Let's hear it for the unsung heroines

Audrey Hepburn's voice - a captivating cross between a croak and a sigh
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Hollywood screen legend with a voice like a drain? Then send for the ghost singers. david benedict remembers ever seen a musical starring Tulla Ellice Finklea? Well, you probably have, only you didn't know it. Wisely, the studios changed her name to Cyd Charisse. Nobody minded the screen name, but they might have been less impressed to discover that her screen voice was not her own. There she is in Brigadoon, complete with dubious Scottish accent, dancing over "The Heather on the Hill" in glorious CinemaScope, but it's Carole Richards you hear on the soundtrack.

Unlike Naomi Campbell who is famous for not having written her own novel, screen legends have been very particular about keeping the business of dubbing strictly under wraps. Michael Alexander's The Ghost Singers on Radio 2 this Tuesday is a fascinating expose of the facts behind the facade. Lengthy searches in the BBC vaults have unearthed soundtrack recordings and tapes of generally uncredited talents - musical stand-ins for stars who were lacking in the vocal department.

Although Singin' in the Rain cast actors who could and did sing for themselves, Betty Comden and Adolph Green's screenplay was actually all about dubbing. Jean Hagen's fabulously over-the-top Lina Lamont is a silent-screen star trying to cross over into talkies but facing a supreme obstacle: a high-pitched, glass-shattering, nasal Brooklyn whine of a voice. Up pops perky Debbie Reynolds, she of the all-American vowels. She goes in a dubber and comes out a star; but for the most part the history of Hollywood dubbing is the story of a host of singing, yet unsung heroines.

Rita Hayworth began dancing at the age of six and although she made it big in motion pictures in 1941 starring opposite Fred Astaire in You'll Never Get Rich, her voice was no great shakes. Enter the first of four dubbing artists who were to do the honours for Hayworth over the years. (Alexander thinks this is probably some kind of record.) Cover Girl (1944) is not the classiest MGM musical of all time, but it had a clutch of great numbers by Jerome Kern and Ira Gershwin and a smart cast including Gene Kelly, Phil Silvers, and Hayworth as Kelly's girl, Rusty Parker. In one scene, she got to play her own grandmother but she didn't get to sing. Back at the studio, it was Anita Ellis breathing sexily into the mike with a musical match for Hayworth's sultry tones. And it was Ellis who provided the vocals on Hayworth's single most famous moment, the nightclub scene in Gilda, when she takes the floor, tosses back her mane of hair and torches the crowd with "Put the Blame on Mame".

Ellis is one of the few dubbing artists to have gone on to a significant career in her own right. London's theatre restaurant Joe Allen's proudly displays a framed poster for one of her past concerts emblazoned with the critical rave "Anita Ellis, A Legend Sings!". Listening to her recordings, the big surprise is not her technical control - a basic requirement for a dubbing singer - but her enormous range and the variety of colours in her voice. One minute it's that Hayworth sound, the next , a sweet soprano more reminiscent of Doris Day.

The other famous name in dubbing circles is Marni Nixon. Her biggest on-screen claim to fame is having been one of the four nuns singing "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?" in The Sound of Music, an assignment which has doubtless assured her a placein camp heaven at the very least. Before that, you had to be a serious musicals aficionado to know that she had been the unseen star of three of the biggest hits in musical theatre history. There are bits of Deborah Kerr on the soundtrack of The King and I, but whenever the Richard Rodgers score requires more than speak-singing, it's Marni who supplies the sound. Her next smash was West Side Story. None of the leads from the stage production made it to the screen, and, a touch absurdly, none of their replacements was a singer. Natalie Wood had many qualities but vocal prowess was not one of them, so back came Marni. Richard Beymer was dubbed by Jim Bryant and back came Betty Wand, a kind of musical Meryl Streep. She had played Parisian, dubbing LeslieCaron in Gigi, and she did a mean Puerto Rican in the utterly different role of Anita.

For My Fair Lady (1964), the studio persuaded George Cukor that they needed a star; although Julie Andrews was well on the way, having created the role in New York and London, she was not yet a household name. Ironically, that year she not only made MaryPoppins, but stole the Oscar from under the nose of George Cukor's choice. Audrey Hepburn's voice, a captivating cross between a croak and a sigh, had seen her through "Moon River" in Breakfast at Tiffany's (directed by Andrews' future husband, Blake Edwards) but the Lerner and Loewe score demanded a real singer. Who did they get? Marni Nixon. Anyone wanting to check out Nixon's performance, however, will have to go back to the album. Last autumn, the film was re-released, but not only was the colour restored in the new print, Nixon's tones were replaced by the newly-discovered tapes of Hepburn's original recordings.

There have been cases where audiences sat up and begged for someone to come in and dub. Peter Bogdanovich's At Long Last Love was a wonderfully scored, beautifully shot, $6m disaster in which Cybill Shepherd and Burt Reynolds mounted an assault on musical comedy. Nobody on the team stopped to point out that neither star could make it through to the end of a song, particularly when Bogdanovich insisted on shooting every number live, a practice unheard of since the 1930s.

Opera has had more than its fair share of dubbing tales, the most notorious being a famous Fifties recording of Tristan und Isolde conducted by Furtwangler starring Kirsten Flagstadt who was a touch long in the tooth by the time she recorded this, one ofher most famous roles. With her top notes not quite what they once were, she reluctantly agreed to let Elizabeth Schwarzkopf come in to record the top `C's on the express understanding that it should remain an iron-clad secret. It was never clear just who leaked it, but much to Flagstadt's fury, the story came out. Conversely, almost everyone knew that when 20th Century Fox produced Carmen Jones, Hammerstein's remarkably successful musical update of Bizet's Carmen, mezzo Marily n Horne toned down her style, lightened up her voice and brought the house down providing a voice for Dorothy Dandridge.

Dubbing dramas are not so far behind us. Even Andie Macdowell has suffered. Hugh Grant chose smooth-toned Andie in Four Weddings and a Funeral and can't register any complaints under the Trades Descriptions Act. Not so Christopher Lambert in Greystoke where Macdowell looked decorous but sounded, well, wrong. Hardly surprising when you consider that it's Glenn Close you're hearing on the soundtrack.

Top of the Pops abandoned miming to records long ago. Videos aside, what you see is what you get. But what about the Milli Vanilli scandal? Fifteen minutes of fame and then someone wised up to the fact that they were nothing but a pretty front for a studio band.

History doesn't relate the names of the perpetrators of that particular crime. Back at The Ghost Singers, Michael Alexander has one last jewel that has to be heard to be believed. In 1970, in an inspired piece of casting, Lauren Bacall stormed Broadway in Applause, the musical based on All About Eve. Hey, everyone knew she could sing. Why, she even crooned to Humphrey Bogart in her debut screen role in To Have and Have Not, didn't she? No she didn't. That was no lady, that was a fifteen-year-o ld Andy Williams. If you don't believe it, tune in.

The Ghost Singers can be heard on Radio 2 at 9pm Tue 17 Jan