Giving Credit When Credit Is Overdue: The Great Paul Frees And The Untold Secret of “Some Like It Hot”

I’m going to reveal a secret.

Paul Frees certainly isn’t a secret, or shouldn’t be. You know Frees, even if you don’t know his name. He was a brilliant vocal talent who, like his better-known contemporary Mel Blanc (the voice of Bugs Bunny, et al.) was called “The Man of A Thousand Voices.” Frees was more versatile than Blanc, however, and more ubiquitous as well. He was the voice of Boris Badenov in the “Rocky and Bullwinkle” cartoons, as well as the voice of Santa Claus, Jack Frost and dozens of other characters in the Rankin-Bass animated specials that are still shown every Christmas.

Frees did a killer Orson Welles impression that was used is several films, and by Stan Freberg as the narration for his immortal comedy album, “Stan Freberg Presents The United States of America (Part I). He was the voice of both John and George in the Beatles’ animated TV show, and  Ludwig Von Drake for Disney. He recorded the “Ghost Host” of Disney’s Haunted Mansion ride; indeed, his voice turns up in many rides in the theme parks, including “Pirates of the Caribbean.” In commercials, he was Poppin’ Fresh, the Pillsbury Dough Boy;  Toucan Sam, the Fruit Loops mascot who sounded like Ronald Coleman for some reason; and Boo Berry, who was a spoof of Peter Lorre. His Peter Lorre imitation had been honed as a member of Spike Jones’ troop of musical maniacs, and his Lorre-rendition of “My Old Flame” is a highlight of “The Best of Spike Jones” album, which I play often to maintain my sense of humor in dark days…

None of that is the secret, however.

I was watching “Some Like It Hot” two days ago on TCM. The classic movie comedy, another Billy Wilder masterpiece, is probably Marilyn Monroe’s best film, and Tony Curtis’s as well.  With Jack Lemmon (who had many great films), Curtis plays one of a pair of jazz musicians who are on the run from mobsters and disguise themselves as women to hide out with an “all-girl band.” Curtis is “Josephine” and Lemmon is “Geraldine,” and both somehow fool Marilyn (and, famously, a goofy tycoon played by Joe E. Brown) with falsies, high heels, wigs and falsetto voices, of which Tony’s is especially convincing.

I must have seen the film ten times, though not from the beginning in a long time. For some reason, though, when I watched the film this week, I was especially struck, in rapid succession, by three thoughts the first time that Lemmon and Curtis tried out their drag personas. First, I thought, “Wow, Tony Curtis’s falsetto voice is even better than I remembered it!” and then I thought, “Wait, was that line out of sync with his lips?,” and THEN I thought, “No! They didn’t dub Tony Curtis’s ‘Josephine’ lines, did they?”

I checked, half expecting to find that an actress had played the voice of “Josephine.” I found this….

So – my own personal favorite untold story is the dubbing of Tony Curtis’ drag performance in Some Like it Hot by Paul Frees. Ed Sikov’s recent book on Billy Wilder doesn’t address it… I had noticed on my own a long time ago that there was something fishy about “Josephine’s” voice. My ear was used to Paul Frees’ vocal gymnastics from any number of cartoons, commercials, etc., and I suddenly realized that that was whom I was hearing. A year or two later, Curtis himself appeared on the summer television series “The Copycats,” which, as you may remember, featured impressionists. He “recreated” a scene from Hot with Rich Little portraying Jack Lemmon as “Daphne.” And, the odd thing was, Curtis couldn’t do that wonderful, Eve Arden-like voice he’d had in the film!

Eventually, VCRs appeared, and I was able to tape the movie and study it. Yes, the room tone changed whenever “Josephine” spoke. Yes, there was a lack of synchronization from time to time. And, yes, there was even a brief moment that didn’t seem to be re-dubbed, with “Jo’s” voice a shrill falsetto, unlike the velvety purr it was otherwise.

Years later, The New York Times ran an article on famous re-voiced performances, such as Glenn Close dubbing Andie McDowell in Greystoke, and James Keach doubling for male model Klinton Spilsbury as the voice of The Lone Ranger. They later printed a letter from a gentleman in Chicago in response. It seemed that he’d interviewed voiceover artist Paul Frees on his radio show, and Mr. Frees spoke at some length about how he’d been called in to dub “Josephine,” when it became clear that Tony Curtis’ efforts wouldn’t do.

