Anyone who is a fan of old network radio shows knows the vital role played by the sound effects man. Newspapers, especially in the ‘30s, sang his praises but, generally, he toiled in anonymity; though a cute song praising the work of Virgil Reimer made a couple of appearances on ‘Fibber McGee and Molly’ (Reimer created from scratch the only thing many people remember about Fibber today—the clatter from the cascading junk in the McGee hall closet).
The poor old sound effects department got even more of a short shrift in films. The first Oscar for Sound Effects wasn’t handed out until 1963, more than 30 years after sound films displaced silents. Sound, it could be said, pre-dates sound films. A good pit orchestra or a Mighty Wurlitzer could pump out musical effects to enhance silent films. Yet the seemingly innumerable Hollywood columnists didn’t really pay much attention to the “sound” part of sound films after the novelty wore off by about 1930.
A rare exception is this 1948 column by the Associated Press that delved into the MGM sound effects library.
Sound Men Have Huge Noise Library
By JACK QUIGG
(For Bob Thomas)
HOLLYWOOD, Sept. 22—(AP)—A short burp, the plaintive whistle of a distant train, a cougar’s cough and a gallows’ clatter are a few of thousands of odd noises that are the daily concern of movie sound men.
The noises, recorded on the sound tracks of standard movie film, are kept for short notice use. This, if Mickey Rooney’s sneeze comes off key, sound men merely dub in one of hundreds on file in the library.
MGM’s collection is typical. Sounds from airplanes to zippers are carefully catalogued and stored in fireproof vaults. This “library” consists of four walk-in vaults, each holding 2,000 cans of film.
Under airplanes, for example, are listed sounds of planes idling, taxiing, taking off, landing and diving, as heard from both inside the craft and on the ground. One card even reads: “old bi-plane, fairly hot. circling.”
Most animals found in zoos, and many that aren’t have had their vocalizing immortalized on celluloid. On hand are a bull elephant’s bellow, the chatter of a squirrel and the unmistakable warnings of rattlesnakes and bumblebees. Camels are classified as barking, growling or crying. Dogs are listed by breed.
There may be as many as 40 or 50 subclasses under a general heading. Thus the sounds of auto engines are recorded by make and model back to tne Maxwell, Stanley Steamer and the Bean (an old English make).
Belches are classified as “long,” “short,” “man’s,” “boy’s,” “through a hankerchief” and numerous other ways.
The sounds of a pea shooter, a candle being blown out, a spittoon being hit, a skull crushed are there. Native chants and yells are catalogued geographically. Baby’s cries are listed by age and whether the infant is happy or fretful.
“Our sounds are 99 per cent authentic,” says Mike Steinore, in charge of the library. “It’s easier to record the real thing than it is to invent a substitute.”
MGM has been adding to its files since 1926. Occasionally a film will require a noise for the mixing skill of an expert chef.
The “Green Dolphin Street” script called for an avalanche. By blending the sound of thunder with the crash of falling trees, tearing timber and falling glass—done inside a greenhouse for greater resonance—an avalanche was achieved.
For the atomic bomb explosion in “The Beginning of the End” the sound men simply amplified and extended their biggest explosion, a 16 inch cannon blast.
“Often it’s the simplest sounds that are the hardest to record,” Steinmore says. “Getting Lassie to give out with a remorseful bark is as hard as anything.”
His toughest assignments, Steinore says, were duplicating the din of the earthquake in “San Francisco,” and the rustle of millions of locusts for the plague in “Good Earth.”
To anyone who thinks ‘The Jazz Singer’ (1927) at Warners broke the silent barrier in films for good, it’s a surprise to see MGM began collecting sound the previous year.