The War of the Worlds Hysteria of 1938

In tandem with A. Brad Schwartz’s Audio Drama Day interview, which was released October 30th on the Classic Film Examiner, we are proud to announce a giveaway of the book “Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’ ‘War of the Worlds’” to one lucky Audio Drama Day listener.

To register for the random drawing, simply sign up for the Audio Drama Day newsletter, which will announce a random winner in early November. No purchase is necessary; newsletter subscribers’ email is not shared with any third parties, and will only be used to mail an annual newsletter and quarterly updates about events and releases on Audio Drama Day, October 30th.

Here’s a exclusive sneak peek at the interview:

Was the impact of the story entirely due to Orson
Welles’ choices as a director, or did John Houseman
or Howard Koch influence the turnout, too?

Like any dramatic production, War of the Worlds was a very collaborative endeavor, and the special power of that show really comes from the unique combination of talent behind it. Orson Welles came up with the initial idea to do a fake news broadcast, but his producer John Houseman and associate director Paul Stewart suggested they apply that idea to The War of the Worlds by H. G. Wells. Howard Koch, who later went on to co­write Casablanca, penned the script for the broadcast, and he worked out on the page most (but not all) of the fake news techniques that later left such an impression on audiences. Great credit, too, goes to the actors – especially Frank Readick, who based his performance as the hapless reporter Carl Phillips on the famous recording of the Hindenburg explosion – and sound effects technician Ora Nichols. Welles wasn’t really
involved until the day of the show, but everyone involved agrees that his last minute influence was absolutely essential to making the show sound so real. He played a major role at the very beginning and the very end, but he had a great team helping him out in the middle.

In later years, Welles would talk about the “panic broadcast” very slyly, as if he had planned a lesson for the public on critical appraisal of the news. Did he have any idea of the impact this work would have?

Despite Welles’s later claims to the contrary, there’s really no reason to believe he expected anything approaching the result that he got. Just about everyone who worked on the show later agreed that they were shocked at what happened, Welles as much as any of them. The dress rehearsal, done without Welles, was apparently absolutely dreadful, and no one in the Mercury thought the show would be any good. They couldn’t imagine that anyone would take this forty ­year-old sci­fi story at all seriously. Welles, with his career more or less on the line, made several last ­minute changes meant to inject some realism into what he and his team considered a pretty silly script. These revisions wound up being some of the elements that most convinced listeners that the broadcast was real – an effect he achieved largely by accident.

Check out the Classic Film Examiner for the conclusion to the interview!