The Rise and Fall of Katharine Hepburn's Fake Accent
When Hollywood turned to talkies, it created a not-quite-British, not-quite-American style of speaking that has all but disappeared.
"Play it, Sam. Play 'As Time Goes By,'" purrs a moon-faced Ingrid Bergman in the now-famous scene from 1942's Casablanca. Staccato t's and accordion-stretched a's lend a musical flavor to Bergman's lilt. "Early" becomes "euh-ly" and "perhaps" unfolds as "peuh-haps.'"
The grandeur and glamor in her voice, though, is a sham.
No, really. That's not a real accent. It's a now-abandoned affectation from the period that saw the rise of matinee idols and Hitchcock's blonde bombshells. Talk like that today and be the butt of jokes (see Frasier). But in the '30s and '40s, there are almost no films in which the characters don't speak with this faux-British elocution—a hybrid of Britain's Received Pronunciation and standard American English as it exists today. It's called Mid-Atlantic English (not to be confused with local accents of the Eastern seaboard), a name that describes a birthplace halfway between Britain and America. Learned in aristocratic finishing schools or taught for use in theater to the Bergmans and Hepburns who were carefully groomed in the studio system, it was class for the masses, doled out through motion pictures.
here are many theories as to how it became any sort of standard. The most probable being that when the silent film era was bulldozed for the early talkies, so too were those films' famous faces, on account of their indecent sets of pipes. Silent movie star Gloria Swanson once notoriously quipped: "We didn't need dialogue. We had faces." Expression was paramount, and actress Clara Bow was master. Bow was born in a run-down tenement in old Brooklyn and withstood a dizzy ascent to stardom in films like It (1927) and Wings (1927). Her morose pout and slanted eyes took Paramount straight to the bank. People paid to ogle her. When she heard her voice recorded for the first time, she was appalled. "I hate talkies," she said in Elizabeth Goldbeck's The Real Clara Bow, "they're stiff and limiting. You lose a lot of your cuteness, because there's no chance for action, and action is the most important thing to me." In The Wild Party (1929), for take after take Bow's eyes would shift nervously to the microphone overhead, calling for another take.
This newfound pressure would ultimately lead to a downfall only Hollywood could trigger. Bow, crushed under the pressures of fame and work, was admitted to a sanatorium in 1930. At 25, her career was finished. But talkies didn't need Clara Bow.
Whether or not this transition from speechless to speech was a catalyst for an industry standard, Edith Skinner's Speak With Distinction—first published in 1942—crowned the high-society accent theater's common tongue. Skinner, born in New Brunswick, Canada, was a voice coach and consultant to Broadway actors. After studying phonetics at Columbia University, she began to assist Margaret Prendergast McLean, a leading stage-speech consultant. She soon gained a national reputation, becoming the go-to instructor for all things speech and diction.
"Your voice expresses you," Skinner once told The Milwaukee Journal. "You don't want to lose that individual voice God gave you. What I try to do is get rid of the most obvious regionalisms, the accent that says, 'you're from here and I'm from there,' the kind of speech that tells you what street you grew up on."
Katharine Hepburn's society burr was a perfect example of the Mid-Atlantic accent. "Come round about noon, tomorrow," Hepburn trills in The Philadelphia Story (1940), a full-bodied pronunciation that turned her "o's" into "ooh's" that tumbled from her mouth, a modulation honed by her acclaimed New York dramatic coach Frances Robinson-Duff. Hepburn sought her out after being fired from her first production in 1928, when she insisted on hurriedly bleating out her lines. In a 1935 New Yorker article, a profile on Duff's diaphragmatic methods reveals a bit more about Hepburn's deficiency: "Miss Hepburn neglected the Duff fundamentals. Moreover, having been in Hollywood and away from regular instruction, Miss Hepburn had allowed her diaphragm to drift. When she returned East to do 'The Lake,' it was maladjusted and her jaws and tongue were unfree ... But Miss Hepburn has character. She immediately returned to Miss Duff and the fundamentals."
