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.


X. Trapnel said...

(To be read in a firm, clear, resonant central NJ voice)

This is puzzling. Kevin Drum is an astute political commentator and was quite indispensible during the B*sh nightmare and will be again in its P*rr* sequel (before that happens I am starting a movement for the US to secede from Texas). As the Siren notes, each of the great stars of the 30s/40s had instantly recognizable, inimitable-imitatable voices (does anyone do a Matt Damon impersonation?) and the Mid-Atlantic accent was part of mix that included regional accents and idiosyncratic voices that came from who knows where. A glorious democratic symphony of voices and I for one would love to here a certain Mid-Atlantic voice (with aristocratic drawl) speaking of economic royalists who fear the loss of their own power (I know, I know. No politics). Drum takes no account of the homogenizing effects of mass-media on American speech and I sense that his notions of acting derive from Methodist notions of realism which themselves have settled into bland uniformity.

ape_status said...

For brevity's sake I'll just say this:

Drum's first error is believing that great acting is "almost exclusively voice."

How can you take him seriously past that?

The Siren said...

XT, as an aide-memoire, do you have a primo example of the central NJ voice for us? Pre-1960, of course....

Staple Head, it isn't that I couldn't dispute that assertion either, it was more that (imagine this next in your favorite cab-driving character-actor voice) I ain't got all day.

X. Trapnel said...

Off hand, only Thomas Mitchell with whom I share an entrepot to our planet: Elizabeth, NJ.

G said...

I was conversing with some people about BBC America's plan to do a period 'cop' show based on the book "Gangs of New York" (the same source for the movie).

They were upset about the possibility of British actors (once again) playing American characters, but my rejoinder was this:

In the era before the onslaught of talkies/radio/TV there was really no one standard "american" accent like there is now. When a person opened their mouth you usually knew where they were from - the major exception being the "finishing school' diction that was adapted by the very wealthy and/or those aspiring to be very wealthy.

Getting back to the "Gangs of New York" -- english actors generally get better vocal training then Americas, so are likely better equipped to pick up many of the turn-of-the-century accents that few if any actual "Americans" speak anymore (the old urban "Manhattan" accent is supposedly vanished, with the current-day New Jersey accent being its closest relative).

Anyway, I think Kevin Drum is all wet. It usually irks me somewhat when American filmmakers making period pieces have all the characters speaking in 'modern' American. "Unforgiven" was one example of a film with a profound sensitivity to the various voices of an earlier era.

Sheila O'Malley said...

You are my hero.

X. Trapnel said...

For an assortment of vanished American voices It Happened One Night is hard to beat.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Hell, you get a multiplicity of accents in most Looney Tunes cartoons. Drum is all wet on this one.

Karen said...

Drum's post has me DUMBFOUNDED. Did Cagney speak in mid-Atlantic tones? I'll give you, say, William Powell. When has anyone you've ever met spoken like William Powell! (More's the pity.) But to think that that RUINS it...?

I'd say a nice variety of voices could be found in Gold Diggers of 1933. You've got Warren Williams' pear-shaped tones; Ruby Keeler attermpting to overlay pear-shaped tones onto her flat Canadian voice; Joan Blondell and Aline MacMahon rat-a-tatting in pure New York style; Dick Powell bringing the Midwest; Ned Sparks doing whatever it is that Ned Sparks did (and damn well, I might add*); and Ginger Rogers providing a jumble of all of the above.

And every supporting actor, from the cops that bust up the opening rehearsal to Sterling Holloway delivering a hat, has a distinctive voice that can't be pigeon-holed in any Official Hollywood category.

Pfui, I say, to Kevin Drum.

* Ned Sparks' "You're telling me? I'm telling YOU" has been in my personal lexicon for so long that my friends are always startled to encounter it when I introduce them to this film.

Tony Dayoub said...

If it wasn't for the mid-Atlantic accent, how would I be able to effectively fantasize about Grace Kelly waking me up in her distinctive ["Lisa (switches light on)... Carol (switches light on)... Fremont (switches light on)."]-style.

Bob Westal said...

I've actually met and chatted with Mr. Drum and, aside from being a very smart individuale, he seems like a good fellow, so I approach this task not lightly. (You can imagine me saying all that while talking exactly like Franklin Pangborn.)

Old Westerns certainly used a variety of accents. "Stagecoach" has some mid-Atlantic-esque Southern accents used by John Carradine and Louise Platt. I suppose Berton Churchill, who played the thieving banker (an angle Kevin would no doubt appreciate) had a version of the midatlantic as did Thomas Mitchell to some extent, but I can't imagine anyone faulting his performance in any way. Of course, you've also got Wayne, Claire Trevor in a perfect performance that doesn't sound at all mid-Atlanticy to me, and Andy Devine, who definitely comes from the same vocal family as the great Palette.

Of course, 1939 might be a bit up-to-date for the assignment, so I'd also like to suggest William Wyler's amazing "Hell's Heroes" -- probably the best version of "Three Godfathers" -- which I'm pretty sure had zero midatlanticism, but I've only seen it once. Maybe the townspeople...

Still, I have to say that I find it frustrating when people focus on such superficial tics as accents and the like. I think it's great contemporary actors, particularly English and Australians, have largely become pretty superb vocal technicians, but hearing a perfectly executed accent is not what I go to the movies for.

joe said...

Siren, this guy's non-argument doesn't deserve such a thoughtful response, but I was glad to read it anyway. As you and others pointed out, he's wrong, but so what even if he's right? He'd be put off from a great work of art just because the voices sound funny? Seems like a "from England" sort of thing, as another blogger I know we both read would say.

Peter Nellhaus said...

Not only does Mr. Drum forget that the good ol' USA was a big country with people who spoke different regional accents, but also before World War II a less mobile country. I don't remember the source, but I recall reading that for soldiers in World War II, it was their first opportunity to meet others from different parts of the U.S.

On a tangential note, the novel The Makioki Sisters has lots of paragraphs discussing the difference in Japanese regional accents.

And on a person level, my parents sent me to a therapist to get rid of my Boston accent.

X. Trapnel said...

Even if there was something to Drum's argument (there isn't) wouldn't old films take on the added fascination of a portal to the past? Too many people like what they know.

Arthur S. said...

Raoul Walsh's ME AND MY GAL has a real ear for working-class waterfront dialects.

For the film GANGS OF NEW YORK, Daniel-Day Lewis modeled his accent on a recording of Walt Whitman's voice and mixed and matched accents as it pleased.

I think it depends on which old movies people see. It can seem homogenized if you say stick to the Oscar winners but there's a greater variety on display then people give credit for. Ford's films themselves have a lot of play with accents and he isn't the most regional of film-makers. Elia Kazan is regional as in BABY DOLL and Nicholas Ray is another.

Aubyn said...

(Just imagine me speaking this post in my flat-voweled, California-bred accent.)

I made the mistake of glancing through the comments section on Kevin Drum's post. Damn.

Granted it's been at least 5 years since my last viewing, but I'll be damned if I can remember any parlor-grade Mid-Atlantic accents floating through The Grapes of Wrath.

To flip Mr. Drum's argument, I'm going to pick three actresses from some of 2010's top grossing films: Anne Hathaway, Kristen Stewart, and Ellen Page. Now, I'll flip back to 1940's blockbusters and (carefully excluding foreign-born actresses), I come up with Katharine Hepburn, Miriam Hopkins, and Betty Grable.

Which group shows more vocal variety?

Note that I'm not trying to put down any of these actresses. I just think it's an inescapable fact that American English has become a lot more standardized and more's the pity.

Casey said...

Drum sounds like a smart guy, but I don't think he understands the studio era. I've talked to plenty of smart people who tell me they don't like jazz, or comic books, or abstract painting, and usually what it comes down to is that they don't understand what the form is about.

Take Casablanca. You have actors from all over the US and Europe talking in a variety of accents that might be considered "inappropriate" for their characters. It doesn't matter. Claude Rains, Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet are all outstanding. There's way more to acting than speaking with the "correct" accent. Or take the case of Olivier's Hamlet. Does Drum have a problem with the fact that the actors all have English accents, even though the story is set in Denmark? Film (in fact, art in general) is not about imitating reality. It's about finding truth.

As for picking a movie that offers a variety of accents, I think It Happened One Night is a really good choice.

The Siren said...

@Bob - "Stagecoach" has some mid-Atlantic-esque Southern accents used by John Carradine and Louise Platt."

That's true, and one could say the same about Vivien Leigh. But the South, even now, is one part of the country where an accent has always denoted social class, and Carradine/Platt and certainly Leigh convey a well-born Southernness fairly well. Leigh's accent does slip at one point, though; when she wakes up in bed after the staircase scene and is singing "she wept with delight" she sounds pure Old Vic.

G, when British people bemoan the inability of Americans to get a UK accent down (and some American actors do just fine) I always wonder...have they seen The Betsy?

XT, isn't it funny that Mitchell played Irish or Irish-American on a number of occasions and yet he was New Jersey? I always do a double-take whenever I remind myself of that.

Tony, Grace Kelly's voice is the business, and I gather that was the way she really talked.

Sheila, back atcha. :)

The Siren said...

Dr. Morbius, you're right! Nobody in a WB cartoon has a mid-Atlantic accent, unless it's an actor caricature making an appearance.

Karen, Golddiggers of 1933 is a good one. 42nd Street is not bad either, especially for Ginger down-shifting abruptly from her hoity-toity accent to her showgirl mode as my role model, Anytime Annie.

Joe, thank you. I wasn't mad at Mr. Drum and I'm not mad now, I was just dumbfounded, as Karen put it.

Peter, it's true; and I love to imagine my uncle, as a teenage draftee from Alabama, meeting up with somebody from the Bronx via Patton's Third Army. He once growled to me that he "didn't understand a word some of them Yankees said."

Arthur, any number of native New Yorker Walsh's films would fit the bill, wouldn't they? I read that about Day-Lewis, too. There's a guy who builds a character using every tool he's got.

Rachel, I agree on all points. I find myself warming instantly to the actors nowadays who do have distinctive speaking voices.

Casey, It Happened One Night definitely works. All those voices on that bus! And Colbert never sounded elocution-y to me, just well-educated. She had a marvelous voice.

X. Trapnel said...


Mitchell has always been a favorite of mine and I've always found his sharply intelligent, demotic American voice and manner very pleasing.

Does anyone here detect the Southern pulsation in Dana Andrews' (marvelous) voice in his 40s films? It's more audible later.

X. Trapnel said...

I love the story about the Union officer who, questioning Confederate prisoners, was dumbfounded to hear them say they were fightin' for their rats.

The Siren said...

