Mar 26, 2018

The surprising history of the Wolf-Whistle

Wolf-whistling has been at the heart of some of history’s most iconic films and is central to the story of cartoons. But, Alex Marshall asks, is it time to write its obituary?
You might not have seen To Have and Have Not – a romantic thriller from 1944 in which Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall smoulder over each other for 90 minutes – but you’ll know its most famous scene. It starts with the pair trading barbs until Bacall suddenly leans in and kisses Bogart.

“What’d you do that for?” Bogart says, a dumb smile across his face. “I’ve been wondering whether I’d like it,” Bacall shoots back.

She then gets up to leave. “You know you don’t have to act with me, Steve,” she says. “You don’t have to say anything, and you don’t have to do anything. Not a thing…. Oh, maybe just whistle.”

She opens the door, but turns as if remembering something. “You do know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together, and blow.”


To Have and Have Not is memorable for the incredible chemistry between the two leads – and the famous whistle (Credit: Alamy)

The scene’s unforgettable – the chemistry overwhelming (the pair started an affair on set, and married shortly after the film came out). But it should also go down in history for one other thing: what Bogart does next. He does indeed put his lips together and blow – a wolf-whistle, in fact – two notes that in the 70 years since have gone from being the height of fashion to, arguably, the world’s most offensive sound.

In France, right now, lawmakers are considering fining people 90 euros (£78) if they’re caught wolf-whistling as part of efforts to combat sexual harassment (how the police would implement it hasn’t quite been worked out). One British politician is similarly calling for a crackdown on it and catcalling. While if you search for wolf-whistling on Twitter, you’ll quickly find women complaining about it being done at them, highlighting the intimidation and fear it creates, an obvious example of #everydaysexism. Wolf-whistling – once thought to be heard by every woman who passed a building site – looks set to be extinct.


Wolf-whistling was once thought to be heard by every woman who passed a building site, but could soon be extinct (Credit: Getty)

How on earth did this two-note whistle – the first high in pitch, the second deep – come to be so charged with meaning? And how did it go from being an everyday occurrence to one that shocks? Its history has surprisingly never been told before.

A wolf in sheep’s clothing

If you search online for the wolf-whistle’s origins, the one theory thrown about is that it’s down to sailors. While at sea, they mainly shouted orders to each other. But in storms, they would rely on piped or whistled ‘boatswain calls’ – the only sounds that could be heard above the waves. One of these, the ‘turn to’ call, sounds a lot like a wolf-whistle and the idea goes that sailors took that and started using it to call women when they reached shore. There’s just one problem with the theory: it’s not true, at least according to historians at both Britain’s Royal Navy and its National Maritime Museum. Spokespeople for both said they’d never heard the idea before and felt it extremely unlikely that sailors would have taken a call used in difficult – frightening – situations in the middle of the ocean and transported it to land, let alone to leer at women.

So where does it come from? The clue is in its very name.

“My theory I got from talking to an old shepherd,” says John Lucas, author of A Brief History of Whistling. “He was this very knowledgeable guy, trained sheepdogs, and he ran through a whole bunch of calls with me and did one that sounded exactly like a wolf whistle. I said, ‘Christ, that’s a bit politically incorrect!’ and he said, ‘No, it’s kosher, it’s from Albania’.”


A shepherd whistles for his dogs in Great Britain – ‘wolf whistle’ appears to originate from shepherds in Southern Europe, using it to warn of approaching wolves (Credit: Alamy)

The shepherd explained that in mountainous parts of Southern Europe, shepherds have for centuries used the whistle to warn each other, and their dogs, when wolves appeared. They’d put two or three fingers in their mouths, then blow those notes. “It’s an incredible carrying whistle, unbelievably noisy,” Lucas says, “You’d hear it for miles.” Both the technique and the tune seem to have been called wolf whistling.

But by the 1930s, that two-note whistle had started being associated with an altogether different type of wolf – the sexual predator. Lucas saw that use for himself as a boy during World War Two. He lived in rural Leicestershire and there were a lot of America GIs – soldiers – stationed near his home. Lucas and his friends would follow them around hoping to get some chewing gum. “They’d hang around outside the church hall, outside dances, and they’d whistle at women as they went in. That’s when I first heard it. Quite how it transformed from Albanian sheep farmers to GIs I couldn’t guess.”

That moment of transformation may be unknown, but what popularised wolf-whistling seems clear: cartoons, especially those of Tex Avery, the legendary animator who helped create Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck. Avery was one of the people who turned cartoons from a gentle medium into an anarchic, chaotic art form where anything was possible. Variety’s obituary of him from 1980 makes that clear: “He had no interest in duplicating or imitating reality. In his mind… the more unreal the better. At worst, his films are strident and silly. At best, they are shatteringly funny. In either case, they are unlike anyone else’s, before or since.”


One of Avery’s most famous characters is a whistling wolf, who first appeared in the 1937 cartoon, Little Red Walking Hood (Credit: Alamy)

“You want to know why Tex Avery was special?” says Pierre Floquet, author of The Comic Language of Tex Avery. “Have you got an hour?” One of Avery’s famous characters, Floquet says, was a wolf who whistled. He first appears in Avery’s 1937 cartoon, Little Red Walking Hood, in which he wolf-whistles at the fairy-tale character and then chases her around town until he gets hit over the head with a hammer. The audience is clearly meant to be happy he’s been knocked out. “Most of Avery’s imagination or his creation came from watching social trends,” Floquet says. “He would pick up on things and modify and play with them. In the 1930s, with the moral standards of the time, a ladies’ man was not a good thing. It only gradually turned into a more positive picture.”

