Monthly Archives: July 2010

Charlie Chaplin: What Was He Thinking?!

Have you ever seen a Charlie Chaplin film projected, with an audience? I’m always surprised to find out how few have. It’s magical, a communal experience with everyone bonding via laughter. Not only will you enjoy yourself, I guarantee that at some point during the screening you’ll make a mental list of loved ones you wish could be there with you. It’s the most amazing side effect, craving to share your joy with others. My God, what could be a better feeling to have when seeing a film?

Currently, the Film Forum in NYC is having a Chaplin festival, through August 5. Screenings include Modern Times, The Kid, The Chaplin Revue (a shorts collection) and a collection of his Mutual Shorts from 1917, which will have live piano accompaniment (the inventive and indefatigable Steve Sterner). Naturally, they’re showing (arguably) his masterpiece, The Gold Rush (1925), which is screening tonight. Even though Chaplin calls this film, “The picture I want to be remembered by,” I can’t in good conscience suggest this screening. To know why, we must turn back the clock…

In 1942, Charlie Chaplin, 52, was caving to artistic insecurity. Virtually a Luddite when it came to talking pictures, his three features made during the Sound Era were either completely or mostly silent (he composed music but there was very little synchronized sound for the dialog). Like any performer who made a cultural impact, he feared two kinds of mortality: his own death and the death of his body of work. In an effort to keep up with the times, he modernized The Gold Rush for contemporary audiences. Drastically.

Obviously, Chaplin added music (again, his own compositions) and sound effects and seized the opportunity to tighten the plot some, removing a subplot. So far, so good. Logical. Also, he changed the film’s ending, which I think was a big mistake. Without giving anything away, I’ll just say that he altered the film’s conclusion to be something more chaste but less satisfying.

However, it’s the narration that does the real damage to The Gold Rush. Chaplin himself provides it, complete with his native British accent. Here’s a before-and-after sample which will state my case…

Did you cringe? I did the first time I saw the 1942 version (I was already familiar with the silent version). I looked around me as if someone in the audience were rudely speaking. Chaplin’s voice and demeanor is, frankly, condescending (“The Little Fellow”!) and clashes with the action on the screen. He sounds like a loud mime.1  His insecurities as an aging artist get the best of him and he spoon-feeds us set-ups and occasionally punchlines. Likewise, his music spells out every gag (his music is an acquired taste, to say the least).

Here’s another example, in this case one of the film’s most famous gags. The Tramp and his cohort (Mack Swain) are trapped and starving in a cabin, his delirious friend hallucinating that Chaplin is a chicken…

I feel like yelling at the screen, “Hey, Dude! I’m sittin’ right here! I can see what’s going on! Give it a rest!”

The obvious comparison is George Lucas’s infamous alterations to the first three Star Wars films, when he “spiced up” his films for a contemporary audience. And it’s a perfect way to defend Chaplin’s actions since they bear little resemblance to Lucas’s. For starters, Chaplin was a relic from the Silent Era and had become fearful that the bulk of his work would be forgotten completely. Film preservation wasn’t in style at the time (it wouldn’t be for decades), and he had seen the work of his peers literally disappear. (If Lucas seriously thinks his films will disappear or become obsolete, he’s an idiot.) And so Chaplin approached The Gold Rush with the logical notion not to preserve but to allow rediscovery. Unfortunately, he doubted the new audience’s ability to comprehend his brilliant mimicry, which is truly sad.

I guess when you add Ego, Age, Insecurity and Power, you get, well, the Loudest Silent Film Ever.

This is a part of the reissue's opening credits, the writing on the wall, so to speak.

To this day, the 1942 version is the one most readily available, at least the best- looking one. (In fact, to many of you reading, that may be the only version you know.) In 1953, the original version fell into the public domain in the US, so copies of that could be had on film and video, but always in less-than-reputable versions. Finally, in 2003, a 2-disc set was released which included both versions, though the 1942 version is the one presented front-and-center.

Sadly, for reasons that I’m sure are buried deep in one of Chaplin’s contracts, the new 35mm print at Film Forum is the 1942 version of the film, which makes me wonder when (or if) a new print of the original version of the film will be available. Like his other films from the Silent Era, The Gold Rush should be seen projected, with an adoring and receptive audience. It’s magical. But what’s screening tonight is a drag.

