Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Hollywood's 'inside joke' is a real scream

Click the play button above to savor the "Wilhelm Scream." It takes a second or so.

Odds are you've heard it. But the odds are even better you've never heard of it. It's called the "Wilhelm Scream." And over the years it's become a standing joke in Hollywood. On Hollywood. By Hollywood.

The "Wilhelm Scream" began life as a sound effect, an audio archive with the catchy title "Man Being Eaten by Alligator." In the 1951 film "Distant Drums," soldiers find themselves wading through a swamp in the Everglades (always a really good idea) when one of them is, appropriately, eaten by an alligator. 

We don't see him actually being eaten by an alligator. We see him being dragged under water by an alligator where, it follows, he is eaten by an alligator. Cue scream.

The unfortunate soldier's character was a Private Wilhelm. And the "Wilhelm Scream," as it has since become known in the world of motion picture sound effects, was born.

When John F. Kennedy's boat is rammed in "PT 109," the "Wilhelm Scream" is the last thing the crew and the audience hear before the future president's plywood craft is cut in half by a Japanese destroyer.

The "Wilhelm Scream" has turned up in movies ranging from "A Star is Born" to "Star Wars Episode IV" to all of the Indiana Jones films - as well as the animated feature "Up." If either Steven Spielberg or George Lucas lend their names to a movie, odds are Private Wilhelm will be lending his scream.  

It's more than just an inside joke between two movie producers. The "Wilhelm Scream" has become an institution. Need a little vocal something to accompany an agonizing death? Private Wilhelm reporting for duty.
Sheb Wooley

One mystery surrounding the scream was solved in 2005 when it was confirmed that Sheb Wooley, the man behind the song "Flying Purple People Eater," was also the voice behind the "Wilhelm Scream."

Wooley had an uncredited role in "Distant Drums." Wooley often bragged about his special talent for screaming and dying in films. That ability landed him a few days of additional work recording effects for the movie - including Private Wilhelm's wet and noisy demise.

In 2010 the "Wilhelm Scream" finally received the recognition that was nearly 60 years overdue. Nope, not an Academy Award. Not a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Even better. Apple released the scream as an iPhone download.