THE VOICES (Part I)


















Recently, I assigned a reading from Benjamin Dreyer's delightful examination of English language usage, Dreyer's English, to my AP students. Among the topics I asked them to address was the word "plummy" to describe a particular type of vocal quality that Dreyer says "is too rich, too proper, too self-conscious--that is to say, too-too". I thought this was a wonderful description, and to make it come to life I included in the assignment a YouTube clip of the delectable Joan Greenwood essaying the role of Gwendolyn Fairfax from The Importance of Being Earnest. I can't imagine a more perfect example of "plumminess", a term created to describe the way one speaks if one has a small plum lodged within the mouth before forming words. It is the sound we associate with "poshness", the elites, and the British landed gentry. Maya, one of my most irrepressible and culturally aware students, responded to my question by saying, "Gwendolen Fairfax did indeed have a plummy speaking voice. She sounded rich, proper, soothing yet snobby, sexy, but I would not say comical. I have never heard the term plummy speaking voice, but now that I know what it is, I could name a few people who share that characteristic. Eleanor Parker who played Frau Schrader in The Sound of Music (movie) takes the cake for having a plummy voice." I hadn't watched The Sound of Music quite deliberately for some time, but when I went back and checked, Maya was spot-on about Parker's "rrround tones".


That comment inspired me to write about some of the great voices I have ever heard, a subject I have long studied and appreciated. I have received many comments over the years about my own voice, since early in puberty when I was shamed by my music teacher for no longer being able to sing the descant vocal lines above the tenor. But I also remember going to a teller at my local bank and having her surprised that such a deep voice came from such a youthful presence; "You have a voice for radio," she said. Even before that, I think, my appreciation for vocal genius manifested itself in my appreciation of the voice that narrated Fractured Fairy Tales, a segment on the Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoon show starting in the late 1950s that took a wacky, post-modern look at the stories of the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen. I didn't know who Edward Everett Horton was then, but I loved the way he spun the stories. Horton began working in the Silent Era and was still making movies into the 1970s! I've probably seen him in more than 40 pictures, almost always playing the put-upon butler, the put-upon husband, or the put-upon businessman. He was perfect for the role.

Below: Edward Everett Horton narrates an unusual "take" on the Hansel and Gretel story.

Edward Everett Horton often had to contend with another character actor with an idiosyncratic sound--Eric Blore. London-born, Blore probably portrayed a butler even more times than Horton had. I've also enjoyed him in literally dozens of comedies made in the 1930s. Below is a clip from a Fred Astaire film, The Gay Divorcee, where Blore is paired with Horton in a delightful duel of two vocal artists. Blore plays the waiter serving Horton. Just listen to the way he says "toasted scone"!

Of course, all the great voices weren't comical ones. My father was not right about many things, but he loved the actor Herbert Marshall, and it's hard to imagine anyone with more dulcet tones. Marshall's career was almost derailed from the beginning, as he lost a leg in World War I, but he took off just as sound was being introduced to film and his career lasted into the 1960s. He played comic roles with panache, but he could handle dark, dramatic parts, as well--even murderers. Still, I will remember him best as Gaston Monescu in Trouble in Paradise, Ernst Lubitsch's comic gem from 1932. Recently, I watched Angel again, a lovely love-triangle film from 1937 that paired Marshall with the great Marlene Dietrich at her most glamorous. Marshall, who is almost always dressed in evening clothes in his pictures, is forced to compete with Melvyn Douglas for the affections of his own wife. He makes his first appearance at about 22 minutes into the film (along with Edward Everett Horton, of course!), and five minutes later he shares a sexy and sweet exchange with Dietrich.

Speaking of sexy voices, I certainly don't want to leave out Lauren "Betty" Bacall, who created fever dreams in most American males when she burst onto the scene at the age of nineteen in To Have and Have Not, based on the Hemingway novel. The much-older Humphrey Bogart was soon smitten and, ecstatic that his ardor was reciprocated, soon divorced his wife to marry Bacall. They became one of the most romantic couples in Hollywood history, making four films together. When Bogie died in 1957, Bacall put a whistle in his coffin, a tribute to the film that brought them together, seen below. Bacall was famous for her "whiskey" voice or "smoky" voice or "whiskey and cigarette" voice, and a number of Hollywood stars (Kathleen Turner comes to mind) have used a raspy or deep voice as a claim to fame. "You just put your lips together and...blow", she says. Perfect. More great voices next time, including the God of voice actors, Don LaFontaine.