By the time you get to the end of part III of this post, I hope you’ll agree with me that George Cukor’s A Star Is Born (1954) is the most movie-in-movie movie in the history of movies.
The first data point is relatively straightforward. Judy Garland plays Esther Blodgett, a small-time singer who has been taken under his wing by soon-to-be-fading movie star Norman Maine (James Mason), and is signed to a contract by studio chief Oliver Niles (Charles Bickford — and notable among the bullet points in the movie’s poetic license is that a mogul would be as WASPy as all that). On her whirlwind first day at the studio, even before her name is changed to Vicki Lester, Esther is ushered in to see Niles as he’s screening a Western.
There are several things to say about the scene, first of all, that it’s great. Cukor’s (probably his decision more than screenwriter Moss Hart) choice of movie, The Charge at Feather River (1953), and segment within it is perfect. The fact that it was a real, current film adds verisimilitude; the screaming and general mayhem on view plays up Esther’s nervousness and discomfort, and in addition releases some of the host movie’s built-up tension. And it’s such a great contrast with Cukor’s über-woman’s picture (and I say that with admiration).
I’ll also note that both A Star Is Born and The Charge at Feather River were Warner Brothers pictures, itself a data point in my hypothesis that, for economic reasons, a disproportionate percentage of host movies and “seen” movies come from the same studio.
But back to screaming: the Feather River scene is notable in having given the name to one of the most famous sound effects in Hollywood history, the Wilhelm Scream. The website cinemagumbo explains:
A simple sound effect—a man’s brief, agonizing cry while being attacked by an alligator—has become a Hollywood in-joke, a stock piece of audio for science fiction and western movies, a good luck charm for various filmmakers and has even inspired the name of a Massachusetts-based rock band.
The Wilhelm Scream, as the sound effect is known, was first used in the film Distant Drums (1951), which featured the aforementioned alligator attack (above). It is actually one of a series of six screams the movie’s sound department recorded with singer and actor Sheb Wooley at Warner Bros. Wooley’s distinctive “ah-AYE!-uh” was subsequently used for—and got its name from—The Charge at Feather River (1953), in which a character named Private Wilhelm is shot with an arrow.
The Wilhelm Scream is actually heard a second time in A Star is Born, in Garland’s number “Someone at Last,” where it’s incongruously inserted as an “exotic” African effect (very poor taste now) in her round-the-world musical journey. Probably that was the start of the in-joke. It went on to become a favorite of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg, and is heard in every Indiana Jones movie and every Star Wars one through The Force Awakens (2015), when it was retired. On the off-chance you’re interested, here’s a compilation of some of the Wilhelm Scream’s Greatest Hits:
Next: The “Born in a Trunk” sequence.