XT, it's often remarked that a high-class Southern accent and a British accent have certain similarities, so your reference to Andrews makes me think of Miriam Hopkins. Georgia is always somewhere in there with Hopkins, but she could do mid-Atlantic so well she was thisclose to docking in Southampton.

One thing that a real Southerner has trouble losing is that tendency to turn a long "i" into an "ah"; in theatre class in high school the teacher would go around the room trying to get the students to say "nice white rice" and the class would collapse in laughter. I could do it, my accent was never that strong, but even so I had to concentrate. There were a few who simply could not switch it off, Lina Lamont style; "what's wrong with the way I talk?" And actually, there was nothing wrong with it. I'm not sure someone stamping out a regional accent is doing any favors for the larger good. But then, I like all kinds of accents.

Vanwall said...

Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot? This all I can say about something that lacking.

Aubyn said...

Speaking of Lina Lamont, wouldn't you say that Jean Hagen is just great in the way she can switch between Lina's priceless "caaaant" and the fluting "Oh Pierre" in the brief "Dancing Cavalier" clip? Then you listen to her in The Asphalt Jungle and it's a totally different woman. I'd say she fits Drum's specifications for good vocal acting.

And any actor who's tempted to erase their accent, should just look at the walking cautionary tale of Stephen Boyd.

Here, in The Oscar

Here, with his natural Northern Irish accent

The Siren said...

Vanwall, I'm honestly not trying to beat up on Drum but if he shows up I'd love to know which movies he had in mind. I was going to say that Arthur had a good point about the Oscar winners, but then I reminded myself of It Happened One Night and You Can't Take It With You, and several that were set in England or had English characters, and the only ones I'm really coming up with are The Life of Emile Zola (was he watching that? somehow I doubt it), Grand Hotel and The Great Ziegfeld, and even those have some real variety. I mean, Luise Rainer, and Wallace Beery trying to sound German. You do tend to encounter mid-Atlantic more in prestige productions, I guess.

The Siren said...

Rachel, my word, I don't think I've ever heard Boyd's natural voice before. I insulted his voice at some length when I wrote up The Oscar but in that TV segment it's not bad at all.

Vanwall said...

Siren, all the points I had in mind have already been noted and frankly, the level of homogenized accents and voice efforts today seems sadly lacking compared to the variety back then. It certainly isn't more subtle.

The Siren said...

Since we're on the topic, the Siren might as well tell her favorite mid-Atlantic accent story. It involves the great Stella Adler, and there's a video somewhere of her telling this. In The Shadow of the Thin Man, just about her only major movie, she can be heard delivering her lines in the most cut-glass theatrical mid-Atlantic you can imagine. As Miss Adler told it, she went to a department store one day and upon hearing her voice the salesgirl gushed, "Ooh, are you ENGLISH?"

To which Miss Adler replied, "No, dear. Just affected."

Karen said...

Siren, I read "Arthur" in your post and immediately flashed on Jean Arthur, another distinctive voice, and found myself thinking about two films: The Talk of the Town, where Arthur upstate tones meet Cary Grant's Americanized Cockney and Ronald Colman's stylized Oxbridge, and A Foreign Affair, where Arthur takes on Dietrich, tempered by John Lund's similarly upstate accent, and Millard Mitchell's....what is his accent? Very "American," I'd say. As are all the rest of the members of the Congressional delegation.

The more I think of it, really, the less I can recall any old film that features nothing but Drum's mid-Atlantic accents.

X. Trapnel said...

And speaking of The [Shadow of the] Thin Man, surely the most peculiar deployment of the mid-Atlantic accent is that of Natalie Moorehead/Julia Wolfe. "You" comes out as something like "Hyawh." That and her middle-aged Jed Leland hairdo...

Karen said...

On the subject of implausible accents, by the way, I keep forgetting to mention Errol Flynn in all those westerns. Sometimes they tried to explain him away as a British transplant, but when he was playing historical figures Jeb Stuart or George Custer there was really no getting around it.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

(Western New England here. Think Rosalind Russell, only shorter.)

I love this post and the comments. For me, one of the great pleasures of watching old movies is the variety of voices, accents, and vocal textures. Especially for the fact that I can understand them for all their diversity. Phoebe Dinsmore, great gal. I wish there were more like her working today.

This diversity (and clarity of speech) has largely been lost in modern films, and some of the reasons already mentioned (i.e. Americans become more mobile after WWII, as well as the advent of TV to homogenize our speech) is a good part of that.

X. Trapnel's "does anyone do a Matt Damon impersonation?" remark is spot on.

However, since Jean Arthur was already mentioned, I would suggest I've never heard her immitated either. I don't think anyone could.

A couple of movies off the top of my head for Mr. Drum to peruse would be "The Devil and Miss Jones" - here you've got shopgirl Arthur, and the working class smart aleck union leader Robert Cummings, along with the cozy-voiced Spring Byington, and the two overbearing (and adversarial) men played by the stuffy tones of Edmund Gwenn (British), and the delightful Charles Coburn, who concealed his Georgia roots with gruff authority, but not a trace of artificiality.

The other film I'm thinking of "The Enchanted Cottage" with Dorothy McGuire - one of the loveliest speakers in classic films. Here she's a New England girl, with Mildred Natwick, Herbert Marshall (British), Robert Young, Spring Byington again, only less cozy this time and more shrewish, my favorite boor Richard Gaines - all a collage of diffrent tones and degrees of high born - low born.

Did Bogart, especially as Duke Mantee, ever sound like his family's upper crust, private school background?

"The Best Years of Our Lives" - a lovely collection of Middle West intonations (where the well-off Stephenson family speaks only a little more gently than Homer Parish's folks), is shattered by Harold Russell's and Gladys George's out of place New England accents.

Old movies is where you can really hear America. Ayuh.

rcocean said...

The "mid-Atlantic" accent never bothers me. But I must say the "Dem" and "Dose" big-city accents of the 30s/40s often sound exaggerated and phony to me.

No doubt that's the way working class big City types actually talked but it always takes me aback.

What about William Powell was he "Mid-Atlantic"? Any I've never been able to Locate Errol Flynn's. Tasmania?

X. Trapnel said...


Some voices seem to mysteriously defy impersonation. Spencer Tracy and Fredric March had deceptively average voices. Jean Arthur and (my favorite voice of all) Margaret Sullavan spoke in the accent of Paradise.

The Siren said...

Rcocean, I've read that Errol Flynn initially had a strong Down Under accent that he worked very hard to switch to the clipped British that I hear in his movies. I dated an Australian for a long time and I often strain to catch some of those bizarre vowels in Flynn's voice, and I haven't caught one yet. I'm also told by old time (like, here well before 1960) New Yorkers that the old accents were much, much stronger. Some of those actors may have been from elsewhere and were just doing them badly, but I think people really used to talk like that. Fiorella La Guardia comes to mind... Powell was born in Pittsburgh but to me he's pure mid-Atlantic.

Jacqueline, what a beautiful comment. I also adore McGuire's voice, but then you know I adore her in general.

The Siren said...

That's FiorellO. Poor man, I just gender-switched him. And so to bed...

gmoke said...

The puckish gmoke is going off on a tangent.

I was watching No Highway in the Sky with a friend the other night and there was Glynis Johns with her fantastic voice as the incredibly capable stewardess. I wondered aloud to my friend if she had ever appeared in a film with Joan Greenwood. Now that would be a voice-off for the ages, female division.

As for the Looney Tunes, they had all sorts of voices and accents, most of which were done by the singular, the unique Mel Blanc. (Did you know that, according to Chuck Jones, Termite Terrace may have originated the concept of brainstorming in the way they held their story conferences?)

Emerson College is showing Me and My Gal with Dave Kehr commenting at the Paramount Center in Boston on Sept 16 and 17.

Thanks to the Siren, I feel much like a very young Mickey Rooney tonight and have to go put a girdle round the earth in forty minutes.

Jeff Gee said...

My friend Herb—from the Bronx, and the last person left in my address book with a clearly identifiable ‘classic’ Bronx accent—once said Jean Arthur’s voice was so bubbly he could turn up the sound when one of her pictures was on TV and his dishes would be clean by the time it was over. (It sounded better with the Bronx accent).

Aubyn said...

Jacqueline, I was totally about to mention the Bogart question and then, for some reason, forgot about it. Does anyone hear Bogart and think, "Ah yes, years of prep school, that one"?

And then there's Jean Harlow, a former member of Miss Barstow's Finishing School for Girls...who found it more profitable to play it cheap.

Gmoke: Imdb is telling me that Flesh and Blood from 1951 has the ladies Greenwood and Johns...but I don't know a thing about it.

WI_Dilettante said...

Speaking of Jean Arthur, how about Mr. Smith Goes to Washington? Arthur's vocal work in Capra's film pretty much embodies all the qualities Drum so admires. And from the top liners through the supporting cast, a veritable American accent salad.

Of all the qualities that Drum enumerates, accent is usually the least essential to me. Since the English Restoration, each successive generation of stage actors has believed their acting is more natural and realistic than their predecessors. The same holds true in film. But if we start from the premise that all acting is a performance then I think it's easier to appreciate the "truth" (verisimilitude)of each.

(Good grief, I don't know if that last sentence is a result of "Mid-Atlantic" on the brain or just affectation. Sorry.)

rcocean said...

Thanks Siren. And I just wanted to agree with those up-thread. What voices they had in those days, distinctive and pleasant. Ronald Coleman, Jean Arthur, Myrna Loy, Joan Greenwood, Stewart, Bogart, Powell, Grant, Cagney, Colbert, Hepburn, et al.

This verbal distinctiveness and quality seems to have declined over time. I love Newman and Liz Taylor but do either really have great voices? And Fonda and Redford/Betty seem even less memorable.

I wonder if Radio had something to do with it?

BTW, William Buckley had an incredibly prominent and odd "Mid-Atlantic" voice. When younger, I though he had speech impediment, but later learned he just went to Yale.

Jeff Gee said...

Non-Mid-Atlantic Accent Alert! On TCM as we speak: THE SOUND AND THE FURY starring Yul Brynner, who just delivered the immortal line: “Mitt me een beck oaf de barn, yee al.”

Harry K. said...

(In my own inimitable Philly hardwood by way of New Orleans Drawl):

Speaking of Walsh, and of a film that has come up here more than once, how about Strawberry Blonde? Hard to find Mid-Atlantic there. Even where you'd think to find it, the college twits who bookend the film, nary a trace appears. Between Walsh, the Epsteins, and Cagney, I'm sure even the slightest hint of it was rooted out and eliminated mercilessly.

