Tuesday, November 5, 2013

American Experience: "The War of the Worlds" (PBS, 2013)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The night before last Charles and I watched an unexpectedly interesting American Experience episode on PBS: “War of the Worlds,” a show about the famous Orson Welles broadcast of H. G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds on October 30, 1938 and the resulting panic that ensued. This chilling program started with a man, Judge A. G. Kennedy of Union, South Carolina, shown as part of a series of interviews done shortly after the show aired saying that all future broadcasts of that type should be banned and Orson Welles should be criminally prosecuted for what he had done to the American people: “I think suit should be filed against him and the Columbia Broadcasting System for their wrongdoing. Welles’ performance on the radio Sunday evening was a clear demonstration of his inhuman instincts and his fiendish joy in causing distress and suffering all over the country. He is a carbuncle on the rump of degenerate theatrical performers and he should make amends for his consummate act of asininity.” Another interviewee, Notre Dame philosophy professor Daniel O’Grady, said something even more chilling: “Those who were deceived by a dramatic re-enactment would, in an ideal society, be sterilized and disenfranchised. Such damn fools. It shakes one’s faith in democracy to think that such hysteria and panic can affect those who are supposed to vote intelligently next week.” (Yet more proof, if you needed any, that the attitudes behind what’s now known as the Tea Party are nothing new!)

Indeed, much of the show’s most interesting content consisted of these interviews — all shot in black-and-white in the same room, with the interviewees sitting on the same couch (not all at once, mind you!), being asked questions by the same unseen reporter. (According to the PBS Web site, these “interview” sequences were actually reconstructions, with modern-day actors playing the original interviewees, but that wasn’t made at all clear in the documentary itself.) The show dealt with Welles’ background with the Federal Theatre Project and the Mercury Theatre, the private company he opened after the Federal Theatre Project pulled the plug on his production of Marc Blitzstein’s proletarian opera The Cradle Will Rock! (which was recorded by members of the original cast — at least in abridged form — and came off as a very badly dated souvenir of what 1930’s Leftists thought was an appropriate way to reach the masses by creating “culture” for them; while they generated a folk-singing tradition that survives to this day, most of the attempts at planting the Leftist message into more sophisticated musical and dramatic forms than those offered by Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger were dismal failures, artistically and commercially) and which astonished New York audiences with a modern-dress production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar that related the play’s story to dictators like Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin then bestriding Europe like colossi. (Earlier, for the Federal Theatre Project, instructed to do something with an all-Black cast so African-American actors would have employment, Welles had done his famous “Black Macbeth” that, in order to have the play continue to make sense with an all-Black cast, moved the setting from Scotland to Haiti and changed the three witches into voodoo houngans and mambos.)

Welles had worked extensively in radio, making money to support his theatre company (this business of taking commercial jobs he didn’t want to finance the personal projects he did want would continue throughout his career!), and had been the second — and best — actor to play The Shadow (with frequent collaborator Agnes Moorehead as his Margot Lane). In 1938 he landed a sustaining program (i.e., one paid for by the broadcast network itself rather than funded by a sponsor) on CBS called The Mercury Theatre on the Air, and debuted the show with an amazing adaptation of Bram Stoker’s Dracula that to my mind is the best dramatization of Stoker’s oft-filmed property ever, surpassing all the film versions. The wicked wit of Welles’ (and others’) writing, the forceful performance of Welles as Dracula (the real Dracula was a warlord, not a nobleman, and that’s how Welles played him), and the equally sinister and beautiful work of Moorehead as Mina Harker (in the show’s best scene they do a bizarre parody of the Christian communion ritual as Dracula tells Mina that she will become “flesh of my flesh … blood of my blood!”) establish this as a far more sophisticated work than any of the Dracula movies (including Tod Browning’s horribly overrated one with Bela Lugosi and Dwight Frye, who are great but sabotaged by a somnolent script, surprisingly sloppy direction, a weak supporting cast — especially the women — and virtually no sense of Gothic atmosphere or dramatic pace) and make one wish that the young Welles had got to do a Dracula film of his own.

