History Through Hollywood: 2nd Edition

The History Through Hollywood series takes a look at the little things you can pick up from watching Old Hollywood films. As I’ve discussed in the earlier posts, classic movies are inadvertent time capsules: the cars, architecture, fashion, language, and customs of a bygone era are all there, flashing across the screen in smoky black and white or glorious Technicolor. It’s history hiding in plain sight, and you can learn a lot without meaning to, and usually without even noticing.

In other posts, I’ve talked about “Reno-vations,” automatssexfashion, language, love, telephones, telegrams, and alcohol as depicted in old movies. This History Through Hollywood looks at a motley collection of oddities that might seem odd today, but must have been as normal to past generations as texting and online shopping are to us. So all aboard for a look at train travel, the housing shortages during WWII, coffee and doughnuts, and why so many people in old movies speak in a pseudo-British accent.

  • Train travel is luxurious, glamorous, and an utter delight from start to finish. It’s the only way to get around!

Before interstates criss-crossed the country, and before commercial air travel was a viable option, the best way to get around was by train. In fact, it was basically the only option, and trains ruled the passenger business until the 1950s and ’60s. So it’s no surprise that when characters in classic movies take a trip, they think “train!” (Unless it’s abroad, in which case “ocean liner!”)

Trains were such a vital part of travel that the Hollywood studios built permanent train station sets, train cars, and railroad spurs on their backlots for the numerous departure/arrival and travel scenes. For example, MGM had a “small town railroad depot” as well as a Grand Central Station set, and almost every actor at the studio filmed there at least once.

Trains aren’t only ubiquitous in old movies; they are also luxurious. I doubt every train car and compartment was as gorgeous, clean, and comfortable as the ones onscreen, but the reality was probably nicer than today’s trains.

It’s A Great Feeling: Doris Day

A lovely lounge car in It’s A Great Feeling

The glamorous train travel shown in old films really spoiled me, and I’m always unpleasantly surprised when I do opt for that mode of travel. Where are the sparkling club cars with a band striking up an impromptu rehearsal of the kind we see in Duchess of Idaho and Some Like it Hot?

Where are the compartments, glamorous private cars, or at least roomy berths? Nowhere, because things have changed. At least for the average traveler. But look at how things used to be, or at least how they were portrayed in The Major and the Minor (1942):

Even the Wild West-traversing Atchison, Topeka, and the Sante Fe in The Harvey Girls is clean and pristinely comfortable!

Times have changed, but it’s lovely to look back wistfully at how things used to be on the nation’s railways.

It’s also interesting to see air travel slowly making inroads on the silver screen. For instance, inventor Joel McCrea‘s big idea in The Palm Beach Story (1942) is an airport suspended on a sort of trampoline-runway stretched on top of a city.

Palm Beach Story Colbert McCrea - 016

McCrea’s airport in The Palm Beach Story

Thankfully, that was just a movie dream, but other characters look to the skies in more sensible ways.

For example, Esther Williams flies home after her disastrous wedding in Bathing Beauty (1944), Joel McCrea opts for a plane when he chases after his wife (who took a train) in The Palm Beach Story (1942), and Oscar Levant and Jack Carson accidentally fly to Rio in Romance on the High Seas (1948). Van Johnson takes to the air to reach Mexico City in Easy to Wed (1946), and a few years later, Johnson and Williams flew from Florida to New York and back again in Easy to Love (1953).

You see characters on airplanes in Foreign Correspondent (1940) (though that trip is hardly an endorsement), and Sullivan’s Travels, too.

Skylark: Claudette Colbert and Ray Milland

Claudette Colbert presumably flew Pan American to catch up with an ocean liner in Skylark (1942)

Of course there are numerous films with airplanes if you include war movies, but commercial air travel is scarce until the 1950s and 1960s. Then the focus shifts from occasional flights in films to movies about pilots or “airline hostesses,” like Three Guys Named Mike (1951) and Boeing Boeing (1965).

What’s striking about watching early air travel is how formally passengers are dressed. Pajama pants and sneakers on airplanes are definitely a more modern trend. For more on that, visit History Through Hollywood: Fashion.

  • WWII caused massive housing shortages in many cities, especially the nation’s capital.

