Elsa Fábregas: the art of dubbing

‘As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!’, swears Scarlett O’Hara at the end of the movie Gone With The Wind (1939), one of the most famous quotes of film history. At that time in Spain every motion picture was dubbed, so the Spanish public never heard Vivien Leigh’s voice making this oath. But it was made unforgettable in their language  by Elsa Fábregas (1921-2008), a dubbing artist who was at the beginning of a long and successful career. Advocates as well as opponents of revoicing recognized her big talent which made her one of the most important artists of Spain.

Foto: Joan Sànchez

Elsa made it to the top, because she mastered every single technique and gained expertise of the art of dubbing. The first principles were revealed to her by her aunt Marta Fábregas who in the 1930s already was a great and well-known dubbing artist in France but had moved to Barcelona to look after her orphaned niece. Marta continued her work in Catalonia’s capital and took 13-year old Elsa with her to the studio of ‘La Voz de España’, one of the first and most significant dubbing studios in Spain where she was a successfull director. Soon after this introduction Elsa played her first rôle; after that her dedication to her work, discipline and experience made her into a great dubbing artist who performed in 819 films during her 73 years of active life.

During her long career she gave her voice to a long list of actresses who displayed different speech characteristics, speed was one of them. This could present some difficulties: at times Elsa was close to despair. For example when working on Glenda Jackson who to her seemed to talk like a machine gun, a complex task as the dubbing voice somehow has to coincide with the movement of the actress’ lips.

Moreover each character, rôle and scene requires another way of speaking. Apart from the ability to adapt oneself to these particulars, dubbing also means you should be able to learn the text by heart in order to give the dialogues its original brillance and sincerety. A great sense of hearing and a feeling for the music of words is needed. With just saying ‘hello’ you can convey an infinite number of emotions (cheerful, annoyed, gruff, absent-minded). Not mentioning the physical aspects of the work, like controling the breathing process and using all the vocals when laughing.

Names and a meeting
Among the dubbed actresses Elsa had her likes and dislikes. Her favourite was Doris Day whom she thought very sympathetic; she revoiced her in 11 films. She was not very taken by Bette Davis whose rôle as the twisted character of Jane in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) was very complex, as an array of voices was used which Elsa found rather challenging.

All this variety of actresses making their appearance in Elsa’s studio on each occasion meant research and study: Rita Hayworth as femme fatale Gilda, her best-known performance in the movie of the same name (1945), Gloria Swanson as faded silent-film star Norma in Sunset Boulevard (1952), as well as widely divergent women as Katherine Hepburn, Ava Gardner, Judy Garland, Lauren Bacall, Anne Bancroft, Ingrid Bergman, Elizabeth Taylor, Sofia Loren, Anouk Aimée, Julie Christie, Jeanne Moreau, Shelley Winters, …

imagesNormally she did not meet these women, with one exception. Once she had dubbed comedienne Carol Burnett in a very dramatic rôle. When the actress was in Barcelona, she asked who did the revoicing as it concerned a very intricate character. They met in the Hotel Ritz and found out that Elsa did not speak English and Carol did not know a word Spanish. Nevertheless they hit it off and even acted out a parody: Carol moving her mouth and Elsa saying the words.

Another source of interesting anecdotes is censorship and its effects on dubbing. When sound was introduced into cinema, some countries seized the opportunity to prefer revoicing over screening the original version of a film. These governments, mostly for political (nationalist) reasons, preferred the first option, not only to fortify the country’s identity but also to exert a certain control of the information. Spain was one of nations that dubbed films, a practice that became stronger after the Civil War and during Franco’s dictatorship.

Issues like family, church and politics were the usual victims when scripts were translated. The word ‘divorce’ was never uttered and ‘adultery’ did not exist. How to solve these dilemmas? Well, just changing the story’s plot which led to very strange situations. Like in Mogambo (1953), where the adulterous couple was turned into brother and sister, thus creating an incestuous relationship.

In Casablanca Humphrey Bogart‘s character (Rick Blaine) spoke about his time in the International Brigades during the Spanish Civil War; this fact was deleted and the Spanish voiceover told something else. Elsa felt very bad in the occasions when whole sentences were struck out or when she had to say words that nobody had articulated.

And Catalan?
200px-LestresbessonesigaudiAfter Franco’s death and the beginning of a more democratic period efforts were made to normalize dubbing in Catalan through movies like L’home elefant (The Elephant Man by David Lynch, 1980) or Excalibur (John Boorman, 1981). But it was not until the creation in 1983 of the independent television channel Televisió de Catalunya that it received its definitive impulse. Elsa starred in many Catalan spoken cartoons, such as Les tres bessones (The Triplets) and was Barrufeta (Smurfette) in the comic strip The Smurfs which she also directed. Needless to say that in animated films she spoke the parts with as much dedication as in ‘real people’ movies.


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