In an old movie I’m watching, the camera closes in over the back of a piano. It shows the musician’s smiling face, but I know he’s not playing: his arm movements don’t quite match the notes on the keys.
You wouldn’t expect casting directors to always find actors who can play the instruments called for in scripts. Occasionally, they do. Hoagy Carmichael tickled the ivories for The Best Years of Our Lives. Andy Griffith put his high school music teaching experience to use when he played folks songs on the guitar. Lucille Ball gave an unforgettably honest rendition of Glow Worm on the saxophone on her show, as her husband overshadowed her on the bongo drums.
Vocals for musicals on the silver screen have been dubbed for a long time. Marnie Nixon was actually singing for Audrey Hepburn, Natalie Wood, Deborah Kerr and others; but I was surprised recently to find out that even Christopher Plummer in The Sound of Music didn’t cut the mustard. There have been some twists, like Jean Hagen voicing over Debbie Reynolds who was voicing over Jean Hagen’s character in Singing in the Rain. Try to figure that one out. And in West Side Story, it was Tucker Smith performing Russ Tamblyn’s solos for Officer Krupke. Good thing it was recorded, because Tucker was also among the backup boys. Mr. Tamblyn’s incredible gymnastic and dancing ability more than made up for the substitution.
Good dancing is pretty hard to fake. Eleanor Powell, Bill Robinson, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers were all the real deal – even James Cagney showed his stuff in Yankee Doodle Dandy.
In the sports arena, remember Cary Grant ice skating in The Bishop’s Wife, or Moira Kelly and D.B. Sweeney in The Cutting Edge? Closeups were managed OK, but the routines belonged to professionals. Robert Redford really did belt curve balls in The Natural (not quite as far as that clock, though), having played baseball in college; Esther Williams and Johnny Weissmuller were hired for their excellence in swimming as well as their good looks. The cowboys in westerns had to be able to handle horses and many did their own stunts, according to reminiscences.
Baking cookies in a film is a little different. There have been so many Christmas movies where the finished results are obviously the work of a propman or art director. If the Food Network can find people who know how to bake, I think Hallmark could too. It doesn’t take that long to learn!
Sally Field said that yes, that’s her really knitting in a scene in her newest movie. She revealed that knitting has been her hobby for years, and that she coached the others to make their work look believable.
I suppose it’s picky to criticize people for pretending to do things in what is already a pretend medium. And really, if I want to see something authentic, I can go to a musical on the regional stage or save up for a trip to Broadway. The talent there belongs totally to the cast.