The Magic World of Orson Welles (7 page)

The technique of Welles's earliest broadcasts can be heard in the second half of the well-known
of the Worlds
recording, where a Princeton professor, having survived the apocalypse, takes over in his own voice and brings the story to its conclusion. Of course nobody then or now has paid much attention to the second half; by all accounts, even the opening of
War of the Worlds
was not one of Welles's most aesthetically satisfying productions, and, contrary to popular opinion, it received one of his lower ratings. Like his other shows, however, it was calculated to utilize properties inherent in the medium, and it did so better than anyone anticipated, catapulting Welles to international fame and linking his name forever to the greatest hoax (however unintentional it may have been) in the history of broadcasting.

It was Welles's idea to have writer Howard Koch update H. G. Wells's science fiction novel by casting the first part of the program in the form of fake news bulletins, with Herrmann imitating everything from “Ramón Raquello and his orchestra” to a solitary piano playing Chopin. At first an announcer breaks into a music program to say that “disturbances” have been sighted on the planet Mars, and then gradually the whole show is taken over with reports of disaster. At the midway point, a reporter (Ray Collins) is heard from atop “Broadcasting Building” on Times Square, describing the destruction of New York and ultimately falling dead at the mike. A ham radio breaks the silence, asking, “Isn't there anyone on the air?” and then, after ten seconds of absolute quiet, a CBS announcer gives a station break.

Everyone concerned has recalled that they had little respect for the script, which they thought was silly, and at the last moment Welles almost withdrew the project in favor of an adaptation of
Lorna Doone
. But when the broadcast finally aired on Halloween eve 1938, it was acted with customary intensity, and at 8:30, halfway through the program, the cast was surprised to learn that some listeners had been taking the whole thing seriously. For several hours afterward, groups of people from coast to coast were thrown into panic, believing that monsters from Mars, flying invulnerable spaceships
and armed with poison gas, were destroying the earth. Luckily nobody committed suicide or died of heart failure, although people of widely different social classes and educational backgrounds behaved irrationally. They prayed, took flight in cars, or ran out to warn their neighbors that the world was ending; church services were interrupted by hysterics, traffic was jammed, and communications systems were clogged. At Princeton University two distinguished geologists rushed out to search for the Martian “meteor” that was reported to have landed nearby, and scores of citizens were medically treated for shock.

Four times during the show listeners were told that they were hearing a dramatization, and at the end Welles jovially announced that it had all been a friendly joke: “That grinning, glowing, globular invader of your living room is an inhabitant of the pumpkin patch, and if your doorbell rings and nobody's there, that was no Martian . . . it's Hallowe'en.” Nevertheless, for many of those who tuned in late to the first half of the program, the news seemed quite real. Welles and Koch had used actual settings like Grover's Mill, New Jersey, for the rocket landings and had taken full advantage of public familiarity with “on the spot” news coverage, such as the classic broadcast in which a reporter is heard breaking down at the sight of the Hindenburg explosion. Although a fictional network called “Intercontinental Radio” was invented for the news announcements, and although the entire destruction of the world took only thirty minutes of air time, the early sections of the program were quite good at creating the illusion of real events. Most of the names used on the show were slightly garbled versions of live persons—even “Professor Richard Pierson of Princeton” sounded rather like Newton L. Pierce, an assistant in astronomy at the university, and an announcement of a nationwide emergency was made by the “Secretary of the Interior” in a voice exactly like FDR's. What was particularly effective was the way Welles as director had manipulated the audience's sense of time, keeping to real duration at the beginning of the show and then dramatically collapsing the action once the basic illusion was established. At several points, notably in the beginning, he allowed dead silence on the air, and he dragged out “Ramón Raquello's” rendition of “La Comparsita” for an excruciatingly long period; all this, of course, made the later, more speeded-up and implausible occurrences seem real.

Listened to today, the program seems quite naïve, and despite Welles's and Koch's occasional cleverness one finds it difficult to believe that so many people were deceived. Several explanations have been offered for the phenomenon: the show aired just after the Munich crisis, a war scare that is alluded to at the very beginning of the broadcast and that may have influenced some
to think that the reported invasion wasn't extraterrestrial at all. Sociologist Hadley Cantril, who made a book-length study of audience response, believed that people were fooled because of an anxiety “latent in the general population,” caused by years of economic depression and in some cases by educational deprivation. The world was clearly ripe for radio demagogues, he noted, and the problem lay less in radio than in “the discrepancy between the whole superstructure of economic, social, and political practices and beliefs, and the basic and derived needs of individuals.”

