Reader BWA sent me a delightful series of links, which I (being the kindly soul I am) will share with you. I have long been a fan of Laurel and Hardy, but I had no idea they were hugely popular in Italy, nor that their dubbed voices were so distinctive and well loved. This page (by Jeff Matthews) tells the story of how it came about:

Perhaps the strangest sidelight in this whole matter is that dubbed voices can become part and parcel of another culture, evoking allusions and inside jokes just as do the original voices in their own culture. The Italian voices of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy are the best example of this. When talkies came in, Laurel and Hardy had already achieved world-wide fame on the basis of their short silent movies. There was such a new demand for them speaking, however, that for a time they actually reshot their scenes hurriedly in other languages, pronouncing their lines from scripts written in phonetic English. These scenes would then be sent abroad to be spliced into the rest of the film, which had been remade in the target language using local actors. That soon proved impractical, especially for longer feature films. Consequently, for the Italian market the decision was made to dub the films of Laurel and Hardy in American studios using Italian-American actors, who, presumably, thought they were speaking standard Italian. Their own Italian, however, had been maimed by at least one generation of nasal semi-vowels, unrolled r’s and Wrigley’s Spearmint.

When the studios in Rome reviewed the first dubbed-in-America Laurel & Hardy film to see what they had, the American English accented voices were so hilarious, that someone came up with the idea of redubbing everyone else into normal Italian, but leaving Stan and Ollie with accents. There followed a nation-wide contest to find the voices of Laurel and Hardy in Italian. One winner was the now famous Italian comic, Alberto Sordi, whose career started as the voice of Oliver Hardy. His anglicized Italian as ‘Ollie’ has become so much a part of Italian popular culture that an Italian, today, can do Oliver Hardy by saying, with a broad English language accent, ‘stuPIdo’ (accenting the second, instead of the first, syllable, in imitation of Sordi’s version of Oliver Hardy) and have it recognized as instantly as an English-speaker would recognize, “Well, here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten me into!” Indeed, Italian mimics still regularly pay tribute to Laurel and Hardy, imitating the dubbed voices. (The Italian voice of Stan Laurel was Mauro Zambuto, who, after WW II, moved to the United States and became a professor of Electrical Engineering at the New Jersey Institute of Technology.)

So, without taking anything away from the universal nature of the humor of Laurel and Hardy, it is fair to say that in Italy, much of their popularity was—and still is—due to the spectacularly successful way they are dubbed. There is no Italian comic (not even the great Totò) who, by voice alone, is as recognizable as are Laurel and Hardy in Italian.

You can see clips of Alberto Sordi, including a shot of the actual dubbing back in the day and a final, touching reunion with Zambuto, here, and an example of their work here (the first part of the deservedly famous The Music Box, from 1932). Enjoy!


  1. I think they were pretty popular throughout Europe. My mother knew them in Germany as Dick und Doof (Fatman and the Doofus).

  2. Verissimo! Grazie 🙂
    My grandparents could even misspell the Italian version of their names and used to say “Stallio e Ollio”. I doubt they were the only ones to do that.

  3. They’ve got English accents. Possibly Italians can’t really hear the difference, I know most Norwegians can’t.

  4. I agree with AJP – they sound much more English than American to me. Mind, Stan WAS English, of course, born in what was then part of Lancashire and is now part of Cumbria.

  5. Driving down I-20 Thanksgiving week, we found out there’s a Laurel and Hardy Museum in Harlem, GA — birthplace of Hardy. It’s a room of knickknacks and another for showing videos.
    They have a festival the first weekend in October and get Laurel and Hardy impersonators from all over the world. Apparently they get something like 40,000 people showing up for this. So, yes, they’re popular.

  6. It does come across as more English than American, but I think there’s a reason for that: it’s the exaggerated diphthongization of /o/ and /u/; many, if not most, Americans have slight diphthongs (not to the extent that Estuary/RP/whatever English)for these vowels, without realizing they do; as such they often have them when they speak foreign languages (I believe this is what is technically known as “having an accent,” though that may be something involving diacritics; who knows when it comes to this jargony mumbo-jumbo). So exaggerate this feature for comic effect, and voila! it sounds English to Americans.
    Nice yod insertion and voicing of the /s/ in “scusi.”

  7. It occurs to me, further, that the exaggeration may not just be for comic effect; since Italian lacks the sort of light diphthongs English has, the only option is to go for /eo/ and /eu/ with a bit of rounding thrown in. So this is an Italian accent in his American-accented Italian, making it sound like a British accent.

