Transcendence and the Wilhelm scream

Phil Ford

The other day my son and his friend were playing Lego Star Wars on the computer. At one point their little Lego avatar died and let out a Wilhelm scream. “Hey, that’s a Wilhelm scream!” I said, and proceeded to explain. The Wilhelm scream is named after the cowboy who takes an Indian arrow to the thigh in an old horse opera called The Charge at Feather River, though it was originally the sound effect used for a man being eaten by an alligator in the 1951 film Distant Drums. The scream became a stock sound in Warner Bros. pictures and eventually became an inside joke among sound editors. Once you get the sound in your ear you notice it popping up everywhere:

My son thought this was pretty funny.

And this was only my second Wilhelm sighting (if that’s the right word) of the week. I was teaching the 1954 musical version of A Star Is Born last week, and as I was preparing for class I was watching the “Someone at Last” sequence. Quick recap: Vickie Lester (Judy Garland) is a star on the rise, recently married to Norman Maine (James Mason), the man who discovered her, who is a big star in slow alcoholic decline. At this point in the
movie Norman has been fired by his studio and is stewing in self-loathing in the gilded cage of their coastal mansion. Vickie has come home from the set of her new film and is trying to cheer Norman up by making fun of the over-the-top production number she was filming. Watch the whole thing, but particularly pay attention to the transition to the “Brazil” section at 6:09 (-1:21):

It was a nice little surprise. It’s worth noting that this scene as a whole is a good example of thesis no. 4 from my “Four Theses on Entertainment” post from a few weeks ago: “Entertainment is fully able to reabsorb any revisionist narrative back into its own narratives.” The point of this scene is twofold: to poke fun of cheesy movie-musical conventions, of course, and also to give a bit of a lift to a tragic story of a marriage broken by alcoholism and wounded pride. But it turns out not to be much of a lift after all: what’s interesting is how this scene turns the usual syntax of the film musical inside-out. A big production number of the sort being parodied here offers a moment of transcendence to the characters in the movie: somehow, mysteriously, miraculously, the gravitational force of logic and causality loosens its grip and the film’s characters become free. The can sing in perfect harmony to an orchestra that has materialized out of nowhere and dance in formation without having rehearsed or even voiced the desire to start dancing. It just happens, and the moment it does is the moment the characters in the film can leap free of all the problems in their world — which is to say, all the problems that the film has stuck them with. If it’s a Ruritanian operetta, the problem is who will inherit the throne; if it’s Gold Diggers of 1933, it’s getting financing for a show; if it’s Oklahoma, it’s settling the Western frontier, and so on. As Rick Altman has pointed out, the solution to these various problems is mapped onto the romantic fortunes of the lead couple and is worked out in song and dance. So in the narrative world of the film, these moments where everyone breaks into song and dance are moments of transcendence, and in the narrative world of the film, they stick: problems thus solved stay solved. We, the external audience, get a contact high of transcendence — we feel what it’s like to experience this Utopia. As Richard Dyer says, musicals tell us what utopia would feel like, not how it would be organized. But of course, when the lights come up and we walk out of the theater, there are our problems again, in exactly the same place they were before. We know that it was just a movie; we’re not like the people we saw break into song. But it was fun while it lasted.

In this scene Norman and Vickie are “putting on a show” in good film-musical style, using props that just happen to be handy to act out a wildly entertaining (and improbable) song-and-dance number. But as I said earlier, this scene turns the usual syntax of the film musical inside-out. The film characters are in the position of the audience: the number comes to an end, something happens to kill to mood (unfortunately not included on the Youtube clip) and the old troubles rush back in. (A delivery boy arrives and calls Norman “Mr. Lester,” and Norman goes and drowns his wounded pride in booze, again, as Vickie watches in helpless agony.) The film doesn’t just highlight the cheesiness and fakeness of the big film musical production number (the harps and patriotism and jungle drums and whatnot): more drastically, it highlights the fakeness of movie-musical transcendence itself. The film tells us that it’s all just a dream; it was always just a dream. Music and dance won’t solve your problems. It projects the experience of the external audience (you and me) onto the internal audience (Norman and Vickie) — a dysphoric collapse of movie musical codes, which normally do the opposite.

Which, when you think about it, is a great new angle. This is what James Hepokoski calls a “generic deformation.” A Star Is Born isn’t destroying the film musical; it’s messing with a well-worn generic form. It’s not a “critique” of entertainment or a “deconstruction” of entertainment — it’s just a new kind of entertainment. (Or rather, it’s a critique of entertainment as entertainment.) As I said, entertainment can absorb revisionist narratives (in this case, the critique of “escapism”) back into itself. Which is either delightful or terrifying, depending on your point of view. It does suggest a Borg-like “resistance is futile: you will be assimilated” kind of thing. You can’t kill entertainment; it can turn anything bad you can say about it into entertainment.

What does any of this have to do with the Wilhelm scream? Nothing, I guess.

Only maybe this. The Wilhelm scream wasn’t an in-joke in 1954; when this film was made it was just a useful sound in the Warner catalog. The pleasure I take in the recognition of this rather arcane little detail is a pleasure that comes entirely from outside the film’s narrative frame. The moment I hear the scream is a moment where the artifice of film bursts out within a tragic ode to film artifice; it doubles the film’s intended meanings and at the same time breaks free of them. It’s funny and campy, and at the same time is somehow apt and meaningful. I love this about old movies — you can play along with them or play against them, but they always invite you to play. There is always too much there — too much image, too much sound, too much meaning — for films to stay within the frame.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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One Response to Transcendence and the Wilhelm scream

  1. prowse! says:

    Man of Steel: 26 minutes from end, guy out the back of a ship is pushed to his doom and screams the scream of screams!

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