X. Trapnel said...

In the forties, mid-Atlantic seems to have dwindled out, spoken mainly by Paul Cavanagh-type, silver-haired authority figures who have lost their authority. Waldo Lydecker almost literally delivers its swan song.

Karen said...

Jacqueline and Rachel: kudos for bringing up Bogart and Harlow! I've often listened to Bogart and marveled over the contrast between his background and his accent. Surely poshly-educated sons of the bourgeoisie didn't SOUND like that?

As for Harlow, I deeply believe no one has EVER sounded like her--to me, she always sounded as artificial as a Twinkie. Especially when she's playing a socialite. What DID Kansas City's Main Line sound like?

I can't believe either of them are reflections of their class roots, much less their logistical ones.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

"Jean Arthur and (my favorite voice of all) Margaret Sullavan spoke in the accent of Paradise."

Lovely, adding this and the one about Arthur's voice washing dishes clean to my collection.

Film actors aside, the way young people speak today (under 30, let's say), to me, sounds very monotone. No matter the accent or education level, there seems much less modulation in their speaking voices. I don't include young stage actors, because I think theatre is where you'll still find training in that regard, since speaking is a tool of the trade.

Jette said...

"Ball of Fire" strikes me as an excellent example of a movie with a variety of voices and accents, none of which are mid-Atlantic. I would have seconded on "A Foreign Affair" but I know it's not available on DVD in US Region 1.

The Siren said...

Wait -- no Region 1 of A Foreign Affair? I had no idea. That is ten different kinds of wrong.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Ah the immortal Phoebe Dinsmore! "Round tones. Round tones."

I like the bizarre mixure of accents in Alain Resnais' Providence: Gielgud, Bogarde, Ellen Burstyn and Stritchy (as Noel Coward called her.)

Who can forget Jude Law as a white trash Southern huslter in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. He also did a teriffic upper-class New York psychopath in The Talented Mr. Ripley. Matthew Goode was also effect as a hot Southern California boytoy in Tom Ford's film of Isherwood's A Single Man.

Finally there's Lambert Wilson singing a very strange American in Resnais'Pas Sur La Bouche

Uncle Gustav said...

My dear old dead mom used to affect a distinctly Ida Lupino-esque patois — most noticeably after downing a couple of martoonies — wherein the letter R was often replaced by an H. Hence, the name ‘Carlton’ became “Kahl-t’n”… or ‘martoonies’ into “mah-toonies”…which I guess is fine until it blurs a word beyond recognition. When she brought up the subject of “chom,” for instance, my feeble mind would immediately go to “chum,” a seemingly inappropriate word in whatever sentence she was ‘fahming’ — did she mean ‘chum’ as in buddy or ‘chum’ as in the bloody stew one throws overboard to attract big game fish? — when I’d then realize she meant ‘charm.’ This idiosyncrasy of hers mutated further under the influence of the egg nog she’d whip up at Christmastime (positively brimming with rum and rye), adding to her speech pattern a “sha-sha-sha” thing Barbara Stanwyck would use on occasion. Mom was a very weird woman (descended from both Lord Byron as well as the guy who invented the Otis elevator). By the time I turned thirty-five, I finally got to see one of her old favorites, The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, only to realize she’d lifted most of her everyday facial mannerisms and body language from Jennifer Jones in that picture. For years she’d tell anyone who’d listen that she looked like Jennifer Jones and my father resembled Gregory Peck, but to this day I can’t see even the slightest similarity.

The Derelict said...

Jacqueline --

I'm with you on the monotone quality of under-30 American voices. I taught a high school public speaking class last year and tried my darndest to get my students to work on varying their pitch, to no avail. They all had a weird flatness to their voices and it was very difficult to get them to add the right inflections. It was like they just couldn't make their vocal chords change pitch with any sort of expressiveness. I'm not sure the cause of it.

Siren --
You are a national treasure! You need to write a book that answers all of these "I don't like old movies because ________" complaints so that I can keep a copy in my purse to hand to ignorant people I meet in real life. :D

I wonder if those who think old movies are filled with nothing but the Mid-Atlantic accent are simply categorizing every accent that has a bit of "R" dropping as being "Mid-Atlantic." I've noticed that "R" dropping is something that has largely faded away from movie and television screens in the last three decades, so maybe any kind of accent that does it in an old movie makes it seem like Mid-Atlantic to the uninitiated.

By the way, imagine I'm saying all this with the hard "R"s of a heavy Midwestern Detroit accent. :D

X. Trapnel said...

I've often wondered whether there is a correlation between the flattening out of American speech and the melodic flattening out of American popular music.

As Bjorn said...

I rarely comment, but this time I just wanted to say, Siren, you rock! You are ever so right on this one and Kevin Drum, who I read most days, is ever so off base. Sad for him, of course. Thanks for the great post. You rock hard!

Qalice said...

I like Kevin Drum a lot, too, and I was completely flummoxed by his comment until I remembered something a friend told me years ago. He said he didn't like classical music because it has no structure. Since classical music is heavily structured, I was confused until I realized he meant it doesn't have the strong, simple 4/4 backbeat of pop and rock music. I still don't know what Kevin Drum means -- does he know he's writing in the era of "mumblecore"? -- but I'm sure he's writing from ignorance. Which you will help alleviate!!

Mayfly said...

Anyone here ever see the Donald Duck cartoon where Donald takes a pill and then sounds just like Ronald Coleman? Daisy Duck just swoons. But when the pill wears off Donald sound like himself again.

A friend in theater referred to the "mid-Atlantic" accent as a "drawing room accent."

Dave said...

First of all, let me say that Drum, as apt a political commentator as his is, knows as much about movies as Ellie Andrews knows about piggyback rides or dunking.

Three things I'd like to add to a fascinating discussion:

1) With a very few exceptions, British actors are crap at doing "American" accents. They always flatten the vowels to the point where even Henry Fonda's voice seems as jagged as the Himalayas. In particular, the word "coffee" invariably trips them up.

2) What a pleasure to see Stephen Boyd on "What's My Line." It's the first time I've actually ever liked him -- must have been just being on the greatest game show ever. (For shame, GSN!)

3) I'd like to nominate my own Duke's Mixture of bizarre accents.

Later than our stipulated period, but a roller coaster nonetheless is 1960's "Can Can," with Sinatra's Hoboken honk, Shirley MacLaine's Brooklynesque tones, Juliet Prowse's South African nasality, and two -- count 'em, two -- wildly varying French accents from Maurice Chevalier and Louis Jourdan. That these character all inhabit this Bizarro World version of fin de siecele Paris is enough to make your head explode. No wonder Khrushchev left the set in a huff.

Bob Westal said...

Re: Cary Grant's accent. It just occurred to me that the only movie where incorrect accents every really bothered me is Capra's version of "Arsenic and Old Lace." It's one thing not to explain why Grant has a British accent while being an American -- we can either forget about it or imagine that his character is an immigrant or spent time in British boarding school or whatever -- but the script in "Arsenic" repeatedly emphasizes that Grant's character is a native New Jerseyite and, if I remember right, has never left the area. For me, that was just a plausibility bridge too far. I have no idea why they didn't think to rewrite that.

The Siren said...

Flickhead, modeling yourself on Jennifer Jones in TMITGFS is such an oddball choice that I have to say I would kind of love your mom for it...if I didn't suspect you were pulling my leg. *narrows eyes*

Harry K., oh but what about Olivia in Strawberry Blonde? The same impossibly lovely voice in every movie...and I never minded.

The Siren said...

As Bjorn, thanks, it's nice to see you again. Qalice, thanks too -- all kinds of things take getting used to. I spent a couple of years haunting the Performing Arts library and systematically checking out classical music recordings in an attempt to educate myself; it was a very nice time of my life, in the end.

Dave, I was just mentioning Can-Can the other day. I hope you like it too, it doesn't mentioned very often. You are right that it's an odd duck, though.

Bob, and speaking of odd-duck movies; Arsenic and Old Lace. Rationally I know it's got problems, not least that it may well be Grant's worst performance, and yet I can't resist the damn thing. Own it on DVD. Watch it every time it's on. I never thought about the NJ thing but no, that makes no sense at all.

X. Trapnel said...

Why, everyone in NJ sounds like Cary Grant. Everyone else's ears just need adjusting.

Bob Westal said...

Siren -- the movie heart wants what it wants!

Actually, the other tick the movie has that bugged me almost as much is the Boris Karloff running gag. I could see that it might have been pretty hilarious on Broadway with Boris Karloff actually in it but, much as I like Raymond Massey, it seemed pretty pointless. It's a little bit as if the Ralph Bellamy joke from "His Girl Friday" were used, but Vincent Price was playing the part.

As for Grant's performance, I sort of categorized with his other manic performance in things like "Gunga Din" -- I don't remember not liking it, particularly. I actually have only seen it straight through once that I can remember but it wasn't all that long ago.

The Siren said...

Bob, there's also Jack Carson and Peter Lorre, and there is the old house and all those blowing leaves...in certain ways I'm ludicrously easy to please.

Bob Westal said...

Oh, I can be incredibly forgiving myself and not just with old movies. I think a lot of times I look at movies not so much as good or bad, but as to how sincere I believe it to be. (As in Linus's "sincere pumpkin patch.")

rcocean said...

Cary Grant isn't British or American - he's Cary Grant.

And speaking of great Mid-Atlantic Voices I present Tallulu Bankhead, darling.

Karen said...

It took me YEARS to realize how over-the-top Cary Grant's performance was in Arsenic and Old Lace, because I just love the damn thing so much. I have it on DVD as well, and it's been part of the twins' film education.

gmoke said...

Former Gov Tom Keane of NJ does sound somewhat (long stretch) like Cary Grant. I've heard that both Grant and Capra disliked Arsenic and Old Lace and it stayed in the can for something like a year before it was finally released.

The Joan Greenwood/Glynis Johns Flesh and Blood (1951) may be available for viewing online by those with PCs (this puckish one has a Mac) but I fear, since it's a multi-generational family saga with Richard Todd playing father and son and maybe even grandson, that the two lovely ladies and their enchantingly idiosyncratic voices don't appear in the same scene. (Thanks Rachel.)

We need to take up a collection to send Kevin Drum a copy of Ball of Fire but I suspect he would only fixate on Richard Haydn's adenoids.

PS: My grandparents knew Fiorello LaGuardia very well. My grandfather was born in Russia and always had an accent. To me, it sounded like my grandmother's meat borscht. Great, great people.

X. Trapnel said...

Thanks for the support, gmoke, but Gov. Keane of "New Jhuhzzey"'s accent was a thing unto itself.