So, let’s call this post a PSA. If The Gold Rush is ever screening in your neighborhood, be sure to find out what version it is, or else you’ll find yourself yelling, “Shhhhh!” at the screen.

The reissue's poster. Notice the tell-tale caption: "With Music and Words."

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BACK TO POST 1 In the early 70s when Albert Brooks was doing stand up comedy, he did a bit on The Tonight Show as a French mime who spoke during his act: “Now I am walking against zee wind!…Now I am climbing zee rope!” That’s what I think of when I watch the 1942 version of The Gold Rush. And when you’re watching Chaplin, you don’t think of another comic. Sacrilege!

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What Happens When You Meet Grover and He Curses?

I’ve devoted two recent posts to the film Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and director Frank Oz’s commentary for it (here and here). Now I’m going to put that topic to bed with one last post, this time about my experience as the field producer for the audio commentary, in May, 2001.

At the time, I was the East Coast pointman for the LA-based documentary company Automat Pictures. Besides producing the bonus features for the DVDs of Scorsese’s Raging Bull and The Last Waltz, I occasionally covered their NYC-based gigs, such as interviewing Isabella Rossellini about her vagina. 1

Frank Oz was due to record his audio commentary for Dirty Rotten Scoundrels in LA, but circumstances kept him on my coast, and so I got the call to field produce his session. The DVD’s producer was Ian Haufrect, a swell guy who was understandably crestfallen that he would not be able to cover the session personally. Still, he gave me great questions and did all the logistical arrangements. 2

The session was at Spin Cycle Post, a small facility where I had been a sound editor for a half-dozen years. It was just Frank; my old buddy Jason, who engineered the session; and me. Jason and I were very professional: courteous and calm, the whole time ignoring the fact that—Holy Shit!—we were in the same room with Cookie Monster, Miss Piggy, Grover, Fozzie Bear and Bert!!

Frank was a Commentary Producer’s dream come true: he spoke constantly, giving us an in-depth glimpse into his process. There was one moment of (self) constructive criticism I’ll never forget. Frank had just done a portion of commentary and suddenly stopped, asking us to play it back for him. It was a two minute chunk of his description of “what is funny,” and I have to admit, it was pretty meandering. Although when he asked us for our opinion, Jason and I were reflexively and blindly supportive: “Oh, it’s great, Frank! Just beautiful! It’s awesome, Sir!” etc.

“Really?” he asked incredulously. “No, it isn’t. It’s fucking boring.”

After that icebreaker, it was easy for us to offer genuine feedback. (And to this day, when re-reading something I’ve written, such as this post, I’ll sometimes hear Frank’s voice say, “It’s fucking boring.”)

Naturally, there were the requisite Star Wars junkies on hand. (Can you imagine a film editing facility that wouldn’t have them?) In this case, two assistant editors a few years younger than me, Chris and Jeff, though that day they were more like Mutt and Jeff, giddy over the possibility of an audience with Yoda. “OK, guys,” I said. “Keep yer pants on. This isn’t my session, technically. I’ve never met the man. I don’t know how he feels about shit like this, “ and so on, explaining that they could approach him at the end of the session. Every time I went into the lobby, they’d be there, like expectant fathers in a waiting room, wide-eyed, wondering if it was Time.

When the session was ended, Frank was glad to do a small meet-and-greet. I stuck my head outside of the studio and gestured for the groupies to come in. They did, each with brand new Sharpies and 8×10 glossies of Yoda that they purchased that morning. I rolled my eyes and stepped back so they could have their own private Comic-Con.

Frank was incredibly cool. Recently, I asked Jeff Marcello, who’s now an editor and  filmmaker, for his recollections:

Frank signed the picture with his name and Yoda’s. I asked him to write, “Do or do not. There is no try.” He declined because he didn’t want to take credit for other people’s words. However, signing Yoda’s ‘autograph,’ he said, “This is how I imagine Yoda would sign his name.”

I’ve met a lot of celebrities, but I hardly ever ask for an autograph. This one is one of my prized possessions. It’s framed and hangs in my home edit room!

Jeff’s also generously offered this scan as proof of the momentous occasion.

