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First drive-in theater: Did you hear the classic Wilhelm scream?

With Google's homage to the first drive-in theater, here's a brief look at the Wilhelm scream, one of the most famous sound effects in cinema history. 

By Matthew Shaer / June 6, 2012

Google's homage to the first drive-in theater wouldn't be complete without a Wilhelm scream. Listen for it just after the door opens.

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The Google homepage Wednesday honors the opening of the first drive-in theater. Click on the animated tickets, and a cartoon montage plays: There are vintage cars, a popcorn stand, an amorous couple, a few kids giggling in the back of a pickup truck, and the glow of the big screen. But the doodle pays tribute to more than just the first drive-in theater, which opened on June 6, 1933, in Camden, N.J.

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The cartoon also functions as a kind of homage to the "Wilhelm scream," perhaps the most famous sound effect in the history of film. So hey, what is the Wilhelm scream? It's a very particular guttural yelp, basically, elongated and exaggerated – the last gasp of someone being stabbed, bludgeoned, tossed off a cliff, or otherwise disposed of in a suitably (and cinematically) action-packed manner. 

If you've watched a blockbuster in the past few years, chances are you've heard it. (It appears near the middle of the Google doodle clip.) 

For instance, according to an astonishingly comprehensive list over at FilmSound.org, the Wilhelm scream has appeared in Gremlins 2 (when a victim of the titular monsters falls to his death); Batman Returns (when a clown gets a bat-fist in the face); the direct-to-video Little Mermaid 2 (when a crew member on a doomed ship leaps overboard); and Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (during the battle for Helm's Deep).

Remember Just Visiting, a poorly-received 2001 comedy flick starring Jean Reno and Christina Applegate? No? Well, the Wilhelm scream gets a cameo there, too, when a knight is smacked in the face with the sharp end of an axe. In fact, writes Steve Lee of FilmSound, a small cadre of sound effects maestros – including Lee himself – have made it their business to keep the Wilhelm scream alive for decades.

"[We] continue the crusade to keep Wilhelm alive," Lee writes. "The Wilhelm scream continues to be heard in new films every year." 

The Wilhelm scream traces its history back several decades, to the 1951 Gary Cooper adventure Distant Drums, which takes place in the Florida Everglades. At one point, an ancillary character is attacked by an alligator. Before he is pulled underwater for good, he manages to get off a good dying screech. And thus was the Wilhelm scream born. 

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