''War of the Worlds'' spooked America 60 years ago
Good heavens, something’s wiggling out of the shadow like a gray snake,” warbles a voice from the darkness. ”I can see the thing’s body now. It’s large, it’s large as a bear. It glistens like wet leather!”
What is this? A snippet of dialogue from The X-Files? A scene from one of the Alien flicks? The words are 60 years old, though they unleashed a strain of sci-fi paranoia that Mulder and Scully still exploit to this day.
On the night before Halloween in 1938, a showboating 23-year-old actor, director, producer, writer, and Shakespeare aficionado named Orson Welles went on the radio with his Mercury Theatre troupe and spooked America out of its wits. Welles, partner John Houseman, and writer Howard Koch had wanted to spruce up The War of the Worlds, the H.G. Wells novel, by turning it into a series of realistic news bulletins, and the stunt worked far too well. Convinced that Martians were blasting New Jersey into hot ash, listeners fainted, jammed telephone lines, and took to the streets to flee. Decades before Howard Stern’s ”shock jock” radio, the prank was so subversive — and radio so powerful a medium in this time before TV — that, Welles boasted, cops marched into the CBS control booth to monitor it. ”The kind of response, yes — that was merrily anticipated by us all,” he later told confidant Peter Bogdanovich. ”The size of it, of course, was flabbergasting.”
Welles made the hysteria his friend. ”He went before the press like someone going before a hostile audience knowing that he could woo them,” says critic and biographer David Thomson, author of Rosebud: The Story of Orson Welles. Hollywood can’t resist a sensation — even a dangerous one — so Welles was promptly lured to California, where he became the doomed maestro behind Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, and Touch of Evil. Still, says Thomson, ”he never did anything again that made the whole world sit up.”
Now the world is making amends. Universal has retooled Touch of Evil for the big screen. Two ”lost” Welles scripts, The Big Brass Ring and The Way to Santiago, are on the way too. Tim Robbins has shot Cradle Will Rock, in which Welles is the director of a socialist musical, while many polls still name Kane the best American film ever. ”We’ve caught up with him,” Thomson says, ”and we’ve realized that he was one of our truly extraordinary people.”
Time Capsule / Oct. 30, 1938
AT THE MOVIES, Suez, with Tyrone Power and Loretta Young, packs them in at Manhattan’s Roxy theater. Admission is 25 cents. IN MUSIC, bandleader Russ Morgan has fans listening to (78 rpm) singles of ”I’ve Got a Pocketful of Dreams.” ON BROADWAY, Hellzapoppin, a raucous, panned revue featuring vaudeville’s Ole Olsen and Chic Johnson, is a wild hit, going on for 1,404 performances. Two ill-fated attempts to revive the show — in ’67, with Soupy Sales, and ’76, with Jerry Lewis — never open on Broadway. IN BOOKSTORES, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca haunts the fiction list. Two years later, it will be Alfred Hitchcock’s first American film, after Hitch’s plans to make The Titanic sink. AND IN THE NEWS, thousands of Jewish refugees flee Germany for Poland. In 1939, that country falls to Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich.