Thursday, December 25, 2008

Wilhelm Scream

  Like all art forms film has amassed a number of cliches. There are many reasons why certain cliches are used more often than some; oftentimes cliches are used as shortcuts to convey thoughts, emotions, and information more economically, but then their are those cliches that are utilized just for the baggage they carry with them.
  The Wilhelm Scream was first used in 1951 for a Raoul Walsh picture, Distant Drums, which was released on December 25th of that year. What would later be called the Wilhelm Scream was labeled by Warner Bros. sound engineers as "Man being eaten by alligator."
  It was not until several decades later that the sound effect would be known as the Wilhelm Scream. Over the several decades since it was first used in 1951 the Wilhelm Scream has been used in at least 160 movies.
  The main reason why the public has any knowledge of this particular sound effect is due to all the work of sound designer Ben Burtt who managed to find the original recording and first used it in a scene in Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. Burtt is also responsible for renaming the sound effect from "Man being eaten by alligator" to Wilhelm Scream for a character named Private Wilhelm in the 1953 film, The Charge at Feather River, who emits the scream after being shot by an arrow.
  One question that many feel hasn't been answered is who recorded the Wilhelm Scream. During his research Burtt looked through piles and piles of Warner Bros. documents and believes that it is singer Sheb Wooley, known for the song "Purple People Eater", who most likely recorded the sound effect while he worked as an actor on Distant Drums.
  With all of Ben Burtt's work more and more sound designers are using the Wilhelm Scream in productions that they are working on. It has become an inside joke with sound engineers to incorporate it into films and television shows trying to stump their peers if they can spot its use. Audiences  however may not recognize the sound effect from one movie to another, they most likely could care less, but this sound effect has had quite a career and it would be wrong to ignore its story.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Mighty Joe Young (1949)

  When working in the realm of special effects there is a delicate balance of artistry and spectacle. If the effect is not believable then audiences will complain of the shoddy production values of the feature they are watching, but a film that is all spectacle might easily bore or deaden an audience to what a movie has to offer. A balance between substance and showmanship must be struck. Mighty Joe Young could have easily devolved into cuteness, relying on the audience's appetite for cheap thrills and weakness for animal tricks but none of the cast and crew would let the production sink so low.
  Practically the entire crew from King Kong is back. Merian Cooper provided the story and produced the picture. Ruth Rose, the primary screenwriter for King Kong, is back again to write the screenplay to the story. Willis O'Brien's team is also back with one addition, a very young Ray Harryhausen no older than twenty two and already responsible for a majority of the film's stop motion scenes. And finally Ernest B. Schoedsack is back as director, and unknown to many outside of the production Schoedsack had directed the entire movie practically blind. 
  As for the cast Robert Armstrong returns again as yet another Merian C. Cooper type character, Max O'Hara, who goes to Africa looking for new acts for a club he is opening up in Los Angeles. Whereas in his previous roles for Cooper and Schoedsack, Robert Armstrong had played a character that stomped through uncharted jungles looking for adventure the O'Hara character is more comical and a bit devious.
  While in Africa, O'Hara and his cowboys run into Joseph Young, a very large and irate gorilla. Although towering over every character in the movie Joe is quite childlike and looks to his friend Jill Young, played by Terry Moore, to get him out of trouble. The majority of the story is really about the friendship between Jill and Joe Young. They act like siblings with one another, but it's obvious that Jill plays mother to Joe on more than one occasion. The movie goes out of its way to not label Jill as Joe's owner, but rather show us that each looks at the other as an equal.
  Although the lure of money and attention lures Jill to sign O'Hara's contract to be part of his nightclub show, it is not so easy to condemn her for her actions. She has lived on her father's farm in Africa all her life, and the very first scene where we are introduced to her character she purchases Joe so that she can have a friend to play with. Twelve years later though when O'Hara arrives Joe has grown up and now Jill, an adult woman, is starved for human attention. With the arrival of Gregg, played by Ben Johnson, her attention starts to splinter away from Joe. As she matures her friendship with Joe evolves into that of mother and child while her friendship with Gregg becomes that of man and woman.
  Joe Young is made believable with the help of Ray Harryhausen who creates a character that moves like a gorilla, but emotes like a human. Harryhausen built on Willis O'Brien's work by putting more attention on facial gestures. Joe, unlike Kong, is capable of much more complicated facial gestures. Throughout the film Joe gets angry, drunk, happy, hungry, tired, sad, and this is all expressed through facial expressions.
  As pure entertainment Mighty Joe Young delivers in every way, but underneath the adventure story is a very interesting study of a friendship not between a pet owner and her pet but of a child and her playmate. As Jill and Joe grow older you know that they will always be friends, not because that is what the story tells you, but because you can't imagine either of them apart from the other. Their friendship is what pulls the entire movie together and without that all you have is spectacle.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Son of Kong (1933)

