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• • • Being a journal by artist and designer John Coulthart, cataloguing interests, obsessions and passing enthusiasms.


 

The night that panicked America

mercury.jpg

The Mercury Theatre on the air.

Being a long-time fan of both HG Wells and Orson Welles, the latter’s radio production of War of the Worlds with the Mercury Theatre group has always held a special fascination. This was staged sixty-nine years ago today, October 30th, 1938, and famously caused panic among listeners who missed the opening and believed they were hearing genuine news reports of an alien invasion. I’ve often listened to the rather crude recording of the play around this time of year, having owned that recording on vinyl, cassette tape and CD. These days you don’t have to buy it, you can head over to the Internet Archive or this Mercury Theatre page and grab an mp3 to discover what all the fuss was about. The recording may be crude but the presentation still strikes me as decades ahead of its time, with a very astute sense of how ordinary people behave when faced with the news media. I’ve always loved the attention to detail, such as the moment when the man who’s been interviewed at the crash site wants to carry on talking and the interviewer has to shut him up. That same verisimilitude was carried over to the newsreel footage in Citizen Kane (which was pretty much a Mercury production for cinema) and it was those moments in the radio play which helped encourage people to think that what they were hearing was real, not drama.

Screenwriter Howard Koch, who later polished the rudimentary draft script that became Casablanca, is credited as writer of the play but the adaptation was a group effort according to Koch in his book The Panic Broadcast (1970). The idea of presenting Wells’s story as a series of news bulletins came from Orson Welles and producer John Houseman, with Koch scripting the scenes and dialogue. Most of the other Mercury adaptations took a more traditional approach and if you want some spooky listening for Halloween I’d suggest you try their version of Dracula, also from 1938. The story is severely truncated, of course, but Agnes Moorehead is very impressive as Mina, there’s some remarkable music from Bernard Herrmann and Welles plays both Arthur Seward and the sinister Count.

Previously on { feuilleton }
Alexandre Alexeieff and Claire Parker
The Door in the Wall
Voodoo Macbeth
War of the Worlds book covers

 


 

Posted in {books}, {film}, {horror}, {science fiction}, {theatre}.

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5 comments or trackbacks

  1. #1 posted by John Webb

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    Does anyone know where I can get a copy of the 1975 movie The Night That Panicked America?
    rgds John

  2. #2 posted by John

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    Hi John. It’s an old TV movie which used to turn up now and then late night in the UK but I haven’t seen it around for a while. Pretty good from what I remember of it, they go into a bit of detail showing how the broadcast was performed.

    Like many TV movies from that period, I doubt very much that’s it’s had a DVD release anywhere yet, even ones that Steven Spielberg directed don’t seem to be available. I’d say watch the TV schedules for repeat screenings.

  3. #3 posted by Michael DeWaters

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    John, are you still looking? If so go and check out http://www.agposthouse.com for a copy at $12.99.

  4. #4 posted by audiepoe

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    I Like the real story of the war of the worlds from the H.G.Wells Novel about the martians coming to earth to mygrate to,from mars to earth signed by audie g. poe

  5. #5 posted by Dawn

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    I am so intrigued with what happened that night. I really wish I had experienced it.

 


 

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