The Original Recording Session of the Famed Wilhelm Scream Has Been Rediscovered

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The Original Recording Session of the Famed Wilhelm Scream Has Been Rediscovered

At this point, you’d probably be hard pressed to find a film geek who wasn’t intimately familiar with the Wilhelm Scream. The famous stock sound effect has been used hundreds of times in feature film and television since it was first recorded in the early 1950s, first out of necessity, and eventually as a knowing in-joke for audio engineers and eventually mass-market film audiences. The Wilhelm Scream has appeared so often, in fact, that many movie geeks now deride it or bemoan the fact that editors still try to slip it into popular movies, but at the very least the mythos of the scream has always been a fascinating little bit of Hollywood lore. Much about the scream’s original use and origin is already known, but one more fascinating key to the puzzle fell in place this week as the original recording session containing the Wilhelm Scream has now been discovered and hosted on the web.

The person we have to thank for the discovery is veteran audio engineer Craig Smith, a graduate of USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, who works as the Academic Sound Coordinator at the School of Film/Video at the California Institute of the Arts, following a career in Hollywood cinematic sound. He published the new recording of the Wilhelm Scream session via a post on The Freesound Blog, as part of preservation he had been doing on a vast library of tapes that had been sitting at USC Cinema for several decades since the early 1990s. Those tapes, in turn, were copies of the original sound effects library of small Hollywood company Sunset Editorial, which was active in Hollywood from roughly 1964-1987, specializing mostly in TV sound effects. It’s not entirely clear why this copy of the original recording session for the iconic Wilhelm Scream was in their possession, but it’s fascinating to hear the actor make multiple passes on a sound fitting the description of “man getting bit by an alligator.”

Listening closely to the 39-second session, you can pinpoint the exact spot of the Wilhelm Scream sound sample after the third attempt, as the director insists the sound should be “not an ow, a real scream of pain.” The fourth take follows, as the Wilhelm Scream we’ve subsequently heard in Star Wars and a hundred other films since. Singer and actor Sheb Wooley, who would go on to write novelty hit “The Purple People Eater” in 1958, is generally regarded as the most likely voice actor of the scream. The film was 1951 swamp western Distant Drums, the clip of which you can see below. For the next 20 years, the sound effect was frequently used in Warner Bros. productions, before most famously appearing in Star Wars: A New Hope in 1977, as a stormtrooper is blasted by Luke Skywalker and falls from a height. Pretty much ever since then, the Wilhelm Scream has always been around.

Check out the new audio, and the clip below, and enjoy a little bit of Hollywood lore that has now been in constant use for more than 70 years.

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