Happy 70th Birthday, 'War of the Worlds'!

Orsonwelles_lSeventy years ago today, a 21-year-old Orson Welles, along with his Mercury Theater players, gathered at New York City’s CBS studios to perform a one-hour radio play—an adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds. Panic would ensue—though much of it was probably blown a wee bit out of proportion by newspapermen unhappy with radio’s increasing dominance—and mass media would never be the same. It’s easy to say that we were a younger, more naive society in 1938 and it was cake for Welles to convince six million listeners than Martians really were invading Earth, starting with Grover’s Mill, NJ. But when I think of War of the Worlds two things come to mind…

addCredit(“Everett Collection”)

1) Welles, along with his writer, Howard Koch, knew exactly how to exploit the medium they were working in. Even though the program was interrupted with the occasional station identification and reiteration that what listeners were hearing was fiction, War of the Worlds was ingeniously presented as a series of news briefs, breaking into musical programming with updates from the invasion. The verisimilitude is what sold it, so much so that "We now interrupt your regularly scheduled broadcast" was afterwards banned from dramatic programs.

2) We’ll never see its like again. As a culture, we don’t trust enough to buy into something like War of the Worlds. We’d expect proof and corroboration, and if we didn’t get it, we’d automatically dismiss it as a stunt. That kind of large-scale, interactive entertainment is impossible nowadays and from a storytelling perspective, that’s kind of sad.

If you’ve never heard War of the Worlds, check out the clip below and (bearing in mind that this was broadcast seven decades ago) let us know what you think.

Comments (12 total) Add your comment
  • kim in kentucky

    it was brillant then, and is still brillant today — to think – only 21 years old???

  • jen

    the university in my town has decided to try and recreate it tonight. they are using all the same methods that were used for the original & they say it will be a word for word copy. it should be pretty interesting to see if they can. still not like the original, but cool just the same

  • Rich

    Glen Beck’s crew did a reenactment of this a couple years ago on Halloween. Not as good as Welles, of course, but it was still a lot of fun.

  • Eric Friedmann

    Orson Welles was a genius. No doubt about that. Fatter than holy hell, but still a genius.

  • Chris

    Orson Well’s? YouTube needs spell check.

  • Rick

    Has anyone noticed that Rainn Wilson from The Office is a dead ringer for Orson in that picture?

  • Kent Boughton

    At 7 PM (CDT) on nebraska.tv is the live streaming broadcast of the 1938 Mercury Theatres “War of the Worlds”. Dressed in cloths of the era with on stage sound effects area broadcasters and talent will raise money for the historic Grand Theatre and the Cathrine Fosket Childrens Theater program in Grand Island Nebraska. Over a year of planning should make this production one to watch on the world wide web.

  • daisyj

    Very cool. The funny thing is, I almost didn’t read this item because, based on the picture, I thought this was another write-up of another blog-hot indie band. Not sure what that says about the indie music scene, the young Orson Welles, or me, but there you go.

  • kim in kentucky

    OMG!! I thought it looked like Rainn Wilson too!!

  • Anonymous

    boo i want to hear more of it!!!

  • Anonymous

    ok i just listened to part 2 – HOLY CRAP I’D BE SCARED TOO! considering you don’t see anything? damn that shiz was scarier than any “horror” movies today. not seeing it = scarier than actually seeing it (case in point: signs).
    orson welles, you were 21! holy crap, kid!

  • Rob Grizzly

    I agree that it’s kind of sad, we’ll never see it’s like again. This is a big reason why the newest Speilberg movie couldn’t completely work.

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