Tag Archives: Wilhelm

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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