Hepburn, Grant, and Davis: The Story Behind the Accent in 1940's Movies

Otis Adams

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If you have watched a mid-twentieth century movie, you have undoubtedly heard it. Stars of that era spoke with an accent only heard when going to the picture show. These American actors were apparently attempting some version of a British accent.

An actor’s accent was immaterial during the days of silent films. Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929) is a fine, if jolting example of the transition to talkies. Within the first minute it seems clear that this is a silent film and as I watched for the first time, I switched into “silent-film-viewing mode” — a skill all educated movie buffs should acquire.

A few minutes in though, the movie abruptly shifted to a talkie. It seemed to be one of those silent/talkie hybrids released during the shift, but after a bit of research, I came to the conclusion that I might have a combination of the two versions Hitchcock made. 

Blackmail was touted as Britain’s first talkie, though Hitchcock made both a silent version and one with dialogue. Those theaters which were not equipped for sound played the silent film, though the talkie quickly overwhelmed the silent version in popularity, to the extent that only it could be found on VHS decades later.

As talkies were born, dialect coaches soon followed. The movie accent that developed, incorporating the delicate treatment the British offer their R’s and the lengthening vowel sounds, was determined to be more sophisticated, and so, more appropriate for a star.

The Mid-Atlantic Accent is Born

Tim Monich is likely the best-known speech coach for modern stars — having worked with Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Leonardo DiCaprio, and many others. However, it was his teacher at Carnegie Melon, Edith Skinner, who is of interest to us in our investigation into the mid-Atlantic accent.

Monich worked with Skinner on an updated version of her book, Speak with Distinction. In the decades following the book’s 1942 release, Skinner was the queen of dialect coaches for stage and screen. She kept an archive of a variety of accents recorded on reel-to-reel tapes.

Modern speech coaches had to ameliorate the problem of using inappropriate or invented accents in film. Monich is typically focused on teaching actors to speak as true to their character’s regional accent as possible. However, during the early days of talkies, speech coaches were not much concerned with the accent of a character. They mostly just helped actors practice and memorize their lines.

Hitchcock provides another example for us. This time with a now neglected jewel of his career called Stage Fright (1950), in which the American actress Jane Wyman had a suspiciously American accent in spite of playing the daughter of English parents in England.

Monich suspects that the very flawed imitations of regional accents was allowable because so few people actually knew what those outside their area sounded like. Television shows and news broadcasts, like those coming out of the BBC, changed this. 

For actresses like Rita Moreno, the mid-Atlantic accent became a handy solution to playing roles of various ethnic backgrounds without having any personal knowledge of what their accents should actually sound like. Mid-Atlantic English became her stand-in, whether she was playing a Polynesian or Egyptian.

The mid-Atlantic accent refers to an invented accent placed somewhere between American and English — from the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. As talkies began to reign supreme, it was decided that this invented accent would class up the flat American accent.

"What I try to do is get rid of the most obvious regionalisms, the accent that says, ‘you’re from here and I’m from there,’ the kind of speech that tells you what street you grew up on." (Edith Skinner)

Edith Skinner was the Deity of Diction for stage and screen. She taught two accents that were meant to be drained of clues as to the actor’s region of origin. She called them General American and Good Speech. 

General American referred to the common accent of those living in the western states which is clearly understandable and recognized as American, but not easily placed regionally. Today, it is called Western Standard.

Good Speech, or the mid-Atlantic accent, is meant to be a region-free American dialect of perfect pronunciation that can be effortlessly heard and understood throughout the theatre.

Skinner taught that there were four components of voice.

  1. The excitor — the force which produces voice.
  2. The vibrator — the vocal cords which add sound to the breath.
  3. The resonators — the chest, throat, mouth, and nose cavities which allow the sound to resonate.
  4. The articulators — the shape of the breath as it passed through the mouth and nose.

Skinner also identified numerous influences on a person’s voice beyond region. She included aspects of self-image, emotional state and makeup, and personality. She even pointed out that we often imitate those we admire in film, television, and radio.

Of paramount importance on the stage is being understood, so these factors which diminish the adroit actor’s ability to be understood by the audience ought to be identified and controlled.

Critics of the mid-Atlantic accent, or Good Speech, said that it was not draining the actor’s dialect of regional influence, but replacing it with a manufactured one. In essence, she was replacing a General American, Southern, or Northeastern accent with one based on British English.

Skinner was not the sole creator of the mid-Atlantic accent, though she is credited as its mother. Katharine Hepburn, for example, was trained by the drama teacher Frances Robinson-Duff.

Cary Grant also deserves a bit of credit. He is held up as the best example of mid-Atlantic English being used by a man. He came by the accent honestly though, having been born in England before moving to the United States at 16, he is perhaps among the only actors to naturally speak with a mid-Atlantic accent.

The short-lived mid-Atlantic accent faded after soldiers returned home following World War II. Perhaps everyone was more familiar with the accents of the world, having heard them firsthand, or perhaps they were less tolerant of high society putting on airs. In either case, it was soon the era of Jimmy Stewart and Humphrey Bogart, along with their very individualistic voices.

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Author of Lavatory Reader #1: This Road, now available on Amazon. Otis Adams is the author of three books and has won two dozen awards for his screenplays and short fiction. He writes regularly on Medium.com and can be contacted at pithbooks@gmail.com.

Columbia, MO

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