  8. There’s also the fact that the favored accent for actors in that era was a transatlantic one that sounds somewhat English to American ears (we discussed it here); you can hear tinges of it in Ollie’s English when he’s drawing himself up and trying to be polite and/or masterful.

  9. Worth noting that the peculiar Sordi/Zambuto
    intonations were so familiar in Italy that they were themselves parroted in the the weird 1977 comedy Kakkientruppen, long after S&Z had gone on to other gigs.
    The relevant clip is here:
    I wonder if there are other dubbers who have so thoroughly taken over the roles of the original artists.

  10. Your linguistic analysis would be great, but it says the actors were Italians who were found in a nationwide contest (the above-mentioned Alberto Sordi & Mauro Zambuto), not Italian-Americans.
    It’s not really a British accent – in fact I’m not sure there is such a thing as a British accent in any meaningful sense, it’s not remotely either Welsh or Scottish – it’s a non-rhotic, r.p. English accent. Surely the reason they sound English is because they learnt it from an English person rather than from a USian or an Australian etc.

  11. Your linguistic analysis would be great, but it says the actors were Italians who were found in a nationwide contest (the above-mentioned Alberto Sordi & Mauro Zambuto), not Italian-Americans.

    My analysis was based on them being Italian, not Italian-American. I guess I was unclear. Oops. This communication thing—it’s hard for me.

  12. Oh, sorry. In that case, it was great!

  13. That sort of thing happens a lot in coutries where foreign movies are dubbed. The prime example from my neck of the woods is Louis de Funès whose Czech voice was supplied by the late and great František Filipovský. One still marvels at how Filipovský – a comic genius in his own right – managed to replicate de Funès’ apparently inimitable delivery, let alone make it make sense and be funny in Czech.
    Then there’s the famous case of the British crime drama Dempsey and Makepeace, extremely popular in late ’80s Czechoslovakia, in which much of the conflict came from the oddball pairing of a high-class English female detective (Makepeace) with a stereotypical New York working-class cop (Dempsey). The Slovak translation and dubbing was generally considered so good that the show wasn’t dubbed into Czech until decades later when the comprehension of Slovak among Czech viewers dropped significantly. Back then, I of course knew nothing of the finer points of the oddball pairing like the contrast between Glynis Barber’s refined Queen’s English and Michael Brandon’s Brooklyn English. When two or three years back I finally got to see the show in the original, I was completely astonished at how briliantly the Slovak voices – Kamila Magálová and Boris Farkaš – managed to capture and reproduce that distinction. I still don’t know how they did it, though I’m pretty sure that Magálová as Makepeace adopted a peculiar intonation pattern and Farkaš as Dempsey spoke in a tone lower than his natural one and he did something to his r’s and vowels. Let me see if I can find the dvds…

  14. marie-lucie says

    I last saw Laurel and Hardy as a young adolescent, and I don’t remember how Hardy spoke French, but Laurel had a British accent. I found his “r”‘s particularly noticeable.

  15. The breathtaking rush of substitutions in the first and second paragraphs is worth the price of admission.
    1. Does “phonetic English” mean transliterated?
    2. Did they really initially try re-shooting scenes rather than just dubbing them? How could they imagine they could splice re-shot scenes with L & H with a locally remade movie when the L & H scenes should be most of the movie, many scenes would have contained both L & H and supporting actors, and the props and settings would differ between the two movies? Sounds like a serious road test of the square wheel.
    3. “leaving Stan and Ollie with accents” does not mean the hilarious Italian-American accents but new (simulated) accents by Zambuto and Sordi.

  16. How could they imagine they could splice re-shot scenes with L & H with a locally remade movie when the L & H scenes should be most of the movie, many scenes would have contained both L & H and supporting actors, and the props and settings would differ between the two movies?
    You should watch They Saved Hitler’s Brain sometime.

  17. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    L&H were subtitled as Gøg og Gokke in Danish; or maybe they were actually dubbed, ESL was a high school thing until after WWII (replacing German as the first foreign language for some reason). There was a “travellers’ cinema” at the Copenhagen Central Station, and I remember watching some L&H shorts there with my grandfather in the late 60s. I could probably read when I saw them, but I don’t remember if they were dubbed.

    Denmark didn’t have to copy L&H with local talent. L&H were the local talent copying Ole and Axel.

  18. When I was a boy, in the 70s, Laurel and Hardy films (“Dick und Doof”, as mentioned up-thread) were shown on German TV on early Sunday afternoons as entertainment for children, together with other silent movies (Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton). I remember them only as silent movie, without any distinct voices, although they must have shows the talkies as well…

  19. David Marjanović says

    I’ve watched some of those.

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