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  • Ah, there's nothing like watching an old movie.

  • The acting was top-notch, there were many films in genres that aren't as popular anymore

  • like classic westerns and musicals, and the black-and-white style somehow adds to the

  • experience.

  • It's the perfect way to spend a lazy evening at home.

  • There's just one thing that keeps bugging you.

  • Why does everyone in these old movies talk so weird?

  • No matter how many old movies you watch, in all sorts of genres, you notice the same thing.

  • You can't put your finger on it, but there's a very distinct style of speaking that you

  • don't notice anywhere else - and you certainly don't see it in today's movies or TV,

  • or in everyday life.

  • The only other time you can remember hearing it is when you were over at your grandfather's

  • house as a child.

  • He liked to listen to the radio - no need for that newfangled television box - and the

  • old radio drama repeats he listened to sometimes had that same odd accent.

  • It went away at some point, but what was it?

  • And where did it go?

  • You can't put your finger on it, but you do notice certain repeated patterns when the

  • actors in these old films speak.

  • They seem to drop the Rs in their words, so words likewinnercome out aswinna”.

  • On the other hand, the Ts in words seem to be strongly emphasized.

  • The vowels seem to be a bit softer than when you usually hear people speak, so common words

  • come out just a little bit different.

  • It reminds you of a British accent in places - but it's not, because you've watched

  • plenty of British films and those sound different.

  • How widespread was this accent in the era, and where did it start?

  • The answer can be found in the Golden Age of Hollywood, where movies went from being

  • a small experimental industry to one of the most powerful forces in entertainment.

  • From the 1890s to the 1920s, film was largely the province of those interested in visuals.

  • The earliest films mostly centered around one stunning visual, like a rocket to the

  • moon or a train racing right at the screen.

  • They got longer and added complex stories, but they were still silent films where you

  • read the dialogue on the screen as a separate soundtrack played.

  • Then came the talkies, and everything changed.

  • As classic films moved into the era of spoken dialogue, some of the most famous films of

  • all time were made.

  • The Wizard of Oz.

  • Casablanca.

  • Citizen Kane.

  • It's a Wonderful Life.

  • Just saying their names brings to mind some of the most distinct dialogue from them.

  • It's impossible to imagine these films without hearingThere's No Place Like Home

  • orRosebud…” in your head.

  • And with these iconic films came that distinctive accent, spoken by some of the most famous

  • names in Hollywood.

  • But actors as different and Orson Welles and Judy Garland certainly didn't have the same

  • background.

  • So how did they pick up the same accent?

  • Most accents come from a distinct location, either a different country or a specific location

  • within one.

  • Those who live down south know that a Texas southern accent and a Louisiana southern accent

  • aren't the same things!

  • But this accent doesn't seem tied to any specific location, and it's spoken by actors

  • from all around the country and the world in this old film.

  • That's because it's an accent designed to bridge the gap between the two cultures

  • that influenced the Golden Age of Hollywood the most.

  • Meet the Mid-Atlantic Accent.

  • Wait, how does that make any sense?

  • No one lives in the middle of the Atlantic ocean unless we're talking about the unique

  • accent spoken by whales.

  • That's because this isn't a traditional accent reflecting a shared heritage.

  • Rather, it's an accent designed to bridge the gap between an American accent and a British

  • one.

  • This might be the only accent in history that no one spoke unless they were taught to do

  • so.

  • It became popular in the first half of the twentieth century, as preparatory schools

  • around the country taught their studies to speak in a specific style to appear cultured.

  • The students were given formal public speaking training that included a song-like intonation

  • and longer vowels, which combined to a greater resonance.

  • This meant that sometimes words lost the sound of some consonants, especially R. That didn't

  • seem to stop the accent from becoming more and more popular among the elites.

  • So when did this accent start making its way into the world of acting?

  • By the mid-1920s, the Mid-Atlantic accent was a staple of the wealthy and educated,

  • particularly in the Northeastern United States.

  • President of the United States Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his wife were the only first

  • couple to speak in this fashion, but First Lady Jackie Kennedy would bring it back into

  • fashion in the 1960s.

  • Prominent authors and journalists were associated with it, with the majority being educated

  • at private schools in New England.

  • The boarding school Groton was considered the epicenter of this trend, and as a generation

  • of actors came out of elite schools, they brought it to Hollywood.

  • And with them, came a sea change in the way actors spoke.

  • Traditionally, actors in the United States trained in imitating upper-class British accents.

  • That's because they were primarily training for stage plays, with the most popular including

  • the classic dramas of William Shakespeare and the mysteries of Agatha Christie.

  • These perennials were set firmly in the world of London's upper-class or the royal courts

  • of bygone eras.

  • Then came the silent films, and that allowed actors with very different voices to find

  • a place in the pictures.

  • No one cared what Charlie Chaplin's voice sounded like when he was defined by his inventive

  • pantomime routines.

  • Then came a woman named Edith Warman Skinner.

  • A famous vocal coach, she was a student of linguist William Tilly and the author of a

  • famous book calledSpeak with Distinction”.

