October 2023 Issue
Reel Corner by Donne Paine
What are films without a good scream?
If you’ve watched any franchise cinema from the past 70 years, chances are you have heard the Wilhelm Scream. Recorded for the Warner Bros. sound archives in the early 1950s, the exaggerated yowl can be heard in hundreds of films spanning all the way up to modern-day Hollywood.
The Wilhelm Scream was first used in 1951 in a Warner Bros. film called Distant Drums. It appears in a sequence where a man is bitten by an alligator and—you guessed it—screams.
According to Steve Lee, sound archivist and founder of film archive “Hollywood Lost and Found,” the sound effect next showed up in the 1952 western Springfield Rifle. In the scream’s third known appearance, it is used for a character named Private Wilhelm who is shot by an arrow in The Charge at Feather River (1953). For the next two decades, the Wilhelm Scream continued to pop up in all different kinds of Warner Bros. productions, including science-fiction creature feature Them!, Sergeant Rutledge, and John Wayne’s war drama The Green Berets. You can even hear it in the background of a scene in 1954’s A Star Is Born, starring Judy Garland.
But the sound effect didn’t become widespread until the late 1970s, largely thanks to University of Southern California film student Ben Burtt and his friend Richard L. Anderson, who discovered it while sifting through a Warner Bros. sound archive. They dubbed the sound the “Wilhelm Scream”.
After graduating and becoming sound designers and editors, Anderson was the first of the duo to use the Wilhelm Scream in a feature film: 1976’s Hollywood Boulevard. But it was Burtt who took the stock sound to new heights when he inserted it into George Lucas’ sci-fi adventure Star Wars during a moment where a Stormtrooper falls off a ledge.
Burtt and Anderson would soon work together on Steven Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, where you can hear the Wilhelm Scream during a truck chase scene, and separately on some of the most successful films of the next few decades where the Wilhelm Scream became somewhat their signature. For Burtt, that included the next two Indiana Jones films and the original Star Wars trilogy and its prequels. Anderson’s filmography projects that used the sound effect include Poltergeist and Batman Returns.
Throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, the Wilhelm Scream became a sign of camaraderie between sound designers, a call-out for peers who knew what to listen for. In an interview with “The Washington Post”, Burtt described the use of the sound effect as a “rite of passage for every sound editor.”
During production of the Star Wars prequels, Burtt made a trip to the Warner Bros. archives and discovered a postproduction memo from Distant Drums, specifically regarding the session that produced the Wilhelm Scream. Thanks to his research, Burtt believes actor Sheb Wooley, who had an uncredited role in the film as Private Jessup, was responsible for the original sound effect.
So, What is the Reel Corner’s favorite scream? The Psycho shower scene where Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) is attacked with a knife by Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins).
Directed by Alfred Hitchcock | A Phoenix secretary embezzles $40,000 from her employer’s client goes on the run and checks into a remote hotel run by young man under the domination of his mother.
Happy Hallow-horror Film Season!
References: www.imbd.com, www.backstage.com
Donne Paine, film enthusiast, once lived around the corner from the Orson Wells Theater in Cambridge, Massachu-setts, where her strong interest in films, especially independent ones, began. Supporter of the arts, especially films, she has traveled to local and national film festivals including Sundance, Toronto and Tribeca. There is nothing like seeing a film on the big screen. She encourages film goers to support Hilton Head local theaters, Park Plaza Theater and Northridge. To support her habit of frequent movie going, Donne is a vaccine medicine nurse consultant and also the author of 4 Interview Pillars available on Amazon. See you at the movies!