That’s pretty much it, except for one noteworthy postscript. MGM would “pay” directors and actors for their time in DVDs. They’d provide a list of 200 or so titles and ask the talent to check off 15 that they wanted. Frank did this, grumbling as so many others did that the folks at MGM were being cheapskates, and I mailed it off to Ian. A few months later, I got a phone call at home:

“Hi. This is Frank Oz. I was wondering…where the fuck are my DVDs?”

I already knew that MGM was slow to “pay” talent, so I referred him to Ian in LA and that was the end of it. But there was that one stunned moment when I thought, “Did Yoda just curse at me?!” (“Off it pisses me!”)

All-in-all, it was my favorite audio commentary session, and I made one contribution that I’m proud of: Frank’s commentary for Dirty Rotten Scoundrel’s legendary teaser trailer. MGM hadn’t sent the trailer to the session—so Frank would have nothing to watch–but thanks to my film geekery, I knew that it was at the beginning of the VHS of Eight Men Out, so I rented it on my way in and—boom!—there it is on the DVD.

And that’s why MGM hired guys like me to produce those things!


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BACK TO POST 1 Of course, that story’s for a future post, but, hey, nice to see you’re using the nifty footnote function!

BACK TO POST 2 In fact, Ian was the first commentary producer to recommend I have an IMDB cast-and-crew list on hand to make life easier for directors (and if you’ve read this post, you know that I put a lot of stock in the commentary producer’s responsibilities).

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When Not to Edit, Pt 5: The Kissy Face Workaround

Tod Browning was a masterful director of the 20s and 30s, once most famous for directing the original Dracula (1931) and now best known for making the infamous Freaks (1932). The latter is a documentary packaged as a melodrama, with real sideshow freaks in the cast. It also has the shot that is the inspiration for this post, yet another instance where a director let a single shot tell his story, instead of relying on conventional coverage and edits. (Prior posts has highlighted shots in films by Leo McCarey, Ozu, Oz, and Coppola.)

But first some context. I imagine filming a passionate kiss has always been a drag for filmmakers. The idea of putting the faces of your characters that close together is dramatically sound but cinematographically dull. Sure, if the script has organically brought us to the kiss, then we, the audience, can do without seeing their faces for a few moments, and if the acting is spot on, we can feel the passion. But still I’m sure some directors (and actors and DPs) dislike the visual element; it has a way of leveling the playing field, whether it’s Bogart and Bergman, Woody and Diane, or Edward and Bella.

Since the camera can’t see either face completely, what’s a filmmaker to do? Traditionally, they rely on other ways of conveying the passion: the blocking of the actors (how they move into the kiss and out of it); their moans, pants and words uttered in between kisses; music, of course; multiple angles and edits; and camera movement (ah, the old “360° around the kissing couple” routine). In Notorious, Hitchcock famously dealt with a kiss in a single shot that was long, intricate, and incredibly clever.

It’s also been talked into the ground, so I’ll leave that shot alone.

On the other hand, given the same visual conundrum every filmmaker faces, here’s how Tod Browning staged it.

Freaks is about life in the circus and the code of honor among the pinheads, dwarves and others of the freak-class. Many within the circus regard them as “less than,” though to others, such as Phroso the Clown, they’re (relatively) normal people and even their peers. Frequently the film shows us how these people are as domestic and as we are—they can roll cigarettes, pour wine, etc,–regardless of how few limbs they have. In the case of the conjoined twins the Hilton Sisters, Violet and Daisy, we even see their suitors.

In this brief scene, their first in the film, the sisters approach Phroso. They talk about Daisy’s pending marriage and Phroso seizes the opportunity to flex their genetic empathy, so to speak…

The sisters are just bystanders in the film’s plot—not even a subplot—and in a later scene, Violet gets engaged. Naturally, a newly-engaged couple will kiss and this is how Browning shows it…

An uncommon solution, but it always takes my breath away. And although this shot seems like a gimmicky excuse for a post, it stands up under scrutiny, with plenty of pointers for filmmakers.

For starters, use what ya got. If you have gifted people in your film, use those gifts to your advantage. Repeatedly in the film, Browning turns his casts’ unusual skills and features to his advantage, both visually and narratively. In this instance, he found a way to show his characters uniqueness and how their lives might be—and that it’s really quite wonderful.

