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: