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Why the "uppity" accents?


jamesinphila
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I've been a movie-watcher for as long as I can remember. Two things really puzzle (and annoy) me about older films: why do most movies produced in the thirties and early forties in the U.S. make the American actors sound so "veddy veddy" British? Whether they're in a hurricane or a prairie town, the characters sound like they can't wait for High Tea.

My second puzzlement is about the '50's: watch 30 seconds from most movies of that decade and (with few exceptions) you can pinpoint it as a '50's film. Any thoughts?

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Re: 50's Films.

 

I agree. For me there is a certain way they look. It could be the film they use or cameras improved but there is a distinct look. I also think the fashions of life changed,

 

Re: Accents.

 

I'm not so sure they're British as much as they are generally not regional. You get a few like Henry Fonda that are midwestern. John Wayne was originally from the midwest too. Actors probably spent a lot of time with diction coaches and I guess it was all about speaking "properly."

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James: very interesting observations! I agree with Movieman's answers. To elaborate--

 

British accents in 30's and 40's films: Diction coaches had lots to do with it. In the early years of talking films, sound technology wasn't great, and audiences didn't like a lot of the stars' voices. Diction coaches taught actors how to broaden their vowels so they would sound better.

 

Also, many film stars were British, like Cary Grant, Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, Merle Oberon, and Greer Garson. Many others, like Garbo, Dietrich, and Hedy Lamarr, were from other foreign countries, and would have learned to speak English with nice proper British accents. Bette Davis, being from New England, more or less always sounded like she did in the movies. Regional differences were greater then. Later, TV (and probably air travel, too) had a "standardizing" effect on American accents.

 

But some studios certainly did cultivate a faux-British style to their films, especially in films about wealthy people. Many early actors and movie executives were from lowly backgrounds and had no real idea of how rich people acted or talked. A phony British accent provided a way to signal the audience that the character was uppercrust and/or snobbish.

 

Fifties films' distinctive look: Technicolor films of the 50's tend to have brighter and more exaggerated colors than movies later. Also, in the years after WWII, it became fashionable for everyone--even men--to dress in bright pastels. (By the late 50s, Elvis was wearing pink.) Some have claimed the 50's color craze resulted from WWII rationing. With most materials rationed during the war, there were fewer colorful clothes to wear, and it was fashionable and patriotic to dress in somber dark colors and military-like drabs. After the war, for the first time in 20 years, Americans had disposable income, and they used it to buy colorful clothes, colorful furniture, and colorful cars (among other things).

 

Another very distinctive thing about the 50's--hairstyles. A "ducktail" or greased-back haircut on a man was a way to signal that the character was a rebel (or "beatnik"). Also, many women, even very young ones, cut their hair short and curled it, and wore very figured dresses. The result was that 20-year old women sometimes looked 45. So, one thing common to many 50's films is that the women tend to look much older than they actually are.

 

Finally, cars in the 50's looked different than cars before or since. They were longer, heavier, more colorful, and had more chrome on them. I've noticed that in modern movies set in the 50's, there will virtually always be a tail-finned car right at the beginning. The tail-fin seems to have become the universal way for modern movie directors to tell the audience: "Okay ... we're in the fifties now!"

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What makes an accent "uppity" in the first place? Is it the accent itself, the person it comes out of, or what?

 

Back in the early days of sound, actress Ruth Chatterton was thought to have a foreign accent when she had rarely been out of the country for long spells. It was just that she had very good diction and chose her words well.

 

Why are we so distrusting of people who speak well? After all, English is a very precise language (that's why it's the official language of air traffic controllers the world over), and it should be spoken well. Maybe it's because the best movie villains have been British-born or educated.

 

As far as the look of a film is concerned, after nearly four decades as a film fan and reporter I've acquired the ability to tell when a film was made within two years of its release either way. You can tell through dialogue, camera techniques, set design, etc. It's not something I can explain fully in a single post, but just things I learned to look for over the years.

 

Film scholar William K. Everson once said that he could tell what studio a film came from by hearing the sound of a gunshot within the film. When I read that, I started listening more carefully -- and he's right! The guns in each studio's film have distinctive sounds! I guess that's just one more fingerprint to look for.

 

Message was edited by:

coffeedan (wearing my new TCM sweatshirt)

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Well, can?t we all instantly recognize the era of films of the ?30s, ?40s, ?50s, ?60s, and ?70s?

 

There were some in-between eras, such as the early sound films of ?29-?30, when the girls still wore short skirts and those round bucket hats.

 

The transition era of ?39-?41.

 

The next transition era of ?48-?51.

 

There are some films of the ?70s-?90s that are quite similar in style, but if I see a zoom in the opening shot, then I know it?s a film from the ?70s.

 

A couple of nights ago I saw a 1940 film that had an opening zoom shot in it, and I just about fainted with shock. They did have 1:2 zoom lenses as early as the late 1920s, but they were rarely used.

