April 13, 2010
 

War of the Welles

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By Kurt Brokaw, Culture Editor

If your jaw dropped through scenes from Steven Spielberg's adaptation of H.G. Wells' "War of the Worlds," you might want to seek out and listen to the 1938 radio broadcast of Orson Welles' Mercury Theater Players performing their live version. It's available on a new CD.

"The Boy Wonder" - Orson Welles at 24

Welles' one-hour Halloween drama was performed and aired with music and dozens of real-time sound effects from the CBS radio network studios in Manhattan. It concludes with the Martian machines on their giant tripods knocking CBS off the air and crunching their way into Central Park, where they collapse from exposure to New York's everyday air pollutants.

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Early issue of first science fiction pulp magazine founded by Hugo Gernsbach in 1926, serializing Wells' novel - note rider on horseback fleeing

The claim of a radio play being more frightening than Spielberg's big-screen terrors may seem unlikely, but consider this: thousands upon thousands of Americans listening at home and in their cars to Welles' dramatization thought it was real and actually happening. Many fled their residences and towns. My own parents in Dubuque, Iowa briefly thought of wrapping me in a blanket (I was one month old) and heading downstream by canoe on the nearby Mississippi River.

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Another, later pulp magazine serializing Wells# novel - Bug Eyed Monsters (BEMS) meet Good Girl Art

How could a radio broadcast, of all things, have such impact?

There are two essential reasons. Radio during the 1930s was the major mass medium that people attended to, and trusted. In many homes the radio was positioned where the television set is today, and families gathered around to literally watch it. Attention levels and attention spans were never higher. We believed what we were told, especially if we assumed it was eyewitness news.

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The original 1895 H.G. Wells novel, issued without dust jacket.

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A mid-century hardcover authology of Wells' best-known science fiction and fantasy novels

The second reason is more complex and has everything to do with the budding artistry of 23-year-old Orson Welles. The volatile young actor had formed the Mercury Theatre players, an ensemble of over a dozen skilled performers, in New York. Welles did 41 episodes of The Shadow, adapted from the highly popular pulp novels by Walter Gibson, on the Mutuel and Yankee radio networks from late 1937 through the summer of '38. Welles was Lamont Cranston as well as his caped alterego, The Shadow; his gal pal, Margo Lane (sister of Lois Lane, who would emerge later as Superman's friend) was played by Agnes Moorehead. One episode dealers with a suicide bomber in Times Square, pursued underground by the Shadow into Manhattan's fledgling subway system under construction.

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War-of-the-Worldsiana: Top center is 1975 British LP narrated by Richard Burton; Top right is U.S. LP of 1938 broadcast on CBS; Middle Center photo shows Gene Barry/Ann Robinson in 1953 film

Welles also produced "Mercury Theatre on the Air," even playing the title role in Bram Stoker's "Dracula" three months before Halloween. By then, with dozens of Shadow episodes under their belts, the Mercury players had become experts in staging suspense, chaos and terror on a weekly basis. (Moorehead, Joseph Cotton, Everett Sloane, Paul Stewart, Ruth Warrick and George Coulouris would become well-known screen actors.) This was a tight company primed for the big one.

Even though much of "War of the Worlds" sounds improvised, everything was scripted by Howard Koch, adapting the 1895 novel of H.G. Wells and shifting its location from London to New Jersey. Welles weighs in early as a Princeton observatory professor, being interviewed on a news bulletin from the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan that an object from outer space has landed across the Hudson River. Welles' character cleverly builds misdirection onto exposition, noting Mars' distance from earth and stressing the likelihood of a stray meteor.

The scene moves to a crowd at the farm outside Grovers Mill, where the top of the buried object unscrews and a tentacled monster, "the size of a bear, dripping saliva," emerges. The terrified reporter and farmers fall back, screaming in horror as "light streams out as against a mirror" and people are incinerated, and--the transmission suddenly dies. Long empty pause. A CBS announer shakily says he doesn't know what's going on. A midtown hotel orchestra plays a little cover music. All of this is scripted.

