The night that panicked America


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

Alexandre Alexeieff and Claire Parker


Before the Law from The Trial (1962).

I’d wanted to write something about this pair of animators last year but at the time there was none of their work available for online viewing. This situation has now been remedied thanks to the ubiquitous YouTube.

This is Kafka-related once again since most people have seen Alexeieff/Parker’s work—if at all—in the prologue they provided in 1962 for Orson Welles’ film of The Trial. Alexandre Alexeieff was a Russian illustrator and animator who met Claire Parker, an American art student, in Paris in 1930. The pair formed a life-long partnership and together developed a new style of animation using a pinscreen, a white board containing thousands of pins whose shadows when pushed out of the board provide the grey tones required to create a picture. At the time they began working with this most animation was flat and cartoony; the pinscreen enabled them to create the kind of subtleties of shading seen in pencil and ink drawing. Many of the effects they created are stunningly lifelike.

The prologue for The Trial is a pictorial rendering of Kafka’s parable, Before the Law, which Welles narrates. This is an impressive piece (and I always loved the distinctive Piranesi-style walls) but for a real taste of their breathtaking skill you need to see Night on Bald Mountain, whose Goya-like transformations precede Disney’s Fantasia version by nearly a decade, or their adaptation of Gogol’s The Nose. It’s a shame that YouTube’s compression degrades much of the detail in these films, they really deserve to be seen on a bigger screen, but—as with many of these obscurities—it’s good to know they’re available at all.

Alexeieff and Parker on YouTube:
Night on Bald Mountain (1933)
En Passant (1944)
Before the Law (1962)
The Nose pt. 1 | The Nose pt. 2 (1963)

Previously on { feuilleton }
Steven Soderbergh’s Kafka