Why Actors Talk So Differently in Classic American Cinema

Actors used to have very different, yet standardized, American accents in the earlier part of 20th century cinema.

If you've ever seen an American movie from around the 1940s and earlier (and if you're reading this in the US you probably have), you might have wondered why the performers sound so different from actors today. This video from HowStuffWorks explains the accent, referred to as the Mid-Atlantic or Transatlantic accent:

It's not just actors from the time period, but also anyone from higher class society at the time:

This type of pronunciation is called the Transatlantic, or Mid-Atlantic, accent. And it isn’t like most other accents – instead of naturally evolving, the Transatlantic accent was acquired. This means that people in the United States were taught to speak in this voice. Historically Transatlantic speech was the hallmark of aristocratic America and theatre. In upper-class boarding schools across New England, students learned the Transatlantic accent as an international norm for communication, similar to the way posh British society used Received Pronunciation – essentially, the way the Queen and aristocrats are taught to speak.

If you're from New England, you've probably heard the accent from older speakers who grew up around this time. As for performers from this era, since this was the prevailing accent of upper-class societies, it was also the one most commonly taught to actors. Though it fell out of use around the same time people stopped using it in common society, you can hear it in plenty of older films. Method acting and other more natural styles distanced themselves even further from this put-on accent, and strived for more authenticity in the performance, which meant accents that sounded more like real people, and more appropriate for their characters. 

For another example of the Mid-Atlantic accent, here's Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant from The Philadelphia Story:

And for fun, here's Australian Cate Blanchette doing the accent as she plays Hepburn in The Aviator:

For a bit of contrast, Emma Stone talks about how she prepared for Gangster Squad with a Mid-Atlantic accent (since it takes in the 40s), but director Ruben Fleischer wanted something a bit more natural-sounding:

Video is no longer available: www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZHvbc9oMPg0

At this point it's an accent we tend to make fun of (usually in a good-natured way), but as realism entered American cinema, the writing would have already been on the wall for this kind of fake, non-descript Mid-Atlantic accent even if it hadn't started falling out of use earlier than that.     

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6 Comments

I have always wondered about that. Interesting!

December 30, 2015 at 3:07PM

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Luke Neumann
Cinematographer/Composer/Editor
3206

So do Americans still say things like, "Gee, that's really swell" ?
I meant that in jest, of course. It would be interesting to see how the Americans of today might find humour in aspects of current US culture. Sometimes, it seems like every second line in some films is "You die m/f !", though much of that seems to have migrated to the GTA universe now.
Happy 2016 everyone.

December 30, 2015 at 7:29PM, Edited December 30, 7:38PM

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Saied M.
1416

Besides the accent, there was one other element that shaped the sound of old dialog, ADR. ADR was used a lot back in those days, some actors were really good at it, others a bit weaker, so sometimes scene dialog sounded a bit quirky. But it overall changed the feel of a scene.

December 30, 2015 at 9:48PM, Edited December 30, 9:49PM

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Vidrazor
579

Nice to see this on this site for the first time !

(I saw that on another site, like, a month ago !)

December 31, 2015 at 12:14PM, Edited December 31, 12:14PM

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People make WAY too much of the midatlantic vocal training. Listen to interviews with Howard Hawks or John Ford or rehearsal home movies with George Gershwin, none of whom were actors with vocal training. Accents were just different then. Our accents will sound just as "funny" 80 years from now. There's some truth to this article but it's mainly false.

December 31, 2015 at 12:20PM

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J Robbins
755

Thank you for this. I've heard the accent in many criterion films, but was too lazy to google it, haha

January 21, 2016 at 1:53PM, Edited January 21, 1:53PM

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Tony Wesh
Filmmaker/Photographer
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