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Vol. 1 No. 2 (2020): Soundscapes, Sonic Cultures, and American Studies

'Ta, te, ti, toe, too': The Horrors of the Harsh Female Voice in 1950s Hollywood Comedies

April 3, 2019


Hollywood comedies of the 1950s saw the decline of a specific kind of female comedian, as unruly comediennes in the screwball tradition transformed into silly sexy vixens or tamed into homely sexless housewives. There are, however, some comedies which self-reflectively negotiate this shift. In this article, I would like to suggest that the voice of the comedienne serves as a marker of distinction. My article accordingly explores two pivotal examples of such transformative processes: Judy Holliday as Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday (1950) and Jean Hagen as Lina Lamont in Singin' in the Rain (1952). Both heroines feature what critics have called "the horrors of the harsh female voice." Whereas Billie's voice "survives" through schooling and refinement, Jean's voice resists all training and remains shrill and rowdy, leading to the violent expulsion of her character altogether. With the transformation and eventual disappearance of these extraordinary female actresses and their roles, such voices remained silent for a long time, until loud and brassy comediennes of a new generation were allowed to reappear on the silver screen and to raise their harsh and distinctive voices once again.


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