That 1930s accent

Watch an American movie from the 1930s, and you’ll hear the actors talking with a distinct accent. Except it’s not like any regional accent you hear today.

Was this accent unique to the movies, maybe a special way actors talked so their voices could be recorded clearly? Or have our accents evolved so dramatically in the past 70 years?

Well back then the actors were all part of ‘the studio system’. Basically a studio, say MGM, would hire someone to be an actor. The actor would then go to school where they were taught how to walk, talk, and dress. Not just in the movies but for any and all public appearences. So all of the actors went to a voice teacher and probably the theory of vocal techniques was pretty standard among the teachers who worked at the studios. So that is why all the actors sound alike.

An earlier thread on this subject:

Once you get past the frivolity of the OP, anyway.:o

Nothing to add except that I agree with Zebra . . . Remember that when talkies first came in, panicked studios sent their contract players top vocal coaches.

Stage actors also took vocal lessons—the earlier “Delsarte” acting method was popular, giving many performers similar gestures and even facial excressions.



I dont know from a “30’s accent”. Is it anything like the “40s-50s accent”, sort of Bogart-Bob Doleish?

I think it was a sub-section of the English language, used only by actors.

Although there are few recordings of common people from the turn of the century, there are recording of political speeches, and they do sound different that recordings of actors. The actors’ recordings sound, well, more dramatic (think of Margaret Dumont’s diction, or the self-parody that was John Barrymore’s talkie career) and “nobler” (American Theater of this time was still aspiring to respectability), while the political speeches were more “stentorian;” clear and ponderous, but careful not to sound too high-brow so as not to alienate the listener. The last politican I remember who talked this way was Everett Dirksen.

Ordinary people, as today, slurred and mumbled along, with slang and profanity varying with economic status.

Think a bustling newspaper office with copy boys and editors running around:
“Jimmy, git me that cup a’ joe, and put some pep in your step!”
“Right away, chief! (yeesh, ya crumb-bum, I yain’t yer sekaterry)”
“Why I oughta pound you!”

Like the voiceover in the Simpsons prohibition episode?

I think the accent referred to is “mid-Atlantic” – the not-quite-British-not-exactly-American style that was practiced by classicly trained stage actors even into the 1960s.

Like the Onion headline in “Our Dumb Century” states in the 1920’s: New ‘Talkies’ Reveal How Pinched & Nasal Our Voices Sound.

Nope. That’s the legendary Connecticut Lockjaw, the accent of the old monied upper class in the New York city area.

In KC, the announcer on the local NPR affiliate during the late morning and early afternoon speaks with a classic Connecticut Lockjaw. It’s far more pretentious than the standard NPR inflection, and it drives me nuts. It’s so hard not to say “fah fah fah” or “where are you, Thurston?” as she speaks."

For a good example of this kind of accent listen to Jennifer Jason Leigh in “The Hudsucker Proxy.”

Say there, sonny boy, watch it with the rough stuff!

Why if you keep runnin’ your mouth like that, buster, yer gonna wonder what fell on ya!

Or Kansas City.

I WISH I could remember the name of the comic who had this gem:

(delivered in a very dramatic voice, with appropriate stage gesticulation)
"When you are an ACTOR, you must LEARN to PROJECT your VOICE . . . so that you can say, ‘Of COURSE I am eligible for FOOD STAMPS!’"

Listen to tapes of FDR and you’ll hear pretty much the same accent. I’d calll it East Coast upper upper class. Thankfully no longer around…

What I wouldn’t give to have people adopt that as the next fad. Think how much time it would save!

I think that two very different accents are being discussed here. One is the Great Gatsby upper class private schooled 1920’s New Englander who wish they were aristocrats and have a pseudo-posh British accent going. I had an elderly Greek history professor with this very accent, and it drove me up the wall.

The other is the streetwise 1930’s New York reporter who sounds like no real person I have ever heard, in New York or elsewhere. This accent appears to only exist in the mind and mouths of actors playing low level gansters or guys wearing a fedora with a little tag saying PRESS tucked into the band. The best I can describe it is try taking Moe Howard’s accent, over-enunciate, and speed it up.

I’m going to try to track down some audio links to both so people who don’t get it can hear. I can atest that the upper-crust accent was real, because I’ve heard real people use it. The “reporter” accent, however, is another story. Has anyone ever heard a real person speak like this? Maybe a retiree in Florida?