Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Talking funny

TCM is showing a night of movies about southern belles tonight; included is Jezebel (May 13 at 1:30 AM ET), in which the belle is played by Bette Davis, in the role that won her her second Oscar. Perhaps the best scene in the movie is one in which she declares she can wear a red dress if she wants, dammit, because this is eighteen fifty-two! It's funny, in part because the southern accent sounds incongruous coming out of Bette Davis. Perhaps more interesting will be The Toy Wife, which follows Jezebel at 3:30 AM. There, the southern belle will be played by Luise Rainer, born in Vienna, Austria. I suppose it could be worse, though: I'm trying to imagine Sean Connery doing a southern accent. (Either that, or he should have tried a Jamaican accent in Doctor No. "Bond, mon, James Bond.")

Trying to do a southern accent isn't the only funny accent in the movies, of course. There's the whole Pepe le Pew thing, based on poor Charles Boyer. I always wonder what Boyer, an otherwise excellent actor, thought about being parodied by a cartoon skunk.

Omar Sharif is dreadfully bad as a Russian in Doctor Zhivago, although I have a whole bunch of other problems with that movie besides Sharif; it is for me a wreck of a movie that probably deserves its own post sometime down the line. (To be honest though, I prefer writing about movies I like.)

Laurence Olivier has a hilarious accent turn in Michael Powell's great movie 49th Parallel. Olivier plays a Qu├ębecois trapper who shows up at a Hudson Bay trading post, complete with all the stereotypes, including the accent. (He's also portrayed as being part of a ridiculously large Catholic family.) It is so obviously forced that it's laughable. I can only imagine how Canadian audiences must have felt on seeing the movie.

Then, there are the people who don't do Shakespeare. Marlon Brando fans think he was the bee's knees in Julius Caesar, but there are also a lot of people out there -- not just myself, but more significant judges like Frank Sinatra -- who felt Brando had a serious lack of elocution, to the point that Nancy Sinatra, in one of the pieces on her father airing on TCM, claims her father called Brando "Mumbles". Although, there's much of the cast of the 1935 version of A Midsummer Night's Dream, although that version rises above the cast's limitations.

I suppose I should close with a comment about my own accent. I studied Russian in college, and spent a term in St. Petersburg. One of the first things our phonetics teacher did was have us start on the Russian o. It's relativiely close to the o in some British accents when speaking a word like "clock"; that is, not like the oa in "boat", but not all the way to the aw in "awe". When it was my turn to pronounce the Russian o, I did, and the teacher responded, "You're from New York, aren't you?"

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