Jazz, film, and improvised culture.
War of the Worlds: The Night Orson Welles Scared the Attitude Out of New Jersey
to October 30, 1938, Orson Welles was considered a talent to watch, but his Mercury Theater on the Air did not have
a proper sponsor and it regularly got beat by a variety show featuring
ventriloquist Edgar Bergen with his dummy Charlie McCarthy (it was a great act
for radio, because you truly couldn’t see his lips move). Then Welles staged an innovative adaptation
of H.G. Wells’ science fiction classic and suddenly everything changed. American Experience marks the 75th anniversary of Welles’ controversial
broadcast with War of the Worlds (promo here), which airs this
coming Tuesday on most PBS stations.
was already a cottage industry before he transplanted War of the Worlds to Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. Best known as a stage director, he frequently
performed on radio, often without credit. The media and the smart set closely
followed his career, but he had yet to breakthrough with Middle America. For his weekly radio showcase, Welles had a
notion to adapt the Martian invasion novel.
Producer-adult supervisor John Houseman thought it was a terrible idea,
but Welles had his way as usual.
However, the script just didn’t come together until they decided to
stage it as a series of breaking news bulletins. This was not a completely original
strategy. It was inspired by Archibald
MacLeish’s radio play Air Raid, which
had just aired with much less fanfare.
to American Experience’s historical
experts, most listeners missed Welles’ introduction, dial-twisting over to the Mercury Theater once Bergen had finished
his shtick. As most everyone knows, a
mild panic then ensued. All the talking
heads try their best to excuse away the mass hysteria, arguing the stress of
the Depression and the constant news flashes trumpeting European war left the
general public primed to believe Welles’ Americanized War of the Worlds. Maybe
there is a kernel truth to that, but that would have been one heck of an exclusive
for CBS to score.
about everyone now recognizes Welles as one of the most important film
directors of the Twentieth Century, but AE’s
WOTW reminds us he was also probably one of the greatest radio directors as
well. Director Cathleen O’Connell and
tele-writer Michelle Ferrari include some fascinating behind-the-scenes details
of the in/famous broadcast, but the black-and-white dramatic recreations of angry
listeners’ letters of complaint are rather corny and just generally unnecessary.
Arguably, Welles’ fictionalized news flashes
represent an early forerunner to found footage genre films, in which a
carefully produced narrative deliberately approximates some form of on-the-fly
documentation. O’Connell and her battery
of experts, including Welles’ daughter Chris Welles Feder, nicely put the episode
in the context of Welles’ career and the development of mass media. Easily recommended for fans of Welles and
Wells despite the over-stylized recreation interludes, American Experience’s War of the Worlds premieres on PBS Tuesday
the 29th (10/29), seventy-five years after the fateful broadcast,
nearly to the day.
Labels: American Experience, Orson Welles