I like Arsenic and Old Lace too (way better than You Can't Take It With You--the eccentricity is more free floating and thankfully nonmoralistic, even if the altter did have Mischa Auer as the [almost] saving salt. It still steenks.) and have never understood why it's so often tossed on the slag heap of legendary unwatchables that includes Parnell, Arch of Triumph, and others.

Shamus said...

There seem to be a lot of shopping around for accents these days, especially around the Boston area. I need the preface this observation with, "for some reason". Any accent splashed onscreen (thick accents = blue collar neighborhood = "realism") is necessarily diluted: otherwise, we would need subtitles to understand, like in the Wire and adding to which, most studio films today have worldwide release, which means that distributors might (I'm guessing) balk at accents too thick, too "authentic" if you will.

In any case, could an accent any confer credibility on actor who cannot emote effectively or convincingly, however beautifully he may enunciate the disjointed syllables? Also, did someone say "James Mason"?

Aubyn said...

If we're going to talk about Cary Grant, scion of New Jersey, we have to throw in a mention for the casting of Marnie. Because when you're casting for a New England blue blood, you naturally think of Sean Connery.

According to "The Films of Sean Connery," Hitchcock later admitted that he'd been all wrong to cast Connery. What the story really needed was a true gentleman..like Laurence Olivier.

(I assume he was looking for Olivier's quality rather than his accent, but still...)

X. Trapnel said...

Sean Connery as a New Englander undescores what has always been for me one of the many and manifold faults of Marnie: no sense of place as part of the drama.

Goose said...

Wasn't Connery a Philadelphian in Marnie?

As to Marnie, I usually do not care if a movie has a bad visual effect, but the matte with that ship in Baltimore Harbor is laughable.

Another Mid-Atlantic accent user - Kim Novak.

Exiled in NJ said...

And where was Connery's Samson Shillitoe born? TCM played it the other day.

Connery has been the father to Dustin Hoffman and Harrison Ford. Strange chap.

And where do we put Orson Welles in the accent parade?

Jeff Gee said...

I think Qualce is on to something. I think back to friends who thought the entire 2001 soundtrack—Ligeti, “The Blue Danube,” “Also Sprach Zarathustra,” Khatchaturian—sounded the same, by which they meant it was all in the same (boring) idiom. They really meant was it was all not in the same (exciting!) idiom that they had been marinating in since kindergarten. I forget who said that we usually find the pop culture that comes before us quaint and faintly amusing, and the pop culture that follows us as cold and vaguely threatening, but I suspect it’s true. (I also suspect Drum has a tin ear, but that’s something else).

Bob Westal said...

And I think Jeff may be on to something. I can remember back in the 1970s some people thought it was cool to go to movies "old time" movies specifically to laugh at them as if being old somehow made them campy, whether or not they actually were. I always assumed that had something to do with the generational warfare of the baby boom era but maybe there's something more basic going on.

That being said it's hard to imagine someone not distinguishing between the Strausses and Ligeti.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Speakingf accents Here's one of my favori scenes from The Loved One. . Don't Miltie and Mrgaret make a lovely couple?

The entire film is a Mid-Atlantic orgy. Robert Morse speaks with a psdo-British accent. Roddy McDowell sounds moreAmericxan than he ever has before in any film. Plus accent specialist Robert Eastman is cast as a former Western star the studio wants to make the new James Bond. So they hire John Gielgud to teach him tospeak like an Englishman.

Directed by Tony Richardson from a screenplay by Terry Southern and Christopher herwood (and you knowho wrote what the moment the actors read the lines) the cast is Guest Star Heaven: Jonathan Winters, Liberace, Tab Hunter, Dana Andrews, Barbara Nichols, and a host of others. With Rod Steiger as Mr. Joyboy, Anjanette Comer as Aimee Thanatogenous and the unforgettable Aileen Gibbons as Ma Joyboy.

Uncle Gustav said...

In The Wind and the Lion, Sean Connery played the Moroccan Sharif Mulai Ahmed er Raisuni, the last of the Barbary Pirates, with a Scottish accent.

Hey, it worked for me.

Vanwall said...

Wow! What a banner shot! Fantastic!

Dave said...

I, too, am a sucker for "Arsenic and Old Lace." I'd like to nominate Grant in that picture for giving the second-greatest bad performance in movie history. Everything else is so right -- even Massey is good, even if the absence of Karloff is a -huge- hole in the proceedings -- that I'm willing to forgive it.

Years ago I saw a UCLA screening of a Hallmark Hall of Fame version of the show with Karloff (finally!) and Tony Randall (and speaking mid-Atlantic accents, it's impossible to think of him coming from Tulsa [Lucy Warriner's favorite city ...]. It played beautifully.

The reason "Arsenic" was held in the can wasn't quality; it was that they couldn't contractually release it until it closed on Broadway. (Fun fact that I just learned: Erich von Stroheim took over for Karloff. Imagine!)

I long for a remake/revival of the show with Jeremy Irons playing Jonathan.

I'm always astounded in YCTIWY at how big Mischa Auer is. I always think of him as puny, but he's immense!

That contempt for "old timey" movies was never stronger than in the 30s and 40s when they went out of their way to mock silent movies (I'm lookin' at you, Pete Smith -- and -there's- an voice!) for being, well, ten years old.

David E.: "The Loved One" has always been a tough slog for me, but I should give it another chance.

Yojimboen said...

Part one:
@Flickhead, your dear old mom sounds a hoot – I’ll raise my next martoonie to her memory (in fact I’ll probably never be able to drink another without thinking of her). One small caveat: the way young Lord Byron put it about, half of Europe is descended from him.

A superb thread, chère Madame, but as the (pretentious as some, but not all, get-out) House Brit, whose nearly life-long hobby has been the same as Higgins and Pickering (that’s right, kidnapping flower girls off the street), I hesitate to dip a toe in this stream.

What the hey, the bad news: You Americans are hopelessly intimidated by plummy British accents. Yes, you are.
(Yes. You. Are.)
And we love smacking you up-side the head with it:
You: “Oh, I love your accent!”
Me: “What accent?”
(See 193os Daily Telegraph headline “Fog blankets Europe. Continent cut off.”)

It’s only partly socio-economic, mostly psychological. Truth is, everybody is intimidated by people who seem superior – including other Brits who can’t talk posh.

“Every time an Englishman opens his mouth, he makes some other Englishmen despise him.” GBS

Yojimboen said...

Part two:
It’s less complicated than meets the ear. The standard “Received Pronunciation” (R.P.) is that of the BBC newsreader (yes, they actually wore dinner jackets broadcasting on the radio).
If your accent was/is down-market from that R.P., you’re inferior.

The current BBC murder/melodrama, “The Hour”, on the early days of BBC TV, is a useful case in point – since it stars, not coincidentally, Dominic West, the latest in a long line of Brit actors - Sheffield in his case - who persuasively worked in an American accent - Baltimore in this case - as cop Jimmy McNulty in “The Wire.”
(I would wager the bulk of “The Wire” fanbase is unaware that West – and, come to that, Londoner Idris Elba, who plays Stringer Bell in the same series, are Brits. For myself, West does the 2nd best fake US accent I’ve ever heard.)

Which brings me to a reasonably important – and cheerful – point in this discourse: the ability of Brit actors to imitate American accents vs the lesser ability of US actors to do Brit accents.

The above comments seem – with one or two exceptions – to support the canard that British actors are better trained and therefore better equipped to tackle foreign (incl. American) characters. That’s not the reason, at least not all of it; what I haven’t seen mentioned above is the BIG SECRET reason why: Are you ready? It has nothing, zilch, SFA to with superior intelligence or training. The simple fact is that British people in general, actors in particular, have ten thousand times more exposure to American accents than vice versa. That’s all.

Of course Brit actors are better at it (did you hear me say ‘perfect’?) than their US cousins – they’ve been practicing since they were two.

There are notable exceptions, of course, Gwyneth Paltrow is one. (Anne Hathaway is not.) There are others. But they can never make up for examples like Dick van Dyke in Mary Poppins or, as I never grow tired saying, the only example worse than Bette Davis’s attempted cockney in Of Human Bondage was Kim Novak’s in the remake.

In the those days, the major studios’ prevailing attitude re any umbrage British audiences might take at such casual insults was, sadly, “Fuck ‘em, who cares?”

Jeff Gee said...

I knew that eventually we would reach Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins.

Yojimboen said...

Boyd: There’s a lot going on between the lines in the Stephen Boyd “What’s My Line” clip. Follow me; Boyd wasn’t remotely using his native Glengormley/Belfast accent (where ‘How now brown cow’ becomes ‘Hye nye brine cye’); no, he tried to disguise it by moving his accent south by about 116 miles to imitate Barry Fitzgerald’s pixilatedly musical Dublinese.
(Perversely, that made his voice more recognizable, not less.)

Notice also how Boyd bristles at the word ‘brogue’ – which in his world, the world of the proud Ulsterman (as in Northern Ireland; a constituent country of the United Kingdom) refers either to a shoe, or to a Southern Irish accent (as in Eire, an entirely separate country). He also bristles when Ralph Edwards says ‘England’ when he should say ‘Britain’. (WTF, Edwards was only a game-show host; but US public figures to this day constantly demonstrate a pitiable ignorance of the difference.)

[This transplanted Brit looks forward each tennis season (I’m joking!) to the fruitless search across the airwaves for an American professional (hah!) sportscaster who can pronounce ‘Wimbledon’ correctly. That’s a ‘d’, boys, not a ‘t’.]

There are of course a few hilarious counter-examples: But do we blame Michael Caine or Preminger for Hurry Sundown(?) and here and there a tragically bad choice of actor for a role: poor Audrey Hepburn, beloved in most parts, but pathetically ill-equipped for a cockney Eliza Doolittle. But those aside, I’m hard-pressed to agree that ‘With a very few exceptions, British actors are crap at doing "American" accents.’

Just my opinion. But I’m the type who laughed scornfully at (speaking of) Michael Caine’s so-called cockney in Alfie; his accent was pure South London Camberwell, miles – at least 150 streets - away from the R.P. Cockney of London’s East-End.

Dave said...

Yojimboen: That's the South African-born John Charles Daly in the WML host chair, not the repulsive Edwards.

Edwards was a sleazy conman compared to the charming and erudite Daly, who doubled as the head of ABC news while hosting WML on CBS.

Yojimboen said...

My mistake, Dave, I wasn't here then. Thanks for the correction. But I hope we agree to disagree cordially on the other points.

Operator_99 said...

Seems to me one watches Paul Muni in Fugitive and Scarface and the discussion is over. :-)

Dave said...

