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Why Do People In Old Movies Speak with a Weird Accent?

By Dustin Rowles | Miscellaneous | May 13, 2015 | Comments ()


old-movies-accent-weird.jpg

Last night, Mrs. Pajiba-hyphenate was watching an old black-and-white on the telly, and at one point, she turned and asked, “Why do people in old movies talk like that?” It’s a valid question, and if you’ve ever seen a Cary Grant or a Katherine Hepburn movie, and you’re not 70 years old, you might have wondered the same thing.

It’s called a Mid-Atlantic English, and as I tell my son about monsters and other fictional things, “it’s not something that exists in the world.” Basically, it’s a made up accent: It’s a mix of British and American that rich people acquired so that poor people would know they were rich. It’s the “posh” accent, and it’s very similar in that respect to the Boston Brahmin accent.

Basically, back in the early half of the 20th century, you could acquire the accent in one of three ways: You developed it naturally by hanging out with a lot of pretentious rich people; you acquired it at a boarding school, where for some reason it was taught up through the 1950s; or you cultivated it for the stage or film. It was very popular in entertainment, so a lot of actors and actresses acquired it; it was even taught at acting schools. That’s why people in those movies talk funny. They were putting on airs.

The accent is obsolete now, although you can still hear it if you watch old movies with Hepburn, Grant, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, etc., or if you listen to old speeches from Franklin Roosevelt. It was also affected by Frasier and Niles Crane in their sitcom, “Frasier,” as well as Juliane Moore’s character in The Big Lebowski (as opposed to Juliane Moore’s accent in “30 Rock,” which is a Boston accent mixed with bad acting).

Believe it or not, our old friend “Torchwood’s” John Barrowman also uses it, although it is completely by accident: In learning to use an American accent, his British accent got mixed all up in it, and now his natural accent is something akin to Mid-Atlantic English.

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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • George Maitland

    For some reason, I bet Gwyneth Paltrow secretly wishes this accent was still in existence today.

  • Now that you mention it, I'm astonished that she hasn't been working to revive it.

  • duckandcover

    Moses supposes his toeses are roses.

  • But Moses supposes erroneously.

  • lukebc

    It resulted from the transition from silents to "talkies" when the studios sent their "most valuable" stars to enunciation schools "to prepare for proper speaking".

  • Elisabeth

    I always wondered why the bachelor men looked so old back then. Were they really in their 40's and still single?

  • Cary Grant was 36 when The Philadelphia Story was made; Katharine Hepburn was 33, and James Stewart was 32. But a lot of it is styling. I remember reading an interview with Christina Hendricks after the first season of Mad Men. She said that people kept saying, "But you're a BABY," because her contemporary makeup and hair looked so much younger than the highly polished 1960 style that Joan Holloway sported, and at the time Hendricks was actually half a decade older than her character.

  • Truth Boot

    I'm from back East. I sound just like Little Edie Beale. I know it and I own up to it.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?...

  • janet444

    Julianne Moore didn't have a Boston accent mixed with bad acting in 30 Rock. She had a bad fake Boston accent with otherwise good acting. I'm from Boston and that's not how we tawk heah.

  • Liz

    I think this might be one of the first movies where the male lead doesn't do a faux over-enunciated accent, plus Marlon Brando was hot as fuck when he was young.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?...

  • denesteak

    OMG yea! I've ALWAYS wondered this!!!

    now to read this article.

  • mernymerlyn

    We watch a lot of old movies at The Merlyn's residence as well. It's funny listening to them and trying to figure out where they are from exactly.

  • Halbs

    I was unaware of the history of this. Awesome read.

  • East Coast Bronco

    Princess Leia uses it when she's bad mouthing Grand Moff Tarkin....Just before he blows her planet to hell...

  • Jiffylush

    I know a guy in his 60s that has affected a faux english/scottish (it's so bad) accent. He slips in and out of it and it just annoys me to no end. He's an "artist" (those would be very deliberate air quotes) that has lived his life in a small town east of Charlotte, NC. If he was just some guy that I ran into occasionally it would be one thing, but we are both in a 12 step program found close to the front of the phone book and he just drones on and on talking about the same shit over and over. Whenever someone refers to him as that english or that scottish guy I judge them, I judge them so hard.

  • Shawn

    Best example from my childhood... Mr. and Mrs. Howell.

    My father called it "Ascot English". If someone was pretentious enough to wear a ascot, he usually spoke in this manner.

  • glittergirl1970

    Also Aunt Bee!!!!

  • loo shag brolley

    That's perfect.

  • Muhnah_Muhnah

    I learned English in Kenya (as a 4th language), then moved around in Europe, then Australia, then ended up in London for the past 7 years. You take all that and mix it with a slew of friends from all kinds of cultures with all kinds of accents and you get...something like that. It also changes depending on who I'm talking to (mimic their accent) or how drunk/tired I am (I sound more British then) or which movie/show I've been watching or if I'd been speaking another language for a while. I'm sure my fellow non-native English speakers know what I mean. I'm glad to learn there's a term for it.

