The Mid-Atlantic accent is a combination of standard American English and Britain's Received Pronunciation. Since it doesn't belong to either the United States or Britain, linguists named the accent after a point in the ocean between the two countries. The accent was used so heavily in the 1930s and 1940s that it became associated with the time period and now sounds old-timey to modern ears.
Not to be confused with the accents of people who live in America's Mid-Atlantic region, which runs along the East Coast south of New England, the Mid-Atlantic accent became associated with the upper class. People in the 19th century believed British accents made speakers sound more worldly and possibly wealthy. Even though it isn't a naturally developed accent, actors and others who wanted to appear upper class adopted the Mid-Atlantic accent due to its slightly British sound.
Between 1926 and 1930, Hollywood movies transitioned from silent features to films in which audio and dialogue were recorded. This shift took a number of years, as movie theaters balked at installing the expensive and bulky equipment needed to provide a film's sound to audiences. As "talkies" became more popular, however, more and more theaters jumped on the trend, causing filmmakers to completely abandon silent movie projects.
In order to capture the best sound while filming, filmmakers experimented with different microphones and microphone placements around their sets. But because of the technological limitations of recording and broadcasting bass tones, actors on the screen and the radio had to clearly enunciate their dialog . The Mid-Atlantic accent helped as it produced a nasally tone in an actor's speech that could be easily picked up by the technology.
In the silent film era, actors used exaggerated facial expressions and gestures to express emotion, but the birth of sound film forced them to use their voices instead. For many actors, this proved to be a challenge because they were used to exaggerating their performance or relying on filmmakers shouting directions off camera. But the greatest problem was that many silent film actors had different natural speaking voices than the audience expected.
The downfall of silent film superstars like Clara Bow served as possible warnings to other actors that the transition to sound film might not be easy. Like Bow, who audiences turned against when they heard her unexpected nasal Brooklyn accent, many silent stars lost their careers partly due to the invention of sound film, leading many to turn to vocal coaches or adapt the Mid-Atlantic accent in order to keep their appeal.
As the Hollywood studio system began in the 1920s, studios took steps to make their product more marketable; they purchased theaters that would show only their films, dictated what kind of movies they'd produce, and attempted to establish monopolies. When it became clear that audiences wanted to see certain actors more than others, studios signed performers to multi-year contracts and asserted strict control over their lives.
Studios during Hollywood’s Golden Age dictated their actors' images, changed performers' names, and created carefully curated personas for their stars. As sound film became more prevalent, they also hired vocal coaches to train their actors to speak in the most pleasing and effective ways, which included adopting the Mid-Atlantic accent .
The Mid-Atlantic accent began long before being adopted by Hollywood movie actors. After the American Revolution and subsequent conflicts, relations between America and Britain grew more amiable . Elites on the East Coast believed the British sounding Mid-Atlantic accent would show off their upper-class status and superiority to other Americans. It became an accent common to the Northeast coasts' political elite, including the Roosevelt family.
Since speaking in a vaguely British way was not natural, people had to be instructed how to use this accent. Exclusive private schools used elocution classes to teach students what they considered to be the "best" way of speaking. Adopters of the accent believed it would make their children seem more proper and aristocratic, setting them apart from those considered lower class or common.
As the Mid-Atlantic accent spread through Hollywood movies, it also made its way into stage productions . Drama teachers at colleges and universities taught it to their students; however, the accent's use on stage wasn't due to a need to seem upper class but rather an effort to remove dialects and regionalisms from actors' voices.
Also known in the theater world as " American theater standard ," schools like Carnegie Mellon saw the accent as a "neutralization technique." In other words, using the accent might allow an actor to abandon their own recognizable regional accent to play any role. In theory, this created more opportunities for actors to play a variety of roles.
Canadian Edith Skinner was an elocutionist who earned a reputation as a prominent vocal coach on Broadway and several East Coast theater schools. Contrary to modern linguists, she believed there was only one good way of speaking and all other methods were incorrect. Skinner's support of the Mid-Atlantic accent brought it more recognition, especially as Hollywood began adopting her teachings in the 1930s.
