Oh, That Old-Timey Movie Accent!


James Fallows was watching some old movies recently and has a question:

The language that the narrator, one Gayne Whitman, uses is florid enough. But his accent! It’s instantly familiar to anyone who’s seen old movies and newsreels from the 1930s and 1940s. But you cannot imagine a present-day American using it with a straight face. It’s not faux-British, but it’s a particular kind of lah-dee-dah American diction that at one time was very familiar and now has vanished.

Even without watching the clip, you probably know exactly what he’s talking about. I always assumed that this was an artificial construction, and one of Fallows’s readers confirms this:

The accent you are wondering about is the Transatlantic accent, also called the Midatlantic accent. This was not a regional accent. Rather, it’s an accent that was taught to actors and announcers. I learned about this accent from Amy Walker’s “21 Accents” video on YouTube. She starts using the Transatlantic accent at the 2:12 mark.

I assume that this accent was an artifact of live theater that got transplanted into movies during their first few decades, and it’s the main thing that makes old movies nearly unwatchable to me. Obviously everyone has their own idea of what makes acting great, but for me it’s first, foremost, and almost exclusively voice: the ability to precisely control tone, pace, pitch, timbre, tempo, modulation, resonance, accent, and so forth. Actors who can do this are great even if they have limited proficiency in all the other arts of acting; actors who can’t are terrible no matter what else they do well.

That’s how I respond to acting, anyway, and the Transatlantic accent in movies of the 30s and 40s almost entirely ruins them for me. Anyone else feel this way?