Below is a clip from the opening of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981). The scene is set deep within the jungles of South America, and the sound department is ensuring that we know it’s a jungle. The key part starts around 2:12 in the video:
Here’s another sound clip, of the more stereotypical version of the sound heard in films:
Okay, show of hands. Who actually knows what that jungle sound is? Hint: it’s not a monkey.
In in fact, it isn’t even a mammal.
MEET THE LAUGHING KOOKABURRA
Kookaburras are large kingfishers native to Australia and New Guinea. There are four known species. The wild jungle noise heard in movies and TV shows specifically comes from the Laughing Kookaburra, Dacelo novaeguineae.
The Laughing Kookaburra is native to eastern Australia, living in forests and urban areas. This means that, 90% of the time you hear a kookaburra in a film, it’s definitely in the wrong place.
KOOKABURRAS AND TARZAN
If you Google around looking for the origin for the use of kookaburra calls in jungle scenes, nearly every hit will mention the Tarzan films.
Tarzan also quickly moved into new media. In 1918, the first silent film featuring Tarzan hit the screens (Tarzan of the Apes, starring Elmo Lincoln as Tarzan). Six more silent Tarzan films appeared before 1928.
Tarzan moved into the sound era — sort of — with 1929’s Tarzan the Tiger, with Frank Merrill in the titular role. The movie was filmed as a silent feature, but was partially dubbed in order to cash in on Hollywood’s sudden conversion to sound.
The 1930s were awash with sound-enabled Tarzan films. In 1932, MGM cranked up its Tarzan franchise with a series of films starring five-time Olympic gold medalist Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan. In 1933, a 12-episode serial appeared (Tarzan the Fearless), starring Buster Crabbe. Two more film serials appeared in the 1930s, starring folks like Herman Brix as Tarzan.
And the movies weren’t the only media with Tarzan; James H. Pierce starred as the ape-man in a 1932 radio series adaptation of Tarzan of the Apes, which ran for
77 286 installments. Two more radio series followed in that decade.
The fascination with Tarzan continues into modern day. There are currently around 90 Tarzan films in the Internet Movie Database.
So, the question remains: where did the kookaburra sound effect come from?
Nobody seems to know. They just say “Tarzan movies” and give up.
I don’t know either, yet. But I am going to find out. I’ve pledged to watch all the sound-era Tarzan films and serials in chronological order until I hear a kookaburra.
I do know one thing already: the first Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan film (Tarzan the Ape Man of 1932), aka the first full-sound Tarzan film, does not contain the call of the kookaburra. However, it is the movie that is ground zero for this distinctive sound:
THE KOOKABURRA IN OTHER FILMS
Of course, the laughing kookaburra shows up in a myriad of non-Tarzan sources as well.
In The Wizard of Oz (1939), a kookaburra can briefly be heard in the forest. (I will let you folks debate whether Oz is an appropriate place for a kookaburra.)
In Objective, Burma! (1945), the kookaburra is heard early in the movie, in Burma (which is not Australia).
In Black Narcissus (1947), the kookaburra can be heard in the bamboo forests of Himalayan foothills (!).
In The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), the kookaburra is heard as background noise in Mexico.
In West of Zanzibar (1954), kookaburras can be heard while the poachers are hunting for elephants. Zanzibar is in Tanzania, in eastern Africa, which you will note is not Australia. (Australia isn’t really west of Zanzibar either, unless you go most of the way around the globe to get there.)
In Revenge of the Creature (1955), the kookaburra is heard during the opening scenes, in the Amazon river basin of South America.
In Swiss Family Robinson (1960), a kookaburra can be heard on the deserted tropical island. In the original novel, the family is shipwrecked in the East Indies (which definitely isn’t kookaburra territory), but at least they were on their way to Australia.
In Cape Fear (1962), a kookaburra sound appears during the third act of the film, along the Cape Fear River in North Carolina, USA. Given that a kookaburra sound is usually assumed to be a monkey, I’d like to note that there are neither kookaburras nor monkeys native to the American South.
In Airplane! (1980), the kookaburra can be heard in the Peace Corps flashback, set in Africa.
In The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert (1994), the kookaburra call can be heard as the crazy Asian wife is leaving her husband. Since this film is set in Australia, the call of the kookaburra is ENTIRELY APPROPRIATE. (Whoa!)
In The Lost World: Jurassic Park (1997), the kookaburra can be heard on the fictitious “Isla Sorna”, which is supposed to be west of Costa Rica.
And finally, I shall leave you with Duck Amuck, the 1953 Merrie Melodies cartoon. Watch it all (because it’s brilliant), but pay special attention at 2:30.
Where else have you heard the laughing kookaburra?