Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant have a few things in common; not only were they popular actors during Hollywood's Golden Age, but they both used a way of speaking known as the Mid-Atlantic or Transatlantic accent. Although Hepburn was American and Grant was from England, you wouldn't know it by the way they spoke. By using the Mid-Atlantic accent, the top actors of Hollywood's Golden Age, like Hepburn and Grant, hid the dialect of their natural voice and adopted a fabricated accent that is hard to place.
In her 1942 book, Speak With Distinction, vocal coach Edith Skinner instructed actors and elites alike to speak with a Mid-Atlantic accent. They were required to drop the "r’s" at the end of words like "clear," use a hard "t" sound so words like "butter" sound like they are spelled, and utilize soft vowels like with the "a" in the word "dance" to make it sound more like "dahnce." How did Hollywood evolve from this completely fabricated accent to the more naturalistic voices actors use in film and television today? Like most mainstream things, the accent followed a trend, and Golden Age actors successfully used it to define their onscreen personas - until audiences demanded more realism.
The Style Originated In Boarding Schools On The East Coast
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.
Theater Schools Taught The Mid-Atlantic Accent In The 1930s and 1940s
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.
Edith Skinner's Book ‘Speak With Distinction’ Had A Major Influence
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.”
In Addition To Sounding Upper Class, The Accent Rejected Regionalism
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.