  • She had studied the Mid-Atlantic accent herself, and called itGood American Speech”.

  • Her book became required reading in many theatrical training programs and soon aspiring actors

  • were adopting this distinctive pronunciation.

  • She believed it was the appropriate way to speak in what she described asclassic

  • and elevated texts”.

  • Goodbye British accent!

  • She went on to teach at the Carnegie Institute of Technology and later at Juilliard, where

  • countless of the world's most famous actors graduated - all sounding the same.

  • But did the technology of early films and radio have anything to do with how odd these

  • actors sound?

  • It's a chicken-and-the-egg question, but the earliest days of radio andtalkies

  • had a problem with fully replicating the full range of human speech.

  • The human bass tones couldn't be conveyed fully, which led to voices sounding more nasally

  • and clipped.

  • These are traits already found in the Mid-Atlantic accent, so when you watch an old film or listen

  • to a recorded program on the radio from the era, these traits might be magnified by the

  • sound quality.

  • So how did this northeastern speaking style make its way all across the country to Hollywood?

  • That's because the American movie industry didn't start out in Hollywood.

  • California was still up-and-coming in the early 1900s, while New York and Philadelphia

  • were industry powerhouses.

  • So most of the actors initially came out of the Northeast before the studios packed up

  • and headed off to Los Angeles in the 1910s.

  • It wasn't until they shifted to the talkies that people ever heard an actor's voice

  • off a live stage - and they were surprised to hear that they all talked the same way.

  • If there was a legendary actor of the era, they probably had this accent.

  • Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, Cary Grant, even horror master Vincent Price all spoke

  • in this style.

  • For a long time, it seemed to be everywhere - and then it wasn't.

  • Where did the Mid-Atlantic Accent go?

  • Hollywood continued to encourage actors to learn this accent into the 1940s, but then

  • the focus of Hollywood started to shift.

  • Sound improved, and actors were better able to get across their natural bass.

  • Directors started focusing on more authentic films, telling stories from around the world,

  • and having their actors learn authentic accents from those regions.

  • No longer would a cowboy roaming the Texas border sound like he had just come from crew

  • practice at a Boston boarding school!

  • The decline started at the end of World War II, and increased immigration to the United

  • States and a more diverse population led to the more distinctive American accents that

  • we all know today.

  • Our world was less defined by our connection to the United Kingdom, and an accent that

  • bridged the gap wasn't as necessary.

  • So did the Mid-Atlantic Accent simply fade away?

  • Yes and no.

  • While it's not traditionally taught as a critical part of vocal training for all actors

  • now, you can still learn it from many of the top vocal coaches and at prominent acting

  • schools.

  • That's because the Golden Age of Hollywood, and the era that surrounds it, are now part

  • of American history.

  • And that means only one thing in Hollywood - it's time to make movies about that era.

  • Hollywood prides itself on historical accuracy now like never before, with a big push for

  • accurate casting and directors often consulting with historians while making their films.

  • They want everything to fit the time period - including the way the actors speak.

  • The accent stayed for certain characters even after it fell out of use in the 1950s and

  • 1960s, mostly for characters who were supposed to be stuffy, upper-crust New Englanders.

  • Soon enough, the accent went from a sign of elites to a sign of comedy characters.

  • Famous characters like Thurston and Lovey Howell from Gilligan's Island or the Crane

  • brothers from Frasier used the accent long after it was common.

  • The most famous later user of the accent, though, didn't come from Earth at all.

  • It was menacing galactic tyrant Darth Vader, voiced by James Earl Jones.

  • The Imperial overlord spoke with a deep bass voice and a Mid-Atlantic accent, and it obviously

  • worked.

  • Can you imagine the iconic “I am your fatherline being delivered with a California accent?

  • So where does the Mid-Atlantic accent show up today?

  • Mostly in movies taking place in the era where it was most popular!

  • Netflix's new film Mank, about the creation of Citizen Kane, recreates the era faithfully

  • down to the speaking tone of the actors and executives involved.

  • When director Paul Thomas Anderson was making The Master, a 2020 film starring Joaquin Phoenix,

  • Amy Adams, and the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, the notoriously detail-obsessed director wanted

  • to immerse his viewers in the era.

  • The late 1940s-era story set among a New England religious cult is considered the most accurate

  • recreation of the Mid-Atlantic accent era by film critic Richard Brody.

  • Everyone comes off a little stiff and speaks in a specific cadence - exactly as they would

  • have back then.

  • So while the Mid-Atlantic accent may be a thing of the past and today's actors don't

  • have that distinctive speaking style, the art of that style will continue to be taught.

  • After all, Hollywood loves movies about movies.

  • For more on the complexities of language, check outThis Is the Most Difficult Language

  • in the World”, and for more on the strange history of Hollywood, check outThe Most

  • Surprising Historical Celebrity Deaths”.

Ah, there's nothing like watching an old movie.

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Why People In Old Movies and Radio Shows Talk so Weird

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    林宜悉 posted on 2021/01/11
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