“We know now that in the early years of the 20th
century, this world was being watched closely by intelligences greater than our
man’s, yet as mortal as his own.”
Those words opened the greatest fictional radio
broadcast of all time, which aired 75 years ago this month and has been a
source of fascination ever since, particularly among those who cherish our
“War of the
Worlds,” the 1938 broadcast on CBS Radio by Orson Welles and the Mercury
Theatre on the Air, is the subject of a video documentary that premieres
Tuesday Oct. 29 on the outstanding PBS history program “American Experience.” I
recommend it highly.
Note that I said greatest fictional radio broadcast. The greatest of all time, most would
agree, was Herbert Morrison’s coverage of the Hindenburg disaster. But the same
sense of compelling live drama, of news being made, propelled “War of the
Worlds” into lore.
I grew up listening to “War of the Worlds” on an LP
of old-time radio shows. I know its rhythms, its hisses and scrapes, its
musical interludes and cast of characters. I flat-out loved it.
The TV documentary, which I saw in a review copy,
tells the familiar story. Mercury Theatre had created a series of programs
based on literary works like “Dracula” and “Oliver Twist”; for Halloween, Orson
Welles sold his producing partner John Houseman on doing an adaptation of the
H.G. Wells Martian tale from 40 years earlier, reset in the United States.
a series of news bulletins interrupting regular programming, the Sunday evening
show used vivid sound effects and voice characterizations to create mental
pictures of creatures crawling out of ships and killing people with heat rays
in and beyond Grover’s Mill, N.J.
Famously, many listeners missed the show opening because
they were enjoying ventriloquist dummy Charlie McCarthy cutting up with Edgar
Bergen on NBC’s “The Chase and Sanborn Hour,” then tuned over to CBS and the
Martians once Nelson Eddy began singing. The documentary notes the conventional
wisdom that “up to a million people” were thus convinced, “even briefly,” that
the United States was being assaulted by monster invaders.
Just how wide was this panic? I’ve always wondered.
According to accounts, callers “flooded” newspapers
and police with calls, rushed out of their homes, begged power companies to
turn off the lights, gathered in prayer.
I spoke with Susan Douglas, who appears in the
program. She is an author and professor of communications studies at the
University of Michigan. She said hard numbers are difficult to come by, but one
study estimated that 6 million people heard the play, of which about 1.2
million were frightened.
“What we don’t
know is how many actually poured into the streets. And for the newspapers, this
was a double dip for them; because some newspapers — those not associated with
radio stations or that didn’t own them — saw radio as competition, especially
cutting into the evening papers. … Some were like, ‘See? You’d better watch
what you listen to on radio!’”
This may help explain why newspapers ran 12,500
stories about the Martian broadcast over three weeks, certainly feeding the
panic story and probably exaggerating it.
However, many people evidently were taken in.
Mercury Theater member Richard Wilson saved letters received after the
broadcast; in 2007 his estate donated them to the University of Michigan, where
student A. Brad Schwartz rediscovered them and used them for his thesis.
Welles explains and apologies for that little
Martian misunderstanding. Author Susan Douglas describes his ‘charismatic smirk
… He had that charisma that comes from an absolute confidence in your talent.
He was thrilled.’
The documentary brings these letters to life using actors.
I didn’t care for the stylized reenactments; but I found the words compelling.
Regardless, people really were scared (while quite a few congratulated
themselves on not having been
fooled). And how could we not smile hearing a letter-writer say of Welles, “He
is a carbuncle on the rump of degenerate theatrical performance”?
MASTERS OF SOUND
The video also explores the reach and role of radio
in people’s lives. It emphasizes the economic anxieties of a nation during a
time when even a president acknowledged “fear itself.”
It reports that “Americans were highly attuned to
the sound of crisis” and to eyewitness accounts of unsettling world events at a
time when radio news divisions were finding their footing. It makes particular
note of the Munich crisis weeks prior. “People were used to having their
programs interrupted by news bulletins,” Douglas told me. “People could hear Hitler’s
voice as he became increasingly incendiary about annexing the Sudetenland. …
You have a population on edge.”
It also accounts
how abashed some people felt after they learned they’d been fooled; and it
explores the charisma and mischievous personality of the 23-year-old Welles.
Overall I thoroughly enjoyed the “American
about the interactions between Welles, Houseman and writer Howard Koch. I was
reminded of the story of Koch picking out Grover’s Mill on a map with his eyes
I appreciated the descriptions of fervid show
preparation in the week prior to broadcast; the delivery of a wax disk recording
of Thursday’s rehearsal to Welles at his hotel in the early morning of Friday
and his declaration that it was “abysmally dull,” which led to massive
rewriting; and the influence of a radio show Welles had heard hours earlier by
Archibald MacLeish called “Air Raid” that used news bulletins in dramatic
The filmmakers provide an account of actor Frank
Readick preparing to portray reporter Carl Phillips by going down to the CBS
record library to listen to the eyewitness account of the Hindenburg accident. And
there’s a wonderful story told by Peter Bogdanovich about Welles’ use of mic
technique, standing at a podium in Studio 1 on the 20th floor of CBS in New
York, holding 10 actors and a 27-piece orchestra silent at one particularly
The TV show
is loaded with delightful archival photos and film clips. Radio history buffs
will have a field day trying to identify classic radios on display. And the
documentary reminds us of the power of sound when wielded by people who know
what they’re doing — as Douglas puts it, “working in a medium that denies sight.”
The producers describe the 75th anniversary of “War
of the Worlds” as a timely reminder of the power of mass media. “During times
of enormous cultural fragility and uncertainty,” Douglas said, “people turn to
trusted media sources and can be powerfully influenced by them. Still.”
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