The change is arguably seen in Avery’s 1943 Red Hot Riding Hood, a highly inventive cartoon that resets the classic fairy-tale in Hollywood. The wolf is now a gentleman about town in a top hat and tails, who goes to a nightclub where he sees Red Hot Riding Hood singing. She’s so sexy – worryingly, that is the only word for it – that the wolf goes bananas. He wolf-whistles at her. He pulls out a machine that wolf-whistles for him. He hoots. He slaps the table. His tongue rolls out of his mouth. His eyes pop out of his head. He even starts hitting himself over the head with a hammer as if trying to knock himself out. It’s so ludicrously over-the-top, and so well done, it’s little surprise to learn the scene’s been ripped off repeatedly since. You can find parodies of it in films like The Mask and Who Framed Roger Rabbit.


Cartoons, especially those of Tex Avery, popularised wolf-whistling in popular culture (Credit: Alamy)

The cartoon was seen as so sexual it apparently ran into trouble with censors, and was probably only allowed to be shown because it was during WWII and the US military wanted cartoons like it. “If you increased the libido of soldiers by watching cartoons, they would get frustrated,” Floquet says, “and if they got frustrated, they would get aggressive and be better soldiers. I’m not kidding! This is more or less what the army commissioners would say they wanted and expected in cartoons.”

Avery’s cartoon would have been seen by almost every US soldier in the war, and by most American boys too. If they hadn’t been wolf-whistling before that moment, they soon were. And it seems that shortly after the cartoon appeared, wolf-whistling was everywhere. The first mention of ‘wolf-whistling’ in a newspaper comes in 1944, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, and then the practice appears in To Have and Have Not and numerous other films, including the Oscar-winning noir Mildred Pierce. It’s an instant way to set a scene or get across a character, and can be used for both cheekiness or seediness, often both at once.

‘Innocent fun’?

You even find it popping up in books. PG Wodehouse – the comic novelist behind Jeeves and Wooster and numerous other characters – used it in Ice in the Bedroom when the glamorous Dolly Molloy walks into a hotel. “She unquestionably took the eye... Wolf-whistling is of course prohibited in the lobby of Barribault’s Hotel so none of those present attempted this form of homage.”

Immediately after the war, you could even buy The Original Hollywood Wolf Whistle, a device that attaches to your car so you can wolf-whistle at passers-by. Hot rod enthusiasts still use them today.

The wolf-whistle’s most notorious appearance in history, though, comes a decade later, on 28 August 1955, when Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American, was lynched in Mississippi a few days after allegedly wolf-whistling at a white woman in a grocery store. He was kidnapped, beaten until he was unrecognisable, shot and dumped in a river, his body weighed down with a fan blade tied around his neck with barbed wire. Till’s mother insisted on having an open casket at his funeral, so the world could see just what horror had happened to her son. His death became a rallying cry for the civil rights movement.


Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American, was lynched in Mississippi a few days after allegedly wolf-whistling at a white woman in a grocery store (Credit: Alamy)

The wolf-whistle’s popularity did not last long.

The rise of feminism started killing it off in the 1970s, according to Lucas. People came to realise it was “demeaning and pretty horrid,” he says. “My wife was wolf-whistled by a guy on a building site [once] and she marched straight up to him and asked what on earth he was doing.” Lucas was appointed professor of English at Loughborough University in the late-1970s and remembers some of his female students shouting at men who wolf-whistled them: “My teddy bear can whistle louder than that!”


 In Grease, the wolf-whistle pops up to help create the sexy 1950s mood (Credit: Alamy)

As it started falling away in society, it did in films too, although it still pops up from time to time – in Grease it’s used to help create the mood of the sexy 1950s, in Legally Blonde it’s used for a quick gag (“I feel comfortable using legal jargon in everyday life. [Man wolf-whistles]. I object!”) – but the current debate around #metoo might be the final nail in its coffin. If it does appear in films from now on, it may only be in a negative sense. Whether you celebrate its passing, or think it’s an appalling sign (‘Political correctness gone mad!’), may depend a little on your age as much anything. If you grew up back in the 50s or 60s when wolf whistling was widely seen as innocent fun, you may struggle to see it as otherwise. But if you grew up seeing it as harassment, it’s hard not to see it as anything but.

One person who is sad to see it go is Sheila Harrod, 74, a one-time world champion whistler who makes whistling seem as much as an art form as any other type of music. She can whistle like an opera singer or to imitate bird calls, and she’s appeared on television and radio stations worldwide and performed to thousands.

“I first taught myself to whistle by doing it in the street,” she says. “The only one I could do was the wolf-whistle. I used to put two fingers in my mouth and do it, the louder the better.” If it wasn’t for wolf whistling, she’d never have had the globe-trotting life she’s had. “You don’t hear it now I think because people fear they’ll get accused of sexual harassment,” she says.

“It’s a shame. I always thought of it as just more cheeky, to brighten up the day. If someone did it to me, I use to do it back twice as loud. That’d always get a laugh.

“I wouldn’t mind getting a few wolf-whistles now at my age.”

- Alex Marshall -