Saturday, November 17, 2012

The War of the Worlds (Mercury/CBS radio broadcast, October 30, 1938)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I played my old cassette tape of the Orson Welles War of the Worlds broadcast (I’d wanted to give it a re-listen since watching the Martian Mania show Friday night), and it actually held up quite well; though I still think the Welles Dracula from four months before is a better work of art (though hardly as legendary — after all, it didn’t send thousands of Americans out of their homes in a panic to exhume recently buried corpses and drive stakes through their hearts!), War of the Worlds contains an eloquent performance by Welles himself as Professor Richard Pierson, the resident astronomical expert who explains it all for us, and though it sags a bit in the middle, the beginning (in which H. G. Wells’ story of a Martian invasion of Earth is told as fake news flashes, ostensibly interrupting remote broadcasts of dance bands — it was this part of the broadcast that fooled all those listeners into thinking that the Martian invasion was actually happening!) and the end (in which Welles as Professor Pierson wanders the devastated New Jersey countryside and meets an artilleryman who wants to mount a fascistic resistance effort by sneaking into the Martian war machines and learning how to use them) are still chilling. — 11/1/98


Charles and I spent the evening in our room, where I picked out some Hallowe’en goodies: the tape of the 1938 Orson Welles broadcast based on H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds and the 1923 film The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. The War of the Worlds holds up pretty well, though at this late date it’s hard to believe that anybody actually listened to this and thought it was an authentic news broadcast. Welles himself said later that he’d got the idea to do this from listening to commentator H. V. Kaltenborn (who was enough of a media star in the late 1930’s that Frank Capra cast him as himself in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and had him narrate the story of James Stewart’s Senate filibuster as if it were an authentic news event) broadcasting live from Munich when Hitler and Chamberlain were negotiating their infamous deal for the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia. Welles recalled how Kaltenborn’s dispatches had cut into ordinary entertainment shows and decided to adapt Wells’ novel in similar fashion, using broadcasts by fictional bandleaders “Ramon Raquello” and “Bobby Millette” as his framing shows (along with an unidentified pianist playing fragments of Chopin — one of the earlier cut-ins actually interrupts a “Raquello” rendition of “Stardust,” an irony Welles may have intended) into which his phony “news” reports of a Martian invasion (including a rather chilling moment in which the report is suddenly interrupted and we find out later that the network’s reporter was one of those incinerated by a blast from the Martian invaders’ heat ray). Purely on aesthetic grounds, the Welles broadcast of Bram Stoker’s Dracula four months earlier (which had kicked off Welles’ Mercury Theatre on the Air series) is a far better show — in fact I still regard it as the best-ever dramatization of Stoker’s novel, far subtler and more genuinely chilling than any of the film versions I’ve seen — and, indeed, the part of The War of the Worlds that holds up best is Welles’ final peroration in his character as astronomer Dr. Richard Pierson, describing his journey through the East Coast after the Martian attack, his encounter with a man whose response is to attempt to assimilate (a parody of Chamberlain’s appeasement policy? It’s hard not to wonder just how much of The War of the Worlds was shaped by current events in general and the threat of Hitler in particular, especially given how politically attuned Welles was and the fact that he actually said his inspiration was H. V. Kaltenborn’s broadcasts from Munich during the Chamberlain/Hitler negotiations) and his final discovery that the Martians have been laid low by Earth’s germs, to which their immune systems offered no resistance.

Welles biographer Frank Brady mentions how ill-prepared he and his staff were for the actual panic that ensued when the show first aired — notably in the areas (like much of New Jersey) actually named as the site of the Martians’ initial invasion — including the frantic response to a call to the CBS studios asking whether the events being depicted were factual (the call was taken in the control room by a technician busy with his duties with the show; exasperated, he simply said, “Of course it’s not real,” and hung up); the insert of a disclaimer 48 minutes into the show — just before Welles’ big speech at the end — to announce that it was fictional (not in the script but hastily added in a desperate attempt by CBS to short-circuit the panic); and the bleary-eyed press conference Welles hastily gave at the CBS studios, where he’d been summoned from a rehearsal of his play Danton’s Death, trying desperately to explain that he hadn’t had any thought of starting a real-life panic when he broadcast the show. “The broadcast was performed as if occurring in the future and as if it were then related by the survivor of a past occurrence,” Welles said at the press conference. “The date of the fanciful invasion of this planet by Martians was clearly given as 1939 and was so announced at the outset of the broadcast.” (Actually it wasn’t; Welles’ opening narration identified the time as “the thirty-ninth year of the twentieth century,” which if you reckon the 20th century as beginning in 1900 — as most people would — would have established 1938, the year of Welles’ actual broadcast, as the date of its setting.)