  • idiosynchronic

    So Mid-Atlantic = Permanently Sozzled?

  • Muhnah_Muhnah

    Pretty much.

  • Berry

    My husband says that my former local dialect starts coming back trough when I talk on the phone with my dad. I never consciously tried to get rid off it, and I never notice when I slip back, but it apparently it happens.

  • RobynRobotron

    My accent doesn't really come out until I'm around my family.

  • Muhnah_Muhnah

    You're Finnish, right? That's one language that just blows my mind. It sounds like NOTHING ELSE! It's like from another planet...it is, isn't it? I speak Norwegian with a neutral accent, but sometimes use Northern dialect words and that sounds weird. I love the mess you can get into with accents.

  • Berry

    Estonian and Finnish are close language relatives, and sound kind of alike.

    Norway has lots of regional dialects and accents, right? Plus the whole nynorsk vs. bokmål thing which I can't claim to completely understand.

    Edit "It's like from another planet" Ha ha, that reminds me of what Erlend Loe wrote about Finnish, something along the lines of it sounds like a pretend language made up by children.

  • Muhnah_Muhnah

    Aha, never heard Estonian. But yes, it does sound completely alien. And in written form, it looks like it should have its own alphabet.

    Yeah, Norway is a mess of dialects and I don't even understand some of them. As for the nynorsk/bokmål thing, I'm convinced it was invented to make students' lives a living hell. Some dialects actually sound like nynorsk and others like bokmål, but aren't. Ugh. For a country with 5 million people, it's a bit much.

  • Fabius_Maximus

    Don't Hungarian and Basque belong to the same language family as Finnish?

  • Berry

    Hungarian, yes. It's kind of a distant relative, if I remember correctly, and the two languages are very different. But when I've visited Hungary, I've sometimes noticed that it can sound a bit familiar, if you don't pay attention to the actual words, and just listen to the rhythm and such of the speech instead.

    Basque, to the best of my knowledge is not. But in addition to Estonian, Hungarian, and Finnish there are some very small Siberian languages that are part of the Finno-Ugric language family.

  • zeke_the_pig

    It's also - and I believe this is the scientific term - Annoying As Fuck.

  • Scottieboy

    Julianne Moore's accent in 30 Rock was DELIBERATELY awful, you do know that? That was part of the joke, and it was referred to many times. Moore is incapable of "bad acting".

  • FredEx

    I was about to yell: YOU LEAVE JULIANNE MOORE ALONE!

  • Nimue

    Yeah I was going to saw that it was supposed to be bad. Come on, it's Tina Fey and Julianne Moore, I figured it was super obvious.

  • MellieOleson

    Barrowman has an accent mix of Midwestern American, English and Glaswegian Scottish. Never forget the Scottish :).

  • For the love of all that's holy, her name was spelled "Katharine." She's a fucking icon, for God's sake.

  • M.

    Oh thank goodness I didn't have to write this. Bless you.

  • cgthegeek

    I think Robin Givens tried this accent in "Boomerang". She failed.

  • poopnado

    I was confused by this accent for so long...until I forgot about it, and then came across the Wikipedia page for it somehow. Then the world finally made sense.

  • Untamed

    You do know that Cary Grant was British, don't you? His accent is not entirely affected but rather a natural combination of American and Brit. Katherine Hepburn was a dyed in the wool Connecticut born and raised Yankee and her upper class accent was naturally acquired.

  • thepixinator

    Yep, and I believe Audrey Hepburn was Belgian and was schooled in London and the Netherlands, hence the unidentifiable, continental accent.

  • And she spoke six languages.

  • Neither one of them even remotely mid-Atlantic.

    Auntie Mame's Gloria Upson was also from Connecticut, which in no way keeps this from being one of my favorite movie "accents" of all time (Rosalind Russell, playing Auntie Mame? Also from Connecticut.)

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?...

  • e jerry powell

    To this day I still have no freaking idea what Gloria Upson's accent is about. Nouveau Riche confuse me. and she's first generation. But then, I come from Texas, where the nouveau riche don't know that they're supposed to sound affected.

  • And yet they're top drawer--simply top drawer!

  • RobynRobotron

    One of my favorite bits from Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt was a reference to this scene.

  • AbbySaurus

    My avatar goddess Myrna Loy, is a great example.
    Now I need to go watch The Animal Kingdom for the 2,432nd time.

  • cranky_chick

    How sexy AND cold was she in that movie? I'm an Ann Harding fan myself, but Myrna burns up the screen in that movie.

  • JoeK

    I fell in love with her in The Thin Man:

    Nora Charles: How many drinks have you had?
    Nick Charles: This will make six Martinis.
    Nora Charles: All right. Will you bring me five more Martinis, Leo? Line them right up here.

  • AbbySaurus

    My husband gave me a complete Thin Man box set a couple years ago for Christmas. Needless to say, I was a happy camper.

