the film should look like the beautiful lavender sequence in Howard Hughes’ Hell’s Angels (1930).
Anna Christie’s German MLV is comparatively rough, but there’s already a superior copy somewhere out there, as a clip in much better shape is excerpted in the Garbo documentary (2005, 86min). A US DVD, coded for all regions, is the only issue of said doc and is also included in the US Signature Collection. The various other Garbo collections with Anna Christie also include Camille, which features both her 1936 talkie and the 1921 silent version starring Alla Nazimova and Rudolph Valentino.
- US: 2-sided DVD, also in 10-DVD/13-film GG: Signature Collection w/Camille
- Germany: DVD, also in 6-DVD/8-film GG Metallbox Collection
- Germany: Prime Video
- US: Prime Video
- UK: DVD, also in 6-DVD/8-film GG: Signature Collection w/Camille and 5-film/4-DVD GG Collection
- Italy: 6-DVD/8-film GG Scatola di metallo Collection
- France: DVD, also in 8-DVD/10-film La Boîte en métal Collection GG
- Spain: DVD | alt
- Poland: 6-DVD/8-film GG Metalowe pudło Kolekcja
- Japan: IVC DVD (1998, reissued 2002, 2012)
- Australia DVD
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’s 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 Trail (1930)
One of the first big-screen Western epics, The Big Trail helped establish a then almost unknown John Wayne as the “Duke.” In this sweeping pioneer adventure, a courageous young scout (Wayne) leads hundreds of settlers across treacherous cliffs, through brutal snowstorms, Indian attacks and buffalo stampedes to their destiny out west. Along the way, he loses his heart to a beautiful pioneer woman (Marguerite Churchill) whose love he never stops trying to win. Tyrone Power Sr. also stars in this visually spectacular classic that remains one of the greatest movies of its genre. – US DVD
This was John Wayne’s first starring feature, a truly magnificent, sprawling epic that, though a hit 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, with each foreign version incorporating a completely different cast and crew. There were two different aspect ratio original English versions: 70mm widescreen (WSV) and 35mm standard (SV), and French (La piste des géants), German (Die grosse Fährte), Italian (Il grande sentiero) and Spanish (La gran jornada, released in Spain as Horizontes nuevos) 35mm standard versions. All bar the French were also released in the US. There was even a seventh, silent, version prepared from the English SV, that is known to have also played in Spain. It had ‘flash’ intertitles, consisting of just a few frames, substituting for the most important dialogue. These would have been locally translated and replaced in non-English speaking territories.
“Fast Shooting: Only 13 days were required by Louis R. Loeffler, director, in shooting the Italian version of “The Big Trail.” Although he is of German descent, Loeffler speaks Italian fluently. The Spanish version of the same picture was finished in 16 days, the French in 18 days and the German in 22 days.” – The Film Daily, December 28, 1930
The accelerated shooting times for the MLVs were possible because in the main, only close-ups and some medium shots were redone with different casts; long shots and general action scenes were all taken from the English SV. The widescreen version was one of only two features 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 experimental foray, Fox quietly abandoned the format.
Wayne would star in only two more A-budgeted 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.
To date The Big Trail has been issued in these countries:
- US: BD/DVD set w/both English versions on BD and WSV on DVD – sleeve claims BD is region A but it’s actually R0/free!
- UK: DVD w/English SV only – repackaged several times, singly and in box sets, but all are identical
- Germany: BD/2-DVD set w/both English versions and the German SV (without subtitles)
- France: Blu-ray (1080i) and DVD (2011, reissued 2015) – all w/WSV only
- DVD w/English SV only
- Spain: DVD w/English SV only – beware of the Spanish pirate BD from Feel/Resen/Suevia
- Benelux: DVD w/English SV only
The Blue Angel (1930)
One of the most well known and commercially successful 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 (Der blaue Engel) and an English version.