Secondly, Browning gives us context. Long before this kiss happens, he sets up the payoff. The brief scene with Phroso touching Violet’s arm is played off as a parlor trick, not even a plot point, but only 17 minutes later we get the kiss and Daisy’s joy and know exactly why she feels the way she does.

Lastly, it’s simply a beautiful shot. Here’s how I know: I showed this film to my wife, Debbie, a few years ago. She’s by no means a film geek—she doesn’t get hung up on cinematic style or form—and Freaks really isn’t her cup of tea. She was rolling with it, somewhere between repulsed and bored, when this kiss happened. Her reaction was palpable and positive (kind of a gasp or an audible smile). It didn’t matter whether Daisy’s bliss was genuine or if she was acting (I doubt conjoined twins really do feel each other’s sensations as such); it was something Debbie had never seen, a moment of perfect visual storytelling, all the more impressive since she had not put the film or its filmmaker on a pedestal. In other words, its eloquence caught her off-guard.

Like I said, I don’t know if the Hilton Sisters really had this kind of symbiosis, but this is another example of Browning’s attitude toward “freaks”: they’re well-adjusted, domestic, special (in a good way), honorable, very human, and members of a community that we should respect. (Gooble Gobble!)

Compared with my other posts in this series, Browning’s Kiss is perhaps the most unusual in the bunch (maybe closest in intent to Ozu’s static wide-shot), but I’m certain of one thing: if there were even one more cinematic ingredient (i.e. edits, coverage, a close-up of Daisy’s face, a music cue, even a dolly in) it wouldn’t be as powerful as it is. He cast it well, set the stage, and stood back. After that, it was all up to us.

Next in the When Not to Edit series: Kubrick knows how to make us hold our breath.

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Hot Dog Day Afternoon

I was born with a great metabolism, which meant my early years were a steady stream of people saying, “You’re so lucky!”, “How do you do it?” and “I wish I had your figure.” At some point in my mid-30s I realized I hadn’t heard any of those compliments in a few years. That’s when I concluded that the free ride was over.

Thanks to the combination of time, gravity and a happy marriage, my svelte figure has truly disappeared. Ten weeks ago, after seeing some depressing vacation photos, I decided I had two choices: either fastidiously Photoshop the pounds off the pictures OR go on my first diet ever. My wife, Debbie, an avid Weight Watchers supporter, and I took the WW plunge.

So far, I’ve lost almost 30 pounds. I feel great and (according to Debbie) look better. So where do hot dogs fit it? Specifically a roadtrip to eat as many great hot dogs as possible in a single day? Well, as Tevye would say, “Tradition!”

I’m eager to initiate an annual Day of Hot Dog Eating, and the account of my recent trip is at Words to Eat By, my wife’s awesome blog. According to the Weight Watchers point system, I ate two days’ worth of food in an afternoon (and I still lost a pound by the end of the week!)

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The Making of Wilhelm Hails a Cab

At the end of my last post–Wilhelm Hails a Cab (which I recommend you read before you continue)–I said its creation was more interesting than the end result. Really, I should have written that it was more “interesting” than the end result, because it’s all relative. Shoot, you already know how this post is going to turn out. Anyway, here’s my recreation of the chills, thrills and spills of bloggin’!

First, let me quickly bring you up to last month:

1984. At age 15 I discover Prince. His music becomes some of my favorite “Leave me alone, World!” music on the school bus. Naturally, I repeatedly listen to the 1999 LP under headphones, including the song “Lady Cab Driver.” (Didn’t everyone in the 80s?)

1988. I’m watching The Sting and hear in the background, “Hey, that’s my taxi!” With Google-like speed, my brain pulls up the identical man on Prince’s LP. I plotz. I hear it 4 more times in the film. I plotz 4 more times.

1992. While in film school, I watch All About Eve. Behind Bette Davis and George Sanders, I hear that damn guy yelling for his taxi. I plotz, college 90s-style.

1997. By this time, I’ve become a sound editor in NYC, and sorting through some sound FX CDs one day, I hear a track of city noise called “traffic, period 1931 New York City: cars, street car bell, horns, city rumble, ambience.” You can guess what I heard and what I did. (I’ve included the ambience track below.)