Yojimboen, no need to disagree. Boyd always seems pissed off about something, so a barely-contained rage about his birthplace would not be out of character.

(Though I still think British actors are lousy at American accents -- especially on stage.)

rcocean said...

English actors can do American accents but North American actors have trouble with English accents.

Case in Point:

- Hugh Cronyn - Lifeboat
- Henry Travers - Shadow of Doubt

DavidEhrenstein said...

The LOve One is more than worth the effort, Dave. It's an incredibly strange film -- and I treasure it for that alone.

I think it's Tony Richardson's most personal work in many ways.

cgeye said...

"I long for a remake/revival of the show with Jeremy Irons playing Jonathan."


When will Irons embrace this legacy waiting for him?

I watch the Columbia quickies THE BLACK ROOM or BEFORE I HANG, or the work for Lewton, and wonder why the frak Irons hasn't kept a hand in horror since DEAD RINGERS. It's the perfect showcase for men of a certain age to show menace, and style.

As for movie suggestions, one can't go wrong with EXECUTIVE SUITE, with Miss Stanwyck, Messrs. Holden, Pidgeon, March, and of course the lovely tones of Miss Foch.

Drum, of course, is entitled to be wrong, but since he spends everyday smiting the politically ignorant, being this much a doofus regarding a subject he thinks he knows about is showing the wrong optics, mos def.

verification: essesse -- what I hiss in anticipation of Irons having that kicky blond widow's peak hairstyle in a remake of THE BLACK CAT... with Pacino in Lugosi's role. (I think he's ready too...)

Jeff Gee said...

Steve Buscemi as Dr. Einstein?

Anonymous said...

Regional accents are still very much alive. In the 50s and 60s, celebs like Johnny Carson were chosen for their "accentless" mid-western speech style.

It amazes me with TV, movies, radio etc. that there are still such strong accents. I pulled off the road at Beato Junction Kansas and the guys I spoke with in garage all sounded like Festus from Gunsmoke.
I hear it in my own family. My accent has changed because I've lived in Kansas City, but some of my relatives have a twang that I used to have and reacquire if I'm around them. I love it when modern films get subtle accents right (Winter's Bone is a good example), but I love old movies and sometimes even if the accents were manufactured, I just love the way the words sound. At times, they convey as much meaning and emotion as supposedly "true" accents.

Yojimboen said...

As the thread peters out, HuffPost to the rescue with this and this!

(Arianna must be reading Sirène.)

Yojimboen said...

And for those among us who delight in the phenomenology of accents, this site is a goldmine.

Vanwall said...

I always loved a desperate Louise Brooks describing one of her lessons with her particular Prof. Henry Higgins, a Broadway soda jerk who decided to (sorta) stop making fun of her Kansas twang and learn her right: "It's not hep, you hayseed - it's 'help, 'help' help'!" he would cry. Any port in a storm.

VP81955 said...

I apologize for being late to the party, but I was on vacation for a few days.

I've always admired Kevin Drum's political insights (plus anyone who adores cats as much as he does can't be all bad), but it's unfortunate this is his particular blind spot. I suppose living in Irvine means he doesn't get into the big city much to see films at Silent Movie Theater or New Beverly. (Perhaps some of those UCLA retrospectives at the Billy Wilder Theater can be farmed out to UCI for his own personal benefit.)

Oh, and William Powell was Pittsburgh via Kansas City (one of his schoolmates at Central High School in Kansas City was none other than Casey Stengel, later as astute a manager as Powell was an actor, but where diction was concerned, a polar opposite). The four principal actresses in Powell's professional and personal life were Oklahoma native Kay Francis, Montana's Myrna Loy, Indiana's Carole Lombard and K.C.'s Jean Harlow. The latter two came from upper-class backgrounds, but were vocally at their best when they were more hoi polloi.

Buttermilk Sky said...

"Anytime Annie -- well, lay me low!"

Late to the party as usual, just a few observations: You either take Sean Connery or you leave him. Arab sheik, Russian sub captain or Chicago-Irish cop, he always sounded the same after he achieved stardom. (Early on, in "The Longest Day," he makes a creditable effort to sound Irish because the role requires it.)

I'm strictly NY/NJ, and even I'm driven to distraction by Hollywood's assumption that there is but one Southern accent. As a native, Siren, how do you sit through a movie like "Steel Magnolias" (assuming you have), with all those clashing accents among the people of one small town? I can hear Texas, Georgia and a bit of the Ozarks in there, and I'm no linguist.

I don't believe anyone has mentioned Omaha-born Fred Astaire. When he sang, he sounded really "mid-Atlantic," with all those round tones. Not so much in spoken dialogue. I have recordings he made with Adele, and she sounds utterly American. I wonder if that changed after she married into the British aristocracy.

For students of American skill with accents, if for no other reason, I recommend the execrable "Mary Reilly." John Malkovich makes a pathetic attempt to sound English, while Julia Roberts does an excellent Irish accent. Is he overrated or is she underrated?

X. Trapnel is so right about the lack of imitable voices, I hope he's wrong about our political future. Who do impressionists imitate today? Nicholson, maybe Walken. You can't imitate Clooney or Hanks or Washington. Meryl Streep imitates Meryl Streep. That's why Mr. Drum thinks the actors of the past are "doing" accents. They lodge in your head like singers.

Oh, everyone's gone. (tiptoes to cloakroom)

X. Trapnel said...

Buttermilk Sky,

A few loiterers still hanging around as we inch toward 100 comments (a nice round number). Thinking more about the lack of Damon impersonators another question suggests itself. Even if the voices were doable what would the point be? It wasn't simply that the actors of the past had more interesting voices it had to do with a certain largeness of personality that rooted itself in the audience imagination over decades and that just doesn't happen anymore. Movies were once essential, now they're disposible even when they're "good," like decent novel read once and then forgotten.

Yojimboen said...

Still up out here on the left coast, waitin’ on the Milkman’s Matinee. There is that sub-category we’ve all missed: actors who could do passable regional accents (dialects are another subject entirely) and who got stuck with them. Not that they necessarily complained – a gig was a gig.

The studios unfortunately couldn’t tell regions apart, so Londoner Donald Crisp got to play 100 Scotsmen and Irishmen before becoming the Welsh patriarch in How Green…. Rhys Williams probably played as many cockneys and Irish as his native Welsh. And one wonders if John Qualen minded beginning every speech he did for Ford with “Yum’pn Yiminy!”

(Connery’s attempted Irish in Longest Day? Okay, A for effort.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Take it away Hoagy! (and Jacques Tourneur)

Yojimboen said...

The 100th comment:
RIP Jimmy Sangster.

Among whose credits were the scripts he wrote for the aging Bette Davis.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Click here for brand-new interview with DORIS DAY!

It includes cuts from her new album.

Yojimboen said...

Interesting piece for the house.

DavidEhrenstein said...

That's great to know Ruthless is IMO Ulmer's masterpiece.

Joe Thompson said...

I'm sorry to enter the theater after the movie has started, but I enjoyed the post and the comments. The first movie in which I noticed a variety of dialects was "The Wizard of Oz." There you have some distinctive voices.

gmoke said...

Did the name of actor and dialog coach Robert Easton come up yet?

PS: Thief of Bagdad was on TCM tonight and it turns out Miklos Rozsa's suite of music from the movie is online at

"I want to be a sailor
sailing on the sea..."

X. Trapnel said...

Re Thief of Baghdad, Elmer Bernstein's excellent recording in superb sound of most of the score is available as part of a multidisc set entitled The Elmer Bernstein Filmmusic Collection, a bit pricey especially when the Tiomkin wastage is factored in (I've smeared peanut butter on the DT portions of the disks to make sure they don't get played accidently), but well worth it.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Yes. I brought up Robert Easton re The Loved One where he plays a cowboy star the studio wants to make the new James Bond. They hire John Gielgud's neglected screenwriter to teach him how to talk.

It's an in-joke inside of an in-joke.

Ned said...

Love the new banner image. I've seen another shot of this same group. I think it's at Universal Studios around 1962. Is that right?

Looks like Rock Hudson should have taken a tip from Cary Grant and Greg Peck and pulled up his socks. Brando should pressed that suit or else found one that fit a little better.

Great shot though.

There's a group with distinctly different voices.

Yojimboen said...

Used to see Robert Easton (Burke) at every BAFTA-LA screening – I don’t think he missed any – but I haven’t seen him this last year. I hope he is well, the man is a quiet institution: #1 on anybody’s list of dialog coaches. Plus (with Douglas Dick) he is perhaps the last survivor of Huston’s unsung masterpiece, Red Badge of Courage (1951).

Yojimboen said...

Ned – I think Brando can be forgiven his up-tight appearance – he’s in costume for The Ugly American, the others were in their own clothes.

X. Trapnel said...

This doesn't look like a posed picture; everyone seems to be listenting attentively, with Peck about to make a carefully weighed and noble response.

Ned said...

Y, good point. I hadn't thought of that.

That was Brando's "What was I thinking?" period (Appaloosa--a terrible fake Mexican accent, the dreadful Countess From Hong Kong,etc, although I have to admit to a weird fondness for The Chase).

Although it is kind of a hoot to see Brando as a refined, pipe smoking diplomat. Speaking of accents, his attempt at a clipped, academic style of speaking dissipates somewhat as his character goes all Stanley Kowalski on the local rebel leader.

Ned said...

X, he might have been getting ready to do one of his Atticus Finch speeches.

X. Trapnel said...

Perhaps the unseen interlocutor asked him to bust up a chifferobe.

Ned said...

Funny, he doesn't look a bit like Brock Peters!

Anonymous said...

Brock Peters? Oh, for a moment I was thinking of Peter Brock (Big Valley fame). Yes, now I remember.

Karen said...

Just to head back briefly to the topic at hand...I'm sitting here watching the 1932 film Lawyer Man, in which Lower East Sided lawyer William Powell finds himself gaining polish while practicing on Park Avenue, with the help of trusty secretary Joan Blondell.

It's difficult to credit Powell as a success out of the slums, despite a startling moment where he engages in a brief conversation in Yiddish with an old man outside a saloon. It's a cornucopia of American voices, from Powell's elegant tones to Blondell's rat-a-tat New York delivery. Roscoe Karns' adenoidal mockery (he sounds like a New Yorker but he's from San Bernardino) mixed with Helen Vinxon's arch Texas inflections.

Powell is, as always, delightful, but I'm not sure he was the best choice for ghetto boy makes good. Ricardo Cortez got away with it in Symphony of Six Million, but Powell is about as plausible was John Barrymore as a Jewish lawyer in Counsellor at Law...

Yojimboen said...