I got the Chicago man’s number from information and, feeling vindicated, called him long-distance that afternoon to talk about it. I’d been right, all those years! And yet, not one word of the story has ever appeared in print, aside from that letter.

Little by little this has found its way into some sources online, but it is still not generally known. The studios used to pay premium prices to those secret dubbers, like Marni Nixon in “West Side Story,” “The King and I” and “My Fair Lady,” to maintain the lie that the stars had done all the work themselves. But Curtis is dead, Frees is gone, and it is fair and just that the great vocal artist finally receive credit for his major contribution to a classic film.

So now you know the secret, and so should every other fan of the film.

Here’s the real Paul:

11 Comments

Filed under Arts & Entertainment

11 responses to “Giving Credit When Credit Is Overdue: The Great Paul Frees And The Untold Secret of “Some Like It Hot”

  1. Steve-O-in-NJ

    Modern Boris Badenov:

    I weel now light thee fuse of thee secret bombing shoe…oh no, ees moose and squirrel!

    Hang on Rocky, I’ll hold him down, you hit him with the fire extinguisher! (Gdangg!)

    Oooh, I am exteengueeshed…

    • JLo

      Cold war comedy for kids at its best!

      @ Jack – with more stories like this you are going to need a side blog. And I would happily subscribe!

  2. Bob

    There are many things I love about your blog (I check it every day), but perhaps the best ‘fringe benefit’ is your engagement with classic American media.

    I love that you often talk about Dumbo, It’s a Wonderful Life and other pop culture touchstones of the previous Great American Century.

    I have been a great fan of Frees for years, and never miss an opportunity to point out to my husband when his voice (usually uncredited) appears. (Whenever you ‘hear’ Orson Welles, it’s often Frees.)

    I know this is heresy, but I’m one of the very small minority who doesn’t find Some Like It Hot funny. I love Joe E. Brown in it, and think it’s often glorious to look at, but the laughs never really pile up for me. For comedy, I usually go for extremes — either the surreal machine-gunning of the Marx Brothers, or the sweet, syncopated rhythms of Laurel and Hardy.

    But thanks for this post! It was a welcome smile from the usual round of bad news.

    Side question — will you address the controversy of the recent Met Gala?

    • I guess I have to.
      As for SLIH: I appreciate it more than I like it. I’m not a fan of drag skits generally. I really enjoyed Tony’s Cary Grant impression: that’s the film’s highlight for me. And Joe E., of course.

  3. luckyesteeyoreman

    Frees had that John Facenda, Voice-Of-God quality in that Disney Haunted Mansion. “Consider THIS dismaying observation: This chamber has no windows, and no doors (hm-hm-hm-hm-hm)…which offers you [us, the hapless, accursed visitors to the mansion] this chilling challenge – to find a way OUT (HA-HA-HA-HAAAA…!!)…of course, there’s always MY wayyyy…” [lightning flash, thunder clap, scream, and corpse hanging in the rafters]. I haven’t been to a Disney-themed venue in 15 years. I guess they got to me.

  4. Alex

    There’s something about his expression in that photo at the end that makes me smile. It looks like he’s having way too much fun doing his job. 🙂

    Would you happen to know who he was voicing at the time?

  5. Keih

    Jack, I assume you’ve seen the musical version of this movie? “Sugar” is the show that made me fall in love with musical theater. What a riot. Spats Palazzo – the tap-dancing gangster! Great stuff.

    • I was briefly cast as the Joe E. Brown character in a community theater production of “Sugar” that was so bad, it was cancelled before it hit the stage. The Marilyn character was played by an actress who couldn’t act, or sing, and who was overweight. “Spats” was played by a local actor who could dance, but was recovering from a hear attack, so he couldn’t do much more than sway—and he couldn’t tap dance anyway. The director was incompetent, then got sick and had to quit. Even Paul Frees couldn’t have saved this mess.

      • dragin_dragon

        Once had a REALLY bad experience while playing Bob Ewell from ‘Mockingbird’…director (guest) who had tried to turn it into a comedy, wanted me to actually twist the arm of Scout’s brother, which, since I was a foot and a half taller and outweighed him by over 100 pounds would have, actually broken his arm. Obviously, I refused, and reported this request to the Managing Director, who took it to the Board. This director was never again invited to do a show with us.

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