Today is the 79th anniversary of Orson Welles’s infamous War of the Worlds broadcast.
In 1938, Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater of the Air performed a radio adaptation of H.G. Welles’s War of the World. Presented as a live news program, it was one of the first mockumentaries. It also caused a panic. How big the panic was is open for debate. Some say only a few people took it seriously. Other sources say that it was a nationwide crisis. But, regardless, Welles made history on that night. Not only did he illustrate the power of the media but he also scared the Hell out of a lot of people. All in all, a pretty good night…
Filmed in 1957 for a television program called Westinghouse Studio One, The Night America Trembled is a dramatization of that night. For legal reasons, Orson Welles is not portrayed nor is his name mentioned. Instead, the focus is mostly on the people listening to the broadcast and getting the wrong idea. That may sound like a comedy but The Night America Trembled takes itself fairly seriously. Even pompous old Edward R. Murrow shows up to narrate the film, in between taking drags off a cigarette. (I enjoyed the show but, whenever Murrow showed up, I was reminded of a grumpy old teacher complaining that none of his students cared about the Spanish-American War.)
Clocking in at a brisk 60 minutes, The Night America Trembled is an interesting recreation of that October 30th. Among the people panicking: a group of people in a bar who, before hearing the broadcast, were debating whether or not Hitler was as crazy as people said he was, a babysitter who goes absolutely crazy with fear, and a group of poker-playing college students. If, like me, you’re a frequent viewer of TCM, you may recognize some of the faces in the large cast: Ed Asner, James Coburn, John Astin, Warren Oates, and Warren Beatty all make early appearances.
As I said, it’s an interesting little historical document and you can watch it below!