Re Brando: Back in the day when he still took things seriously (though reportedly Lewis Milestone didn't think so), his high-born Fletcher Christian accent (though not perfect, and you could hear the effort) was pretty damn good. Even better in Burn.

rcocean said...

Good Lord, Brando's probably 39 in this photo and looks 49. In "Streetcar" he had the body of a Greek God, by 1964 it was a Greek Tragedy.

DavidEhrenstein said...

I am besotted with Lambert Wilson!

DavidEhrenstein said...

a fortiori

X. Trapnel said...

"Good Lord, Brando's probably 39 in this photo and looks 49."

Brando? Damn, I thought it was Roman Bohnen.

rcocean said...

Roman Bohnen - that's some serious film character knowledge. I think his "Frantic Man with Injured Cat" has never been equaled in Hollywood.

Shamus said...

We were discussing this in the previous post so I'm a bit late with this but here are some astonishing shots of staircases.


Mind-boggling is what it is.

X. Trapnel said...

If you want to see Roman Bohnen at his most--how to put it?--unlikely, check out Edge of Darkness in which he may be seen wheedling and cringing before a slip-clad Nancy Coleman and later toting a machine gun and hurling grenades.

Shamus said...

Re the Banner:

"What could possibly equal the photo of a naked and beckoning Myrna floating in a bathtub?"

(Long Pause)

"FOUR of the biggest actors who ever crammed into one picture just might come close"

Maybe. But at least they are not naked.

Vanwall said...

Actually, Roman Bohnen has nice little parts in "The Best Years of Our Lives" as Dana Andrews' old man, Pat, and in "The Strange Love of Martha Ivers" as creepy Mr. O'Neil bargaining his son's way up the ladder.

Yojimboen said...

The high point of his career, and for me one of the high points of the film, is surely Roman Bohnen’s brief scene in TBYOOL (more than ably supported by Gladys George).

I’ve always found Bohnen seriously cool; an alumnus of the Group Theater in NY, he created roles in classics like, "Waiting for Lefty", "Golden Boy" and "Awake and Sing".

One of the saddest victims of that greasy thumbprint on the pages of American history, HUAC, Bohnen’s life was shortened by the stress of it all. He died 3 years after TBYOOL.

Most tragic of all is that this gentle, immensely talented man – some of whose best work went uncredited – now lies in a Culver City cemetery in an unmarked grave.

Rozsaphile said...

And the weak prison commandant (cowed by Hume Cronyn's sadistic warden) in Brute Force.

Ned said...

The scene in BYOOL in which Roman Bohnen reads the citation that had accompanied his son's medals is one of the most affecting moments in the film. It's a great scene even now but must have struck home to many viewers seeing this in 1946. His delivery and his reaction to the words he reads brings this character, which otherwise is just sketched out, completely to life.

One funny thing about that role. Bohnen was only 8 years older than Dana Andrews when he played his father.

I suppose being hounded by the HUAC made him even older. But I guess they felt that anyone who hung around the likes of John Howard Lawson and Clifford Odets must be a suspicious character. Must have been hiding seditious materials under his bed.

And one other note about BYOOL. Someone earlier mentioned Boston accents in films, a notoriously difficult accent to nail down for non-natives. To my knowledge, Harold Russell's appearance in that film marks the first time I can recall even twinges of a genuine Boston accent on display in a Hollywood movie. Even though Russell was born in Nova Scotia, he clearly spent enough time in Boston to pick up the accent.

Karen said...

In one of those odd synchronicities that never seem to happen outside film, TCM has just this moment finished screening as filler a 20-minute 1941 film version of Poe's "Tell Tale Heart," in which Roman Bohnen plays the old murder victim (Joseph Schildkraut is the haunted murderer and Jules Dassin directed).

Ned said...

Oh-oh. Cue Twilight Zone music.

(The Marius Constant version. Pace, Bernard Herrmann.)

Anonymous said...

Brando in The Night of the Following Day (1968) looked to be in pretty good shape. True it's hard to tell too much in his black turtle neck, but he looks pretty good as a blonde.

Anonymous said...

P.S. I always wondered if Brando wore a wig in The Night of the Following Day. There is a credit for wigs??

X. Trapnel said...

I was astonished to read Richard Schickel's claim a few years back that Bohnen and George (and what an actress she was!) are shown as trashy undignified people in TBYOOL. Maybe he just perceived them that way or, more likely, hadn't seen the film since 1946. Particularly memorable is the last shot of Bohnen stubbing out a cigarette, holding back a flood of emotion.

Yojimboen said...

Change of topic: Who knew Oliver Twist would bring so much funny?

Ned said...

Good thing he didn't mention anything about the dirty knife!

rcocean said...

"Bohnen and George (and what an actress she was!) are shown as trashy undignified people in TBYOOL"

Yes, what a misreading. It seems obvious that "Pop" had fallen on hard times due to drink or maybe an illness of some sort. George is obviously not Dana Andrews mother, but seems to be a warm hearted, nice person.

In other words poor, not trashy or undignified.

rcocean said...

That just reminds me how well cast all the BYOOL small parts were. Ray teal, Hoagy, Ray Collins (Good ol' Al - fake laugh) Homer's parents.

Poor Ray Teal was so good at fighting crippled war vets he did it again in "The Men".

rcocean said...

"P.S. I always wondered if Brando wore a wig in The Night of the Following Day."

Yes, its a wig. As shown by Siren's photo, Marlon was pretty much a baldie by 40. In fact, if you look at Siren's picture you can make out more than one toupee.

gmoke said...

Roman Bohnen's voice is one of the things I watch Best Years of Our Lives for. That breathiness and his delivery of the pride and love he has for his son are magnificent. The trashiness is all in Schickel's mind.

X. Trapnel said...

There is a pseudo-intellectual resistance to Best Years of Our Lives that dates, one supposes, from a Robert Warshow essay which I think appeared in the Partisan Review. The gist is that the film ventures only a timid liberalism in its politics that masks a deeper conservatism: private attachments rather than radical political change being the true and only way to deal with the harsh realities of the postwar world (Dwight Macdonald opined something like this somewhere). This got subsumed into auteurist rejection of Wyler (Sarris' comments on Best Years are flat-out bizarre) and cast something of a critical pall over BYOOL. All rubbish on so many counts.

Ned said...

X, so funny that mention the bias against Best Years. Not long ago I wrote a piece about deep focus and referenced Best Years. I received several e-mails highly critical of my admiration for this film. The commenters were somewhat offended by what they saw as its rank sentimentalism. I would point out that there is a big difference between honest sentiment and maudlin sentimentality. Best Years is one of the great American films for any number of reasons. Its technical virtuosity, its outstanding casting, its unusually (for the time) straightforward approach to the myriad forces at work on the re-entry of servicemen after the war, the sense of authenticity lent by the singular presence of Harold Russell,...and on, and on.

Bob Westal said...

I wasn't really all that aware of that harshness towards (I'll spell it out because it took me forever to figure out what movie y'all we're talking about) "The Best Years of Our Lives," but I imagine a lot of it has to do with the fact that it was so widely acclaimed and won best picture. The critical backlash isn't all that new a phenomenon.

A great, great movie in my view, of course...but then again, someone's going to come around someday and try to rehabilitate both "Crash" and "American Beauty." I'm not saying they'll be right -- I think they were decent movies that were at first overrated and then over-hated -- but they'll try.

X. Trapnel said...

Ned and Bob W., you're both right. I sense that the reason BYOOL was so popular was not that it re-affirmed the staus quo, as its critics maintained, but that it dramatized (the key word) with immediacy questions that were not being asked in either the movies or other mainstream venues (I once adduced here the similarity in tone between BYOOL and Bill Mauldin's postwar cartooning). It would all be of great sociocultural interest except that the film's artisty on all counts is the reason it endures

Yojimboen said...

@gsmoke: “Roman Bohnen's voice is one of the things I watch Best Years of Our Lives for…”

IMDb claims Bohnen’s raspy voice was (shades of Lauren Bacall) the result of years of over-enthusiastic cheerleading.
That and tobacco, one imagines.

(Goddamn, I miss cigarettes! I’d smoke ‘em two at a time if I could!)

WV: 'sublypee'
The 't' is silent.

rcocean said...

Some critics think any movie that has a somewhat happy ending or that average people like cannot be great - especially if Hollywood makes it.

I don't think BYOOL as sentimental or the ending particularly happy. Homer's still a cripple, Al still has a drinking problem and a job he doesn't like, and Fred's a soon-to-be divorced, ex-vet, with low level job in the junk business. And who knows what happened to Sticky Merckle after Ray teal sued the Midway Drugstore Chain?

Its not lollipops and candy canes for everyone.

Rozsaphile said...

James Baldwin somewhere was one of the naysayers. Claimed the movie was false to reality on every level. Well, OK, it didn't address race or ghetto poverty. And a lot of other problems as well. But no mere movie should be expected to do everything. It was forthright and moving in what it did accomplish.

X. Trapnel said...

Are you kidding? Sticky Merkle is on his way to the top! Mr. Thorpe's cold develops into something worse.... Or he is found dead in his office, one end of his handkerchief protruding from his right nostril, the other out of his left ear. Detective Mark McPherson is called in from NY. Start sketching out your own scenarios.

Yojimboen said...

I just watched Bohnen’s scene again a couple of times. It only gets better.

But, lest we forget, the scene works perfectly because of Gladys George’s gesture at the end of it: As Pat Derry reaches to crush out his cigarette, Fred’s step-mother Hortense (damn, what a perfect character name!) pushes herself away from the table, with a quiet expression that simply shovels emotion at us: “Okay, but the war’s finished, we have lives to rebuild, paths to re-find, loves to regain…”

Praise is due to Wyler who certainly master-minded the moment, but more praise is due to the artist who pulled it off: With that one tiny gesture, filled with wisdom and a promise of redemption - a largely unsung American actress named Gladys George gave us hope.

X. Trapnel said...

Of thee I sing, Gladys George! Watch her very similar wordless interaction with Cagney in Roaring Twenties to confirm Y's point. And the same actress was the worst mother in the world since Clytemnestra in He Ran All the Way.

rcocean said...

X, at least we know that Marie and Steve Cochran (aka Big Ed) were happy for a while. They moved to California and were successful till they met Cody Jarrett.

On 2nd thought, Sticky Merckle is just the kind of man that would weasel his way to the top - despite hiring an unstable ex-vet who assaulted a middle-aged businessman. He probably blamed the whole thing on Thorpe - and got his job.

Ned said...

