How little it took to panic the country 78 years ago! The War of the Worlds broadcast on Halloween Eve 1938 by Orson Welles and his Mercury Theater demonstrated the power of radio and how edgy the country was. Or did it? Recent studies have contended that the panic was not widespread and that relatively few radios in the country were tuned to the broadcast. At any rate there was enough of an uproar that CBS called a press conference the next morning at which Welles appeared and took questions:
MR. WELLES: Despite my deep regret over any misapprehension that our broadcast might have created among some listeners, I am even more bewildered over this misunderstanding in the light of an analysis of the broadcast itself.
It seems to me that they’re our four factors, which should have in any event maintained the illusion of fiction in the broadcast. The first was that the broadcast was performed as if occurring in the future, and as if it were then related by a survivor of a past occurrence. The date of this fanciful invasion of this planet by Martians was clearly given as 1939 and was so announced at the outset of the broadcast.
The second element was the fact that the broadcast took place at our weekly Mercury Theatre period and had been so announced in all the papers. For seventeen consecutive weeks we have been broadcasting radio sixteen of these seventeen broadcasts have been fiction and have been presented as such. Only one in the series was a true story, the broadcast of Hell on Ice by Commander Ellsberg, and was identified as a true story in the framework of radio drama.
The third element was the fact that at the very outset of the broadcast, and twice during its enactment, listeners were told that this was a play that it was an adaptation of an old novel by H. G. Wells. Furthermore, at the conclusion, a detailed statement to this effect was made.
The fourth factor seems to me to have been the most pertinent of all. That is the familiarity of the fable, within the American idiom, of Mars and the Martians.
For many decades “The Man From Mars” has been almost a synonym for fantasy. In very old morgues of many newspapers there will be found a series of grotesque cartoons that ran daily, which gave this fantasy imaginary form. As a matter of fact, the fantasy as such has been used in radio programs many times. In these broadcasts, conflict between citizens of Mars and other planets been a familiarly accepted fairy-tale. The same make-believe is familiar to newspaper readers through a comic strip that uses the same device.
And scattered about it, some in their overturned war-machines, some in the now rigid handling-machines, and a dozen of them stark and silent and laid in a row, were the Martians–dead!–slain by the putrefactive and disease bacteria against which their systems were unprepared; slain as the red weed was being slain; slain, after all man’s devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth.
H.G. Wells, The War of the Worlds
Remember, no panicking. All will be well. Nothing to worry about:
John Huston’s film Moby Dick (1956) is a true work of genius. The only film version worthy of the novel, the screenplay was written by Ray Bradbury who in 10,000 words got to the essence of the 206,052 word novel. (Bradbury confessed when he was approached by Huston to do the screenplay that he had never been able to get through the novel.) A deeply religious film that asks questions about God and the human condition that still jar us, the most striking scene is the sermon on Jonah by Father Mapple, portrayed unforgettably by Orson Welles. Enoch Mudge who served as the chaplain of the Seaman’s Bethel in New Bedford and Father E.T. Taylor who served as the chaplain of the Seaman Bethel in Boston, served as the real life models for the fictional Mapple. (At the time of Melville any clergyman of age or authority was often accorded the title “Father” by his parishioners in Protestant churches, a distinction retained today only by Catholics, the Orthodox and a few Protestant churches.)
Welles suffered from a bad case of stage fright just prior to the scene and John Huston produced a bottle to help Welles fortify himself. Welles then did the scene letter perfect in one take. Here is the text of the sermon as written by Bradbury for the film:
And God prepared a great fish to swallow up Jonah. Shipmates, the sin of Jonah was in his disobedience of the command of God. He found it a hard command, and it was, for all the things that God would have us do are hard. If we would obey God, we must disobey ourselves. But Jonah still further flouts at God by seeking to flee from him. Jonah thinks that a ship made by men will carry him into countries where God does not reign. He prowls among the shipping like a vile burglar, hastening to cross the seas, and as he comes aboard the sailors mark him. The ship puts out, but soon the sea rebels. It will not bear the wicked burden. A dreadful storm comes up. The ship is like to break. The bo’s’n calls all hands to lighten her. Boxes, bales and jars are clattering overboard, the wind is shrieking, the men are yelling. “I fear the Lord!” cries Jonah, “the God of Heaven who has made the sea and the dry land!” Again, the sailors mark him. And wretched Jonah cries out to them to cast him overboard, for he knew that for his sake this great tempest was upon them. Now behold Jonah, taken up as an anchor and dropped into the sea, into the dreadful jaws awaiting him. And the great whale shoots to all his ivory teeth, like so many white bolts, upon his prison. And Jonah cries unto the Lord, out of the fish’s belly. But observe his prayer, shipmates. He doesn’t weep and wail, he feels his punishment is just. He leaves deliverance to God. And even out of the belly of Hell, grounded upon the ocean’s utmost bones, God heard him when he cried. And God spake unto the whale, and from the shuddering cold and blackness of the deep, the whale breached into the sun and vomited out Jonah upon the dry land. And Jonah, bruised and beaten, his ears like two seashells still multitudinously murmuring of the ocean … Jonah did the Almighty’s bidding, and what was that, shipmates? To preach the truth in the face of falsehood! Now, shipmates, woe to him who seeks to pour oil on the troubled water when God has brewed them into a gale. Yeah, woe to him who, as the pilot Paul has it, while preaching to others is himself a castaway! But delight is to him who against the proud gods and commodores of this Earth, stands forth his own inexorable self, who destroys all sin, though we pluck it out from under the robes of senators, and judges. And eternal delight shall be his who, coming to lay him down, can say “Oh father, mortal or immortal, here I die. I have striven to be thine, more than to be this world’s or mine own, yet this is nothing. I leave eternity to thee, for what is man that he should live out the lifetime of his God?
Here is the much, much lengthier version from the novel (Too bad that time prevented Ray Bradbury from serving as Melville’s editor!)
I was watching Orson Welles’ 1948 version of Macbeth. It is a version of the play steeped in darkness, with the drama taking place on a landscape that looks like a dark and evil lunar surface. Interestingly Welles adds a character, the Holy Man, a Catholic priest. At the beginning of the film he chases away the “three weird sisters”, waving the Celtic Cross he carries. After King Duncan arrives the Priest leads the court, anachronistically, in the rendition of the Saint Michael Prayer, go here to read about it, that would be written by Pope Leo XIII some nine centuries after the events depicted in Macbeth:
Saint Michael, the arch angel, be our safeguard
against the viles and wickedness of the devil.
Do thou, oh prince of the heavenly host,
by the divine power
thrust into hell satan and the other evil spirits,
who wander through the world,
seeking the ruin of souls.
Thus thou renounce Satan?
I renounce him.
And all his works?
I renounce them.
And all his pomps?
I renounce them.
Candles are distributed during the prayer, are lit and are raised by all at the end, Macbeth slower than the rest.
How wonderfully daffy the golden age of Radio tended to be. A broadcast on December 19, 1944 of the show This Is My Best: Norman Corwin’s comedic poem The Plot to Overthrow Christmas, a hilarious look at a plot by Hell to stop Christmas, with Orson Welles starring as Nero. Amazing the entertainment heights that could be reached without car chases, explosions, profanity, bathroom jokes and sex.
Orson Welles gives a spell-binding performance as he delivers a sermon at the beginning of the movie Moby Dick (1956). The role of Father Mapple (back in the days when Protestant ministers would often have that title) is based on Father Edward Thompson Taylor, the great Methodist missionary among seamen who was in charge of the Seamen’s Bethel in Boston in the Nineteenth Century.