DATELINE: War of the Worlds
Orson, not H.G.
We can usually count on American Experience documentaries to give us intelligent and insightful looks at history.
Nobody is perfect, and an attempt to look at the 1938 radio broadcast that made young hotshot Orson Welles a household name is disappointing. War of the Worlds probably owed more to the idiocy of audiences and their unsophisticated and non-critical thinking skills.
In some ways, not much has changed when it comes to the public and its media habits. However, radio as the first big democratic source of info learned that it’s not nice to fool people, even on Halloween.
Half-way through the broadcast, executives wanted to stop Welles, but Orson had a head a steam up—and he ignored his producer John Houseman and his writer Howard Koch. He did it his way: and it won him a contract in Hollywood. Houseman thought it was a terrible idea and that Welles never read Wells.
In his own rash dash style, Welles came up with a mimic newsreel approach to the topic, eschewing the real H.G. Wells for his own personality. After all, this was the man who put on Macbeth in Harlem with an all-black cast and set it in 19th century Haiti. He dared convention.
Welles provided a contrite and unbelievable apology next morning. It must rank as the worst performance he ever gave. He hardly could hide his smirk.
As for the documentary of the event, the film uses bad actors, emoting and faking, pretending to be people in 1938 (wearing period clothes in black and white film) who talk unconvincingly about their experience listening to the program. These imbecilic comments were based on real letters.
The technique fails miserably and demeans the entire hour-long episode of American Experience. Five weeks after the broadcast of 1938, the FCC fully exonerated Orson for his folly.