Monday, April 10, 2006

War of the Worlds

"Ladies and gentlemen, I have a grave announcement to make. Incredible as it may seem ... those strange beings who landed in the Jersey farmlands tonight are the vanguard of an invading army from the planet Mars!"

Two men, who shared both a name and the touch of genius, sent panicking Americans pouring out into the streets in 1938, desperate to fight or flee an alien invasion. The story of the play's impact has obscured the fact that Orson Welles' version of H.G. Wells' 'War of the Worlds' remains one of the greatest and most innovative radio dramas ever made.

Welles did not write the screenplay, the script was the work of Howard Koch who was paid all of $75. It was his choice to place the martian attack in New Jersey. He dropped a pencil on a road map to find his landing site - a hamlet called Grovers Mill. Koch's script can be read here.

Everyone is familiar with the effect it had, but far fewer have heard it for themselves. Hear the show in full here. It is brilliant, standing up far better than the lamentable recent film version. Spielburg's film cost upwards of $135 million, Welles drama was written in a week and broadcast live.

Half the listeners tuned in 10 minutes late, missing the introduction and prologue which clearly identified it as a work of fiction, because they'd been listening to the extremely popular 'Charlie McCarthy Show'. The wooden dummy had been destroying the Mercury Theatre in the ratings and Orson Welles needed a big halloween hit to strike back. The dial surfing listeners were plunged straight into a faux live news broadcast of an alien invasion. It is chilling, exciting and deserves to be remembered, along with Citizen Kane, as one of Orson Welles' crowning achievements. He was just 23 at the time. It wasn't the first radio broadcast to experiment with a realistic approach, but it has remained a seminal influence on the endless radio and TV shows which copied its approach.

"I was crying," recalled Maisy Curtis. "I was frantic for my fiancee and I was hearing all about these strange invaders destroying everything. My father disappeared into the bedroom and came back with some rosary beads. We just knelt and prayed."

In her church in Plainsboro, Lolly Dey was praying too. "I had been learning in high school about Hitler and his plans to take over the world," she said. "And it just made sense that maybe these Martians were Hitler's allies."

Paranoia over gas attacks was high, with war gathering in Europe and terrified New Yorkers sought to ward off the Martian 'black smoke' attack with damp towels over their tenement windows. A woman in Pittsburgh tried to swallow poison and was stopped by her husband. "I'd rather die this way!" she screamed.

Welles conducted the performance with manic intensity, masterminding a complex barrage of effects and eerily truncated reports even as the police, swamped by calls from frantic listeners, banged on the studio's door. CBS executive Taylor Davidson tried to make him break into the show to reassure his trembling audience.

"They're scared?" Welles shot back. "Good! They're supposed to be scared!"

Welles and his crew slipped out of the studio's backdoor to avoid the sudden media scrum. The next day he played the straightest of bats in apologising for the fuss the play had caused. The storm of publicity gave Welles the clout he needed to make his debut movie, "Citizen Kane" — one of the greatest films ever made. Its only real competition at the top of every movie buff's list was written by the same Howard Koch, Casablanca.

When a version was broadcast in Quito, the capital of Equador in 1948, rioting listeners burnt down the radio station!


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