Still from  When Horses Were Coconuts , 13BC, 2019.

Still from When Horses Were Coconuts, 13BC, 2019.

In 1951, CBS News was on location for the atomic bomb tests at French- man Flat, Nevada. Camera operators, positioned at a great enough distance from the blast site to avoid damage, were able to capture a usable image, but the sound made by the explosion was inadequately recorded. According to differing accounts, this was because the sound equipment was ruined by the shockwave, because it was too far away to get a good recording, or because the resultant audio didn’t sound properly cataclysmic. In his various memoirs, writings, and oral interviews, Robert L. Mott, an influential Foley artist for television, radio, and film, also relays varying and incompatible accounts of how, given three turntables, 20 minutes, and the CBS sound library, he created the sound to accompany this first televised footage of the bomb.

The central element he used was a recording listed in the CBS sound effects library as the “Mogambi Waterfall.” This “African”1 waterfall was the go-to record that sound engineers used for many purposes, but which here Mott “sweetened,” playing it backwards, slowed down, and combined with other explosion recordings, forming the basis of the slow roaring sound we still associate with the bomb. Although a Mogambi watercourse does exist in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), the tributary tends to only be referred to by that name in nineteenth-century accounts by European missionaries and explorers. This colonial construct is unsurprising in the context of a Foley library, given the entertainment industry’s fast and loose use of very specific sites across the African continent as sets and stand-ins for generic colonial paradises or sites of exotic danger. One such “African” outpost is portrayed in the John Ford picture Mogambo, a film released two years after the French- man Flat tests. Titled by its producer after a Hollywood nightclub but falsely translated as “the Greatest” in its 1953 trailer, Mogambo was filmed on location in such varied African countries as the DRC, Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania, as well as at the British MGM studios. Perhaps more unusually for Hollywood, however, its soundtrack was not scored by a Western composer appropriating supposedly “African” melodies, but rather featured original recordings of musicians in the DRC.

When Horses Were Coconuts was also filmed on location at a waterfall, although this time on a cold June morning in upstate New York with a consumer–grade underwater handheld camera. Thus the film, like the attempt to produce sound for one of the most iconic images of the postwar period, is also analogical. It once more displaces and recreates the visual effect of the bomb, but this time it refuses the infamous image of the mushroom cloud. This proxy footage is made strange and literally inverted, flipped 180 degrees so that the surface of the river becomes a quicksilver sea.

1. Robert L. Mott repeatedly describes this “African” waterfall as the “Mogambi” in all of his books. We use his writing not only as the basis of When Horses Were Coconuts, which is paraphrased from one of his titles, but excerpts from each of the following books by Mott are also read aloud by the cast in Straight Flush:
The Audio Theater Guide: Vocal Acting, Writing, Sound Effects and Directing for a Listening Audience (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2009); Radio Sound Effects: Who Did It, and How, in the Era of Live Broadcasting (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2005); Radio Live! Television Live!: Those Golden Days When Horses Were Coconuts (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, 2003); Sound Effects: Radio, TV, and Film (Waltham, MA: Focal Press, 1990).