In 1942, she wrote Speak With Distinction , which taught the Mid-Atlantic accent. The book became the go-to text on the subject as Hollywood and Broadway adopted Skinner's ideas about "good speech." She wrote, “Good Speech is... recognizably North American, yet suitable for classic texts; effortlessly articulated and easily understood in the last rows of a theater.”
Edith Skinner didn't only want her pupils to sound high class, she also believed the Mid-Atlantic accent would get rid of any natural regionalism or dialects in an actor’s voice, which they may have picked up where they lived or spent their time.
"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," Skinner wrote in her book Speak With Distinction . Many researchers, however, believe speaking in a completely neutral tone, free of any kind of dialect is impossible, as one accent will only be replaced by another.
In 1928, Hepburn was a struggling actor in New York. Although she managed to win roles on stage, she had a habit of getting fired not long after. Hepburn struggled to control her acting, including her voice, and would often speak quickly at a high pitch when under pressure.
In order to succeed, Hepburn hired vocal coach Frances Robinson-Duff , who taught her how to use the Mid-Atlantic accent. Unlike others who adopted the accent, Hepburn’s voice sounded more American than British, but the origin of her accent remained indistinct. The Mid-Atlantic accent became one of Hepburn's onscreen signatures and made her one of the accent's most notable users.
While the Mid-Atlantic accent helped actors like Hepburn succeed in Hollywood, others decided to forge a career using their own voice. Jimmy Stewart became well known for his rural Pennsylvania dialect, and Humphrey Bogart's New York accent fit his tough guy persona.
When given the option, audiences chose to embrace the realism of actors like Bogart and rejected the fake affluence of the Mid-Atlantic accent. As more and more actors decided to use their own voices rather than adopt an unnatural accent, the Mid-Atlantic accent fell out of use.
By the time WWII ended, prep schools stopped teaching the Mid-Atlantic accent to their students. This was possibly partly due to the accent's association with the upper class and the rising power of "everyday" people towards the end of the 1940s. The conflict gave new importance to industrial workers, allowing those outside the upper class to finally take a more active role in the American economy, earning higher wages for their work and, in turn, spending more.
In 1948, a Federal antitrust suit led to the end of Hollywood's studio system, also ending the accent’s appearance on screen. After the Supreme Court ordered studios to stop purchasing theaters with the intent to show only their films, theaters had the right to screen whatever they wanted. This forced studios to create better content and gave directors and actors the right to pursue their own projects and set their own rates. Now allowed to break free from the classic Hollywood mold, many actors dropped the Mid-Atlantic accent in favor of their own voices.
The late 1960s saw a new generation of filmmakers in Hollywood. Directors like Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese rose to fame telling gritty stories with realistic and dark characters. Instead of light-hearted and fantastical films favored by previous generations of actors and directors, New Hollywood filmmakers explored real-world issues and darker themes.
Once seen as a marker of affluence and high society, the Mid-Atlantic accent didn't fit into these films and no longer had a place in Hollywood; however, the accent hasn't completely disappeared. Actors may still use it for comic effect, especially when satirizing upper-class characters. Kelsey Grammer notably used the Mid-Atlantic accent in this way for his role as Frasier Crane, demonstrating his character's snobby pretentiousness.
The decline of the Mid-Atlantic accent did not mean vocal coaches were no longer needed. Due to the globalization of filmmaking, increased understanding of accents and dialects, and the modern global audience's access to social media to deride actors who do awful renditions of specific accents, actors often hire vocal coaches to help their performances, or in other cases, studios assign vocal coaches to their actors.
Coaches like Barbara Berkery, who helped Johnny Depp create the voice of Jack Sparrow, instruct actors to weave different sounds into their natural voice rather than trying to disguise the way they speak. Being able to swap their own accent for that of someone else also allows British actors to take on American accents and vice versa, meaning roles are no longer limited to actors with the same nationality or regional dialect as their character.