The announcer returns as a rooftop witness to the "mammoth cylinders" crossing the river into Manhattan, the streets below filled with people fleeing. He's handed a message that Martian cylinders are "falling all over the country--outside Buffalo, Chicago, St. Louis." Black smoke fills Times Square as people rush toward the East River, "falling like flies." The announcer begins gasping as smoke "drifts across Fifth Avenue... it's a hundred yards away..." We hear a clunk as his microphone (or maybe his body) hits the deck. Then more dead silence.

Welles takes over the narration, grimly describing his progression up an empty Avenue of the Americas to Columbus Circle, blackbirds circling over the General Motors building, the new line of 1939 motor cars empty in the showroom below. He crosses into Central Park, where he spots the hood of a Martian machine. Nineteen machines lay scattered across the park, their monsters flat on the ground as flocks of blackbirds peck away at their dead skin. Their systems were not resistant to the "disease bacteria" that we tolerate. Welles, likes Wells, cites divine intervention as saving the world. (Spielberg is faithful in part to the radio broadcast as well as George Pal's 1953 filming, and he even includes the stars of the '53 movie, Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, as the grandparents of Tom Cruise's kids--a nice touch.)

Orson Welles' 1938 broadcast takes place in a one-hour time frame in which many hours of events happen in minutes. There are several announcer disclaimers at strategic points that this is an "original dramatization," and Welles identifies himself at the conclusion and describes the broadcast as a Halloween night's entertainment. Much of the listening audience was familiar with Welles' prior radio work and voice) as The Shadow. But the artistry of the Mercury Theater players was compelling enough and convincing enough to make page one on the next day's New York Daily News: FAKE RADIO 'WAR' STIRS TERROR THROUGH U.S.'

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"War of the Worlds" wasn't to be Welles' only war. He'd already stirred up the Broadway community by mounting an all-black production of "Macbeth," and an adaptation of "Julius Caesar" in which Welles played Brutus and used a real hunting knife during the assassination of Caesar--actually stabbing the actor playing Caesar during a performance and severing an artery near the poor man's heart. The actor recovered but Welles' unorthodox methods were widely noted.

Welles wanted a Hollywood project big enough so he could move his entire Mercury Theatre company out to the Coast. He also wanted a movie in which he'd have complete creative control and final cut. The major studios thought this untested 23-year-old was a lunatic. The only offer Welles got--and took--was from RKO, which was nearly bankrupt in 1939 despite hits like "King Kong" and "Bringing Up Baby." RKO granted Welles the autonomy he demanded and gave him a production cap of $500,000--a hefty budget in an era in which most A-list pictures came in under $300,000 and B programmers way under $100,000.

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Orson Welles with Herman Mankiewicz

After two false starts trying to script Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" plus a thriller, Welles turned for inspiration to Herman Mankiewicz, a hard-drinking established screenwriter ("Dinner at Eight," "Gentlemen Prefer Blonds") and former newspaper reporter. Mankiewicz' hip-pocket idea was to write a biographical drama that would review a life from the perspectives of those closest to the person.

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William Randolph Hearst...and his legendary California home, San Simeon

Welles suggested a media titan, since he'd play the part, and the giant of the era was William Randolph Hearst. Starting in 1887 Hearst had been gathering media properties and by 1939 (at age 76) he owned 26 newspapers. 16 magazines, 11 radio stations and five news services. He lived with his wife at the colossal San Simeon estate--a virtual palace with 100 rooms and two swimming pools. Hearst kept a young mistress, Marion Davies, a bubbly silent screen cutie, in Malibu luxury.

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Aldous Huxley at his Hollywood home. Right, first paperback appearance (1952) of Huxley's 1939 Hollywood novel

A handful of scholars have suggested that the screenplay for "Citizen Kane," which Mankiewicz hammered out in the summer of '39 with input from Welles and editorial supervisor John Houseman, drew its inspiration from a novel by Aldous Huxley, "After Many A Summer Dies The Swan," published that same year. Huxley was a major literary name and lived in Hollywood.

