"They don't talk plain!"

This is what my grandfather invariably says whenever we watch any movie made within the last forty years. His hearings not what it used to be, but I will concede that people do sound different in movies from the thirties and forties. I’ve speculated that:
Movies have changed to reflect the way people actually speak in real life-they shout, they mumble, they whisper, they have accents, etc.
Fewer actors today do stage work, and so don’t get in the habit of speaking every line to be heard in the back row of a theater.
Recording equipment has become more sensitive, and so people don’t have to speak as clearly.

Anyone know if there is any truth to any of these?

I think there’s some truth to it. I also think that’s a major reason that the Golden Age actresses (Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, Gloria Swanson, etc.) are seen as being so “over-the-top” now. “Natural” speech has taken over from e-nun-ci-a-tion. Not that it’s a bad thing, but there was something to be said for Bette Davis gravelling out her lines so precisely. And would “I’m ready for my closeup, Mr. Demille” have been anywhere near as chillingly effective if it had been “‘M’reddy f’r m’clozup, Mist’ D’mill”?

Just a WAG, but…

Back in your grandfather’s day anybody who appeared on a movie screen was more “glamorous” and in general a much better person than the hoi polloi from which your grandfather came. That is, that is what the Hollywood of the day would have you to believe. That’s why, in old B&W films from the 30’s, all the young women have sultry voices with just a hint of Royal Shakespearian English, and all the old women sound like Mrs. Dowlcrumple.

Same goes for the men. If your character was wealthy or a a stud (or both), you spoke Royal Shakespear. If he was neither, you spoke in a ridiculous charicature of his ethnic/social class’s speech. Amos & Andy, anyone?

At least, that’s my theory.

Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.

Closely paralleling my favorite Eastern Shore expression (actually overheard in use)

“It ain’t like it used to was”.

In general, I am NOT nostalgic about the quality of sound in old movies or on old recordings.

Bear in mind, methods of acting or enunciating that work perfectly in one medium are often terribly unsuited for new media… but of course, no one knows that, in the medium’s early days.

When film was a new medium (and especially when “talkies” were brand new), actors used all the techniques they’d learned by doing stage work. But speaking and enunciating on screen the way one would on stage CAN make you sound stiff and even silly. In many old movies, that’s exactly what happens. Similarly, methods that work brilliantly on the big screen sometimes seem WAY over the top when shown on television.

Of course, Walter Matthau used to tell a story that backs up Grandpa’s account. He said that, early in his career, he appeared in a made-for-television live Shakepeare play. There was ONE classically-0trained Englishman in the cast, while the rest were Americans from the Stanislavsky school. According to Matthau, when the Englishman said his lines, they seemed corny and overdramatic, while the Americans all seemed very sincere, perfectly natural, perfectly in character, for they had all “become” their characters.

Decades later, someone dug up a long-forgotten videotape of the play, and Matthau was dumbfounded to see find that the ENglish actor was the ONLY member of the cast whose lines were audible! Everyone else in the cast, all those Stanlislavskyans, were just mumbling, and NOBODY watching had a clue what any of them were saying.