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There seems to be a distinctive "old movie" sound. The accents (often British, or some weird American-British hybrid), the delivery of lines (if I talked to somebody the way these lines are delivered, I'd seem condescending), the quiet between lines, the over-accentuated Foley sounds. These characteristics seem prevalent in movies from the 40s to 60s.

Am I correct in this characterization?

If so, what is the reason for this era-specific sound?

  • Was it an intentional stylistic choice that appealed to audiences of the time?
  • Was it a limitation of the audio equipment or other production processes of the time?
  • Something else?
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    My best guess (since I wasn't around back then) is just that technology has advanced. Movies were (relatively) new, there was a transition between what was done in Vaudeville and how to bring it across to movies. Acting has moved so much more into the realm of looking natural today that movies done in the 50's look like they could have been done with amateurs today. There's also a lot more knowledge about microphone placement, recording techniques and the like than what was available 50 years ago. – Johnny Bones Nov 14 '15 at 18:43
  • The same thing that happened to how people viewed the movie theater, it became less formal. No more dressing up, nice suit and all, to go to the theater. – cde Nov 14 '15 at 20:02
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    Is it just the 40s-60s? Haven't you ever watched a movie and thought "So 80s..." or "This could only have been approved in the 90s?" – corsiKa Nov 14 '15 at 22:46
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    The "ordinary" American accent has changed an awful lot in the past 50-75 years, too. R-lessness was a lot more common, and not just in the hardcore Brooklyn dialect either. There are thousands of hours of radio, including news, interviews, game shows, man-in-the-street stuff, and so forth on the Internet Archive if you want a reference. – Stan Rogers Nov 15 '15 at 1:07
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    @corsiKa - Yeppers. 80's teen movies display a sort of casual racism towards Asians, especially Japanese people, that would be unacceptable today. Long Duck Dong (Sixteen Candles), Data (The Goonies), Kuni (UHF), the brothers in Better Off Dead, etc. – Swan Nov 16 '15 at 1:52
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One of the biggest differences between older films and more modern ones is the changing nature of acting over the years.

The further back you go in the history of film, the more you'll find movie acting merging with stage acting: Big movements, bombastic delivery, exaggerated facial expressions.

As acting on film began adapting to the medium (the ability to have close-ups, etc), the medium itself adapting and developing (camera work becoming more agile; initially cameras stayed further back and were often stationary, really doing nothing more than framing films like stage plays) and with the introduction of things like The Method, people were able to develop a much more subtle, intimate and nuanced acting style. One of my favourite films is the Coens' The Man Who Wasn't There (2001). Not only does the camera spend much of the movie trained on Billy Bob Thornton's face - so much of his work in that film involves subtle, almost imperceptible changes in facial expressions and eye movements - it's really a good example of something that couldn't and wouldn't have been done that way many decades ago.

I recently watched an old Hitchcock film starring a young Paul Newman (Torn Curtain, 1966). He stood out from other cast members on that movie as he was already developing a much more "modern" acting style. It was a good exercise in the contrast.

Regarding sound effects: early on, American and British film and TV were very similar, but America soon started using a much more developed system of foley which the British didn't bother with for some time. Even today, American film and TV have a much more complete foley approach (having created the role of foley artist, based in the work of Jack Foley). Extensive foley work gives a much greater control over the sound of final product, just as post production effects give control over the image.

Along the way, you notice the refining of the foley presence and process (just as you do with post-production effects); it's much more heavy-handed before it settled down into a streamlined and nuanced process. You can read about the origins of foley here, and the more general history of its development here.

As for speech in film, you'll notice changes over time: there is the speed of their speech. In early periods of film, the cultural perception was that rapid delivery evinced certainty and confidence, and as an extra bonus, a lot of speech covered up lacks in sound effects or the presence of too much background noise (dialogue was harder to isolate with older technology).

And as others have said, the accent often used in earlier American films is the Mid-Atlantic or Trans-Atlantic accent, which was "a consciously learned blend of American English and British English, intended to favor neither." While this attempt to use an accent acceptable to either the British or American ear has fallen by the wayside in favour of the actual American vernacular, the tendency still exists in a small way, like when Canadians adjust their accent to sound neither specifically Canadian nor American, or when actors from my part of the world adjust how they speak to sound neither distinctly like an Australian or a New Zealander, for example.

  • 1
    Look at William Shatner aswell. Going from doing Shakespeare to the screen shows in his acting style; very exaggerated as you mentioned. – Carcigenicate Nov 15 '15 at 2:46
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    All ... REAL ... men .......TALK ....thatwayIthoughtyou .... KNEW that. – user27684 Nov 15 '15 at 2:51
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    WOW. Brilliant answer. – Swan Nov 15 '15 at 5:52
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    It boils down to: Back then, the idea was to "Act" (capital "A") in the "proper" (traditional, stage-based) way, not the way people really behave(d). The same went for speech - you spoke to be understood, not to convey the mannerisms and inflections that people actually use in real life. – Swan Nov 15 '15 at 5:56
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    Another interesting thing is that back when movies were first introduced with no sound, the acting had to be exaggerated because jokes were told with body language since there was no audio. While audio was introduced just before the 30's began, this acting style continued. I remember my grandfather telling jokes with his voice and his body too. – user27779 Nov 15 '15 at 14:34
5

The accent you are describing is known as the Mid-Atlantic dialect.

