In December 1941, when the Japanese Air Force attacked Pearl Harbour, many Americans didn’t believe the terrible news coming from the radio: someone thought that it was too incredible and absurd to be true. Even because it reminded them something happened few years earlier, when a young actor terrified them by announcing in radio the arrival of the Martian troops, with not really friendly intentions: no, this time they wouldn’t fall into the same joke.
The attack coming from War World II didn’t really spread the panic over U.S. population, and oddly enough, the merit belonged to that young actor, who in October 30th, 1938 generated a wave of hysteria. His name will soon become famous as Orson Welles.
Welles, at the time 23-years old, founded the year before the Mercury Theatre, an acting company that allowed him to free his talent (and his ego) without constraints, playing the role of the playwright, director and leading actor. Despite the undoubted skill and the popularity of his shows, he often fought with his collaborators, bringing to light a very unaccommodating character.
Meanwhile, CBS contacted him to propose a 1-hour long radio show, based on the adaptations of some successes of classical and contemporary literature. However, the Mercury Theatre on Air didn’t have the expected success: it needed a shock therapy.
The occasion came with the staging of the War of the Worlds, scheduled for the episode of October 30th: the upcoming Halloween convinced Welles to dare and to write an adaptation of the novel of H. G. Wells, something a bit less orthodox than usual, in order to obtain a greater visibility. The idea was to use the radio medium to narrate live, and in the most realistic way possible, the arrival the of aliens on Earth. His bosses at CBS were not particularly enthusiastic about this artifice, which completely distorted the original work and the setting of the transmission. Nevertheless, after a long fight, Welles got the “go”.
The War of the Worlds provided a different interpretation of the radio medium, and its intention was not terrorizing people, of course: for this very reason, at the beginning of the two acts of the radio drama a speaker informed the listeners that the events narrated were a fiction. Unfortunately, the two parts were not balanced in the same way (the first act lasted 40 of the 60 minutes assigned, without interruptions) and who started to hear the show after the start needed to wait severa minutes before being warned again that the show was fictional.
Apparently no one cared enough about what the listeners would have thought, so all the revisions implemented before the airing eliminated many of the elements clearly fake. Welles was more busy in saving the show and the script of The War of the Worlds was a show in the show, rewritten many times in order to be as much realistic as possible. Perhaps too much, because the listeners who lost the initial announcement were really sure about what came out of their radios: so, while CBS aliens landed in New Jersey, America fell in utter panic.
When the news came to the heads of the network, they asked Welles to stop the show immediately, or to announce at least that the broadcast was fake. But it didn’t happen: Welles was obtaining what he wanted and he had no intention to stop. The police and the press invaded the headquarters of CBS, blocking the whole radio station: in the meanwhile, Orson Welles was already out, in the theatre, where he was supposed to perform. Only at the end of the play, the news arrived to him.
The following morning, during a more than crowded press conference, Orson Welles apologized for what happened, denying that he wanted to terrorize the nation: the following weeks, however, most of the newspapers continued to attack him, reporting the letters and the interviews of who wanted an exemplary punishment. Many years later America discovered that about six million Americans followed the radio broadcast, and almost a third were those who fell into panic).
The Federal Communications Commission opened an investigation, but they didn’t charge the transmission with any felony and they obtained a promise from the network about more control on subsequent shows. Orson Welles, happy to not end up in prison but still frightened by the poor return of image for what happened, was seized by more than a doubt about the future of his career. The young actor ignored, however, that the hype and negative publicity would have become an excellent trigger for the next stage: Hollywood. RKO offered him in the summer of 1939 one of the best contracts ever, giving him wide freedom of action as a producer, screenwriter, director and, clearly, actor.
In December 1941, while World War II was knocking on American radios, Orson Welles had already made his most monumental and meaningful work, Citizen Kane and he was already engaged in his future projects. The War of the Worlds was what gave the sprint to his career and, over the years, it became a reason of pride for the man and the artist. With that “bad joke” he was able to change the perception of the media and their power.