Why They Talk Weird in Old Movies & Newsreels

Diving into classic cinema or clicking through old newsreels, modern audiences are immediately struck by a distinct style of speech—rapid, high-pitched, almost sing-songy delivery that seems to sprint through scenes.

This mode of communication, pervasive in media from the early to mid-20th century, offers a fascinating lens into the social, cultural, and technological fabric of the era.

From the fast-talking dames and sharp-suited men of the 1940s to the still formally tinted dialogues of the 1970s and 1980s, this exploration seeks to understand the evolution of speech in media and its reflection of contemporary society.

Déjà Vu Voices

The black-and-white world flickers, the piano music swells, and then... BAM! The actors rattle off dialogue at breakneck speed, pronouncing each syllable with the precision of a Swiss watch. You tilt your head, confused. Did they just speak in Shakespearean iambic pentameter while tap-dancing on a caffeine high?

Relax, it's not your imagination. The rapid-fire, almost sing-songy delivery of old movies and newsreels is a genuine time warp of communication styles. But before you dismiss it as outdated and weird, consider this: these "quirky" voices offer a fascinating glimpse into the past, revealing cultural shifts, technological limitations, and the ever-evolving nature of language itself.

The Era of Rapid-Fire Dialogue

Hollywood's Golden Age: A Symphony of Words

The dialogues in classics like Casablanca (1942) exemplify the era's characteristic speech patterns. Scenes were often a volley of quick exchanges, a style that demanded viewers' undivided attention to catch every word.

Cultural Reflections: This rapid dialogue wasn't mere artistic choice; it mirrored a society that valued wit, verbal dexterity, and the ability to think on one's feet—qualities associated with intelligence and power. As Maria DiBattista notes in her book Fast Talking Dames, this style was an indicator of a character's assertiveness and societal stature.

The Gender Dynamics of Speech

Interestingly, while men often engaged in this verbal sparring, women's speech in these films was typically portrayed as slower, possibly reflecting the gender dynamics and expectations of the time. This contrast underscored the perceived roles of men and women within society and cinema's role in perpetuating these stereotypes.

The Transatlantic Accent: Prestige in Pronunciation

Origins and Influence

The "Transatlantic" accent, a deliberate construct that blended American and British English, emerged as a hallmark of sophistication and authority. Predominantly adopted by the American upper class in New York around the 20th century's turn, it found a natural home in theater, a realm patronized by society's elite.

This class act wasn't just about diction; it was a symbol of status and was adopted by actors and broadcasters, further solidifying its association with sophistication and education.

As the burgeoning media industry took root in New York, this accent, deemed more prestigious than other local dialects, became the voice of early radio and film. Icons like George Plimpton and William F. Buckley Jr. later carried this accent into the late 20th century, maintaining its association with intellectualism and high social status.

Media Amplification

The advent of radio and cinema in the early 20th century necessitated a clear, understandable accent for the masses. The Transatlantic accent's clarity and lack of regional specifics made it the ideal choice for broadcasters and actors, further cementing its association with authority, intelligence, and the upper class.

Formality in Broadcasts: A Reflection of Societal Norms

Social Hierarchy and Identity

The mid-20th century was a period characterized by a strong sense of social hierarchy and formality. This was reflected not just in speech but in dress, behavior, and media. The formal nature of broadcasts was a mirror to the societal expectations of the time, where maintaining a certain decorum was paramount in public life.

Cultural and Media Influence

Hollywood and the burgeoning film industry played a significant role in popularizing the Transatlantic accent. Legendary actors like Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant, who spoke with this accent, influenced public perception of sophistication. Theatrical training also emphasized clear enunciation and projection, traits inherent to the Transatlantic accent, which spilled over into radio and early television broadcasts.

Faster Than a Speeding Talker

Back in the day, movies and newsreels were fighting an uphill battle for attention. Sound quality was often lousy, and audiences were easily distracted. So, actors had to project, speak distinctly, and get their points across quickly. This rapid-fire delivery, though unnatural to modern ears, served a crucial purpose – ensuring everyone understood the story, even if the sound was crackly.

Accent as Social Capital

In the mid-20th century, speech was a key indicator of social status and education. The Transatlantic accent, with its associations with the elite and well-educated, became a coveted asset. It was believed that speaking in this accent could open doors to better opportunities, reflecting the era's emphasis on perceived social status and upward mobility.

Shifts in Perception

As societal values began to shift towards the end of the 20th century, favoring authenticity and relatability over formality and exclusivity, the Transatlantic accent's popularity waned. The accent came to be seen as artificial, a relic of a bygone era of rigid class distinctions and less personal media.

Technological Transitions and Their Impact

From Radio to TV: The Evolution of Media

The transition from radio to television across the mid-20th century subtly influenced speech patterns in media. While the clarity and precision of the Transatlantic accent served well in radio's audio-only format, television's visual component began to demand a more naturalistic approach to dialogue—a shift that gradually unfolded into the 1970s and 1980s.

However, despite the visual medium's rise, a level of formality persisted in broadcasts and cinema, reflecting the slower pace of societal change toward casualness in public discourse.

Evolution of a Dialect

But like fashion trends, language too evolves. The Transatlantic accent's reign began to decline after World War II. Regional accents gained prominence, and media became more accessible, diminishing the need for a standardized "prestige" dialect. The rise of television, with its focus on naturalism, further pushed the Transatlantic accent into the realm of historical curiosity.

The Persistence of Formality into the Late 20th Century

A Gradual Shift

Even as society began embracing more casual forms of communication, the media of the 1970s and 1980s retained a distinct formality. This was a period of transition, where the echoes of the past mingled with the emerging voices of a changing world. News broadcasts, while visually more dynamic, still delivered information with a seriousness and decorum reflective of their role as pillars of public knowledge.

Changing Media Landscape

The latter half of the 20th century saw a significant shift in the media landscape. The rise of television as a dominant form of entertainment and information brought new norms for broadcasters. A more conversational tone began to replace the formal, meticulously enunciated speech of the past, reflecting broader cultural shifts towards inclusivity and authenticity.

The Influence of Globalization and Technology

Globalization and technological advancements have further democratized media production and consumption. Accents and dialects from across the globe now fill the digital landscape, celebrating diversity and challenging the notion of a "prestigious" accent. Today's media consumers often seek content that feels genuine and relatable, marking a departure from the mid-20th century's polished veneer.

Final Thoughts: The Tech Twist

Remember those clunky gramophone horns and scratchy radio broadcasts? Early sound technology placed limitations on how voices could be captured and transmitted. Microphones weren't as sensitive, and recording equipment struggled with lower frequencies. So, actors had to project their voices and enunciate clearly to ensure every syllable reached the audience. This, combined with the need to pack maximum dialogue into limited recording time, led to the fast-paced, clipped delivery.

Despite its disappearance, the Transatlantic accent and fast-paced delivery left their mark. The snappy dialogue of classic films like "Casablanca" and "His Girl Friday" retains its charm, reminding us of a different era's communication style. Even the "Dragnet" interrogations, with their iconic rapid-fire questions, echo the emphasis on clarity and efficiency.

So, next time you hear those voices from the past, remember: they're not just funny relics. They're sonic snapshots of a different technological landscape and audience mindset, reminding us how far we've come and how our communication styles continue to evolve alongside technology and culture.