And that brings us to last month. Nowadays, I’m always groping for a blog topic.  (Fellow bloggers will vouch: the blog is always hungry. You gotta feed that beast.) I remember that poor bastard missing his cab—for decades!—and think I’ve struck gold: the Perfect Post Topic.

First, I convert The Sting’s entire soundtrack to an mp3 and put it on my iPod, listening past the dialog and music, noting every “Hey! That’s my taxi!” Initially, I did this while running errands in the city but stopped when I almost got hit by a car. (My Tip of the Day: Do NOT obsessively listen to traffic sounds under headphones when walking in an urban environment. It’s like tripping in an Escher painting.)

Next, I move to All About Eve and discover that my ears aren’t what they used to be. I’ll prove it. For all of the clips in my last post, I pumped up the sound of the horns and yelling, to compensate for crappy computer speakers. So here’s that portion with Bette Davis, first as I posted it and then as I heard it 15 years ago:

What the fuck? Was I the Bionic Woman? How the did I hear those horns, under the dialog, and say, “Hey, that’s from ‘Lady Cab Driver’”? Believe me, this is a 41-year-old man envying his once-perfectly-working, youthful body.

After I stop moping about the sands of time, I realize my blog predicament: I’m one film light. I can’t have a post that’s Film Clip-Film Clip-Prince Punchline. No, it has to be Film Clip-Film Clip-Film Clip-Prince Punchline! 3 films. Everyone knows that. Anything less would be lame. Weak sauce.

I need one more film with that guy hailing a taxi, preferably from something older than All About Eve. So what do I do? I say, “WWBBD?” which is short for “What Would Ben Burtt do?” Of course, Ben’s the sound editing legend behind Star Wars and dozens of other classics. He’s also a sound FX archivist (i.e. he found the “Wilhelm”), so I pull some strings and get his e-mail address.

Ben Burtt doesn’t know me from Adam, but, class act that he is, he responds. (What a guy! What a thrill!) He expresses empathy for my situation, but admits he’s unfamiliar with that traffic ambience. “My specialty is more in the fantasy-gunshot-war part of the spectrum,” he writes. However, he suggests I might have luck listening to Samuel Fuller’s 1953 Pickup on South Street and leaves me with, “Keep Up The Research!”

My hopes refueled, I rent the film and spot-check it, listening closely to every street scene. No luck. Undaunted, I dive in again, listening to the whole damn film under headphones. I discover that one shot I missed my first go ’round–15 seconds of a woman crossing the street—has some familiar horns in it. Yes, the horns. But no “Hey! That’s my taxi!” Aw, man! But, hey, at least it was a solid lead.

Finally I get a rational idea: Pickup’s sound editor is Harry K. Leonard. I check him out on IMDB. Turns out he sound edited a whopping 285 films, 179 before Pickup on South Street. I actually have some of these films, and, with Woodward-and-Bernstein-like zeal, I put on the ol’ headphones and start listening with fresh ears, one after another.

Some films, like Think Fast, Mr. Moto, have the horns but not the cab hailing. (Can you imagine how pissed I was every time I heard the horns but no dude saying, “Hey! That’s my taxi!”?) This goes on late at night, for a few nights, sitting at my desk, under headphones, my ears squinting to hear beyond such lines as “You haven’t called Chop Suey in on the case, have ya’, Chief?” and finally—finally!—he misses a taxi in the Charlie Chan film Murder Over New York! Whew.

And that’s how I write a post.

Was it worth it? Hell yeah! For starters, this trek covers 26 years of passion for film and music; a career as a sound editor; and my quest for an understanding of the unknown. Not bad.

Also, after alerting Ben Burtt about my discovery, he wrote, “Good job”! Shit, that’s an e-mail suitable for framing.

And most importantly, listening to these old films—scrutinizing them–was fascinating. It’s humbling to hear the care these pioneers of sound crammed into their films, especially when you realize that the average Depression-era movie theater probably sounded like junk. Nice to learn that the sound editing profession has always been a haven for the obsessives.

They say God is in the details, but I say God is in the ambiences.

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Here’s the traffic ambience. The cab-hailing is towards the end. The whole thing is really cool, an awesome documentary of street life from 80 years ago.

