In this episode from the Patreon archives, we examine the accent used by actors and actresses in very old movies. We look at the origin of that accent and examine why it was adopted by the film industry in the first few decades of sound in motion pictures.
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Fascinating. Edith Skinner was my speech instructor at Carnegie-Mellon in 1969-70. I transferred in to the Drama Department as a playwriting major and had to catch up with the beginning acting and directing courses. She approached what she called Eastern Standard English as a base from which an actor could make adjustments to speak other accents. By that time she recognized diphthongs as part of standard English, but they were the substitutes for rhotic vowels: the two-beat ‘oh-schwa’ instead of a single beat ‘or’. Took some getting used to. She was not dogmatic about ‘flat’ vowels, especially those short vowel combinations ending in ‘u’. ‘au’, ‘eu’, ‘iu’, and ‘ou’ were pronounced as two-beat diphthongs. On the other hand, she still stuck with flat long vowels. She was quite a character. Demanding of the Acting majors, not so much the Directing majors or me. She had an apartment in New York and an apartment in Pittsburgh, with a car and driver at each location. Monday she taught at Julliard, Monday night flying to Pittsburgh, teaching at CMU on Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday, flying back to New York, and teaching at Julliard Thursday afternoon and Friday. As the only playwriting major in her first year class, she considered me a bit strange, and when she found out I was in ROTC (I was a scholarship student) even stranger. One time she said, in a distinctly rhotic voice, “McClure, sometimes I think you and I are the only two straight people in this class.”
Thanks for the story. It’s really neat to know that Edith Skinner was such a forceful personality. I assumed as much based on what I had read about her.
Born in Boston in 1954, I developed the classic nln-rhotic Boston accent that Hollywood and its speech coaches always butcher. Like myself, the children and recent descendents of immigrants all shared the same accent. Lost in most discussions of 20th century regional accents is the Yankee accent most commonly known as Down East (Maine), and exemplified by the humorist Marshall Dodge in his ‘Bert and I’ recordings. The same accent could also once be heard from elderly Cape Codders and rural New Englanders.
Please note: the “Kennedy” accent did not represent contemporary Boston speech – the Kennedy family moved to New York when JFK was a boy, and all the boys were sent to New England prep schools, where that odd manner of speaking developed. While JFK became popular when he came back from the war and ran for office in Massachusetts, his speech always sounded affected to Boston ears.
Interesting episode. As a British person, the old Little Women voices didn’t sound British at all to me. I would call them ‘educated American’ but not British. Not that there is a single British accent anyway.
It wasn’t meant to actually sound British – after all, they were American characters in the film. It was meant to be English-speaking, but of no known type. British actors did tour the United States in the 1800s, and their style of speaking was admired and modeled by many American actors. But unless they were playing Shakespeare, they couldn’t very well sound precisely like Brits in American theatre.
That was fascinating. Your snippet about Clara Bow reminded me of the wonderful Jean Hagen in “Singing In The Rain” when her character has to make the transition from silent films to talkies. I wonder if Edith Skinner was the model for the voice coach who tried (unsuccessfully) to teach her to speak for film.
Incidentally if you watch British Films of the forties, like Oliver Twist, even some of the working class characters – when they didn’t have improbable cockney accents – spoke in cut-glass British RP. cf John Howard Davies as the Workhouse boy, Oliver.
I have to disagree with one point you made. You state that William Howard Taft came from a working class background. His birthplace and childhood home is a pretty imposing structure. My family’s ancestral home is on the next street over. It is a much smaller home of a large working-class family. His father was involved in national politics and went to Yale. Hardly working class.