    Nora: Waiter, will you serve the nuts? I mean, will you serve the guests the nuts?

  • I might have that same box set on my DVD shelf. Those are great movies, and they have a rare villainous role for Jimmy Stewart.

  • lemurlove

    The dialogue in them is fantastic--so many double-entendres you have to really pay attention.

  • lemurlove

    The Thin Man films are all gems. The later ones are disappointing, but still interesting--US culture and gender roles changing before your eyes.

    Your husband is a good guy :)

  • blech

    Doesn't Kelsey Grammar always speak like Frasier Crane?

  • DarthBrookes

    Well, this is where they all learned the Mid-Atlantic accent...

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?...

  • Linzer

    The Mid-Atlantic accent is precisely why The Philadelphia Story is perfect. You've got Hepburn and Grant poshing around while Stewart is charmingly Stewart, as always.

  • I love that movie so much - not least for Dinah, who was a treasure and here demonstrated that enormous emotion (which teenagers still do): http://38.media.tumblr.com/aa5...

  • e jerry powell

    Virginia Weidler was all over the place leading up to Philadelphia Story, too. Ten pictures in 1939, including her turn in The Women. It's difficult, in these days after the fall of the studio system, to imagine anybody being in ten films all released in the same year. Not even Kevin Hart.

  • Ryan Ambrose

    Damned fine movie that one. Surprisingly poignant, too.

    https://alexandrachaos.files.w...

  • Berry

    https://31.media.tumblr.com/tu...

    I do often wish that the movie would end with Tracy ditching Dexter and going with beautiful baby-faced Jimmy Stewart instead.

  • Calla Dain

    No love for Ms. Liz Imbrie eh? Do you suppose she should have ended up with Dexter, or perhaps Uncle Willy?

  • Berry

    She's the reason it's "often" and not "always". But one does suspect she could have held her own with Uncle Willy.

  • Jezzer

    I'm more concerned about why people in old movies emote like they want their emotions to be visible from space.

  • Deb

    Good point. I've noticed that, too. Luckily Brando came along and did a lot to change that, as did The Actor's Studio.

  • Gael O'Brien

    Watch the movie "Singing in the Rain" sometime. It is set in the early days of "talkies", and shows quite a few of the technical difficulties they had getting sound to work, not the least of which was dealing with mics.

  • Benny Gesserit

    It's also a holdover from expressionist filmmakers. When movies were still silent, the actors had to portray emotions with even more physicality because a subtle change in voice would be meaningless. Even after talkies began, many directors who transitioned to the new medium expected that level of physical emotion. "Don't just sob, work those shoulders!"

  • googergieger

    Seriously good acting didn't exist until like the 80's. Oh no wait, I'm thinking about crack. I always get those confused.

  • emmalita

    Naturalism, as an acting style, didn't hit Hollywood until the late '60's.

  • cranky_chick

    I read The Star Machine by film professor/historian Jeanine Basinger some years which discussed the 'making' of movie stars during the studio system days in which this was discussed. Naturalism was discouraged - all actors/actresses were taught the same method and given the same vocal training. It explains the universal adoption in the early days of cinema of speech poshness.

  • blech

    My guess is that acting as a whole was in transition from stage (big, broad, play to the back of the house) to camera (the camera sees all).

  • thatsmrsnyder

    I have an answer like that, actually...

    First, they probably learned it from the stage where the back row had to see their emotions as well as the front. Second, they were releasing these films on screens that were not SuperMegaUltraHfuckinD designed to show off every pore.

    Probably.

  • Ryan Ambrose

    Well said. Plus, actors back then had to talk much louder, since microphones of the era weren't very good at picking up clear sound, hence actors' tendency to mug for the camera every now and then, and why everybody in His Girl Friday seems to only be able to communicate exclusively by yelling at each other and at such a rapid pace it comes across more as heavy artillery fire than dialogue.

    Probably.

  • Berry

    "everybody in His Girl Friday seems to only be able to communicate exclusively by yelling at each other and at such a rapid pace it comes across more as heavy artillery fire than dialogue."

    And this is why His Girl Friday is an international treasure.

  • PDamian

    I've been watching old MASH episodes on Netflix, and I'm astonished at how much emoting at high volume the actors do. Alan Alda and Jamie Farr in particular sound as if they're shouting their dialogue. Only William Christopher and David Ogden Stiers speak in modulated tones. I've always assumed that it was because of lousy sound systems.

    BTW, the MASH episodes on Netflix are all shown in their entirely, minus the choppy editing that they get when shown in reruns to make room for commercials. It's really amazing to see stuff that you don't catch when you can't pause the things: mike booms that intrude into the picture frame, more than a few places where the camera caught the edge of the tent where the side was cut away so filming could take place, etc.

  • thatsmrsnyder

    Definitely. I grew up watching MASH, and have all the seasons on DVD.

    Oh, and David Ogden Stiers is MAGNIFICENT.

  • thatsmrsnyder

    I forgot about the volume thing. Good addition.

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