Before I watched The More the Merrier (1943), I had no idea that there was a housing crisis in Washington, D.C. during WWII. But housing shortages were a very big problem at the time, and crop up in movies, radio shows, and other media.

Here’s the story: after Pearl Harbor, the U.S. declared war and cranked into gear. The country underwent a massive mobilization: the armed forces swelled as twelve million people joined the military. That’s an obvious result of war, but what we tend to overlook is the even larger mobilization that occurred within our borders. During WWII, fifteen million people moved from their homes, mostly to work in a war industry.

For example, during the war 1.4 million people moved to California to work in the state’s many aircraft and munitions plants, shipyards, and military installations. Few cities were prepared to handle this onslaught, and D.C. wasn’t the only “boom town” to run out of beds.

More the Merrier - 183

Richard Gaines and Charles Coburn take part in a discussion of the housing crisis around munitions plants in The More The Merrier

But the capital was particularly overrun: the government was expanding at a rapid pace to handle war time operation, and people flooded into Washington for various war-related jobs. There weren’t enough houses, apartments, nor hotels to handle the influx, and the city became notorious nationwide for its housing shortage.

Stories and jokes like this one became popular during the war:

A man crossing the Fourteenth Street bridge looked down into the Potomac and saw another man drowning. “What’s your name and address?” he shouted to him and ran off to see the drowning man’s landlord. He asked to rent the now-vacant room and was told that it was already taken. “But I just left him drowning in the river,” he protested. “That’s right,” the landlord replied, “but the man who pushed him in got here first” (Krutnik 418).

The discourse around the housing shortage could be serious, too. Novelist John Dos Passos wrote a series of essays about communities adjusting to wartime life in Harper’s Magazine, and he described his packed lodging house in DC:

a big old place that had been a family mansion not so long ago, now partitioned off into small cubicles where lived a pack of young men and women clerks, most of them in government jobs. The house was clean but it had the feeling of too many people breathing the same air, of strangers stirring behind flimsy walls, of unseen bedsprings creaking, and unseen feet shuffling in cramped space, a feeling of private lives huddled lonesome and crowded. (Krutnik 420)

The scene Dos Passos describes could have come straight from The More The Merrier, whose frenzied, sarcastic opening comments on the same phenomenon.

More the Merrier opening.jpg

The More the Merrier is not alone in dealing with Washington’s wartime overcrowding. Film historian Frank Krutnik identified nine films released between 1943-1944 that dealt with the capital’s housing crisis: The More the Merrier (1943), Get Going (1943), So This is Washington (1943), Government Girl (1944), Standing Room Only (1944), Ladies of Washington (1944), Johnny Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1944), Music in Manhattan (1944), and The Doughgirls (1944), based on a popular play.

12 other films released between 1944-1945 dealt with housing crises in other locations, mostly towns near military facilities. So although the housing shortages of the 1940s aren’t very well known today, you can bet that contemporary audiences knew exactly what the films were talking about.

More the Merrier Coburn ad.jpg

It may seem a little strange that so many movies dealt with the housing crisis in such a short period of time, but Hollywood knew a good story when it heard one. Beyond the basic elements of the housing shortages, these films reflect the topsy-turvy chaos of a nation at war, with the blurred boundaries and relaxed social conventions that result from major social change. The housing shortages were a convenient narrative device that allowed for topical, patriotic, and titillating plots, and Hollywood took advantage of the new normal.

The films, jokes, and articles also served to bolster the American public: Krutnik writes that “Disseminated widely across the popular media, and, one may presume, within the social currency of everyday life, discourse of the Washington housing crisis performed a kind of emotional mapping by addressing the personal and social costs of wartime mobilization” (417). Watching the crises unfold on the screen, generally with a comic bent, could have helped Americans deal with the very real, and often unpleasant, effects of mobilization. More the Merrier Arthur Coburn coffee.jpg

This all comes across in The More The Merrier, and in most of the other housing crisis movies. For example, Americans were constantly encouraged to make sacrifices to help the war effort. So it’s no surprise that Connie (Jean Arthur) explains to Mr. Dingle (Charles Coburn) that she decided to rent her spare room because it is her “patriotic duty” to try to relieve some of the housing congestion in Washington. Her desire to “do her part” leads her to share her apartment with two men, despite her misgivings.