 

I saw a noir type film from 1954, titled ?Black Widow?, with Van Heflin, Ginger Rogers, Gene Tierney, George Raft, and Otto Kruger. Wow, what a cast that would have been for a nice dark b&w 1944 film. But as a 1954 film, it was Cinemascope, bright vivid colors, all flat lighting (all front even lighting, no shadows), and the modern photography ruined it.

 

As for the accents in the ?30s and ?40s, I have a couple of theories. First, many British actors fled to Hollywood in the ?30s because their voices were very good and the money was better in Hollywood.

 

Also, many early sound actors came from the Broadway stage, and Broadway actors often tried to speak in what was known as a ?mid-Atlantic? accent, ie. (like half-way between London and New York), an accent that was half-British and half US Northeastern upper crust English, as with old wealthy families of the Northeast. I heard an acting coach (a black guy) telling a reporter that that?s the style his school still tries to teach to young New York actors.

 

Eventually, Hollywood got into the trend of searching for unique regional American accents, such as with actors who were from certain areas of certain states, such as Gary Cooper, Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, and Walter Brennan. Brennan was from a rural area of Massachusetts, and he learned how to twist his Massachusetts country accent around so that it could sound like a New England rural accent, a US Southern rural accent, and a western cowboy accent. Bogart?s accent was from a district of Manhattan in the central West side of the city.

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I've been a movie-watcher for as long as I can remember. Two things really puzzle (and annoy) me about older films: why do most movies produced in the thirties and early forties in the U.S. make the American actors sound so "veddy veddy" British? Whether they're in a hurricane or a prairie town, the characters sound like they can't wait for High Tea.

 

My second puzzlement is about the '50's: watch 30 seconds from most movies of that decade and (with few exceptions) you can pinpoint it as a '50's film. Any thoughts?

 

The accents you hear in those '30s films were derided (rightly, I think) as "Kansas City British," because they were as utterly phony as any formed by the human palate. When sound came in in the late 1920s, the studios were desperate to find actors who could speak lines. They imported countless people from the New York stage (a few of whom became great, iconic stars), often sight unseen and unheard, only to find that the "actors" had misrepresented themselves as to their qualifications and experience (and failed to note that they might have more than a trace of The Bronx or Brooklyn honking from their noses). Because of the vacuum that suddenly existed between the studios' requirements and the actors' skills, a cottage industry sprang up practically overnight: diction coaches who hung out shingles promising perfect, high-class accents (remember Miss Dinsmore trying to teach Lina Lamont how not to screech in SINGIN' IN THE RAIN?).

 

Unfortunately, the coaches' "expert" qualifications and experience were also often exaggerrated by factor of five; there also were relatively few of them, and so the pool of actors also ended up with roughly the same accent.

 

If one were to look back on the history of Hollywood, it was the actors who didn't have those accents -- the Cagneys, Bogarts, Stanwycks, Robinsons, Gables, Fondas and Stewarts -- who succeeded and became stars. By the standards of what the voice coaches preached, the above were all deeply flawed in appearance and manner, but it's those flaws he all hold so dear. They were all uniquely themselves, with no aspect of their personas shaped by a cookie-cutter process, from voice to appearance.

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Even slightly affected British accents are easier on my ear than the weird enunciation-free Valley speak that has become increasingly common, even in people older than their forties. I was watching a 1980s movie about teenagers the other day, and marveling at how rarely the characters used the word "like" or ended declamatory sentences with a question-like lilt.

 

The whole thing seemed to start with Lisa Bonet of "The Cosby Show;" now even voiceover announcers sound like this.

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I'm quite partial to the "uppity" accents found in movies from '30's/early '40's...especially when they are speaking the dialog written by some of the greats writing for the screen then...Nathaniel West, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Dorothy Parker, William Faulkner, et al. (William Faulkner died in Wright's Sanatarium in Byhalia, MS-just down the road from my high school!)

I also love the "Glorious Technicolor, breathtaking Cinemascope and Stereophonic sound" of '50's films...

One film comes to mind that does not "look" like a '50's movie...

"The Night Of The Hunter." It has a time-less, other-worldly look thanks to (director) Charles Laughton and (cinematographer) Stanley Cortez.

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Cinesage:

 

I'm sure you are correct in everything you say, and I do agree except I think in some cases it depended on what sort of part they were playing. I watched Now Voyager tonight, and being of the 'upper class' Bette spoke with, not a british accent, but used british terminology. e.g. 'perhaps', 'shan't', etc. Yet in other parts where she played 'middle class', she didn't use these terms. I understood that during the transition to 'talkies' everyone had to take voice and diction lessons. What always tickled me was Vivien Leigh speaking with a British accent as a Southern Belle.

 

Anne

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