  With the popularity of King Kong RKO pictures made the most logical decision of putting quickly into production a sequel, The Son of Kong. They gathered back together Willis O'Brien's special effects team and also promoted King Kong co-director Ernest B. Schoedsack to the director's chair. From the very first scene it is obvious that this is more of a comedy than an action adventure.
  The story starts a month after Kong has ravaged New York City and Carl Denham, played again by Robert Armstrong, has been bombarded by lawsuit after lawsuit. To escape his problems he ships off, but lands right back onto Skull Island where to his surprise he meets Kong Junior.
  Although the movie was obviously made to profit off of all the attention the previous movie had received, the sequel is quite enjoyable in its own right. The movie spends a good chunk of the running time reminding the audience of the terror of Kong, but when we finally get there our expectations have completely been upturned.
  Kong Junior is more of a helpless scared boy than a beast. Denham is not a fame hungry adventurer anymore, but rather in this story a remorseful man looking to make up for his treatment of Kong. He faces obstacle after obstacle, but unlike in the first movie it is the human characters which give him the most trouble; because while King Kong was a movie that featured the beasts of Skull Island the sequel is really about the beast of man.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

King Kong (1933)

  The ability to breath life into the inanimate is a power that special effects wizards have strived to achieve since the start of the film industry. Whereas today's wizards create using mostly digital material the technicians of the 1930's just had metal, rubber, and paint to use to create the creatures that populated their movie screens.
  The most important single individual of the King Kong special effects team would be Willis O'Brien who took all his energy and directed it to perfecting the art of stop-motion animation. He began not in films though but as a sculptor; chipping away at marble til the Edison Company called upon him to utilize his skills into making several short dinosaur pictures. Although his characters were crude and made mostly of clay audiences were instantly enthralled by his three dimensional creations and he quickly carved a place for himself in the industry.
  Stop-motion animation's next great innovator would be Marcel Delgado, a sculptor, who split his time between a convenience store that he worked at and art classes at the Otis Arts Institute. While in art school he caught the attention of Willis O'Brien who was dazzled by Delgado's work. O'Brien quickly offered Delgado a job and a salary that was four times as much as he made working at the convenience store, but Delgado refused. Delgado's goal was not to work in the movies, but rather to be an artist. It was only after O'Brien gave him a tour of the studio and showed Delgado the workshop where he could sculpt, create, and experiment that Delgado finally relented and accepted the job.
  What Marcel Delgado brought to the Willis O'Brien special effects team was that he replaced the clay models O'Brien had been using with more intricate life-like models. Delgado accomplished this by first building an intricate metal skeleton of the model which he then wrapped with foam rubber to create the musculature and finally bound it together in a latex skin. Delgado's creations were easier to move while shooting and looked more believable.
  It would be more appropriate to call Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack adventurers rather than movie directors. Merian Cooper spent a good chunk of his life flying in bomber planes and maneuvering through enemy air space, and his movies themselves incorporate planes, aerial shots, or deal with flight in some capacity. Both men first met each other as soldiers right after the first World War and eventually worked for Paramount Pictures as a directing team.
  What Cooper and Schoedsack brought to theaters were movies which blended on-location footage with staged sequences. Cooper craved danger and didn't think it unusual to put himself in the middle of an elephant stampede just so he could capture it on film. Both men took their love of adventure and combined it with the technical innovations that they themselves spurred on with their story ideas and created films that still excite audiences.
  For all of it's spectacle King Kong tells quite a simple story about Carl Denham, played by Robert Armstrong, who is looking for an interesting subject for his next movie, he gathers a crew and an actress, played by Fay Wray, and sets off for adventure. The entire film can be seen as a dissection of Merian Cooper. Denham like Cooper is an adventurer that carries his camera everywhere with him. Both men are willing to put life and limb in danger to capture something never before seen in their cameras. And just like Cooper neither had any patience to deal with women.
  Denham is driven by a singular goal of capturing Kong on film. He achieves his goal at the cost of several lives. Carl Denham is a man who has not quite grown up, he lives for danger and whoever is left standing is stuck with the task of cleaning up his messes. In the film it is not Kong who is the monster, but rather Denham. Kong does his share of damage, but he is motivated by his affection for Ann, Fay Wray's character. His affection for her makes him more human than Denham who thirsts just for something to capture in his movie camera. 
  The story of Kong can also be seen as a story of death. The wild tropical jungle which is inhabited by creatures from prehistory live in peace till the intrusion of human beings. Their very presence undoes the balance. And when Kong is transplanted to New York he must adapt to an urban jungle where man is at the top of the food chain. While the jungle is populated by beasts of all shapes and sizes that can kill a man in all sorts of gruesome ways, it is the city which kills Kong. The antiseptic environment of the urban jungle with it's concrete and steel infrastructure brought on by man's industrial revolution is what does Kong in. The monster in this film is not the furry beast Kong but the world of man which steam rolls through the land till the earth is paved for further civilizing.