The Philadelphia Story: Triumph of the Transatlantic Accent

If you watch a lot of movies made in the 1940’s, eventually you’re going to ask— 

Why do they talk like that?

You know what I mean—that half British, half American sing-song way of clipping out words and extending the vowels.  It indicates an upper crust, old money,  ivy-league sensibility, and doesn’t sound like anyone who ever actually lived.

I introduce you to the Transatlantic accent.

The Transatlantic (sometimes called Mid-Atlantic) accent is unusual in that it was not developed naturally based on the peculiar region where one grows up but was instead deliberately taught in fancy, northeastern boarding schools in the 1920’s-1940’s to indicate one’s place in the upper class.  The Hollywood studios loved it and encouraged their stars to take elocution lessons to perfect it.  

If you want a masterclass in the Transatlantic accent, you need go no further than The Philadelphia Story.

This film lets three of Hollywood’s greatest stars—and two of the best examples of the Transatlantic accent—talk and talk and talk for nearly two hours.

Perhaps that sounds like a criticism, but it isn’t.  The great charm of The Philadelphia Story is in the talking.  It’s a movie that started out life as a play, and is full of snappy dialogue— innuendo, subtle jokes, and those wonderful accents.  Most everything happens—the advancing plot, the expression of emotion, the twist ending—through dialogue rather than action.

The great Katharine Hepburn, who is said to be the only person ever born speaking with a Transatlantic accent, plays Tracy Lord, a haughty Philadelphia heiress who has divorced one husband and is on the verge of marrying another.

Hepburn’s voice is one of the most recognized in the world.  She had a lot in common with Tracy Lord—she too was a bit haughty and aggressive and had the air of the wealthy progressive Bryn Mawr girl that she was.

Tracy Lord is judgemental but not icy cold, and she has a soft side that is uncovered through the course of the film.

Cary Grant is her ex-husband C.K. Dexter Haven, another rich American aristocrat who likes teasing Tracy but is still very much in love with her.  Grant was British himself, but had developed a Transatlantic accent that is nearly as recognizable as Hepburn’s.

But it is third-billed Jimmy Stewart who steals the film as Macaulay “Mike” Connor, a reporter sent to cover the wedding who at first disdains Tracy’s high society ways but grows smitten when he learns there is more to her.

Jimmy Stewart’s accent is just as recognizable, though not a Transatlantic.  It is a one-of-a-kind stutter-step that he would perfect throughout his career.  

On the eve of Tracy’s wedding, Mike and Tracy—who never drinks—get drunk, go for a swim, and are discovered in a way that while innocent, looks quite indecent.

A hungover Tracy cannot remember exactly what she has and hasn’t done, and the haughty goddess of Philadelphia is laid low.  She learns the lesson that not everyone can be perfect, and despite her fiance’s willingness to forgive her indiscretions, and Mike’s proposal of marriage to quell the scandal, it is her mischievous and flawed first husband Dexter whom she truly loves and can now appreciate.

It’s amazing that Katharine Hepburn won four leading acting Oscars—more than anyone else—and did not win one for this film that so typified her and her career.  It was Jimmy Stewart’s portrayal that earned him the only acting Oscar of his career.

The Transatlantic accent fell out of fashion after World War II, even if Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn didn’t.

A study of Katharine Hepburn, Cary Grant, and Jimmy Stewart is incomplete without The Philadelphia Story.  The film  is a charming story that is artificial in speech and setup but always satisfying. 

8 thoughts on “The Philadelphia Story: Triumph of the Transatlantic Accent

  1. Pingback: Golden Age of Hollywood Reference List | Melanie Novak

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