Thursday, 4 June 2009

Orson Welles' War of the Worlds (1938)

Of any adaptation of Victorian Scientific Romances, perhaps the one that stands head and shoulders above all others is not a piece of film or any other visual medium. Very likely the best, easily the most dramatic, and absolutely the most legendary is a radio broadcast performed by brilliant young artist Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater on the Air on October 30th, 1938: War of the Worlds. Though this 1898 novel by another Wells - Herbert George - was updated to a contemporary setting in the halcyon days of the 1930's, it so deftly teased out the helpless apoclypticism of the story that it created a nationwide panic.

The anatomy of the panic has been well-studied... On that fateful October 30th, most of America was listening to radio ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his puppet Charlie McCarthy on the Chase and Sanborn Hour on NBC. Twelve minutes into the program, singer and movie musical star Nelson Eddy began a number, which caused the audience to touch the dial en masse. The Mercury Theater on the Air over on CBS began their Halloween program with an extended narrative and repeated warnings that this was a dramatization of the H.G. Wells novel, but there would be no further announcements until the 40 minute mark when the story switched gears from the faux news reports to Orson Welles' aftermath monologue. When refugees from NBC tuned in to War of the Worlds, they arrived at roughly the same time that reporters reached Grover's Mill, New Jersey, and martians began popping out of the cylinder. By the next commercial break, people were running amok in the streets.

In truth, reports of the panic were exaggerated for effect. There wasn't mass rioting in the streets, though plenty of people were very afraid. Not of martians, mind you, but rather that the Nazis were finally launching the war that was looming on the horizon in 1938. Nevertheless, the newspapers were just about ready to crucify Welles for exploiting their fears of war and trust in the radio. For his part, Welles admitted in later years that he was trying his best to look like an early Christian saint. A few critics lauded Welles for shattering America's gullibility and broadcasters resolved never to let fiction masquerade as fact again. Unfortunately neither has held, but that's a different commentary.

The hoax never would have worked if the play wasn't as dramatically strong as it was. Minute-for-minute, The War of the Worlds has deserved fame as the best drama ever produced for airwaves. Though not completely original, the pattern of news reports and military radio broadcasts raise the subject to a fever pitch of excitement and dread that was delivered impeccably. Only the smallest of details breaks the illusion: the abbreviated spans of time it takes reporters and martians to work their way across the American seaboard. Heightened by panic, this detail is mitigated by the anticipation to find out what happens next. You don't want to wait for minutes to find out where the martians are headed next or if the militia was able to stop them. You want to know now!

The play begins as a slice of 1930's culture as ballroom music is being broadcast from a classy New York hotel, interrupted only by reports of gaseous emissions from Mars. The interruptions become more frequent as reporter Carl Phillips heads to Princeton University to visit astronomer Richard Pearson. This is a fortuitous visit, as an ominous meteor crashes at nearby, real life, town of Grover's Mill. The martians emerge with some trepidation, but there is no real sign of danger until the heat ray cuts off communication and the life of Phillips. Then all Hell breaks loose, an announcement is made by a President Roosevelt sound-alike, and everything builds to a fever pitch of futile attack after futile attack on the Tripods. Finally they are seen over the rushing mass of humanity in New York City as thousands succumb to their black smoke and heat rays. The last thing heard over the airwaves is a lonely, haunting "2X2L calling CQ... Isn't there anyone on the air? Isn't there anyone on the air? Isn't there... anyone?"

Here the program breaks for station identification, and the listener can't help but slump back into their chair. Welles was so masterful at building the tension to the point of breaking, and when he finally releases his hold on you, the relief gives way to astonishment that anyone could make a drama in any medium that is just this damn good.

The last 20 minutes, when the performance reverts to a more familiar radio drama, is certainly weaker than the first 40. By the time the listener reaches it, their emotions are spent anyways. They're as exhausted as Welles' Pearson and ready to sleepwalk with him through post-apocalyptic New York State. By this part, you're not even really thinking about the story anymore... at least if you've heard it several times and been amazed and excited each time. What's left is contemplation on the genius that produced such an adventure and who would migrate on to Hollywood to conquer yet another medium.

Click here to listen to Orson Welles' War of the Worlds at the Internet Archive.

1 comment:

Der Geis said...

> The Mercury Theater on the Air over on
> CBS began their Halloween program with
> an extended narrative and repeated
> warnings that this was a dramatization
> of the H.G. Wells novel

I've had several extended conversation concerning the War of the Worlds broadcast with science fiction authors Hal Clement and William Tenn and they tell a very different story. Each were listening that night in anticipation of the Mercury Theater's performance. They didn't know what the program was going to be but tuned in early so they wouldn't miss any of it.

There was no warning.

According to each of them, there was a music program that was interrupted by the first news flash. They both recognized it for as War of the Worlds but there was no introduction. No monologue by Orson Wells. No warning that this was a radio drama.

When the show and the panic was over and the FCC started making a stink, they demanded a recording of the program. At the time, they did not record such things themselves and relied upon broadcasters to provide the tapes when there was an issue. Of course, Orson Welles supplied a recording that made it look like he had done everything in his power to warn the public.

But Hal Clement and William Tenn knew better. They heard the broadcast live from the very beginning and knew that Welles lying and had done exactly what he was accused of.