The drift away from these "fundamentals" resulted in a potpourri of speech on the silver screen. Katharine Hepburn's put-on timbre is a higher percentage American than British. It's quite similar to that of Claudette Colbert's slightly harsher "r" in It Happened One Night (1934). Where the accent vastly differs is among men. Cary Grant, often said to be the blueprint of Mid-Atlantic English, was actually born in Britain. He came to America at the age of 16 as a stilt walker for the Bob Pender Stage Troupe, but abandoned his troupe after their two-year tour to stay on in America and pursue an acting career. This transatlantic trajectory resulted in an accent that couldn't be pinned to a map. It was of nowhere in particular, but rather handsome all the same. Strange, then, that other famed male actors at the time—Jimmy Stewart and Humphrey Bogart—had wildly unencumbered manners of speaking. Their accents were very much their own: the former's a rural dialect of Pennsylvania; the latter's a spin on a regional New York accent.
So how did the accent die? Thanks in part to these sharp-tongued headliners like Bogart, Americans began to see themselves better reflected in film. The Mid-Atlantic accent was very much in vogue until its abrupt decline post-World War II. Taught in finishing schools and society parlors, the accent had become common to off-screen America. But more people spoke as they do today, with regionally developed accents like Boston Brahmin or Locust Valley Lockjaw. The rejection of Mid-Atlantic was also a rejection of classicism. Highfalutin figures in American society who luxuriated in the vernacular were edged out by the everyman. "This idealization of the linguistic behavior of upper class Americans continued, in some Hollywood films, up to the late '40s and '50s," says Dr. Marko Modiano, senior lecturer in English studies at Gävle University. "It lost its position with the rise of a new generation of film stars who, like everyone else, were moving more and more toward the kind of neutral American English which we hear today in the US."
Rita Moreno, who started off on stage in Singin' In the Rain and later on screen in West Side Story (1961), told NPR, "I became the house ethnic. That meant that I had to play anything that was not American. So I became this gypsy girl, or I was a Polynesian girl, or an Egyptian girl. Finally, I decided by playing all these roles, I should have some kind of accent. But of course, I had no idea what these people sounded like, so I made up my own." What Moreno didn't realize is that her "ethnic" accent already existed, or at least, what she used as a foundation did. It was Mid-Atlantic English with ethnic injections and clipped delivery.
Nowadays, ethnic injections are only the result of behind-the-scenes training. Social media's ability to mass-ridicule a crummy rendition of a foreign accent means that speech coaches are written into contracts. Barbara Berkery helped concoct Johnny Depp's inebriated mumble for the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, which has ruefully seeped into Depp's subsequent roles (The Rum Diary, The Lone Ranger). And just to confuse things, Brits have spurned typecasting for the role of butler and are increasingly putting on American accents to win over US markets. Henry Cavill, the Channel Islands chap who plays Superman in this summer's Man of Steel, did some heavy lifting to affect a Midwest manner of speech. "Doing an accent is like going into the gym for a workout," he tells Collider. "If you pick up the heaviest weight possible and try and clean and press it, you're going to pull something." For Emma Watson's Calabasas caw in The Bling Ring, she marathoned through several seasons of Keeping Up With the Kardashians to match the sisters' vocal fry.
Marathon as they might, though, few of today's actors will ever need to perfect a widely heard but invented dialect. Mid-Atlantic English defined an era on screen by lending films an escapist, more-refined-than-reality allure. As Hollywood's golden age was ushered out, the accent went with it. Katharine Hepburn and Jimmy Stewart's romantic spat in The Philadelphia Story offered a metaphorical damnation of the high-society cinema accent. "Shut up. Shut up. Oh, Mike, keep talking. Keep talking. Talk, will you?" Hepburn pleads. To which Jimmy Stewart's character soberly states, "No, no, I've... I've stopped." And so, too, did Mid-Atlantic English.
This sort or loved into a "cafe' society" sort of accent.
My Grandmother and Mother both spoke this way.
My Grandmother - all the time. My Mother - only when she wanted to
Intimidate us kids.
Best examples would be Bennett Cerf and Arlene Francis of What's my Line.
Not Loved, certainly but EVOLVED.
Some actors didn't do the Mid-Atlantic crap, though. People like Carole Lombard, Clark Gable, Ginger Rogers, and Barbara Stanwyck early in her career. In fact, movies of the early 1930s didn't really feature that affectation. It seems that after the Code was implemented in 1934 that it became the way to speak. In fact, I relate the 1940s and into the 1950s with the Mid-Atlantic accent. That's when movies were very melodramatic.
Katharine Hepburn's accent was not an affectation, it was old-timey upper-class Connecticut Yankee. My grandmother was from CT and was more or less the same age as Hepburn. She spoke with the exact same accent Hepburn had, as did all of her sisters and brothers.
Connecticut Received pronunciation.