More the Merrier Arthur Coburn morning plans.jpg

At one point, Connie tries to evict her tenants, but when she learns that handsome Joe (Joel McCrea) is being sent to Africa in just two days, she lets him stay. His imminent deployment removes any remaining concerns about propriety. She can’t throw a soldier out on the street, even if it is highly inappropriate for them to be living together!

Such a storyline was unthinkable in Hollywood before the war, but the housing crisis provided an excuse to throw men and women together in potentially scandalous situations.

More the Merrier Arthur McCrea boy.jpg

At the end of the film, after Connie and Joe have obtained a quickie marriage, Joe tells Connie that he doesn’t want her to rent the room out when he is gone. She protests, wanting to fulfill her duty, but Joe says that sending a husband to Africa is patriotic enough!

More the Merrier no vacancy.jpg

In The More The Merrier, the frantic search for housing is played for laughs, but that wasn’t the case for most people, and especially not for African-Americans.

Most people coming to D.C. during the war had a difficult time finding a place to live, but it was much harder for African-Americans. Shamefully, but unsurprisingly in this segregated era, “virtually all new housing constructed during the war was earmarked for whites,” (Krutnik 423) leaving African-Americans to make do with whatever they could find.

Without other options, many African-Americans were forced to squat in alleys. In the early 1940s, about 20,000 people, the majority of whom were African-American, lived in “hastily built and overcrowded alley dwellings” without running water or indoor toilets.

More the Merrier Arthur McCrea windows.jpg

The deplorable conditions pushed Congress to create the Alley Dwelling Authority in 1943 to improve the situation, but it did little good. For more, you can read this article.

Of course, none of this shows up in the cycles of films dealing with the housing crises. As usual, Hollywood presented an overwhelmingly white world.

Another missing element in the movies and jokes about the overcrowded capital is the effect of the crisis on public health. During the war, Washington had the highest rates of tuberculosis and venereal disease in the country. It wasn’t all romantic comedy shenanigans, that’s for sure.

On a (slightly) lighter note, there was a sharp rise in the divorce rate once the war ended, mostly attributed to rapid marriages like Connie and Joe’s that linked men and women who were basically strangers and then separated them until after the war. (For more on that, read History Through Hollywood: Love.) Hopefully Connie and Joe weren’t one of the record 600,000 divorces filed in 1946…

More the Merrier Arthur McCrea kiss.jpg

Unfortunately, the housing crisis wasn’t solved when the war ended. In fact, things got even worse due to the returning soldiers, rising birth rate, and the lag in construction dating back to the Depression and the war. You can see the post-war housing shortage in the film It Happened on 5th Avenue (1947). Several characters, including veterans and their families, can’t find apartments in New York City and end up squatting in an empty mansion instead! For more on that, visit my review of the film.

It Happened on 5th Avenue

It Happened on 5th Avenue

Source: Frank Krutnik. “Critical Accommodations: Washington, Hollywood, and the WWII Housing Shortage.” The Journal of American Culture. Dec 2007. 30: 4.

  • Coffee is best sipped out of tea cups, not mugs, preferably as part of a gleaming silver service. And coffee’s perfect pairing was a doughnut, or “sinker,” and could be enjoyed at nearly every casual restaurant in the country.

It may surprise you to learn that Nick Charles didn’t sip his morning coffee out of a “World’s Greatest Dad” coffee cup, and that Carole Lombard guzzled java out of a delicate tea cup-style vessel instead of a clunky “Blondes Have More Fun” mug.

The straight-sided, thick-handled mugs we’re used to seeing appear very rarely in old movies. This backstage scene in White Christmas is one of the few that feature the more “modern” mug. (Even the famous mug in Detour has a slight tea cup shape.) You can see the mug on the table and in Vera-Ellen‘s hand:

These are the more typical choices, and note the prevalence of lovely silver coffeepots.

To doughnuts! Or donuts. These fried treats are by no means a relic of the past, but in old movies they are everywhere!