Before we leave BYOOL, I wanted to mention one of my favorite character actors, a guy who was a presence in hundreds of movies, even if most of his appearances were uncredited: Pat Flaherty. He plays the guy who hires Dana Andrews to help junk the bombers lined up in that great scene where he climbs into the gunner's turret (who else thinks of Randall Jarrett when they watch that scene?). He played the guy who offers Gary Cooper money to say the John Doe idea is the bunk in Meet John Doe, he was in Sgt. York, Yankee Doodle Dandy, Pride of the Yankees, Key Largo, Mutiny on the Bounty, loads of movies. He was also a professional baseball player, played professional football for the great George Halas, trained as one of the first Army pilots during WWI and re-enlisted during WWII and again during Korea. As a kid he worked as a page in Washington for the Speaker of the House. Quite a life. AND another interesting voice. Can't you just hear him telling Gary Cooper about how his career in baseball will be over once they find out he's a phony? Just one more reason BYOOL was, and is, such a memorable film.

Ned said...

Sign me up for the Gladys George fan club too.

One measure of her importance in Roaring Twenties is that she gets the last line, the kicker, the one everyone remembers from that movie. I don't know if that line was in Mark Hellinger's story (I like to think it's a Robert Rossen line), but clearly Walsh gives her pride of place as she caresses Cagney's body and gives out with that great line, the only one, after all, who ever really loved him.

Brilliant stuff altogether.

Ned said...

X, "...the worst mother in the world since Clytemnestra..."

Yeah. Now THERE was a dysfunctional family.

Dad gone off to the wars for years, returns home with his hot, soothsaying slave, Mom shacking up with a low-life, one daughter sacrificed for a little wind and the other kids left home to practice their psychotic breaks with a soupcon of matricide thrown in to keep it interesting.

Then..there was Gladys George.

rcocean said...

"He used to be a big shot".

Amazingly, she was the daughter of 'Sir Arthur Evans Clare'.

Her life is rather sad and she looks much older than 45 in BYOOL.

Dave said...


Ditto on Pat Flaherty for me. He never gets much to do, but always does it well.

I particularly like him in "The Bachelor and the Bobby Soxer," but there's nothing I don't like about that particular movie -- I could watch the nightclub scene every day for the rest of my life.

"You remind me of a man ..."

Tonio Kruger said...

Re: The comments on The Best Years of Our Lives.

I find it quite strange to read about all the criticisms directed against the movie. Especially since the first time I watched it as a teenager--on PBS, natch--I couldn't resist commenting to my mother about how odd it was that the movie depicted a number of problems affecting the U.S. veterans of its era even though such problems were usually depicted by the media of the day as having started with the Vietnam War...

Now back to our regular scheduled discussion of movie accents.

X. Trapnel said...

ok, then; here's an accent you hear in thirties films that's gone by the forties and I'm not even sure how to describe it so a few faultily remembered examples much suffice: (1) Frank Fay as the nightclub emcee in Nothing Sacred; (2) the fellow singing The Man on the Flying Trapeze in It Happened One Night; (3) certain notes in W.C. Fields' voice. It's a slightly drawling singsong that I've heard in old recordings (singing, spoken) that I'm assuming is a lost American accent possibly of Scots-Irish provenance and certainly not mid-Atlantic though FDR's accent may be an aristocratic version of it.

Yojimboen said...

The clip.

X. Trapnel said...

I should add that vowels tend to be palatized.

X. Trapnel said...

The line about pre-fabricated houses is a chilling portent. I think I'd prefer the Derry railroad shack.

Ned said...

Y, thanks for the aircraft graveyard scene. I think the shot of Dana Andrews through the distressed turret glass in the nose of the B-17 (with a nicely discreet rack in the middle of the take) is one of the best in the film.

X, I watched It Happened One Night last week and once again noticed the unusual quality of that singer's voice. (I'm assuming you're referring to the guy dressed like a sailor.) It has somewhat the quality of an antique stage performer, a vaudeville or music hall sensibility with slightly exaggerated vocal effects (not to mention the motions accompanying the performance). Definitely a unique sound which, as you observe, had quite disappeared from American film not many years after.

Dave, I have to admit that as kids my brothers and I loved doing the "Man with the Power" bit from Bachelor. A fun movie that again demonstrates Cary Grant's ability to pull off the most inane and silly bits and not come off looking like a fool. Remember the silly dancing in Indiscreet? Not to mention all the uncontrolled mugging in Arsenic and Old Lace.

Absolute aplomb in the midst of the most absurd situations.

Ned said...

Something I wanted to mention about that shot of Dana Andrews in the plane. It's interesting that in a film known for its highly accomplished use of long takes and deep focus (thank you, Gregg Toland), one of the most effective shots is this one which makes use of a very narrow focal plane and a rack focus in the middle. Maybe one of the reasons it's so startling. That rack not only brings Fred Derry out of his reverie, but returns him to a world of action rather than reaction. The entire scene is aided greatly by Hugo Friedhofer's exceptional score. Very nice moment in a superb film.

Rozsaphile said...

The graveyard scene is of course unforgettable, but let's not forget how much it depends on the music (Hugo Friedhofer). Try running it without sound sometime. Wyler knew the scene needed help and told his composer, "You've got to take it from here."

Bernard Herrmann once said that Hitchcock only half-finishes a film and that he had to do the rest. That sounded arrogant and was certainly impolitic. But sometimes it's true.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Or as Bette Davis said to Goulding when shooting the climactic scene of Dark Victory "Who's going up those stairs? Me or Max Steiner?"

As it turned out it was both.

Shamus said...


Its difficult to think of what Hitchcock's films might have been without Herrmann. I DON'T want to imagine actually. Vertigo without its see-sawing rhythms, its Scene D'amour? Nah. And consider some of Herrmann's other collaborations (Welles, Scorsese, Nick Ray, Truffaut) and you have consider him a giant of cinema: on par with any of those names.

Hitchcock said once (complained more like) that he never actually got to see the whole score for the film before the completion of the production, so I wonder what the collaborative process between them was.

If you want to see a film whose lack of a score is painfully apparent, try watching Siodmak's Phantom Lady.

Shamus said...

Though Rear Window does not have a score, just pop songs. Still...

Ned said...

David, great quote from Bette Davis. Never heard that before. But she was right to ask the question; shows she was paying attention to end results.

Shamus, you mentioned Rear Window. Hitchcock himself was not overly pleased with the results (even though it was an interesting experiment--using variations of pop songs). He complained that he had hired a film songwriter (Waxman) when he should have hired a pop songwriter. Maybe he should have hired Leiber and Stoller.

Roszaphile, I agree about the importance of music in many films. Trying to think of films that would work without a score (Psycho without the screaming violins, eg) is a difficult task, but I came up with one almost right away. A film with a score by, of all people, Bernard Herrmann: Cape Fear.

Without a doubt, the score is an excellent one and Herrmann composed some outstanding pages for this film, but thinking about some of the set pieces: the daughter's distress at school, Max Cady standing on the dock, the houseboat scenes, and the final encounter between Cady and the Greg Peck character in the river. I think all of these, at least in the J. Lee Thompson version, could stand up without a score.

Just my opinion.

But, as Shamus points out, Vertigo without that score would be a fine film but not, perhaps, the masterpiece it is now.

Shamus said...


I knew Hitch was unhappy about the songs in Rear Window but it works fine, I thought (I saw it again a couple of weeks back): not, of course how the song "Lisa" saves Miss Lonelyhearts' life but the rest of it. I also love how Hitchcock places bits of the composer's piece throughout the film, slowly revising, changing, altering portions of it until it is played by an orchestra on the record. The whole movie has a work of art at its centre...just like Vertigo...hmmm...

Shamus said...

But the way, here is Scorsese talking about Herrmann's score for Vertigo.


Karen said...

I wasn't aware of the backlash against TBYOOL either, and I'm gobsmacked, frankly. A film that took an honest look at the difficulties returning servicemen were having readjusting to society? Made just a year after the war ended? That's not significant??

No, it doesn't address race and society. It doesn't address a lot of things. It takes on one subject, and it does it damn well.

Thanks for the aircraft graveyard clip, Y. I sat here at my desk watching it and, when Bohnen has to pause, then resumes reading with that catch in his voice, I was sitting here with tears running down my face. That's a small touch that conveys so much.

As is the name of the bomber that Fred visits: the "Round Trip?"--painted below all those hashmarks of downed planes. That bomber saw a lot of action, and it tells you that in a single shot. (For a shot of one in action, see this.

The YouTube page with that video has a comment right on top that reads: "I first saw this movie after Vietnam. The scene where Fred March reunites with his wife is right out of my own experience with my husband.

"34 years later, I watched it with my son who just came back from Iraq. It helped us both understand what we were going through. This movie is a treasure."

I think that that is what works of art do.

And, lord, yes, that score. One of the great scores in the history of cinema, I think.

Ned said...


Quite right. That is what works of art can do.

The sort of objections that take issue with the fact that this film or that film doesn't take on various pet subjects simply don't count as valid criticisms, unless of course the film, by dint of intrinsic subject matter, should look at those things. For instance, a film purporting to tell the story of migrant farm workers that doesn't touch on class or race could be subjected to criticism on those accounts; but a film about returning WWII veterans trying to find their way back into life at home should not be criticized because it doesn't discuss the red menace scares or the price of gold on the world markets.

And the scene where Pat Derry reads the citation of his son's war record is an amazing scene, more for it's quiet dignity and restraint than anything else. Just imagine that scene done today. There would be blazing flashbacks with stuff blowing up and flags waving...just horrible.

(Don't you love Gladys George's reactions while Bohnen reads the letter? She's not the main focus in the scene, but she's like a great basketball player who knows how to move without the ball.)

Wyler shows us the way most people found out about the deeds of their family members in that war. Most vets didn't talk about it. Revelations came mostly from official accounts of the action.

Ned said...


One thing I love about the soundtrack in Rear Window is the quality of the sound itself. We usually hear the piano, recordings, etc, bouncing off the walls of the courtyard. The sound comes to into Jimmy Stewart's room as if in a dream, like the overheard conversations that waft across the way. It's all of a piece with the dream-like (okay, nightmare-like) feel of the Woolrich story.

Nicely done.

There was a remake of Rear Window done in the 90s with Christopher Reeve in the Jimmy Stewart role. I wonder if they did anything with pop music, maybe replaced Mona Lisa with a Spice Girls song...

Shamus said...


The sound does have a special quality to it, now that you mention it. Actually, the part when "Lisa" sounds on the piano from the distance is my favorite part of the movie (Grace Kelly starting to lounge back on the bed at this point).