"Let's not ask for the moon, we have the staahrs."
Has Madonna commented on this yet?
I don't see anything in this essay that says this accent was "fake." It was popular among the upper crust for decades before the talkies--well into the mid nineteenth century.
And starting out with Swede Ingrid Bergman as an example of this is unbelievably stupid.
An' I cain't stan 'em.
I'm looking for Spanish sowsage.
WTF? Ingrid Bergman had a European accent, not a fake English accent.
Katherine Hepburn's accent was real. It was a New England accent.
Interesting stuff, OP.
Of course, we don't have a single American accent now, though the flat surfer-speak that most actors use would have you think otherwise.
The East Coast alone has so many accents: varieties of New England, jersey, Noo Yawk, Philly/Baltimore, and Pittsburghese to name a few.
I don't know what this author is trying to say. That Ingrid Bergman had a European accent, Katherine Hepburn had a Yankee accent, Jimmy Stewart had an American accent... Wtf? What is this mid-Atlantic accent being talked about? Cary Grant had an unmistakeable English accent that he tried to tone down. So what. Nobody else spoke like Cary Grant.
The fakest accent on the planet was Grace Kelly's and she's not even mentioned.
[quote] What is this mid-Atlantic accent being talked about?
The writer picks the absolute worst choices.
Gary Grant's accent was cleaned-up cockney.
Hepburn had cleaned up upper-crust Connecticut.
Bergman had a Swedish accent.
He ruined what could have been an interesting article.
click click click
I can do them all!
He should have discussed present-day instances of this accent, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ken Watanabe.
Another thing this author doesn't get is that the "mid-Atlantic" accent wasn't invented by Hollywood for the talkies; it already existed as a compromise between British and American pronunciations that was used on the stage, in prep schools, etc.
Totally agree with R14, R18 and R20. This could have been an interesting article about the "Hollywood-speak" in their golden age, but the author ruined it (another example, she quotes Gloria Swanson as if she said it herself rather then her character in Sunset Blvd.) R3 gave much better examples. See the movie "Singing in the Rain" if you want a better idea of this topic.
Wow, the quality of Atlantic's writing has gone downhill. This is an awful article.
Hepburn was a bit of a phony, but the accent in Rich New England Real. My uncle's family all talk that was.
The "author" is someone called Trey Taylor (talk about sounding fake), an editorial assistant at Dazed and Confused.
Back to the steno pool, dear. The article sucks.
talk that way.
This reminds me of when I was in grad school and we had to write group papers. All of my own papers wound up on file in the library as examples of how to write a paper, so whenever we were put into groups to write papers. I was always chosen as the editor of the group paper (aka the person who gets to rewrite the gobbledegook everyone else turned in).
We'd be given a topic and people would turn in work that never specifically described the topic. They just talked around the topic and included random examples they'd pulled out of their collective asses. I'd say, "But the examples you've given aren't valid topic examples," and they would insist that yes, they were, like, totally appropriate and umm...like, you're just being picky.
That's when I decided I could never be a teacher. I wanted to crack their heads together like Moe did to Larry and Curly. I couldn't spend even a semester, let alone the rest of my career, grading the ramblings of the average American's nonsensical mind.
Hepburn's accent was real, it's her acting that was phony.
r31 = Meryl Streep
Click, click, click.
An elderly friend grew up next door to the Houghtons' place in Marion, MA. She was the granddaughter of a turn-of-the-last-century governor of that state, and sounded rather as though she was doing a life-long Katharine Hepburn imitation. It was an affectation, to be sure, but one common to her caste.
If you were really so skilled at writing papers, R30, you'd realize that you needed to use "i.e." instead of "aka" in your parenthetical. That is, unless one of your aliases was "the person who gets to rewrite gobbledygook." I'd hate to write that name at the top of a paper.
The quoted story is another example of THE ATLANTIC's decline. The alleged concoction the ignorant writer disses (and cites a Swede whose English was a second language as evidence) is ridiculous.
The posh, urban, Middle Atlantic-centered educated dialect (Don't create a tangent about about the term, please.) was not created by show business. That Hollywood types attempted to imitate and often got it wrong does not discount the pure speakers of it from Boston to Baltimore (because educated Bostonians did not sound like Yankees and educated Baltimoreans did not sound like Francine Fishpaw) - think of Eleanor Roosevelt, Jane Wyatt - it may seem received (as the clever "Connecticut Received Pronunciation" stated) but it was not merely the result of particular schools and a few families. And it spread across the country as Easterners took residence elsewhere.