Skylark: Claudette Colbert and Brian Aherne

Doughnuts on offer in the middle of the night in Skylark

Just about every diner, roadside stop, or casual restaurant has a heaping tower of golden doughnuts beneath a glass dome. (The doughnuts are usually unglazed, dense, and look like Dunkin’ Donut’s “old fashioned cake donut”).


A doughnut and coffee seems to have been a standard order at nearly any time of day. It doesn’t necessarily occur to me to order “coffee and a sinker” at 8pm at a roadside diner, but it happens frequently in old movies.

http://library.duke.edu/rubenstein/scriptorium/sheetmusic/a/a00/a0015/ Courtesy of the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University.

http://library.duke.edu/rubenstein/scriptorium/sheetmusic/a/a00/a0015/ The Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University.

Doughnuts go way back in culinary history, though their most famous moment came in WWI when Salvation Army workers served doughnuts and coffee to soldiers in the trenches in France.

That donut delivery system explains this song, “Don’t Forget the Salvation Army (My Doughnut Girl)” with its charming illustration. With that in mind, one would be forgiven for thinking that the term “doughboy” came from all these doughnuts, but actually that term had been used since the 1840s to describe American soldiers.

I assumed that National Donut Day was started as a marketing ploy by Krispy Kreme, but actually it dates back to the Great Depression. The Salvation Army started the holiday as a way to raise money and awareness of their mission. They chose the donut theme to honor the “donut lassies” who served the fried treats to soldiers (and also provided other food, writing supplies, and clothes mending during WWI). You can even make the famous Salvation Army doughnuts at home!

Skirts Ahoy: Esther Williams, Joan Evans, and Vivian Blaine

Coffee in teacups and doughnuts at a USO party in Skirts Ahoy! (1952)

You won’t see many donut lassies in old movies, but you will see lots of doughnuts and coffee, and often some dunking of the former into the latter. This may have started as a way to improve the taste of stale treats (apparently really stale donuts sink to the bottom, hence the the slang term sinker).

Adventure in Manhattan: Joel McCrea and Jean Arthur

Joel McCrea and Jean Arthur with coffee in tea cups and doughnuts in Adventure in Manhattan (1936) via: http://www.tcm.com/tcmdb/title/3689/Adventure-in-Manhattan/#tcmarcp-409599-409607

Dunking one’s doughnut was so common that a certain chain took its name from the practice! So keep an eye out for your favorite stars dunking a sinker in their graceful coffee cups! For more on the history and wonder of doughnuts, read on here and here!

And for a dunking tutorial, watch the famous scene in It Happened One Night (1934) when Clark Gable teaches Claudette Colbert proper technique.

  • Everyone in old movies speaks with a British accent.

If you’ve watched a classic movie, you’ve noticed that many actors speak in a British-esque accent even if their character is American. Their vowels are softer, their “T’s” stay sharp instead of dulling into “D’s,” and their “R’s” are whisked away by the wind. This seems to be especially true in films from the 1930s concerning high class hijinks, like My Man Godfrey (1936).

This phenomenon is not just due to British actors working in Hollywood, although, then as now, there were quite a few of them. When you hear actors like Ray Milland, Vivien Leigh, Leslie Howard, Greer Garson, Claude Rains, Angela Lansbury, Laurence Olivier, Merle Oberon, Errol Flynn, and Deborah Kerr, among others, expounding with round tones, it’s due to their British heritage.

Easy Living Arthur Milland - 177

Ray Milland and Jean Arthur in Easy Living

But how to explain the vaguely British accents of American actors like William Powell, Irene Dunne, Bette Davis, and the Barrymores?

First, some background. What most people think of as the “British accent” is called standardized “Received Pronunciation” or RP, more commonly known as BBC English. The typical “American accent,” (which we consider to be no accent at all), is called “General American” or GA, commonly known as “newscaster accent.” There are hundreds of other regional British and American accents, but I’ll keep things simple with just those two.

The major difference between GA and RP is rhotacism: GA is rhotic, which means speakers use a hard “R.” RP is non-rhotic with soft “R’s”; “hard” becomes “hahd.” Here’s a great short video about this.