The 1931 traffic ambience (1:47, right-click to download)

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The Real Story of Wilhelm, aka Wilhelm Hails a Cab

(NOTE: You will not hear the legendary film sound effect known as the Wilhelm scream in this post, but you can hear it just about anywhere else, such as in the post I wrote yesterday. In fact, if you’re not already well-versed in Wilhelm lore, I suggest reading that before you go any further.)

We all know who Wilhelm is and are very familiar with his popular scream, his trademark, so to speak. But long before he made his name in action films, he cut his teeth as an extra. Arriving in Hollywood in 1931, he made many, many appearances in low budget pictures. Here’s a typical performance in Charlie Chan in Murder Over New York (1940). Wilhelm’s performance—which he does with his trusty car by his side—is pretty fleeting, so I’ll play it twice in quick succession:

During the 30s, he hailed cabs in countless films such as She Had to Eat, Time Out for Romance and Midnight Taxi (of course!), slowly but surely working his way up the ranks. He hit the big time in Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s All About Eve (1950), once again with his faithful car, sharing the screen with Bette Davis and George Sanders!

All About Eve won the Oscar for Best Picture, and Wilhelm parlayed that success into an on-screen role in Raoul Walsh’s Distant Drums (1951) However, the director was looking for a screamer not a cab-hailer. So, Wilhelm, eager to show his range, was eaten by an alligator and screamed his head off. He screamed so well he was typecast and spent the better part of the next few decades screaming in B-pictures.

Thinking his days as an extra were over, Wilhelm was surprised when producer David Zanuck asked him to hail a cab in the period film The Sting (1973). Down on his luck at the time, Wilhelm obliged…

In fact, Wilhelm hailed it so well, director George Roy Hill had him hail several cabs in the film…

Like All About Eve, The Sting won the Oscar for Best Picture, which led Wilhelm to believe he could be a cab-hailing good luck charm. However, George Lucas only wanted him for his screaming abilities for Star Wars. 1 Perhaps this is why a George Lucas film has never won Best Picture Oscar.

Lucas cast Wilhelm repeatedly in his productions–screaming, always screaming–but Wilhelm got bored and waxed nostalgic for his cab-hailing days. In the early 80s, he turned his back on Hollywood and tried to make it in the music biz. He and his car headed for the new epi-center of popular music: Minneapolis. He only made one song, but what a classic it is. Of course I’m referring to his duet with Prince on the LP 1999 (1982):

Sadly, like so many others who’ve worked with Prince (such as Morris Day, Vanity and Apollonia), Wilhelm was tossed aside, and so he returned to the West Coast. Ever since, he’s been a one-trick pony as far as Tinsel Town is concerned, screaming regularly for Hollywood big shots like John Lasseter, Quentin Tarantino, and Jackson Publick.

But those with keen ears know there was a time when Wilhelm couldn’t catch a cab in this town.

Obviously, most of this post is made up. What’s not true? Everything I wrote. What is true? Every clip. In fact, I think the story behind this post–how I tracked down this damn sound–is more interesting that the extended gag you just read. That’s right, I knew if I did a blog long enough, I’d end up doing a Behind-the-Scenes post! Tune in next time for The Making of Wilhelm Hails a Cab!

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BACK TO POST 1 Wilhelm was game to yell, “Hey! That’s my landspeeder!” but Lucas balked at the idea.

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Wilhelm and Me

The Wilhelm scream is a film sound effect that’s been used so much it’s commonly referred to as a sound cliché. Although it originated in the 50s, recorded for the film Distant Drums and known then as “Man being eaten by alligator,” sound designer Ben Burtt used it in Star Wars (1977). After that, the scream became a sound editors’ in-joke and was frequently used in films created by George Lucas or Steven Spielberg, typically sound edited by the same handful of guys.

And this is where I came in. In 1992, I was in college and watching George Cukor’s A Star is Born (1954) on VHS. There was a particularly good musical number called “Someone at Last,” which I was showing to my buddy Tom Cross. There’s a moment when the song comes to a halt, punctuated by an extreme scream. Immediately, Tom laughed knowingly. “They used that scream!” He said this as if I knew exactly what he meant, as if the scream was the reason I was showing him the clip (it wasn’t).