Huxley had met both Hearst and Welles. His novel follows a Hearst-like newspaper magnate who lives in an even more spectacular castle than San Simeon and busies himself with acquisitions, truth serums and a young paramour. The novel didn't seem to bother Hearst; at least he didn't try to block its production. Mackiewicz and Welles undoubtedly read the Huxley book. They knew he was part of the studio system, laboring away on adaptations of classics like "Madame Curie" and "Pride and Prejudice." It's possible they assumed Hearst's silence on Huxley's novel was a sign they could reninvent the tycoon's life and times on screen without any interference. They were very wrong.

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Top, the enigmatic "Rosebud"
Below, Marion Davies (third from left)

As Welles launched production of "Citizen Kane" in 1940, a copy of Mankiewicz' script was leaked to Hearst, who was furious. Welles plays the Master of the World to a large extent as a stern, humorless authoritarian, riddled with anxieties. The relationship with his mistress is thinly disguised, and in some ways not disguised at all. In real life, it was bantered about that Hearst's pet name for a private part of Miss Davies' anatomy was Rosebud. In the movie, Rosebud becomes Charles Foster Kane's childhood sled, tossed in a fire at the end of his life. Maybe the sled was the key to Kane's childhood, or Kane's life, or all of our lives. What was Mankiewicz thinking? Probably about his own childhood, when his first two-wheel bike, a childhood treasure, was stolen. Mankiewicz' lost bike became Welles' enigmatic sled. Can you guess who owns the sled today? Steven Spielberg, who bought Rosebud at auction some years ago for $75,000.

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"Citizen Kane" opens in 1941

Hearst couldn't stop production of "Citizen Kane" but he tried to halt its distribution, effectively blocking the movie's premiere at Radio City Music Hall. He offered RKO $800,000--more than the picture's final cost of $680,000--for the negative and studio prints. Welles threatened to sue RKO while arguing to RKO execs that the film would be a big hit and revive the ailing studio. Welles played a shrewd card in pointing out that critics and other working journalists were dying to see the picture, which was true. (There was considerable anticipation about how Welles would whittle Hearst down to size.) Henry Luce, publisher of Time and Life, enjoyed the film with his editors, and helped promote its release.

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The original film poster. Pictured with Welles are Dorothy Comingore and Ruth Warrick, two of his "Mercury actors" radio company in the movie

And so "Citizen Kane" opened to outstanding notices in 1941, became the best-reviewed picture of the year and received nine Academy Award nominations, winning Mankiewicz and Welles an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. The picture moved into general distribution, but never found a mass audience. Welles overestimated mainstream America's interest in an old, crusty newspaper owner. Small-town couples weren’t eager to pay money to see a cast of largely unknown radio actors, including Welles, that they listened to at home for nothing. Finally, because "Kane" was such a leading-edge piece of movie magic--filled with overlapping dialogue, innovative camerawork, noirish lighting before the film noir era began, prosthetic makeup, and a dozen other pioneering devices--many folks found themselves distanced from the execution as well as the story. "Citizen Kane" lost $150,000, a good piece of its production cost, and was withdrawn from distribution in the spring of 1942.

The rest, as they say, is history. Welles never enjoyed this kind of freedom, collaboration, or critical acclaim again. It's taken about half a century and Welles' passing (in 1985) for "Citizen Kane" to become universally regarded as one of the finest American films ever made--maybe the finest. Francois Truffaut, the great French director, summed up Welles' accomplishment beautifully: "To shoot "Citizen Kane" at twenty-three years of age--is this not the dream of all the young habitues of the cinematheques?"

Welles brought his own note of closure to the War of The Welles: "I had to pay for having had the best luck in the history of the cinema, by then having the worst bad luck in the history of the cinema."

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Kane's Fallen Empire / Welles' Glorious Beginning

Background sources for this essay include the excellent "Citizen Kane: The Fiftieth-Anniversary Album" by Harlan Lebo (Doubleday, 1990); "The Citizen Kane Book" by Pauline Kael (Limelight Editions, 1984); and "Huxley in Hollywood" by David King Dunaway (Anchor Books, 1989).


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