Why is there a difference in British and American English at all? Well, the idea that Americans “lost” the British accent is a common misconception. As far as we know (this era lacked recording, obviously), the British used a more GA-style accent until the turn of the 19th century. The RP was developed around that time, and soon became fashionable among the upper and middle classes in Britain. The non-rhotic accent eventually became a cherished marker of status and class. (Think of Eliza gaining social mobility as she adopts an RP accent in My Fair Lady.) Therefore, the difference in GA and RP is not due to Americans losing an accent, but to the British gaining one. For more, visit this great Mental Floss article.

Back to the movies. When I say that William Powell, for example, sounds British, what I mean is that on the spectrum of GA and RP, he is closer to the non-rhotic side even though he doesn’t sound exactly like the Queen.

Powell wasn’t aiming for pure RP, though. In fact, what we hear in old movies has its own dialect designation: Mid-Atlantic or Transatlantic English. As its name suggests, it’s a hybrid of GA and RP, a made-up, learned accent that sounded classy and cultivated. You can watch a great demonstration of Mid-Atlantic English in this scene packed with upper class characters who have never pronounced a hard “R” in their lives in After The Thin Man (1936).

To get an idea of this movie accent, think of Cary Grant, whose speech is generally held up as the prototype of Mid-Atlantic English–neither British nor American but a combination. His famous speaking style became part of the “Cary Grant persona” when humble, Bristol-born Archibald Leach transformed into a cosmopolitan dreamboat with a gloriously hodge-podged accent that evoked champagne and a perfectly cut suit, with a healthy dash of mischief. Here he is in The Awful Truth (1937):

Fun fact: Tony Curtis later parodied Cary Grant’s accent in Some Like It Hot (1959). You can watch a scene here.

But Cary Grant was by no means alone. The Mid-Atlantic accent became very common onscreen, partly due to the theater world’s embrace of the style. Some have suggested that the accent first rose to prominence in the early days of radio because the sharp “T’s” transmitted better on the relatively weak devices. (You can listen to a radio performance of The Thin Man here.) From radio the accent spread to theater, where it became the accent of choice, and was taught by drama teachers and voice coaches for years. It migrated to movies with the advent of sound films, and remained popular for decades.

Remember the scene in Singin’ in the Rain (1952) when Lina Lamont visits a dialogue coach? Her over-the-top teacher is attempting to impart an exaggerated Mid-Atlantic accent so that Lina can make the transition to talkies. This is not farfetched; many dialogue coaches hammered the Mid-Atlantic accent into their pupils.

It wasn’t just actors picking up the style, either. The accent signified refinement and sophistication, and it proliferated in swanky drawing rooms and the most exclusive clubs. It was even taught in fancy prep schools, and could be heard echoing down the halls of elite universities. As strange as it might seem, upper crust Americans really did sound like characters in old movies, at least for a few decades!

Fun fact: the Netflix show Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt referenced this sort of thing by having an extremely wealthy, upper crust character named Logan (played by British actor Adam Campbell) speak with a British accent.

At one point, Kimmy says she loves hearing English guys talk, to which Logan replies, “I’m from Connecticut. My parents just insisted all the children learn British. I didn’t speak a word of American until I arrived at college, bro.” His speech rather appropriately transitions from posh RP to frat boy GA as he gets to the end of the sentence!

Katharine Hepburn honed her famous Mid-Atlantic accent by combining the speech of her wealthy Connecticut upbringing and four years at Bryn Mawr College with vigorous speech coaching in the New York theater.

That’s why she sounds like this:

You can read more about Hepburn and the Mid-Atlantic accent in this article in The Atlantic.

Hepburn and Grant are famous for their Mid-Atlantic accents, but dozens of other actors developed their own concoctions. For instance, Miriam Hopkins merged it with her Savannah drawl, and Belgian-born, British and Netherlands-raised, multilingual Audrey Hepburn cobbled her own lovely version together. William Powell, Myrna Loy, the Barrymores, Claudette Colbert, Irene Dunne, Bette DavisLew Ayres, Rosalind Russell, Grace Kelly, Elizabeth Taylor, Orson Welles, Mary Astor, and Carole Lombard, to name a few, all sported the accent in various films.

