1950s hidden camera footage?
November 25, 2009 11:16 PM   Subscribe

Does anyone have "hidden camera" footage of people from the 1950s and before having candid conversations? When they're giving prepared/on-camera remarks in any footage I watch, people seem very very stilted - like unskilled actors. I'm wondering if this was just the style of the "public voice" at the time, or if people actually talked to each other in day to day conversations this way

In addition, I'm curious whether there's been formal research into the way the perceived authenticity of a manner of speech changes over time, and whether it's arbitrary or actually a function of some underlying ideal
posted by crayz to Society & Culture (14 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
I don't have any film like that, but anecdotally, I know my grandparents and older aunts & uncles (who would have been young adults at that time) would speak pretty naturally & informally.
posted by cosmic.osmo at 11:28 PM on November 25, 2009

It's (just barely) from the 60s, but Robert Drew's documentary Primary might be something to check out.

"It's the tail end of winter in 1960. U.S. Senators Hubert Humphrey and John Kennedy seek the Democratic Party's nomination for President. Wisconsin's primary - one of the few direct primaries at the time - is on April 5. We see both candidates on the road; it's retail politics, shaking hands, signing autographs, smiling. We hear part of a standard stump speech from Kennedy; we watch Humphrey talk to farmers in a rural hall."
posted by Crane Shot at 11:29 PM on November 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

Candid Camera started in the '40s. There's probably a ton of footage to be had there.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:37 PM on November 25, 2009 [1 favorite]

I've heard somewhere that people would act in a very affected way when cameras were on them back in the day, but that that changed over time as more and more people grew up being around cameras and recorded by their parents. For someone in the 1950s, being on camera would feel pretty strange.

The thing I read said that Baby Boomers (and probably people from earlier then that) would be totally aware of the camera, while Gen Xers would change their behavior, try to show off, and that people younger then that were not influenced by the cameras at all.

That's just a half-remembered reading of some article by someone who did documentaries, IIRC. But I think it's probably the case that our "relationship" to the camera has changed.
posted by delmoi at 11:42 PM on November 25, 2009

Here's some home video footage from 1962 (with audio!). Pretty fluid conversation around 3m40 in, but with stilted speech too www.archive.org/details/homemovie_fred_mccleod. I think the stilted speech is a function of being filmed (the newness of the experience and the intrusiveness of the equipment, especially the light!).

Probably lots more if you dig around in the Internet Archive's moving images section.
posted by zippy at 1:15 AM on November 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Historical Sociolinguistics and Discourse Analysis, both subfields of linguistics, would address this. Authenticity is a big hot topic right now (think of irony, sarcasm, intellectualism and hipsters), and I don't doubt that there are people out there who are looking at this diachronically (over time).

To try to answer your question more directly, just like different features of language, such as speech rate, rising intonation, voice modulation, signal different things socially depending on where you are and what dialect you speak, these features come to mean different things over time as well. Language is constantly changing. It's really hard to not see things – even anachronistic things – through anything but our own current cultural lens that we are equipped with at that moment. Doesn't mean it can't be done, but you'd really have to remove yourself from the current philosophical mindset of our time, and go back and understand the cultural and philosophical framework of another time. For example, before the the arrival of the printing press in England (early 15thC), there was no standardized spelling, no dictionaries, no grammar books, and even the self-awareness about language itself was practically non-existent. The period right after this is sometimes called the 'Age of Linguistic Insecurity' and it brought a tsunami of prescriptivism that we've been riding on for the last 500 years. Keeping all that in mind, what does it mean to convince others that you are who you claim to be? How did people express themselves? What were the markers of intellect, wit, irony, and style? Knowing what it means to be 'authentic' in that time period requires a much broader knowledge of the world during that time, and specifically the particular region of the world you're interested in studying (how connected was that area? Were the people isolated? Oppressed? Powerful? Known for anything? Productive?) It's highly contextual. Looking at the changes of a generation ago can be just as complex...what does it mean to be socially hip in a time when cell phones and credit cards didn't exist? The socially hip identity certainly existed for sure, and it had to look and sound like something. Something that sounds old and outdated to us today.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that yes, people back then sound funny to us now, the same way that a RGB image looks funny when printed in CMYK inks. But in its own right, these things swim happily in their own contexts. Otherwise we'd be hearing our parents and grandparents talking about how everybody sounded like such weirdos on TV and the radio. The irony is, I think they're saying that now, about us.
posted by iamkimiam at 1:21 AM on November 26, 2009 [19 favorites]

Why not just watch good actors from the era? I'm sure they were trying to speak normally.
posted by delmoi at 5:20 AM on November 26, 2009

You might be interested in A Happy Mother's Day, which was a 1963 documentary filmed about the birth of the first surviving quintuplets in a small South Dakota town. It's been 14 or 15 years so I don't remember a lot of specifics about how people spoke on camera, but I do remember being struck by how much less "sanitized" the footage felt than a lot of 1950's/early 1960's stuff you see.
posted by usonian at 5:22 AM on November 26, 2009 [2 favorites]

As referenced above, Candid Camera was around during that time and you can get "best of" DVDs from Netflix that show clips from this time. They're worth watching for comedy purposes, too.
posted by meadowlark lime at 5:39 AM on November 26, 2009

Salesman is a 1968 documentary that shows people having natural conversations. (Also worth watching even aside from your question.) I don't know when all the footage was filmed -- presumably before 1968. I doubt that speech patterns would have changed so radically from the late '50s to the mid '60s.
posted by Jaltcoh at 5:53 AM on November 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

It's from the 1960's, but you should check out Coyle & Sharpe, who pulled brilliant man-on-the-street pranks (my favourite is 'Threeism'). Their stuff was audio only, not visual, and it's interesting to hear their targets use exactly the same inflections you're used to hearing from other 50's and 60's footage.
posted by Gortuk at 6:43 AM on November 26, 2009 [1 favorite]

Why don't you look for audio recordings? There will be a lot more of those.
posted by sully75 at 6:50 AM on November 26, 2009

Coyle and Sharp doesn't help because they knew they were being recorded.

There was a FPP this year about a series of blooper reels from the 40s movie studios on the Internet archive. When the famous (and typically poised and archaic) actors flubbed and cursed, they sounded like regular modern humans. Comforting, it was. I can't find it right now but maybe search for "bloopers?"
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:35 AM on November 26, 2009

Breakdowns of 1940, Part 1
posted by zippy at 10:18 AM on November 27, 2009

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