The program ultimately became important as a case study of mass hysteria, but in the immediate aftermath of the broadcast it was not clear whether Welles would be remembered as a hero or as a monster. The morning papers described public reaction as a “tidal wave of panic,” and the chairman of the FCC issued a statement calling the program “regrettable.” An angry H. G. Wells threatened to sue because of what he claimed was a misuse of his novel, and for a while there were rumors of government retaliation against CBS. When Orson Welles stepped forward to speak with reporters on the day after the show, he was taking not only the credit for the broadcast but also the possible blame. He had unwittingly become the world's newest and perhaps most dangerous manipulator of the public.

In retrospect, however, it is easy to see how Welles's fascination with the media had tended to comment indirectly on the demagoguery that was latent in the times. By choosing to imitate news announcements, tinny hotel orchestras, silences, breakdowns, and various forms of wireless communication, he and Koch achieved an ironic distance between themselves and their sign system, as if they were trying not only to grip the listener but to joke about the power of radio itself. In much the same way, Welles's films would tend to comment on movies or photographic images, and in his late work, such as
The Immortal Story
F for Fake
, he would become preoccupied with the relationship between fictional versions of an event and the shifting, evasive “reality” underlying the fictions. In other words, he remained both enamored of his abilities as a showman and slightly guilty about those abilities. Like Jack, the actor character in
Bright Lucifer
, he seemed to feel a Faustian temptation behind his talent, a danger of becoming the role he played.

However it foreshadows Welles's later work, and whatever its virtues as drama,
War of the Worlds
at least ensured that Welles would come to Hollywood on a wave of publicity. Even before the Mars panic he had been on the cover of
and had signed a radio contract with Campbell's Soup, but
War of the Worlds
made him the first true creation of what Robert Brustein
has called “news theatre.” Soon his need of money to keep the Mercury stage productions afloat, plus his fame (now almost equivalent to Hitler's), would conspire to bring him to RKO. Not that he was the reluctant intellectual or the filmmaking naïf some writers have made him seem. He had made one complete movie, and his stage work showed his interest in films as clearly as Eisenstein's had done in the twenties. In fact, Welles had read both Eisenstein and Pudovkin, and for the Mercury Theatre production of
Too Much Johnson
he had shot a film that was supposed to be integrated with the play. He had projected snippets of movies in his other productions, and his massive stage show
Five Kings
had deliberately tried to create “cinematic” montages, fades, and dissolves on stage. In June 1938 he remarked during a lecture to a convention of English teachers in New York that the entertainment value of legitimate theater had become “vastly inferior to the movies.” Clearly he wanted to try Hollywood (although he had rejected an offer from MGM that would have required him to serve an apprenticeship under King Vidor), and it is not surprising, given his new reputation, that his early projects on the West Coast tended to be about demagogues who manipulate the masses.


MGM was known for quality, Warner Brothers for “social realism,” and Paramount for sophistication. RKO, on the other hand, was chiefly a designer's studio. It never had a stable of important actors, writers, or directors, but quite by accident it was rich in artists and special-effects technicians. As a result, its most distinctive pictures contained a strong element of fantasy—not so much the fantasy of horror, which during the thirties was the province of Universal, but the fantasy of the marvelous and adventurous. At RKO Willis O'Brien and his team had created
King Kong
; the Disney group had released the first animated feature,
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs
; and talents like Perry Ferguson, Van Nest Polglase, and Vernon Walker produced fascinating otherworldly sets and artwork. Given such a tradition, it is difficult to imagine Xanadu being conceived anywhere else.