Funny you should mention Woolrich: I've been on a Woolrich kick for the last week (his films, not his books): I'd mentioned Phantom Lady earlier, but it was a disappointment. Is Rear Window part of that Woolrich alienation and dread? I think that's debatable, but I haven't read that much of this novels to judge.

Leisen's No Man of Her Own, by contrast, seems very very close to this sensibility (and absurdly faithful to the novel, I Married a Dead Man). Best line of that movie (and novel): "Does the sight of your own name frighten you?"

Shamus said...

Why anyone would want to remake Rear Window is beyond me: once television comes into the picture (there aren't any in Hitchcock's film), there is newer, different kind of voyeurism which eclipses Jimmy Stewart's brand.

Ned said...


Don't miss the opportunity to read Woolrich. The novels get the glory but the short stories, for my money, provide shivers like you read about.

Graves for the Living, You'll Never See Me Again, The Corpse Next Door, Murder at the Automat, You Bet Your Life, Double Feature...they go on and on.

Great, great stuff.

We got into a little discussion out here about Woolrich some time ago. Lot's of fans out here.

X. Trapnel said...

Friedhofer's score broke the "respectability" barrier for film music (this barrier existed only in America, not Britain or Europe) and received positive critical attention and analysis at the time. Interestingly, Theodor W. Adorno, one of the loudest railers at Hollywood film scores, was once introduced to Harold Russell at Charlie Chaplin's house and nearly fainted at the sight of "The hooks."

Shamus said...

Thanks, Ned. I'll certainly get around to it (I was mostly a Ross Macdonald-Chandler man myself, so far).

By the way, I watched Ministry of Fear some time back: it was incredible. Lang at his MOST paranoid: with the blitz and bombs and the debris and the seances, Lang is gloatingly brilliant. The final scene is so unsettling and so ominous (the inspector slowly emerging from the dark after the shootout), I'm fairly certain the studio must have insisted on that "Cake!!!" ending. Idiotic but there you go.

Ned said...

X, too bad Adorno never got a chance to read his friend Walter Benjamin's Arcades Project; he might have had a better appreciation for the unexpected, as any respectable flaneur might.

Ned said...


Glad you finally got a chance to see Ministry. That cake ending is a bit silly, but, there ya go.

As for Ross MacDonald and Raymond Chandler, I read everything Chandler ever wrote, including his letters, and a lot of MacDonald's stuff--mostly the Lew Archer novels. Hard to do a lot better than those boys. MacDonald came across like Chandler's younger cousin who took us even further down the seamier sides of LA's mean streets.

But I think you'll enjoy Woolrich. He's off on his own somewhere, examining something dark, weird, and pissed off.

Yojimboen said...

Ned – the focus rack: For years as a kid I treasured that shot without knowing why. When I grew up and became a D.P. of course I came in contact with directors who wanted to use focus pulls to dramatic effect, but the standard had been set for me, and I always tried to dissuade them (with some variation of an ‘accept no imitations’ argument). I invariably failed.

(Wyler’s is surely the first use of the effect in a major studio production where technique was supposed to be concealed, not revealed).

It wouldn’t have been easy for Toland; exterior, probably with a one-inch lens, he would have had to stop it down with neutral density filters, a technique even more in its infancy than deep-focus shooting.

But you’re right about the importance of the shot: it’s the springboard that launches Fred Derry back to reality; the beginning of his resurrection, the end of self-pity; an immensely important message from Wyler. Sheesh... Sixty-five years later and we’re still talking about it.

X. Trapnel said...

Another point about the scene is the ironic quoting of practically every Air Force picture in which the camera cuts from one engine to the next as the plane taxies forward, add to that Friedhofer's grinding brass chords and we know a cliche has been done in.

Ned said...

Y, you're right on the money about Toland having to use ND filters for exterior shots.

A few years earlier he had discovered a relatively new batch of film stock developed by Kodak, Super XX. Not many DPs were using it at the time because it was so fast. But it was exactly what Toland was looking for.

It was the last of the single layer film stocks--a very thick layer at that, not like the multi-layered stocks in use today. Kodak stopped production of Super XX in the mid 90s. I remember hearing some scuttlebutt about them reviving Super XX around 2003 or '04 because of its incredibly wide tonal range (and its legendary status) but apparently, according to Kodak, there was no one left who could handle the proper re-creation of that particular emulsion. Too bad.

Anyway, that rack focus must have gone against his grain having gone to such lengths to perfect that deep focus style, but it IS the most important shot in the film.

X, you mentioned the pan across the wings in that scene. I've always been struck by the thought of all that firepower made impotent and useless, stripped of weaponry and engines, the planes seem a perfect metaphor for the men who have returned home, no weapons and with a loss of general wherewithal, a non-specific emasculation, at least compared to the rock-em, sock-em, rama-lama shoot-outs they had specialized in for the previous four years.

Hopefully most of them earned better fates than being turned, like the planes, into pre-fab housing.

Buttermilk Sky said...

I'm thrilled and humbled by all the expertise about "Best Years of Our Lives." But I always assumed (hoped?) his name was Stinky Merkle.

Friedhofer's score is so good, I thought it was Copland the first time I saw the movie.

Anonymous said...

Much as I hate to show ignorance (and I could probably Google the answer), but this seems an opportune time to ask what a "rack" shot is (not a woman's bosoms I take it! - I think I'm so funny -- not). Is it the point in the scene where the camera comes in on Dana Andrews in the cockpit? If you have the time, I'd love to know using the discussed clip from BYOOL.

Ned said...

The term rack shot simply refers to an adjustment in the focal plane of a shot, for instance, starting with the lens focused on something in the extreme foreground, a director or director of photography, Gregg Toland in the case of BYOOL, might ask the camera operator or focus puller to "rack out" to an object in the distance. The opposite move would be a "rack in". It's mostly used as a strategy for calling attention to something already in the shot but somewhat obscured by a soft focus. Shots set up like this are said to employ selective focus, something easy to do with the lens aperture wide open (usually in low light situations or when using "slow" film stock. A rack focus could be used on a bosom but it would have to be of the, er, Jayne Mansfield variety. Hope that helps.

Robert Avrech said...

Just take a look at "Montana Moon," 1930, an odd, yet endearing Joan Crawford-John Mack Brown vehicle in which can be heard the following American accents: various lilting Southern drawls, flat midwestern tones, Noo Yoik talk, Chicago vowels, upper-class British pearls, and the icing on the cake: a Yiddish accent so thick I actually detected the aroma of chicken soup.

Anonymous said...

Hey Ned,
Thanks for the explanation of "rack shot'. It's great to have the expertise and knowledge of the commenters here. Not only fun to read but EDUCATIONAL! Thanks again.

Trish said...

Bendix is great in The Glass Key -- totally believable as the psycho. He's a little more blue collar or rough around the edges than is Paul Douglas.

I enjoy Paul Douglas with Judy Holliday in "The Solid Gold Cadillac" a movie I love just as much for its stars as for its mid-century office design.

Fourteen Hours is wonderful. I especially enjoy Martin Gabel as the breathless psychiatrist, for whom (it would appear) psychiatry is better than sex. And Douglas is a fed-up traffic cop who explodes after Basehart spends a day wasting everyone's time and resources while he decides whether or not to jump. Douglas gives one of those great, corny, Hollywood speeches that I love.

Ned said...


You might be comforted somewhat to know that in the plan for Fourteen Hours was for he guy to jump to his death (the way it happened in the incident written about in the New Yorker).

Yes, Richard Baseheart might have made his first journey to bottom of the sidewalk except that president of Fox's production company lost his daughter under similar circumstances the night the film was supposed to be previewed. Fox pulled the film and cobbled together a new ending. La di da.

But a fine movie all around and another excellent effort by our old friend (Siren, are you reading this?) Henry Hathaway.

Anonymous said...

Trish -
The Glass Key was a favorite of mine even as a kid. They used to show it on the Late Late Show or Million Dollar Movies. William Bendix is great in that role. His character was comical, creepy and threatening. That film made me a William Bendix fan as well as a Brian Donlevy fan(and later on a fan of Dashiell Hammet to boot). It was and is a very special film for me.

Ned said...

Debo and Trish,

As fans of the Glass Key you should seek out the first filmed version of this great Hammett effort. The 1935 Glass Key was directed by Frank Tuttle (who did This Gun for Hire) with Edward Arnold in the Paul Madvig role and George Raft as his friend Ed Beaumont (Ned in the novel).

Raft is excellent, as is Arnold. There are different dynamics at work here and there and the shades are a little darker, the noir a little more raw. Psychopath played by Bill Bendix in the Ladd version, is here played by another big lug, Guin,Big Boy,Williams. He's got some pretty crazy eyes too. AND he has the tough hair!

And if you're still not satisfied, watch Miller's Crossing. The Coen brothers used the Glass Key as the basis of this gang war extravaganza, and the Paul Madvig character is an out and out gangster not the 'political' figure he comes across as in the first two.

Anonymous said...

Ned -
Thanks for the tip. I think I knew of this film at one time, but it used to be so difficult to see old films unless they were televised. I'll look for the '35 Glass Key. I'll see if I can find it online somewhere. I am a George Raft fan though I've only seen a few of his movies.

Ned said...


If you're on the hunt for George Raft films, don't miss the usuals, Scarface and Each Dawn I Die, but also check out Manpower, They Drive by Night, and Johnny Angel. And then, if you'd like to see what Casablanca might have been like with Raft instead of Bogart, check out Background to Danger co-starring Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre. Also look for the interesting noir, Nocturne. It may remind you of another more famous film, but Raft is still fun to watch.

Anonymous said...

Ned, you are a goldmine! I'm putting all those titles on my list. I've seen They Drive by Night and Johnny Angel but not the others (that I remember). I hadn't thought much about Raft till he was mentioned in this thread.

Again the Siren provides the best place to gather his kind of information. Thanks.

Pokey said...

Siren, Kevin Drum is on that MotherJones site, from the magazine for the progressives, so he's probaly ditto a progssive with no appreciatipon for these (Thanks to Dead Actors and Actresses for linking to this.) On Ellen Page, I would say her voice is disctinvtive, and Philip Seymour Hoffman,too.

Some others from the old time days,movies and radio, and stage, not mentioned, were Edward Everett Horton, Jim Backus, Billy De Wolfe, Hans Conreid, and Richard Haydn. Their speech mannerisms are downright unmistakable!Steve..

john said...

Anent Accents! I present for your contemplation a Henry Hathaway 1934 oddment: The Witching Hour.A Deep South gumbo melding in such locals as Sir Guy Standing and William Frawley as Jury Foreman. The whole diegetic sequence animated by the Jean Charcot School of Hypnotism.

A la prochaine.