Welles was on sounder ground when he pointed out that “the broadcast took place at our regular Mercury Theatre time period and had been so announced in all the papers” — it’s hard to believe that more people didn’t establish the connection between the Welles drama series airing Thursday nights at that time and the broadcast they were listening to (though Brady researched what else was on the radio that night and suggested a lot of the people who panicked had been idly dial-surfing — much the way people do it today with TV’s and remote controls — and had switched to the Welles show in mid-broadcast from other programs and weren’t sure where they were on the dial when they heard what purported to be an actual news report of an interplanetary invasion). The War of the Worlds would almost certainly be just another old radio show — and not known as one of Welles’ better ones — if it hadn’t been for the actual panic that ensued from it, which has colored the reception of it and sent it into the cultural history of America as a landmark; but heard today it’s still an excellent piece of craftsmanship and packs a wallop it wouldn’t have had if Welles hadn’t used the news cut-in device and had just dramatized the H. G. Wells novel “straight.” — 11/1/04


Last night our friend and houseguest Garry Hobbs mentioned the stories he’d heard from his family about the 1938 Orson Welles broadcast of The War of the Worlds and the panic it had caused, as people who tuned in during the broadcast and therefore missed Welles’ opening announcing that it was a regular episode of his show, the Mercury Theatre on the Air, assumed from its format — a series of mock news announcements being cut into programs of dance-band music — that a Martian invasion actually was taking place in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey and some of them fled with their belongings to get away from the Martian heat rays that existed only in H. G. Wells’ and Orson Welles’ imaginations. So I asked Garry, “Do you want to hear it?,” startling him once again with the power of the Internet; I burned a CD copy of the download of the broadcast and we listened to it. I hadn’t heard it in some time and neither had Charles, and to me part of the fascination stemmed from the fact that no one connected with the broadcast had any idea it would inspire anything untoward: no attempts were made to set up any way to contact the CBS offices so someone connected with the network could assure people the show was a radio drama and not an authentic news broadcast. At one point, according to Welles biographer Frank Brady, someone actually did get through to a phone line in the radio studio — and the phone was answered by a special-effects technician who was overwhelmed with the work he was doing on the broadcast. As soon as he got the gist of the question he was being asked, he barked, “Of course it isn’t real,” and hung up. About three-quarters of the way through the show — at the point where the script abandons the conceit of a fake news broadcast and becomes an extended monologue by Professor Richard Pierson (Orson Welles’ own role on the show) narrating how the Martian invasion swept through the world until the Martians were infected by common Earth germs to which their immune systems offered no resistance and died en masse — an announcer came on to read an unscripted notice alerting anyone still listening that the program was an episode of Mercury Theatre on the Air. 

One thing that hadn’t struck me about the broadcast until last night was its extraordinarily effective use of silence; in a medium in which more than a split second of silence is called “dead air” and considered one of the big no-no’s, it’s surprising to hear how at several points of the broadcast there was no conversation for about a second or two — thereby adding to the heart-stopping suspense and no doubt to the verisimilitude as well. Those silences give the broadcast a convincingly “real” patina, as if the various fake news cut-ins are really being abruptly shut down by Martian attacks (especially in the chilling scene in which the on-site newscaster whose voice we’ve been listening to steadily for the first half of the broadcast is suddenly silenced by a Martian heat ray). As I’ve noted before — and I pointed out to Charles last night — the two most famous works Orson Welles ever created, this War of the Worlds broadcast and the film Citizen Kane, both have to do with the media and the gap between what we really know and what we think we know; and also the agendas with which both the newsmakers themselves and those who report on what they do approach the news and how they seek to manipulate it for their own ends. Before Citizen Kane there had been quite a few films about the Gilded Age and the powerful tycoons who were called “robber barons,” but their protagonists had been either industrialists or financiers; Welles deliberately made his about a media baron because he thought nobody in any other sort of business would have the breadth and depth of influence over his fellow citizens as someone who had made his fortune in the media.

And it’s not just 20/20 hindsight to attribute an intent to The War of the Worlds to expose the media and how they shape our perceptions of events: Welles said as much at the time, noting that his inspiration for adapting H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds as a fake newscast was the reporting of CBS commentator H. V. Kaltenborn from the Munich negotiations between Neville Chamberlain and Adolf Hitler earlier in 1938. He’d been fascinated at how the information about those talks came to Americans in dribs and drabs and often as interruptions in normal radio programming, and he wanted to use that artistically and also make the point that by giving us that kind of information in bits and pieces, radio shaped how we understood events and rendered us more likely to overreact to each new turn of events. I just don’t think Welles knew how powerfully his broadcast would make that point! One critic who reviewed Steven Spielberg’s film of The War of the Worlds noted that the four major versions of this story all appeared during periods of intense international crisis: H. G. Wells published his original novel in 1895, during the arms race between Britain and Germany and also their competition for colonies, especially in Africa, that would fuel World War I; Orson Welles did his broadcast in the run-up to World War II; the 1953 film, directed by Byron Haskin and starring Gene Barry, was shot in the early years of the Cold War; and Spielberg’s movie came out in 2005 and was shaped by the aftermath of 9/11 and the “war on terror.” — 11/17/12