Unfortunately, the studio never quite made it to the major leagues, though it tried nearly everything, from modestly budgeted spectaculars like
King Kong
to low-budget horrors like Bert Wheeler and Robert Wolsey's
Cracked Nuts
. One problem was that RKO was owned by a succession of people with interests outside the movies, and it was notorious for going through reorganizations; from 1926, when it was called FBO Pictures, until 1933, it had six different production chiefs, and by the mid-forties it had gone through six more. When Welles arrived, it was under the control of two kinds of money—Southwestern
and Eastern—representing two philosophies of management. On the one hand was economy-minded Texas industrialist Floyd Odlum, who was interested mainly in quickie program features; on the other was an RCA–Rockefeller Center group, headed by David Sarnoff and Nelson Rockefeller, who wanted a “quality” image. (“Quality” did not necessarily mean big budgets; one reason for all those special-effects people was that the studio put a premium on ingenuity.) In 1937 the Eastern group had prevailed, hiring George Schaefer to take charge of production. Schaefer, formerly a Goldwyn assistant, tried to be a prestige producer in the mold of the Thalbergs, Selznicks, and Scharys, but he was to prove much less successful. Through him Welles was put under contract (a choice that reflected the studio's old-time policy of bringing radio stars to the movies), and he remained a supporter of the Mercury organization until he was forced out in 1942, the year of the

As long as Schaefer was in, things went relatively smoothly, but it would be a mistake to assume that Welles ever had total freedom. He had been hired as a jack-of-all-trades who would produce a picture a year, and though he seemed to have half the classic literature of the Western world on his list of proposed films, his stay at RKO was littered with rejected or abandoned scripts. The most important of these,
Heart of Darkness
, written entirely by Welles, has been excerpted in
Film Comment
, with an excellent commentary by Jonathan Rosenbaum. Two others were
Smiler with a Knife
, based on a Nicholas Blake thriller, and a film with no set title that the production staff referred to as “Mexican Melodrama.” This film had been proposed in advance of
and then developed as Welles's second feature for the studio, and its script can be found in the Weissberger Collection at the University of Wisconsin. Gregg Toland was to photograph the film, partly on location, and Welles would star. Welles also wrote the screenplay and was scheduled to direct, although he later announced that Norman Foster, his collaborator on
Journey into Fear
, would take over the job. Plans for the film fell apart, but even had Foster directed, it seems likely that Welles would have supervised much of the work.

Two things about the
Smiler with a Knife
project are worth noting. First of all, although it was based on a spy novel, it was to be an essentially comic film (at one point Welles wanted Lucille Ball, then a dramatic actor, to star, and the whole idea was later abandoned when Carole Lombard rejected it). Welles's own notes to himself when preparing drafts of the script indicate that he was most pleased by the antic moments and wanted to revise the sections where he thought the satire was weakest. Second, and most interesting, the script contains an important foreshadowing of
Citizen Kane
. Midway
through the movie Welles planned to insert a
March of Time
sequence, at the conclusion of which the camera would track away from a movie screen and discover two of the important characters seated in a theater audience—all of this a year in advance of Welles's collaboration with Herman Mankiewicz, whom Pauline Kael believes to have been the principal author of the
script and the man responsible for its movie satire and “thirties comedy.”

The scripts for
Heart of Darkness
and the “Mexican Melodrama” are worth a longer comparison, because they not only illustrate Welles's early preoccupations but also imply interesting things about his working conditions. Throughout his stay in Hollywood, Welles had to do at least one or two thrillers of the “Mexican Melodrama” variety for every
. (It is said that he offered to do
Smiler with a Knife
for free if RKO would let him proceed with the expensive Conrad film.) He once said that he preferred stories that affected the “heart” rather than the “spine,” but like any good Hollywood director he had to adapt his thematic interests to a genre, often making his films interesting through the sheer force of style. This is not to say that Welles regarded the thriller as an inherently bad form; he had been doing thrillers on radio for years, and for a New York actor he was refreshingly free of snobbery. There was, however, a certain tension between his ambitions and the demands of Hollywood.
Heart of Darkness
and the proposed Mexican film demonstrate this tension fairly clearly, chiefly because they have so much in common. Both are concerned with demagoguery and manipulations; both involve a perilous journey into the heart of a jungle; and both use a doppelganger theme, in which a liberal protagonist is set off against a fascist look-alike. (Welles was to play a dual role in
Heart of Darkness
, and he might ultimately have done the same for the Mexican film.) In fact the two projects are so similar that the “Mexican Melodrama” could be described as an attempt at redoing Conrad in a more popular, less experimental and expensive form.

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