Friday, October 25, 2013

War of the Worlds: The Night Orson Welles Scared the Attitude Out of New Jersey

Prior 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.

Welles 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.

According 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.

Just 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.