“’That’ scream? What do you mean?”

He got his tape of Star Wars and cued up the scene when Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia fend off stormtroopers. A stormtrooper is shot and as he falls, he screams.

Of course, it was the same scream. I looked at Tom quizzically, and I know exactly the look I gave him since I’ve been on the receiving end of it plenty of times myself: a mixture of astonishment that a mind could work that way, with a hint of sadness for all the lost years of social interaction.

“Dude, what the fuck? How did you know that?”

He cited a few other examples in films, such as Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, and I stayed dumbfounded. It was just something he noticed from repeated viewings. Look, I have good ears—really good ones, as you’ll find out in the next few posts—but this one was mindboggling. 1

Years passed. 1997. I was now an up-and-coming sound editor in NYC. I was working at a small facility called Spin Cycle Post, in Manhattan. One morning, I came in super early and digitized the relevant scenes from A Star is Born and Star Wars, and edited together a crude presentation. As my co-workers came in, one-by-one, I called them into my edit room and played it for them. (Here’s my one and only Wilhelm compilation, which I dubbed “A Star Wars is Born.”)

Before long, I had a growing audience of confounded sound editors, all giving me that look I once gave Tom. (I made it a point to always give the credit to my friend, who was by this time plying his trade in picture editing.) I got a clean recording of the scream from the soundtrack to A Star is Born, and we all agreed to carry on the tradition of using it whenever possible. Since we knew nothing of Wilhlem’s history (is this where I remind you that there was no internet yet?), I named the scream “Yakima.” I imagined that if the famous, Old Hollywood stuntman Yakima Cannutt ever got killed in a film, this is the sound he would make.

Beginning in 1997, Yakima began appearing in New York independent films. The sound editors and I had an unspoken rule of sneaking the scream into the film without the director’s knowledge. Even though this was ridiculous (the scream barely works logically in a Hollywood action film; where would it make sense in a quiet indy picture?!), you shouldn’t underestimate a sound editor’s desire to be a part of a Secret Society.

In 2000, fellow sound editor, Dave Paterson, had a friend named David Serchuk, who produced radio docs for NPR. Serchuk, always on the look-out for a good story, heard about the scream and pursued it diligently (unearthing a ton of info I had never bothered to figure out). He interviewed me and others, on both coasts, and the wonderful end result aired on On the Media in early 2001. 2   As far as I know, this is one of the first instances of Wilhelm being explained and dissected to “outsiders.” Thanks in part to that doc, Wilhelm crossed over to the mass market. Before long, web pages devoted to the scream’s history began popping up.

Wilhelm belongs to everyone now, on both sides of the movie screen, with several video comps on YouTube (I’ve put some of the better ones below) and with regular appearances in films, TV shows, cartoons and video games, frequently at the request of filmmaker.

I hope I don’t sound jaded when I say I miss when Wilhelm was still an underground thing. True, I was not part of the 70’s inner-circle that first brilliantly put it to use—in fact, I was part of the generation of sound editors that let the Wilhelm cat out of the bag (shoot, I was even the direct link to David Serchuk’s NPR piece). But for a few years, I was a member of a sound editing community that used it covertly, with an insider’s knowledge. Wilhelm was our secret handshake, so to speak. And, safe to say, when my wife is pointing it out to me in films, it’s not underground anymore.

Anyway, being a one-time member of that Secret Society, I have some insight into Wilhelm that is still not commonly known (you don’t think I told Dave Serchuk everything about Wilhelm in that 2000 interview, do you?). And so in my next post, I will tell the real story of Wilhelm and his scream.

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Interesting links about/compilations of the Wilhelm scream:

-Sound designer Steve Lee (who’s also in Serchuk’s radio doc) has an excellent essay about the history of the scream on his really cool website hollywoodlostandfound.net. Also, he’s in this short documentary:



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BACK TO POST 1 Also, Tom Cross is the man who clued me into Dirty Harry’s gun sound, which I wrote about here.

BACK TO POST 2 Happily, Dave Serchuk’s radio doc is remembered fondly, and last Fall, NPR aired it frequently as part of their Best of the Decade series, which brought me many e-mails and phone calls of “Hey, Stephen, I just heard you on the radio!”

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