Both versions have been restored and released in these countries:
- US: Kino 2-BD (2013) and 2-DVD (2001)
- UK: Eureka DVD (1999) – both MLVs on one extras-free disc
- Germany: Universum 2-DVD (2001)
- France: mk2 2-DVD (2004, reissued 2007), also in 51-DVD Voyage autour du Monde en 50 films
- Spain: Divisa BD/DVD (2013, reissued 2018) and 2-DVD (1999)
- Benelux: Living Colour 2-DVD (2007) Bol.com
Almost all releases contain numerous extras providing invaluable context, with the latter two UK sets offering the most comprehensive package overall. The remaining sets all have near identical content, so your choice comes down to subtitle requirements. Be sure to avoid any other US or European discs than these: they will be unrestored “public domain” or pirate copies (especially from Italy) or at best, single disc versions of the above sets, containing only the German version and few or no extras.
Weimar Republic centenary trailer for the film’s UK and Ireland re-release and the BFI Southbank’s May-June 2019 season Beyond Your Wildest Dreams: Weimar Cinema 1919-1933:
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).
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! and Mary (1930/1931)
Murder! and its German-language twin Mary have been covered separately as part of the Alfred Hitchcock Collectors’ Guide. The former is perhaps the most heavily bootlegged MLV of all, but I’ve compiled a round-up of all legit releases. Just prior to these, Hitch directed another MLV, Elstree Calling, but of its whopping nine language variants, it’s only available in its original English version.
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’ itself derives from the Latin capere, meaning to grab or apprehend.
Night Birds has been released on DVD by Network in the UK. The original Der Greifer can be had on Alive’s DVD, which has 13 contemporary film trailers and a 24-page illustrated booklet but sadly no subs. The 1958 remake has been issued in Germany by Studiocanal with some minor extras and German subs. Avoid the US Sinister Cinema DVD-R and Amazon Prime Video version: they’re bootlegs.
The Three from the Filling Station (1930)
The Three from the Filling Station (Die Drei von der Tankstelle) was one of the most commercially successful German films of the 1930s and much like Hitchcock’s seminal The 39 Steps (1935), it kicked off a franchise that includes numerous remakes and stage adaptations. The original film was shot alongside its equally successful French MLV, The Road to Paradise (Le chemin du paradis, 1930), and trilingual German superstar Lilian Harvey led both versions. Both of these hugely enjoyable musicals also spawned several evergreen hit singles.
Uniquely, owing to their enduring popularity, both German and French versions also actually received back-to-back MLV remakes! Both retained the original films’ titles and were released in 1955 and 1956 respectively. Sadly, thus far only the former is available on DVD. There’s even a 2002 role-reversal remake – The Three Girls from the Gas Station – also available here and here. In 2005 and 2006, the original screenplay was adapted as a musical then a play, both of which have proved extremely popular and are regularly performed around Germany, ensuring the original’s legacy lives on to this day.
The 1930 German MLV was originally released on a vanilla DVD in 2004, also included in a 4-DVD collection dedicated to Heinz Rühmann, one of its leads. The following year it was also issued in the 60-part DVD/magazine series mentioned here.
In 2006 the film made a third appearance on disc as part of das fantastische Deutsche Tonfilmklassiker 10-DVD box set, with German and English subtitles, and a 24min featurette. This is the one to aim for; among the set’s 10 English-friendly DVDs of some of the most notable German films of the 1930s and 1940s are no fewer than five MLVs, all of which I’ve covered in this series (The Blue Angel, The Congress Dances, M and Amphitryon). Each is accompanied by a featurette of 17–33min in length, several of which contain alternate MLV clips. Unfortunately though, the set’s now long deleted and very rare; hearty congratulations if you manage to find a reasonably priced copy.
Finally, a newly restored version, in its original 1: 1.19 aspect ratio, appears in HD via Die große Heinz Rühmann Box, a BD and DVD set featuring four films with the star. Though each has its own informative 8-page booklet, there are no other extras, save for the other three titles having one original trailer, or two in the case of Quax, the Crash Pilot (Quax, der Bruchpilot, 1941). Nor even any subtitles, I’m afraid.
The 1930 French MLV, unavailable for many years, was finally released on DVD in 2017.
If you liked this, you’ll love:
- The Multiple-Language Version Film: A Curious Moment in Cinema History
- Multiple-Language Version Film Collectors’ Guide – 1930 films
See DVDCompare for more in-depth details of any of the discs mentioned.
If you’ve any questions or suggestions, post in the comments.