Don’t panic! It’s just The War of the Worlds.

Seventy-seven years ago, Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater broadcast a radio play of H.G. Wells’ alien invasion classic The War of the Worlds. The next day was Halloween and the newspapers dutifully scaremongered, splashing sensationalized headlines on their front pages about the mass hysteria the radio program had provoked in the listening audience. There were reports of suicides, people being hospitalized for shock, heart attacks and thousands of terrified callers clogging the radio station’s phone lines. Almost all of those reports have proven unfounded, although it is true that more people than usual called the station, some complaining about the show being too scary, others complimenting the show for being so scary, still others wanting to know how they could help the victims of Martian violence.

One of the frightened listeners sued CBS for “nervous shock”, but the suit was dismissed. One man wrote to CBS claiming he had spent $3.25 of his savings for a bus ticket to flee the Martians and only heard it was play 60 miles later. He was saving up to buy a new pair of shoes, so he asked CBS to send him a pair of black men’s shoes, size 9-B. Welles sent him his new shoes, against the advice of CBS’ lawyer.

Orson Welles had already had success on radio in 1937 as the voice of The Shadow and on the stage with his innovative Mercury Theater company when CBS offered him a one-hour anthology series debuting in July 1938. This was prestige listening, adaptations of the great works of literature written and performed by a professional troupe of the New York theater. The introduction emphasized this pedigree, noting it was radio’s “first presentation of a complete theatrical producing company.” Welles and his Mercury Theater cast and crew put on the works of William Shakespeare (Julius Caesar), Alexandre Dumas (The Count of Monte Cristo), Charles Dickens (Pickwick Papers) and Robert Louis Stevenson (Treasure Island), among many others.

It is true that Welles deliberately set out to give his version of The War of the Worlds a realistic news story staging complete with expert commentary, witness interviews and fake reports from military honchos. It wasn’t a hoax, though; just a way of giving the show a fresh, dynamic immediacy and give the audience a nice little scare for Halloween. Still, CBS was concerned that people might confuse it with real news, so they made sure there were disclaimers not just before the opening of the program, but also at the 40 and 55 minute marks.

The show opened with what sounded like standard radio programming — a weather report followed by an orchestra playing music in a hotel ballroom — that was suddenly interrupted by a special new bulletin reporting explosions of hydrogen gas on Mars. Then it was back to the sleepy dance music, then another special bulletin, then back to the orchestra, then another break away to an astronomer describing what he saw on Mars. The tension grew from there as reports got more and more dramatic and the regular programming of music kept getting cut off after a few bars.

The other Mercury Theater broadcasts were more traditional radio plays. Welles’ twist for The War of the Worlds was to use radio conventions to convey the confusion and terror of the original story. He had the cast listen to WLS radio reporter Herbert Morrison’s real-time description of the Hindenburg disaster, still famous today for its “Oh the humanity!” anguish, to get that genuine feeling of a newsman’s increasing horror as tragedy unfolds before him. Cast member Frank Readick played that role to perfection.

The Halloween headlines condemned Orson Welles as a hoaxster and instigator of widespread panic. It was enough to scare CBS into calling a hasty press conference at which Welles expressed his deep regret, insisting he had no idea anybody would take it seriously.

[youtube=https://youtu.be/uuEGiruAFSw&w=430]

He may or may not have been genuinely contrite (his expression around the 5:35 mark reminds me of Puss in Boots’ big-eyed hat-in-hand look from Shrek), but the story vaulted him to national fame, secured a sponsor (Campbell’s Soup) and another two years of the radio show. It’s also the reason RKO Studios gave Orson Welles an unprecedented two-movie contract granting him complete artistic control of his pictures. Without The War of the Worlds, there would have been no Citizen Kane.

The broadcast still holds up, even though reporters don’t talk like that anymore. The sound effects — especially the panicked crowd noises — are great and the adaptation remains one of exceptional dexterity and verve. Listen for yourself and see what you think. Would have spent all your shoe money on a ticket out of town if you had heard this 77 years ago?

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8 Comments »

Comment by rita Roberts
2015-10-30 03:36:57

Fantastic post. Most of which I remember and Orson Welles was one of my favourite actors !! That voice was always unmistakable. He could either frighten you to death, or charm the socks off you. Thanks for this superb post bringing back many memories.

 
Comment by A
2015-10-30 08:03:46

“But you don’t play down the melodramatic effect of a … a melodrama!” That made me crack up.

 
Comment by Wendy Caton Reed
2015-10-30 09:06:03

It was sensational and sadly, something that could never happen in today’s world of instant and social media. Although some people still believe “everything” they see on the internet.

 
Comment by C A
2015-10-30 09:47:16

Are you sure it couldn’t happen today? I’ve seen some internet hoaxes that were firmly believed at the time. Nothing with Wells’ finesse or puckish humor. But there are some crazy things out there that can trick and terrorize

 
Comment by Karen
2015-10-30 10:36:22

Thank you for this! I’d never listened to the original broadcast all the way through. The action sequences were fantastic, very believable. The long discourses sometimes felt…long. I wish I had the attention span of those audiences!

 
Comment by dangermom
2015-10-30 11:26:11

Not going to listen to it right now, because our local radio station is playing it tomorrow, woot! Great post, I love the video of sad Welles.

 
Comment by Frank
2015-10-30 13:31:00

Welles associate Richard Wilson kept some 1400 letters that were sent to Mercury Productions after the broadcast, which are now at the University of Michigan’s Special Collections Library (along with much other Welles material). A. Brad Schwartz analyzed them (and 600 others sent to the FCC) in his book, “Broadcast Hysteria.” It’s a pretty interesting effort, as three-quarters of the letters were in fact positive, complimenting Welles on his work.

 
Comment by GoryDetails
2015-10-30 13:31:49

I enjoyed the audio very much. And I got to see a delightful stage version of the broadcast by Shakespeare & Company in Lenox Massachusetts a few years back – they adhered pretty closely to the radio-script, while adding some touches to liven up the people-actually-on-stage bits. Lots of fun!

 
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