The mid-Atlantic accent isn't dead at all. Peter Dinklage is using it in Game of Thrones.
A mid-Atlantic accent is generic American with British affectations. In real life, Kim Cattrall and Gillian Anderson use midAtlantic accents when they are on British chat shows.
Katherine Hepburn stole her particular affectations from an actress called Mary Boland, who was from Philadelphia. I'm from New England and have never actually heard anyone with Hepburn's accent. I'm 58. But I have heard a great many New England Yankee accents. And Boston ones.
What's interesting about accents now is that 50 years ago they predicted that TV would change forever the regional accents of the UK. They thought they would all stray towards Received Pronounciation. They were wrong. Regional UK accents have hung on and have become more acceptable.
Mary Boland who played the comic Countess de Lave in The Women??
I don't think so!
Regional UK accents have become ludicrous. I feel as if I'm trying to follow a conversation between two Yorkshire men taking place in 1894. Or Scotsman talking to each other in 1901.
I have always associated those accents with old people. Remember Wilfred Bramble in A Hard Day's Night? My grandparents had heavy northern Irish accents. Old northern Irish, Scots, other UKers were religious, sanctimonious, superstitious, racist and all about knocking any ethnic group that warent their'n!
It's very strange hearing young people deliberately talking with even heavier accents today. They sound like ignorant, uneducated, bigoted old farts.
Kelsey Grammar OWNS this thread.
Gillian Anderson owns this thread.
I recently saw an old clip of John Kerry speaking before Congress upon returning from Vietnam. His access was noticeably mid-atlantic...from an old timey era.
Think of how FDR spoke. That accent.
R25 This is R3 here and I gave much better examples because I lived it!
Although my Grandmother spoke this way her entire life and raised my mother and mother's brother to speak this way once the 1960's hit and she married my father ( who was very handsome but beneath her station) my mother toned it down very much.
My mother would speak that way, not often, but at the drop of a hat. My brother and I never saw it as funny or entertaining but as an intimidating thing.
And yes whenever I hear Arlene Francis or Bennet Cerf I go right back to my childhood.
Incidentally, I can do an exact version of this way of speaking and really freak out everyone.
By the way Kelsey Grammar is doing an impression much like I would, his is not the real thing.
Jeanette MacDonald, of all people, had the phoniest mid-Atlantic accent in movies, she made it into a bad imitation of upper-class English diction. Which was passable in some of the hoity-toity operettas she made, but when she was paired with down-to-earth Clark Gable in "San Francisco" she sounded ridiculous. She was supposed to be a country girl from Denver for Chrissakes!
Not that her twee accent doesn't add a lot to her camp value.
When Arlene Francis and Bennett Cerf appeared on What's My Line? (a mere quiz show!) the men dressed in tuxedos and stood for the ladies who often wore gloves with their dresses.
It was a different world back then. It all changed by 1970 and really took an irreversible downturn in the 1990s.
Sylvia Plath, what was her accent? You can hear her speak in the recording at the link.
"That's when I decided I could never be a teacher. I wanted to crack their heads together like Moe did to Larry and Curly."
The exact thing happened to me. No more teaching! It was serial killing from then on. Choices, huh?
Taylor sounds like Sigourney Weaver in that clip. She even looks like her a bit.
The late George Plimpton and Tom Wolfe had/has an American accent influenced by a kind of English RP.
James Mason and Alistair Cooke had English RP accents influenced by educated American.
Christopher Hitchens's RP English accent showed no trace of American after living there for thirty years; but I recently noticed some US inflections in Salman Rushdie's voice.
No -- Bill Buckley OWNS this thread.
I know you young pups have never heard of him.
I was just going to post William F. Buckley. His accent was ridiculous. I believe his was a put-on, since I am from the same area in Connecticut he's from, and I have never heard any of the older people talk the way he did.
Alistair Cooke sounded like this
OK, but can someone tell me what kind of accent is used by the current bad crop of actors that says didunt for didn't, couldunt for couldn't, garDEN for garden, etc.? Simply dreadful and makes an audiobook practically intolerable.
[quote]Silent movie star Gloria Swanson once notoriously quipped: "We didn't need dialogue. We had faces."
For me, an author loses credibility when he attributes a line spoken by a character in a film to the actor who played the part.
