Richard J. Leskosky: The story behind 'The Wilhelm Scream'

Richard J. Leskosky: The story behind 'The Wilhelm Scream'

Movie end credits have grown so much that they're often longer than some of the short subjects that used to accompany feature films — especially with all the special effects houses involved in big-budget action films.

But one name you won't find in the end credits is Sheb Wooley, even though his work appears in "Man of Steel," "Despicable Me 2" and probably several other blockbusters you're likely to see this summer.

Wooley's varied career included working as a cowboy and rodeo rider, playing one of the evil gunslingers in "High Noon" as well as good guy trail scout Pete Nolan in the popular western TV series "Rawhide," and singing the Billboard pop chart No.1 1958 hit, "The Purple People Eater." He also taught his wife's cousin, Roger Miller, how to play guitar chords. Wooley died in 2003, but he continues to have a presence in many Hollywood films.

That is, most likely, he does. As a young actor, Wooley recorded various vocal sound effects for Warner Bros., and studio records indicate that he probably produced the series of screams that have come to be known as "The Wilhelm Scream." Originally, though, the series of six screams was tagged in the Warner Bros. sound effects library as "man getting bit by an alligator, and he screams."

That more descriptive though grammatically dubious title refers to the scream's first use, in the film for which it was originally produced: "Distant Drums," in 1951. There, Gary Cooper leads a troop of soldiers to rescue prisoners held by Seminole warriors and then has to get everyone safely out of the Everglades. One of his men is attacked by an alligator and pulled under the water but not before emitting the now famous scream.

Wooley played a soldier in the film but not the alligator-beset trooper. But that sort of sound effect (not really dialogue as such, I suppose) is usually recorded after the fact, and he was called in for the recording session that included the screaming.

All six of the scream takes have been used in films, and in fact the one used for the alligator attack in "Distant Drums" is No. 5; No. 4 has become the accepted Wilhelm Scream.

The name derives from the scream's use in the 1953 western, "The Charge at Feather River," where a Pvt. Wilhelm screams when he gets a Cheyenne arrow in the leg. Through the years, hundreds of other characters have produced it after being shot or hurled off tall buildings.

Sound editor Ben Burtt came across the "Feather River" use of the scream while a student at the University of Southern California, liked it, used it and gave it that name. He also gave it a life of its own when he used it in the Star Wars films and then the Indiana Jones movies. Ultimately, he was able to trace it to its "Distant Drums" origin and the probable Wooley connection.

Burtt's USC classmate and fellow sound editor Richard Anderson also began using the Wilhelm Scream, and so did other sound editors after its appearance in the George Lucas and Steven Spielberg blockbusters. (Burtt and Anderson received a Special Achievement Award from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences for their work on "Raiders of the Lost Ark.")

Using the scream became something of an in joke among sound editors and film directors. Joe Dante (director of "Gremlins" and "Inner Space"), for instance, uses it in most of his films.

Some directors, though, insist that it be taken out when they find that a sound editor has stuck it in their film. So occasionally a sound editor will tie it in with another sound effect in such a way that it cannot be eliminated without compromising the other sounds in a scene.

Sound editors will even try to sneak it into films where you normally would not expect to find screams. The classic example of this is probably the 1954 version of "A Star Is Born," where it shows up twice. The more straightforward occurrence takes place in a projection room where "The Charge at Feather River" is being screened. But it also turns up, inexplicably, in the middle of Judy Garland singing "Somewhere There's a Someone."

More recently, when sound editors have been deliberately sneaking it into films, it has turned up in the 200 Jay-Z documentary "Backstage." Steve Lee, something of a historian on the subject as well as a sound editor, put it in the 2008 animated film "Over the Hedge" by increasing its pitch and making it the last sound made by a dragonfly as it flies into a bug zapper.

More than 200 films have used the Wilhelm Scream already, and the number just continues to grow. If you would like to hear it in its pure form, you can check it out (along with various other horror movie screams) at the Soundboard website (http://www.soundboard.com/sb/scream).

And just in case you doubt me about me about the Judy Garland song, you can find that on YouTube at http://bit.ly/12p7f2i. And then you'll just be able to hear it everywhere.

Note: Awareness of the Wilhelm Scream has seeped into popular culture to the extent that a melocore punk band has named itself A Wilhelm Scream.

Richard J. Leskosky taught media and cinema studies at the University of Illinois and has reviewed films for more than 30 years. He can be contacted at filmcritic@comcast.net.

Topics (1):Film

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