We don’t usually engage in “what-ifs” when considering classic Hollywood movies. But our recent viewing of a television/DVD documentary about a radio show broadcast in the late 1930’s changed our mind — at least in one case.
To put today’s proposition directly, what if Orson Welles’ very first movie was, instead of the magnificent Citizen Kane, a big-screen version of his infamous 1938 broadcast based on H. G. Wells’ novel The War of the Worlds.
Not to be overly glib but who knows, Welles’ Hollywood debut might have been a sci-fi box office hit rather than a revered period classic about an early 20th century press lord — Charles Foster Kane — that initially was a box office flop.
The Oct. 30, 1938 dramatization, as recapped in the recent PBS/DVD documentary American Experience: War of the Worlds, still has the power to fascinate, even shock. The vast majority of radio listeners that night tuned into a popular musical variety show on NBC featuring Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy and a medley of the day’s hits delivered by Nelson Eddy.
But as Eddy launched into Song of the Vagabonds, listeners in droves flipped their dials with many landing on rival station CBS, which was airing what sounded like a dance program interrupted by increasingly disquieting news bulletins. Something about mysterious objects moving toward earth from the direction of Mars.
Then it was reported that an enormous flaming object had crashed into farmland near Grover’s Mills, New Jersey, 22 miles from Trenton. The narrative was delivered in the style of the famous (and horrifying) radio description of the 1937 crash in New Jersey of the German passenger airship Hindenburg.
As Dave Kehr, former video columnist for The New York Times, wrote: Listeners sat frozen as a reporter, dispatched to the scene, described “something like a great snake’ — dozens of them — climbing out of the crater. A jet of flame erupted from the head of one of the creatures, immolating cars, buildings, people.
The airwaves were filled with screams, and then sudden silence. The invaders were here, and the nation — or some significant portion of it — panicked.
It did because listeners who had stumbled on The War Of The Worlds dramatization missed Welles’ introduction making clear that it was fiction, a radio adaptation of the H.G. Wells book. “A wave of mass hysteria seized thousands of radio listeners,” reported The New York Times the next day. “At least a score of adults required treatment for shock and hysteria.”
Welles loved every minute of it. After the broadcast, the 23-year-old wunderkind telephoned his mentor and former school headmaster Roger Hill “in a breathless state over the nationwide flap your show had produced,” as recalled in Todd Tarbox’s Orson Welles and Roger Hill: A Friendship in Three Acts (the author is Hill’s grandson).
Welles gushed about the wonderful excitement of what could happen in live radio, when everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Not much went wrong that night in 1938. The radio version of The War of the Worlds continues to exert its magic.
At one point during the broadcast in CBS’s Studio 1, with 10 actors and a 27-piece orchestra on hand, Welles signaled a lengthy climactic pause — complete silence, indicating the end of life and the broadcast from Grover’s Mills — followed by static. The moment was daring and electrifying.
Sounded like the basis of a pretty good movie.