Welles went on his merry way working out a play to adapt every week — sometimes he drew on novels, and he generally looked for stories told in the first person so he could narrate them in character (the working title of his show had actually been First Person Singular), and for a special Hallowe’en show he lighted on The War of the Worlds. Inspired by the way the networks had cut in on regular broadcast programming to air H. V. Kaltenborn’s special commentaries on the 1938 negotiations between Adolf Hitler and Neville Chamberlain in Munich, Welles decided to tell his near-namesake’s story as if reporters from a radio network’s news division were cutting into ordinary band broadcasts — and though he largely abandoned this strategy in the second half of the broadcast, which focused on Professor Richard Pierson (Welles’ character) trying to figure out how humanity could mount a last-ditch stand against the Martians and their all-powerful heat-ray machines and then reporting (as per Wells’ originals) that the Martians had been vanquished by Earth’s germs, which gave them fatal diseases to which the Martians’ immune systems owed no resistance, by then the damage had been done and quite a few people, especially those who switched from another station during the middle of the broadcast and thereby missed the standard Mercury Theatre on the Air introduction and theme music identifying this as a radio dramatization, had been fooled into thinking there was a real invasion and tricked into doing panicky things like packing their bags, heading into their cars and driving off heaven knows where, often creating traffic jams as hundreds of people in communities (especially the ones the script by Welles and Howard Koch had named as actual targets of Martian attacks) all tried to flee at once.

One of the most interesting interviews was with a man, Seymour Charles Haden of Sunland, California, who said that he hadn’t been fooled, but, “Well, my wife, she came in, my wife, just wringing her hands and wailing away, her eyeballs about to pop out onto her lap going, ‘What is it? What is it? What can it be? Is it the Germans?’ Well, she hadn’t heard that word ‘Martians’, but I had.” Indeed, one of the most interesting explanations for the panic offered by this show (written by A. Brad Schwartz and Michelle Ferrari, directed by Cathleen O’Connell and narrated by Oliver Platt) was that listeners misheard the word “Martians” as “Germans,” and with all the news coverage of Hitler they were scared enough to believe the Nazis and the German war machine might indeed have launched a surprise attack on the U.S. with weapons technology far in advance of anything we had. The show went into some more familiar ground — noting that the competing show on NBC, the Chase and Sanborn Hour with radio ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his dummies Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd, was far more popular than the Mercury Theatre on the Air but a lot of people doing the 1930’s equivalent of channel-surfing might have turned away from the operetta number by Nelson Eddy that interrupted the comedy and come upon a particularly climactic moment in the show that added to the impression of verisimitude. Also bear in mind that a lot of people who tuned in late wouldn’t have heard the Mercury Theatre on the Air intro and wouldn’t necessarily have even known where they were on the radio dial — which answered the questions a lot of people (including Orson Welles himself in his apologetic press conference given a day after the broadcast — not the same night, as Frank Brady’s biography had it) have asked ever since: namely, why didn’t people catch on to the fact that this was in Orson Welles’ regular time slot and therefore what they were hearing was likely to be a fictional story dramatized for radio?

As I noted when I wrote about the broadcast itself, the two most famous works Welles ever created — this broadcast and the 1941 film Citizen Kane — both deal with the media and how the way stories are covered (and, more so in Kane than in The War of the Worlds, the personal agendas of media owners) by news outlets shape what we think we know about the world we live in and the political, social, economic and cultural forces shaping it. In a way Orson Welles was an antecedent of Marshall McLuhan and much of media criticism since — and it’s not surprising from the overall tenor of Kane that his politics were distinctly Left. The War of the Worlds didn’t start out with the intent of doing a media critique — at the end of the actual broadcast Welles said it was “just the Mercury Theatre’s equivalent of putting on a sheet, hiding behind a bush, jumping out and saying, ‘Boo!’ … So goodbye everybody, and remember, please, for the next day or so the terrible lesson you learned tonight: that grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody’s there, that was no Martian — It’s Hallowe’en” — but in later years Welles embraced it as such. Heard today, the 1938 War of the Worlds remains a fascinating program, superior to the 1953 and 2005 film versions of Wells’ novel (one fact unmentioned on this documentary was that H. G. Wells himself publicly attacked the program as a distortion and exploitation of his novel!) though, as Welles told Peter Bogdanovich, he regarded it as not one of his better radio efforts (and indeed, for both depth and sheer fright, the much less legendary Welles Dracula holds up a good deal better), but as this program noted the threats of legislation and lawsuits pretty much fizzled and Welles actually benefited commercially from the affair. His show got a sponsor, Campbell’s Soup (its name was therefore changed to Campbell’s Playhouse), and he became so notorious RKO Radio Pictures signed him to a three-film contract as writer, producer, director and star, in which capacities he made one of the greatest films of all time and sealed his professional doom by going after one of the richest and most powerful members of the .01 percent of the time, William Randolph Hearst … but that’s another oft-told tale.