Today is the 156th anniversary of the birth of British author H.G. Wells!
It’s a bit of a tradition around these parts to celebrate H.G. Wells’s birthday with the help of another Welles, in this case Orson. Here is the infamous 1938 radio adaptation of H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds. This is the program that became famous for terrorizing America. Of course, there’s always been some suggestions that the reports of panic were a bit exaggerated. That’s always possible. Orson Welles was, at heart, a showman and he knew how to tell and embellish a story. That said, it is also known for fact that enough people took the show seriously that the panic made the front page of the New York Times.
The first half of the show is an early example of what would become known as the found footage genre. It was the first mockumentary! The second half features Welles narrating the events after the invasion. During the second half, the news program angle is dropped and it becomes a traditional radio broadcast. One would hope that even panicked listeners would have taken the hint but who knows? They may have been too busy loading up their shotguns and heading outside to search for Martians to have been paying attention at that point.
Before he revolutionized cinema, Orson Welles revolutionized both theater and radio. As the host and mastermind behind the Mercury Theatre On The Air, Welles was heard on a weekly basis as the show broadcast adaptations of literary classics into American homes. In 1938, both Welles and Mercury Theatre On The Air achieved a certain immortality with their broadcast of War of the Worlds. What is often forgotten is that, one week after terrifying America, the Mercury Theatre presented an adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, one which featured Welles in the role of Kurtz and his future Citizen Kane co-star, Ray Collins, as Marlow.
This broadcast was significant in that, when Welles first went to Hollywood, it was with an eye towards turning Heart of Darkness into a film. Welles planned to shoot the film strictly from the point-of-view of Marlow, with the camera serving as Marlow’s eyes. Welles not only planned to play Kurtz in the film but he also intended to provide the voice of Marlow. Unfortunately, the film was never made. With the outbreak of war in Europe, it was felt that the audience most likely to embrace Welles’s experiment would no longer be going to the movies. Welles would instead make his cinematic debut with Citizen Kane, a film that fully embodies Welles’s artistic vision regardless of what Mank tried to sell everyone last year. As for Heart of Darkness, it would later be adapted for television, appearing in greatly altered form as an episode of Playhouse 90 in 1958. Boris Karloff played Kurtz and Roddy McDowall played Marlow and someone decided that it would be a good idea to add a subplot in which Kurtz is revealed to by Marlow’s long lost father. There would be many attempts to turn Conrad’s novella into a feature film but it was not until 1979, with Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, that Conrad’s story would appear on the big screen, albeit in massively altered form. Nicolas Roeg would later direct his own version of Heart of Darkness, one that featured Tim Roth as Marlow and John Malkovich as Kurtz. (I haven’t seen it but that just sounds like perfect casting.)
Today, in honor of the 106th anniversary of the birth of Orson Welles, here is the Mercury Theatre On The Air’s production of Heart of Darkness. This broadcast also features an adaptation of the play, Life With Father. The casts are as follows:
Heart of Darkness: Orson Welles (Author, Ernest Kurtz), Ray Collins (Marlow), Alfred Shirley (Accountant), George Coulouris (Assistant Manager), Edgar Barrier (Second Manager), William Alland (Agent), Virginia Welles (Kurtz’s Intended Bride), Frank Readick (Tchiatosov)
(For those keeping track, Welles, Collins, Coulouris, and Alland would all have key roles in Citizen Kane. Alland played the reporter who is assigned to discover the meaning of Rosebud. Ray Collins played Boss Jim Gettys, the political boss who prevents Kane from being elected governor. Coulouris played Kane’s guardian, Walter Parkes Thatcher. And Welles, of course, was Charles Foster Kane, American. )
Life With Father: Orson Welles (Father), Mildred Natwick (Mother), Mary Wickes (Employment Office Manager), Alice Frost (Margaret), Arthur Anderson (young Clarence Day).
This program was originally aired on November 6th, 1938. Welles was 22 years old at the time of this broadcast. So, sit back and enjoy Orson Welles and the Mercury Theatre.
Did you know that in 1938, the same year that they horrified America with their production of The War Of The Worlds, Orson Welles and the Mercury Theater did a radio version of Dracula?
Check out this amazing cast list:
Orson Welles – Dracula/Dr. Arthur Seward
George Coulouris- Jonathan Harker
Ray Collins – Russian Captain
Karl Swenson – The Mate
Elizabeth Fuller – Lucy Westenra
Martin Gabel – Professor Van Helsing
Agnes Moorehead – Mina Harker
Coulouris, Collins, and Moorehead would, of course, all go one to appear with Orson Welles in Citizen Kane.
And now, we are proud to present, for your listening pleasure …. DRACULA!
Since it’s Orson Welles’s birthday and everyone’s kind of nervous about going outside right now, why not experience the live radio broadcast that panicked America in 1938?
Actually, there’s some debate as to just how panicked America got when they heard the Mercury Theater On The Air’s adaptation of War of the Worlds. There was definitely some panic but there are differing reports on just how wide spread it was. For our purposes, let’s assume that the entire country was terrified at the same time and that everyone was loading up a shotgun and planning to go out and look for aliens. One thing is for sure. With his adaptation of War of the Worlds, Orson Welles managed to invent the whole found footage genre that would later come to dominate horror cinema in the late 90s and the aughts. Every Paranormal Activity film owes a debt to what Orson Welles accomplished with War of the Worlds. We won’t hold that against Orson.
H.G. Wells, the original author of War of the Worlds, and Orson Welles only met once. Interestingly enough, they were both in San Antonio, Texas in 1940. They were interviewed for a local radio station. H.G. Wells expressed some skepticism about the reports of Americans panicking while Welles compared the radio broadcast to someone dressing up like a ghost and shouting “Boo!” during Halloween. Both Wells and Welles then encouraged Americans to worry less about Martians and more about the growing threat of Hitler and the war in Europe.
I’ve shared this before but this just seems like the time to share it again. Here is the 1938 Mercury Theater On The Air production of The War of the Worlds!