Tuesday, August 16, 2011
Drowning in the Mid-Atlantic
Kevin Drum does not like old-time movie accents.
The Siren tells you this not because she wants to call up a flash mob of old-movie fans to launch a cyberattack on his Mother Jones blog until Mr. Drum agrees to sit through a James Cagney retrospective. She wouldn't even have read his post, had it not been pointed out to her in a puckish message from a gentleman known to commenters here as Gmoke. Well, the Siren has seen people put down old movies for all kinds of reasons and as such posts go, this one is reasonably polite. It’s expressed mostly in terms of puzzlement, and not the petulant desire to have us validate the writer’s reluctance to get acquainted with the films of Leo McCarey.
Still, if Mr. Drum had asked the Siren, she’d have said he has things precisely the wrong way round: Old movies have a greater variety of American speech, by far.
Let’s not pretend we don’t know what he's talking about; there is a mid-Atlantic accent used in certain American movies of the 1930s and up through World War II, after which it becomes less and less common until it mostly disappears. (The Siren prefers the term mid-Atlantic because she likes the idea of a bunch of the period’s movie stars out on a Cunard liner somewhere off the coast of Greenland. In her head, they’re downing martinis with Phoebe Dinsmore, the elocutionist from Singin’ in the Rain, and their tones are getting rounder by the second.) Mr. Drum seems to think it didn’t exist outside the backlot, but as some of his commenters pointed out, you could hear that accent in real life by turning on the radio for one of FDR’s fireside chats. But while this speaking manner survives (barely, it seems to the Siren), it does sound odd to modern American ears, more’s the pity. The Siren had an English literature professor who talked this way, and while she grew to love his voice, she admits she spent the first week of the class listening to him say “sonnet” and “meter” and “Percy Bysshe Shelley” and thinking, “Mister, are you putting me on?”
The question of authenticity aside, Mr. Drum errs in two ways.
Error No. 1. This is an accent common to all, most or even an overlarge percentage of old movies. Here the Siren affects Ginger Rogers’ charming Missouri-bred vowels and says, out of the side of her mouth, “Brother, you’re all wet.” You encounter the accent in movies about rich or upper-middle-class people, like My Man Godfrey. You most certainly do not encounter it in Wild Boys of the Road.
Mr. Drum evidently lives in Irvine, Calif., and it’s a pity he couldn’t join the Siren for the four features she just took in at the annual Pre-Code shindig held by New York’s Film Forum. There’s a positive cacophony of American accents in these movies. There’s Lee Tracy in Blessed Event, sounding like he was born under the Second Avenue elevated; Ann Dvorak in The Strange Love of Molly Louvain, snapping her words like the hard-luck taxi dancer she is; Douglas Fairbanks Jr. hanging around Union Depot and sounding like a nice middle-class American boy down on his luck; Kay Francis speaking impeccable mid-Atlantic in Girls About Town despite the famous lisp; and Eugene Pallette in the same movie sounding like...Eugene Pallette.
Oh but Siren, comes the objection from Mr. Drum and certain lost souls in his comments thread. They didn’t do real acting back then, the kind where you create a character and come up with the right accent and mannerisms. Those actors just played themselves, and these are come-as-you-are accents.
You don’t say, responds the Siren, as her own Alabama accent comes back. Because Lee Tracy was born in Atlanta; Ann Dvorak was the child of vaudevillians and could sound pure Yale Club if the occasion demanded it, as in Merrily We Live; Kay Francis was born in Oklahoma City and had an itinerant youth that was unlikely to give her a finishing-school accent; Douglas Fairbanks Jr. sounded mid-Atlantic for a while until his accent completed the passage and landed square in Mayfair; and Pallette...okay, you got me there, but when was the last time you heard a know-it-anywhere voice in an American movie? Gilbert Gottfried doesn’t count.
Error No. 2: The mid-Atlantic accent comes into play where it isn’t appropriate. The Siren’s spent all morning — meaning about fifteen minutes, but she truly did work at this — trying to remember a movie where someone was supposed to be a shopgirl or a waitress or a railway detective, and they spoke in an “anyone for tennis?” accent. Can’t do it. The mid-Atlantic accent turns up mostly in movies about rich people and in historical epics.
Oh, there must be a few. In particular, you can probably find a high-tone voice in a low-down setting in the very early talkie era, when the technology hadn’t been perfected and they worried a lot about people recording properly. Even so, the Siren doesn’t expect a landslide of examples. You can rap The Broadway Melody of 1929 for a lot of things, but the showgirls sound like showgirls, not Alice Roosevelt Longworth. A while ago the Siren got a chance to see Strictly Dishonorable, a 1931 John Stahl talkie that, even though it was made after they were supposed to have this stuff figured out, bore all the stagey marks of the early sound difficulties. And the female lead, Sidney Fox, who was adorable, did a perfectly creditable Southern accent. Fox was a New York City native.
Sure, some actors bring the same basic vocal equipment to all their movies; John Wayne and Katharine Hepburn come to mind. But they’re frequently doing more than you might think. Cary Grant tosses his vowels around in the back of his sinuses in His Girl Friday, but goes first class all the way for The Philadelphia Story. C.K. Dexter Haven and Walter Burns do not have precisely the same accents, and the delivery and rhythm of Grant’s speech is entirely different. Barbara Stanwyck was occasionally rapped for bringing a trace of Brooklyn to her every part, but she was perfectly capable of turning it up or down as the occasion demanded: way down for The Lady Eve, way up for Baby Face.
So we come to the same diagnosis as always: The patient hasn’t seen enough old movies. But, as some people like to say in political disputes, the Siren seeks converts, not apostates. Mr. Drum says that to him, great acting is "the ability to precisely control tone, pace, pitch, timbre, tempo, modulation, resonance, accent, and so forth.” The Siren's in a generous mood this week, so here’s what the Siren is gonna do. She’s gonna take suggestions from her commenters for an old, preferably very old movie for Mr. Drum, one that shows “old-timey” actors doing just what he asks. And then she will mail him a DVD, care of the Mother Jones office.
The floor is open, ladies and gentlemen, and you may imagine the Siren saying that in any old accent you please.