Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The War of The Worlds' Fair: A Fantasian Exploration of Orson Welles

            On October 30th, 1938, much of America tuned into a radio broadcast of the popular NBC show Chase and Sanborn Hour.  15 minutes into the broadcast typically marked the end of the first Charlie McCarthy sketch and the beginning of the first musical number, at which point many people would idly scan their radio band.  Then they’d hear it – first reports of a strange meteor crash in Grover’s Mill, New Jersey.
            Something came out of the meteor.  A tripod.  And within a half-hour nearly the entire population of Grover’s Mill had been disintegrated by a Martian heat ray.
            Over a million listeners never tuned back to Chase and Sanborn.  Some ran, some rioted.  Farmers grabbed their shotguns. 
            Such was the lunacy inspired by an elaborate prank by a then 23-year-old Orson Welles and his troupe of Mercury Theatre actors.  According to PBS’ The Battle Over Citizen Kane, Welles timed his radio play adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds so that the first reports of invasion would coincide with Americans playing radio roulette between acts.  Of course, how much of that is true and how much can be attributed to serendipity, only Welles knows.
            Montreal’s Fantasia Festival offered an in-depth look at Welles’ Mercury Theatre production and its aftermath last night during War of The Worlds: Welles and Wells, hosted by Cineclub’s Phil Spurrell.  Opening with a ten minute sampling of the original radio broadcast, the presentation also touched on Montreal’s own connection to Worlds during the Expo 67, followed by a screening of the rare 1975 TV movie The Night That Panicked America.
            Though further investigation has chalked up much of the reported public reaction to the broadcast as drummed-up  Yellow Journalism,  it’s easy to see how  some, when confronted with panic from a relatively new medium, could have over-reacted (National network broadcasting had only begun a decade earlier).  For the first two acts, the play unfolds much as a developing story on a 24-hour news network would today, with tiny tidbits of new information meted out in between commercials and musical interludes. 
            Spurrell accurately described it as a testament to the genius of a 23-year-old master of entertainment, but it’s also quite refreshing to examine a relic from a less cynical world – a prank believed largely due to the public’s willfulness to lose itself in a medium.  In an age where the equivalent ambition is an intern’s desire to get a newscaster to say “Captain Sum Ting Wong” and “Ho Lee Fuk” on live television, it is an exhibit of what unbridled talent and ingenuity sounds like; a reminder of an idealized era when wielding power and even exploiting ignorance could be harmless fun, but still articulate.
            After the broadcast sampling, Spurrell screened footage from Montreal’s Expo ’67 of re-edited scenes from the 1953 adaptation of the novel.  The footage was reconfigured to be displayed on multiple screens and rear-projected, so as to demonstrate how several events could play out instantaneously.  The 1967 Expo, Spurrell said, was “sort of the birthplace of the IMAX.”  It, in fact, was where director Richard Franklin got the idea for split-screen sequences in the 1968 film The Boston Strangler, starting a late-60s fad for the technique frequently utilized by directors like Brian De Palma.  The footage had not been seen publicly in forty years.
            If the Welles broadcast is best looked at as a relic, ABC’s The Night That Panicked America is a fascinating curiosity of its time.  Never released in theatres or on VHS, the film is a dramatization of the broadcast and the public reaction.  It’s a time-capsule of oddities wrapped in a fairly generic TV movie.  The late Vic Morrow leads a cast that includes a young John Ritter,  Tom Bosley, Cliff De Young, Casey Kasem and  Eileen Brennan (who passed away just last week).  It also falls weirdly into place of director Joseph Sargent, whose oeuvre includes one of the best seventies thrillers (The Taking of Pelham 123) and a film that is featured on nearly every “worst of all-time” list (Jaws: The Revenge). 
            The in-studio depiction of the broadcast is as captivating as it is accurate, reminiscent of the 1982 early television comedy My Favuorite Year and Joe Dante’s cold war-panic farce Manitee.  Though the depictions of panic in small town America – from Ritter’s eager-to-fight-the-Nazis farmboy earnestness to the bourgeois wealthy having the wool pulled over their eyes by their mistreated butler – plays out with the kind of trite hackery for which television is often criticized.
            Still, as a novelty, it’s a joy to watch. 
            Cineclub plans to re-screen the film and the rare footage sometime closer to the 75th anniversary of the original radio broadcast sometime in October.  Check http://www.cineclubfilmsociety.com/ for updates.

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