But some actors, particularly those with “All-American” star images, rarely adopted it. Humphrey Bogart, Jimmy StewartJudy Garland, John Wayne, Gene Kelly, Barbara Stanwyck, Van Johnson, Esther Williams, Joel McCrea, and others used a more typically American accent than cosmopolitan stars like Colbert and Hepburn. (I’m speaking generally here, as any good actor would alter his or her accent for different roles.)

The Mid-Atlantic accent slowly fell out of favor after WWII (as you can see from the list of stars who eschewed it for a GA accent.) Americans in general moved towards a more vernacular style of speech, and the Mid-Atlantic accent began to sound contrived and “high-falutin’” instead of classy. Grace Kelly, (who spoke a version of the Mid-Atlantic accent), even parodied the upper crust speech for a scene in High Society (1956):

Ironically, later on the Mid-Atlantic accent sometimes showed up in the speech of “ethnic” characters: Rita Moreno remembers using a style very similar to the Mid-Atlantic when she played a gypsy or an Egyptian girl, for example. Thus, by the 1950s and 60s, the accent that once signified wealth and status had begun to suggest “the other.” And now it’s just an odd piece of trivia.

If you’d like to know more about some of the movies I mentioned, check out my reviews on The Blonde at the Film, and follow me on TwittertumblrPinterest, Instagram at BlondeAtTheFilm, and Facebook. You can find my other History Through Hollywood posts here. As always, thanks for reading!





Categories: Comedy, Drama, History, Musical, Romance, Screwball

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20 replies »

  1. Gotta say, Claudette Colbert and Irene Dunne never sounded like anything other than American, to me. Though Colbert was French and spoke French before she spoke English, if I recall correctly.

    • You’re right! Colbert was born in France but came to the US when she was a young kid. She and Dunne don’t approach Grant’s accent, but I can hear a tinge of it, especially in their 1930s films. Thanks for reading!

  2. I enjoyed reading your commentary and looking at the various pictures. I’m going to have to look back at earlier installments in this series. I think the idea of classic cinema as accidental/unintentional time capsules is a really interesting way to put it and approach it.

    One aspect which always catches my eye is the way things are built then versus now. Everyday items were much more often hand-crafted and a great deal more ornate. I think of those same things today as being pretty much legos. No individual personality, made to form, made to stack one on top of the other, and to be easily replaced whenever necessary. Things cost more, but they lasted longer and looked more unique and special doing it.

  3. Another great post. Can’t wait for the coffee (and donut) table book!
    A major part of the joy of watching an old movie is the sound of the voices. It’s not simply the RP accent, it’s the American accents, too. What I like about the sound is the clarity. It may have been a technical necessity and unnatural, even then, but at least it was understandable then and remains so. Watch 42nd STREET or one of the GOLD DIGGER films. Mostly American voices, but oh, so clear and so nice to hear (to me, at least).

    • Thank you! Glad you enjoyed the post. I agree–there is something unique about those 1930s voices! They seem sharper and clearer than today’s “American accents.” Maybe that’s my next History Through Hollywood! Thanks for reading!

  4. Tangential thought here–Do you know if someone is doing something similar to your work (maybe even on a university research level) with regard to other major media of the mid-20th century such as radio, magazines, books, newspapers?
    Film seems to lend itself to this kind of analysis because you can look at a slate of films for a given time period and codify them (arguably, fairly easily and accurately) into genres and sub-genres, but with say, radio, we’re left with bare bones listings of fiction and non-fiction radio programs–and with limited surviving recordings and scripts–but with no reliable way to ascertain what percentage of air time was devoted to a particular cultural phenomenon. For instance, due to paucity of data, it could be impossible to say that such-and-such percentage of radio dramas had plot-lines dealing with the WW2 housing crunch. Or, that comedy shows dealt with the issue more often. Or, whatever.

    • Hey Dave! Yes, people are looking at this stuff in really interesting ways! Media studies and film scholars dive into the things you mention, though, as you say, sometimes it would be nice to have more data! One of my favorite projects happening now is the Lantern Media History Digital Library, which digitizes old film magazines. You can find it at http://lantern.mediahist.org. If you have access to JSTOR or another journals database it can be fun to poke around and see what people are studying! Thanks for reading!

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