Here are a couple articles on the matter: #1, #2, #3

I find it odd that three articles have been written on this subject matter, by the magazine The Atlantic and in couple year time span no less.

But as sure as it sounds odd to us, contemporary films will sound odd to future generations.

  • 1
    One of the things about life that utterly fascinates me, is that one day my "cool" hoodie and jacket look and my "modern" young-person affectations, will be antiquated grandad style. (The fast pace of modern technological changes has already shown a bit of this, as people even just five years younger than me find my Facebook to show me as "old"!) I can't wait to find out what irritating language my grandchildren use while I'm still being perfectly "normal" and "2015", hanging on at the age of 80! I've found that this also improves my perception of those who are already at that age now. – Lightness Races in Orbit Nov 15 '15 at 13:54
  • Probably if you were googling "mid atlantic", articles on theatlantic.com would appear higher in the rankings because "atlantic" is in the URL and the page headings. It's an example of how "smart" features in search engine rankings can sometimes give dumb results – user568458 Nov 15 '15 at 19:08
  • @user568458 accent mid atlantic -atlantic.com – cde Nov 15 '15 at 21:47
  • This is interesting and embarrassing: I've recently started expanding my movie collection by including some older films. I got a steelbook bluray of North By Northwest which also has a 1.5 hour long documentary on Cary Grant. [TBC] – user27684 Nov 16 '15 at 1:43
  • [CONT] I knew the name but couldn't remember anything he'd been in. I was staggered at first to learn he was British, and then realized that 'way back then' some Americans spoke in a way that was hard to distinguish from British. What I mean to say is, there was a mild version of both accents that seemed interchangeable. It should have been no surprise to me - long enough ago in my country (NZ), most people in the media spoke with a "British" accent. It was considered the proper way to speak. – user27684 Nov 16 '15 at 1:43
5
+50

The dialect you reference, the mid-atlantic or transatlantic dialect https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mid-Atlantic_accent was actually taught to actors during the early years of movie history as film transitioned from silent pictures to the "talkies".

But as time went by, a new era of acting and accents, less apparently studied, more real, and striving to emulate life and its gritty actuality, was ushered in by a school of actors that were departing from the old traditions, including Marlon Brando, James Dean, Montgomery Clift - all Method actors, who were favoring a more vernacular, slangy style.

So during the 40s to 60s we actually encounter a waning of the popularity of this kind of affective speech. (According to the wiki cited above, Bill Labov, a University of Pennsylvania linguist, dates the decline of this mid-atlantic accent to as early as 1941.) Certainly, by the time the 50s roll around, actors are more and more starting to try to adopt a more low key and less melodramatic approach to scene building, playing things off with a decided cool. So the era of 1940 to 1960 was certainly an era of great flux and change in movie acting.

And even if we are to discount all the influence of the Method School in the 50s, it is still hard to lump the period of 40s to 60s into one like era. Yes, theatrical acting dominated movies in their earliest period, but there were always outlier examples that differed from the mainstream: Humphrey Bogart certainly was talking tough years before in Casablanca, even if Ingrid Bergman wasn't. And, furthermore, movies themselves from this span of 40s to 60s can be so different: compare for example 1940 film "The Grapes of Wrath" to the 1952 film "High Noon" to the 1957 film "Bridge on the River Kwai". All totally different styles. Ford's "Grapes of Wrath", though filmed in 1940, doesn't really dilly dally about with the transatlantic accent; it is gritty and slangy before Method Acting made this famous.

So here's what I really think. Yes, there are a ton of those movies with the "dahlings" and "won't you be a dear", and they comprise the fiber of that similar speech you are referencing during this period. But what is even more consistent about sound during this period of time is that movie sound technology, though it was evolving during this time, was still prehistoric compared to the advanced digital sound recording we have today. (Foley editing was around since 1914, during radio years. So it was nothing new.)

It was, in fact, the quality of the recorded sound itself that made everything sound less dimensional. The years of 1945 to 1975 are referred to as the magnetic era of sound recording (http://museumofmagneticsoundrecording.org/Magnetic.html). Analog recordings have tape hiss, and that is a background sound that is consistently there during the period you reference, and was even present to some extent afterwards, regardless of advances in analog recording equipment that came about during the 60s. Yes, some people actually prefer the warm analog sounds of yesteryear. But most ears are attuned to the layering and all the great movie magic that goes into digital sound recording and digital effects supplied by computers today.

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It has not much to do with acting or the style of speech. Because you could hear the same sort of sound in the recorded tv announcements, interviews of common people etc. This has to do with the technology used in recording sound. Because of this, there seems to be a distinctive difference in the way things were said. Of course there is a difference in accent, however, it has more to do with the technology used in recording rather than dialect, accent and pronunciation. You get to hear this stark difference in recorded voices of that era in any language

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