Orson Welles (1915-1985) started as a wunderkind,
The first Martian invasion came about 3 years before Citizen Kane. In 1938, October 30th, Halloween, as it’s well known, a wave of panic was caused by the radio broadcast of Welles adaptation of H.G. Wells‘ science fiction classic The War of the Worlds.
The 1938 radio hoax
I wasn’t meant to be a hoax. It was properly announced as a dramatization, as a work of fiction, not any other radio station mentioned an invasion, and Welles was voicing different characters. But many factors coincided to make thousands of Americans (some say hundreds of thousands) feel that they were being invaded by Martians.
The style they used in the radio play, the way it was mostly broadcasted – making it sound like a news report– plus the pre-war Nazi tense atmosphere led many listeners to fall into despair: the Martians were taking over the world, no question about it.
The Mercury Theater was ready as every Sunday, 8 p.m., to do its show. The broadcast was no surprise, it had been properly planned and announced. It was the night of Halloween.
In 1938’s America there was a strong fear of Hitler in the streets. Most of the broadcast (from minute 2 to 38, so 36 minutes out of 57) sounds like a very realistic news special broadcast on a devastating attack.
The audience bought even some small inconsistencies -one happens when suddenly we are inside a warplane, and no introduction by a journalist is made; then we hear a report from the military, introduced by no journalist either. There’s an intermission at minute 38, reminding everyone that this is a Mercury Theater show adapting H.G.Wells’ The War of the Worlds.
After the break, first there is a monologue from Welles, playing a professor from Princeton who is trying to survive the invasion; then there’s a long scene where the professor meets another survivor, sheer theatre all the way; then another monologue till the end.
The key here is those 36 minutes that sounded exactly like a news report of the time, too modern for an innocent and tense 1930’s radio audience. It seems too that many listeners used to turn to CBS after a ventriloquist show on NBC, so they did so with the play already in motion and in full “news report” mode.
After that, it was too late to convince the newly arrived audience that it was only a Halloween show. The radio was then THE mass communication system (TV was a thing of the future) and it had huge credibility.
The play still works wonderfully well. Welles’ voice is magnetic. The sound effects are first class. The storytelling becomes seriously distressing. You can hear the complete recording from the link at the end of this post. You should listen to it if you can.
There’s a TV film about what happened that night. Its a good TV movie called The Night That Panicked America, (directed by Joseph Sargent, and co-written by Nicholas Meyer, the guy who helped build the Star Trek movie franchise). And there’s a great book too, Allan Gallop’s The Martians are Coming!, which will tell you as much as you need to know about that night. Adolf Hitler made fun of the Americans when he heard about the hoax. He referenced the broadcast in a speech in Munich on November 8, 1938.
The second Martian invasion.
Maybe you didn’t know that Orson Welles became a key character in a second Martian invasions. At least the publicity department of a film studio wanted us to believe so.
This second time it involved Superman.
The second Martian invasion had a lot to do with the promotional campaign for a film that Orson Welles played as an actor in 1949, Black Magic. An adaptation of Alexandre Dumas’ novel Joseph Balsamo, the film tells the story of a very devious character, Cagliostro -who really existed-, a hypnotist, a magician, and an occultist. It seems that Cagliostro enjoyed fame during XVIII century France. Orson Welles was playing the lead and Gregory Ratoff was directing.
The publicity team of “Black Magic” devised a very unusual campaign to promote the film.
The campaigners created a comic-book adventure, starring Orson Welles as himself who, during the actual shooting of the film Black Magic, gets involuntarily involved in a real Martian invasion and ends up being rescued by the Man of Steel himself. This is how Superman Wiki summarises the crazy storyline:
After wrapping up filming of Black Magic, Orson Welles (still in costume) and Nancy Guild (co-star of the film) drive down a mountain road where they come across a rocket ship. Orson exits and, out of curiosity, steps into the open door.
The ship is an experimental pilotless rocket, and Welles is trapped and sent to Mars (as he recalls how “I fooled the world with my Martian invasion broadcast — I never dreamed I would invade Mars myself!”) Welles is greeted by uniformed Martians, who recognize him from their studies of Earth. The Martian dictator, one Martler (who styles himself after Adolf Hitler) explains his invasion plans and offers Orson the post of Earth propaganda minister.
Orson Welles flees (using the prop sword he still has with him) and forces his way into “the nearby Martian broadcasting studio,” sending out an appeal to Earth and specifically requesting Superman’s help. Perry White and Lois Lane laugh it off as another hoax, but Superman flies off in pursuit. Welles, using the special magic tricks he’d prepared for the wrap party, frightens the Martians, using a smokescreen, a mouth-based flame thrower, and even pulling a rabbit from his sleeves.
After Superman halts the Martian fleet, Welles uses his vocal prowess to manipulate an unconscious Martler into abdicating and renouncing his warlike ways (to the relief of the Martian people). Orson Welles is returned to the costumed wrap party (where Nancy Guild asks him if the broadcast was a hoax). Shortly thereafter, Clark Kent‘s “Orson Welles Really on Mars!’ story is rejected by Perry White.
If you are interested in buying a copy of this particular issue, from time to time one appears online at around 1.000 dollars.
Extra material 1: The original complete radio broadcast.
The complete recording of The War of the Worlds’ broadcast, as it happened, 57 minutes long.