He likely believes that Butterfly McQueen knew nothing about midwifery, and that Joan Crawford really was in a wheelchair.
Kathleen Turner owns this thread!
[quote] . In real life, Kim Cattrall and Gillian Anderson use midAtlantic accents when they are on British chat shows.
KIm Cattrall was born in the UK and raised in Canada. Her accent is genuine.
Gillian was raised in the UK. She's a weirdo, but her using an English accent when she's in the UK is more or less genuine to her.
Now, Kathleen Turner... that's a valid example.
[quote]To my non-American ear, Holland Taylor has a wonderfully polished, but naturally sounding American accent:
And to the average American ear, her accent sounds like a pastiche of faux-posh quasi-English. Hers is the best contemporary example of the mid-Atlantic accent that is the topic of the thread.
[quote]Gillian was raised in the UK. She's a weirdo, but her using an English accent when she's in the UK is more or less genuine to her.
Gillian was born in Chicago, but moved to the UK when she was almost 2. She only lived there 'til she was 11. Then she moved back to the US where she grew up and went to college. She didn't move back to the UK until 10 years ago when she was in her mid-thirties.
I'm from Central America and moved to the US when I was almost 10. I don't have a Spanish accent when I speak. It's standard American.
In other words, Gillian's faux English clip is a put-on. She may have had it as a tween when she moved back to the US (like I had a Spanish accent), but it went away. She was young enough to have not kept a permanent accent yet.
R65, that's not quite equivalent. Using a different regional variety of the same language depending on the region you're in is not that same thing as losing a foreign accent.
Plácido Domingo's use of Spanish is a better comparison. When he's in Mexico, he sounds chilango. When he's in Spain, he's sounds like he's from there.
I cannot differentiate between one Spanish accent or another. They all sound the same to me.
Liza Minnelli's accent is a complete fake, so wa her mother's in her later years.
It's been noted before on DL that from Betty Perske to Lauren Bacall, an accent evolved.
I love it
Wins the phony accent award.
She is from Virginia and sounds like Jackie O.
Wendi Jo Sperber
I'm fully aware of where Kim Cattrall and Gillian Anderson were born and raised-- that's why I singled them out as examples. They're midlantic accents are phony. Kim was raised in Canada and spent only 5 years in the UK. Gillian came to the US at an age where you lose your accent (my former boss came to the US at age 14 and has no hint of a Gernan accent when speaking English).
Neither Kim nor Gillian attempt their lame midlantic accents when they're in the US or Canada. It's a put-on for UK audiences.
Accents are fun to listen to
This thread makes me want a fresh cup of HighPoint Coffee!
No, Jane Wyatt's was real. She was a graduate of The Chapin School, private school on the Upper East Side. Alumni includes Stockard Channing, Tricia Nixon and Jacqueline Bouvier.
[quote]It's a put-on for UK audiences.
I've noticed this also. What a pair of phonies.
Lets make fun of other accents, please
I never meant to imply Jane Wyatt's accent was fake.
I like it.
People like Kim Catrell, Elizabeth Taylor and Cary Grant are all British-born Americans. It makes sense that they would have mixed accents. What I want to know is why a working-class Italian-American with a French Canadian mother, who grew up outside of Detroit and spent most of her early adulthood in NY, speaks like someone doing a bad impersonation of a cultured English duchess.
Because she's a phony R81. She doesn't even use the accent anymore.
Does Goop use one? How about Madonna's kids?
[quote]Kim was raised in Canada and spent only 5 years in the UK. Gillian came to the US at an age where you lose your accent.
You don't just get your accent from where you live, you get it from who you spend most of your time with, especially as a child. British-born Americans were likely raised by native Britons, so they grew up in a home and an extended family of people who likely spoke with heavy British accents.
It's true that people "lose" their accents, especially those who developed them up at an early age surrounded by native speakers in an insular household. But no one truly loses it completely, and many can "turn it back on" on cue, or involuntarily lapse into their old accent when re-immersed in their original culture (at a family reunion, or an extended trip to their place of origin).
In the case of actors and celebrities, since this accent is encouraged and even expected of them, it's logical that they might consciously affect it when the need suits them, such as during an interview or for a particular role. It's no more "phony" than any other affectation that differs between their public and private personas.
I try to force myself to lose my working class Long Island accent, but it is true if I go back there to visit and spend time with my family it starts coming out again.
[quote]a bad impersonation of a cultured English duchess.
A DREADFUL impersonation