The cinema of the interwar era (1919-1939) is commonly acknowledged as being an essential factor in influencing girls and women. From their fashion choices and hairstyles to what was considered at the time to be “unfeminine” behaviours like smoking and drinking. With the introduction of sound to the cinema in 1927, a new attribute that could be influenced was acknowledged, the voice.
In 1927 a Daily Express columnist claimed that ‘we have several million people, mostly women, who, to all intent and purpose, are temporary American citizens’. The increasing popularity of Hollywood films over British films perpetuated the fear of Americanisation of the British culture and its perceived effects on demoralising society, by introducing their lax attitude towards manners, morality and speech. The perception that Hollywood promoted democratising and egalitarian values to a British population who had nearly tripled their electorate with The Representation of the People Act (1918), presented a danger to the concepts and ideals of Britishness.
Films with synchronised sound and dialogue, dubbed “talkies”, soon became the primary experience of the film viewing public, replacing silent pictures as the new norm. Film played an important part in offering a presentation of “proper” British speech, behaviour, and morality that could be consumed and imitated by audiences. With the introduction of the Hollywood talkies, the concern of American influence was exacerbated due to the alleged corruption of the British language with Americanisms and slang.
The preferred voice of the British screen was that of “Received Pronunciation” (RP), the uniform way of speaking to allow not only for the audience to understand the dialogue without confusing regional dialects, but to introduce a “correct” way of speaking by broadcasting the ‘superior speech’. Yet in what Rachael Low calls ‘class-ridden Britain’, the audiences complained more about the ‘oxford accent’ and the ‘BBC voice’ associated with RP than the American slang and idioms of Hollywood films. But how did this affect the relatability of female characters? Did hearing the voice of an actress ruin the illusion created of her on the silent screen, or would young women be more inclined to embody her, including the way she talked?
The female voice was subjected to unsubstantiated concerns over its suitability for broadcast, as women were considered incapable of retaining the attention of listeners because their voices were less commanding and could be at times “monotonous […] and shrill”, creating an unpleasant listening experience. Claims even went as far as suggesting that even if women’s voices were used, they wouldn’t have anything interesting to say anyway.
The introduction of sound to pictures only increased the list of things that a woman could be criticised for and added another aspect of femininity that could be idealised, learnt and conformed to. Larraine Porter suggests that sound cinema ‘created a vogue for particular kinds of voices’ and expected women’s voices to transform towards feminine desirability.
Before the introduction of sound to film, cinema had already created visual forms of women that represented feminine desirability, sexuality, and the different tropes of female characters, to be instantly recognisable to an audience. This meant that women’s voices needed to match the aura of the character; high-pitched and girly for a youthful innocent image, lower-pitched for one of sexual promiscuity, and even manlier images. With the wrong voice, she may ruin her allure, desirability, and feminine image.
Cinema-goers when watching their favourite star had already formed an idea of their voices despite never hearing them which made it near impossible for actresses to meet expectations of their on-screen persona. The impossibility for these already successful silent actresses to meet vocal expectations set them up for inevitable criticism at every turn, they may be too high, too low, too monotonous, too fast, too slow, too weak and thin or too strong and mannish. Each critique set back the female voice, becoming evident that women were being punished for speaking at all, for occupying what radio considered to be a male vocal space.
In The Film Gone Male written by Dorothy Richardson in 1932, she argued that the silent film was a feminine space that had been masculinised by the introduction of sound. The silent film produced images of feminine experiences and realities, and these male voices took away from the female audience’s experience, describing women as ‘humanities silent half’. In silent film, the female audiences could easily envision themselves or insert their own voices and experiences onto the female characters being portrayed. Antonia Lant too, argues that the silent film was considered by female audiences to hold a feminine universalism, transposing onto silent film the value of femininity. After the introduction of the more dominant male voice in cinema, many women critics felt like on-screen women lost their voice, and in turn women in British society did too, suggesting that men became established as the possessor of the voice.
The arrival of sound to British film cemented pre-existing silent film gender tropes and set a precedence for the marginalisation of women’s vocal presence in film. Despite the fact that the majority of cinema audiences were made up of women, early sound cinema had developed an aversion toward the female voice that remains in film to this day.
Rachel Bogush is a PhD student at the University of Leeds. Her research focuses on modern femininity in interwar British media. She tweets at @rachelbogush.
Cover Image: Exhibitor’s Herald, April 9th 1921. Still of the cast and production crew from the American comedy drama film The Affairs of Anatol (1921). Source: Wikimedia Commons.
 C. Grandy, Heroes and Happy Endings: Class, Gender, and Nation in Popular Film and Fiction in Interwar Britain, (2014), p.3
S. Harper, Women in British Cinema: Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know, (2000),
 Daily Express, 18 March 1927, p. 6.
 A. Light, Forever England: Femininity, Literature and Conservatism between the Wars, (1991) P.215
 R. Low, The History of the British Film 1929-1939: Film making in 1930s Britain, (1985), p.89
 L. Porter, ‘“Have You a Happy Voice?” Women’s Voices and the Talkie Revolution in Britain 1929–1932’, MSMI, Vol.12:2, (2018), p.141
 Ibid., 152
 Richardson, D., Continuous Performance: The Film Gone Male (1932), in Framework: The Journal of Cinema and Media, (1983)