- A short-lived product of the transition from silents to talkies
- It led to a host of cinematic conundrums and consequences
- Some films were completed in up to a dozen different versions
- Gemma King explores this curio in the first of a series of articles
More often than not, we tend to imagine the transition from silent film to the talkies as a seamless one. Yet in reality, in the late 1920s and early 1930s, filmmakers experimented with a range of possibilities for incorporating sound into the cinema. For several years, many films adopted a part-talkies approach, melding passages of recorded speech with silent-era methods of mime and intertitles. In fact, while the 1929 film The Jazz Singer (Alan Crosland) is often regarded as the first ‘proper’ talkie, it only actually included about 15 minutes of standard sound, with the rest maintaining the characteristics of the silent era. By no means did The Jazz Singer herald an immediate shift into sound cinema: many films produced in the following few years didn’t incorporate speech at all.
In the early stages of sound cinema, filmmakers – and audiences – didn’t quite know what to make of the talkies. For a few years, there was a distinct reluctance to move away, at least entirely, from the silent era. This partly came down to the elevated costs of recording dialogue and partly to the risks of alienating audiences with radical changes to the conventions of the medium. But there is one other fascinating reason for this resistance to the talkies: a popular philosophy of language in early cinema history.
During the silent film period of the late 1890s to the early 1930s, many early film theorists seized on the idea that cinema could play a unifying role across countries and cultures. There was talk of the “universal language” of cinema, and of film’s ability to reach across boundaries and “speak” to all people. Rhetoric on the potential of film in this early period underlined cinema’s ability to transcend boundaries: as Tessa Dwyer explains, “A particularly potent metaphor emerged whereby silent cinema was understood to speak a universal, non-verbal language and to exist therefore in a realm beyond translation”. Unsurprisingly, this concept gained traction in the wake of World War I.
These days, the notion of film as a universal language may seem somewhat quaint. However, at the time there was weight behind the concept, and the talkies threatened to undermine it entirely. It was the Tower of Babel all over again. If the cinema could speak, how could it speak a universal language?
By the mid-1930s, the practices of subtitling and dubbing – practices that remain prevalent today – had been established as the norm for negotiating the language barrier. But between 1929 and approximately 1935, as dialogue arrived on the scene and it became clear the intertitle’s days were numbered, the cinema rushed to find alternative ways to render film across languages. One result was a curious, long-forgotten and wildly uneconomical solution: the multiple-language version film, or MLV.
Multiple-language versions involved reshooting a film in its entirety in several different languages. As a general rule, MLVs included the same director, set, costumes, props and plot, with different casts and, of course, translated scripts. MLV studios in Germany and France began operating from 1929 onwards and Europe dominated the market. Then, once MGM and Paramount jumped on board, every major Hollywood production company signed on to the MLV process, transforming English-language films into mostly French, German, Italian and Spanish-language versions. Remarkably, some of the more popular films were reworked in up to twelve languages; Paramount Pictures’ Paramount on Parade (Edmund Goulding 1930) was given the MLV treatment in Czech, Dutch, French, German, Hungarian, Italian, Japanese, Polish, Romanian, Serbian, Spanish and Swedish. Often, various versions of a film would be shot practically at the same time, with a tight schedule written up for rotating use of studio sets.
The MLV shooting process was labour-intensive, restrictive and extremely expensive, but the final product(s) were easy to distribute across their respective markets. Indeed, there were a few notable critical successes among MLVs, such as the German Der blaue Engel (Josef von Sternberg 1930) and Sternberg’s English-language MLV The Blue Angel, and the various versions of 1931’s Marius (Alexander Korda). Yet despite these successes and the neatly-packaged accessibility of MLVs, the practice never really gained widespread acclaim. From the outset, MLVs were often considered commercialist and industrial. As Ginette Vincendeau writes, “MLVs were, on the whole, too standardised to satisfy the cultural diversity of their target audience, but too expensively differentiated to be profitable”. The impact of the Great Depression also hit the MLV studios hard. As the cheaper methods of dubbing and subtitling rose in popularity, the MLV quickly faded away, due to its expensive, messy and repetitive nature. By 1936, the MLV was a thing of the past.
