Wednesday, May 7, 2014

TMFW 35 - One Eyed, One Horned, Flying [ahh-AHHHHHHH!]

If you have ever seen any one of the original Star Wars trilogy, or any of the Star Wars prequels, or any of the Indiana Jones movies, or either of the last two Lord of the Rings movies, or Reservoir Dogs, or Beauty and the Best, or Aladdin, or Toy Story, or Wet Hot American Summer, or any of the other 100+ movies on this list, you have heard the famous "Wilhelm Scream."  (If you haven't seen ANY of those movies, please let me know and I will unsubscribe you from this list as I do not wish to associate with you any more.)  

The "Wilhelm Scream" was a stock sound effect from the Warner Brothers library.  It was first used in the 1951 film Distant Drums, when a man was eaten by an alligator while crossing through water, and it got its name when it was used in the 1953 film The Charge at Feather River (three times!), including once when a character named Private Wilhelm takes an arrow to the leg.  After that, the scream found its way into a number of 1950s westerns.  

But the scream found its immortality when the sound designer Ben Burtt worked on the first Star Wars film. Burtt had apparently noticed the Wilhelm Scream in a number of old Warner Brother movies and was taken by it.  So he slipped it into Star Wars - when a stormtrooper is shot and falls off a ledge - and started dropping it into each other movie that he did.  (In that respect, he was no unlike John Landis, whose "See you next Wednesday" was featured in TMFW 6.)  Other sound editors noticed the gag and joined in the fun, and the rest is history.  The scream has appeared in over 200 films, and thanks to the wonder of YouTube you can enjoy over 12 silly minutes of it.  The effect is so over-the-top that it's hard to believe it doesn't stick out like a sore thumb every time it is used.  (Maybe now it will for you!)

So where is the music fact here?  Well, Burtt got to wondering whose voice stars in 200+ movies via the Wilhelm Scream.  So he started to research the matter and took a trip to Warner Brothers.  There, he found a paper file on the movie Distant Drums that included a list of voice actors who were to record sounds in post production.  After some more work, he zeroed in on the actor Sheb Wooley.  Wooley was an actor in a number of western movies, including High Noon, and also in western television series including The Lone Ranger and The Range Rider.  He is almost certainly the voice behind the Wilhelm Scream.  

So where is the music fact here?  Well, Sheb Wooley is famous outside of westerns for a number 1 hit that he had in 1958 - "The Purple People Eater."  The song, which Wooley allegedly wrote in an hour, became a #1 hit within two weeks of its release, and sold over 3 million copies.  It became the piece of pop culture that Wooley was most associated with.

Wooley died in 2003 at the age of 82.  His obituary highlights his acting and, of course, "The Purple People Eater," but it does not mention that he created one of the most iconic sounds in cinema history.   
So now you know the True Music Fact of how the singer of one of the most famous novelty songs in history was also the creator of one of the most famous sounds in movie history.


BONUS FACT 1:  "The Purple People Eater" has had a strange legacy - it spawned an '80s movie of the same name, it became the nickname of a famous football defense of the '60s and '70s, and it inspired a board game. Not bad for an hour's work.

BONUS FACT 2:  The lyrics of "The Purple People Eater" make no sense, as they suggest that the monster is not a people eater who is purple, but rather something that eats purple people.  If he were the latter, Earth is not a good place for him to visit, as there are no purple people here.

1 comment:

  1. Sheb Wooley's screaming is great and all, but I remember him best as the principal in Hoosiers.