Today, the vast majority of multiple-language version films have been lost. Yet those that remain can teach us much about the quirks and challenges encountered in the MLV process. Perhaps the highest-profile remaining film is the 1931 Drácula (George Melford, Enrique Tovar Ávalos), the Spanish-language version of Universal’s Dracula (Tod Browning) of the same year, starring Bela Lugosi. Though quite successful, most accounts see the film’s Spanish MLV as paling in significance to its English counterpart. Lugosi remains the definitive Dracula of the period, despite Carlos Villarías’ incarnation of the icon being perhaps equally worthy of praise. On the whole, throughout the brief MLV period, the original version of a film dominated critical reception, and the resultant multiple-language versions were usually perceived as lesser products.
Another curious conundrum which arose from the MLV period was that of stardom and casting. In rare cases, original casts were multilingual and able to adapt to the film’s multiple versions (as was the case for Marlene Dietrich and Emil Jannings in the aforementioned Der blaue Engel/The Blue Angel). But such films were the exception, and creative solutions were required for other star vehicles. In Laurel and Hardy MLVs, for example, the protagonists were rightly deemed crucial to the films’ essence and saleability. As a result, despite their monolingualism, such MLVs were constructed around the main actors. The sets and stars would remain, but supporting characters and languages rotated around them. With each new language version, Laurel and Hardy would simply rote learn the translation of their original dialogue, and pronounce it phonetically. In some of the more rushed versions, the actors can even be caught glancing at their off-camera cue cards. Logically, this technique only added to the concept that the original film (in this case, the English-language version) was the superior one.
Set designs, difficult takes and establishing shots also played complicated roles in the making of MLVs. While close-ups and dialogue scenes clearly called for the respective casts of different language versions, MLVs were not necessarily recreated shot-for-shot throughout the entire film. Landscape scenes, dangerous or expensive stunts and establishing shots were often re-used from the original, to maintain fidelity and to save money. For example, in MLVs of John Wayne’s first starring film, The Big Trail (Raoul Walsh 1930), certain shots of the protagonist on horseback and in motion are actually the original takes of the soon-to-become-iconic Wayne himself. Therefore, many MLVs were in fact a complex patchwork of their multiple selves.
Nonetheless, despite its fascinating complexity, the multiple-language version film remains a footnote in history: a novelty from that transitional phase between the silents and the talkies. Its brief period of operation and commercialist approach to filmmaking mean it is unlikely to hold an important place in film history. But at the heart of the MLV is a Babelian conundrum worthy of our attention and understanding. For this curious moment in film history actually reveals much about how we understand national cinemas, grapple with the commercial and artistic elements of film, and attempt to harness the power of language.
 Dwyer, Tessa. “Universally Speaking: Lost in Translation and Polyglot Cinema” in Linguistica Antverpiensia, vol. 4, 2005, pp. 295-310 (p. 301).
 Dwyer, Tessa. “Universally Speaking: Lost in Translation and Polyglot Cinema” in Linguistica Antverpiensia, vol. 4, 2005, pp. 295-310 (p. 306).
 Vincendeau, Ginette. “Hollywood Babel” in Screen, vol, 29, no. 2, 1988, pp. 24-39 (p. 29).
 Sanaker, John-Kristian. “Les Indoublables: Pour une Ethique de la Représentation Langagière au Cinéma” in Glottopol, vol. 12, 2008, pp. 147-160 (p. 148).
 Nornes, Markus. Cinema Babel: Translating Global Cinema, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007 (pp. 144-145).
Books by Gemma King
- Decentring France: Multilingualism and Power in Contemporary French Cinema (2017) review
- Unanchor Travel Guides:
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