Monday, October 30, 2017

what if?

Happy anniversary, America!

Seventy-nine years ago today - yes, 79 years - the incorrigible Orson Welles broadcast the infamous "The War of the Worlds" episode of his popular radio program, Mercury Theater on the Air. It was October 30th, 1938 and it was a Halloween episode aired by the CBS radio network.

Directed and narrated by the then-23-year-old Welles, who had yet to become Hollywood's wunderkind with "Citizen Kane" (1941), the episode, simulating an actual newscast, was an adaptation by Howard E. Koch of H.G. Wells' 1898 novel "The War of the Worlds" and it caused collective panic among the ever-fearful, ever-gullible citizens of the U.S. of A. with its sensational reportage of an attack by Martians (the original illegal aliens) who, for some bizarre reason, set their sights on a little farm in Gover's Mill, New Jersey, before hitting New York City.

Next year will be the 80th anniversary of the broadcast and I have this perverse fantasy that, between now and then, some brave, resourceful filmmaker/documentarian might pull the same kind of prank, given that Americans are more skittish than usual these days (understandable, considering how chaotic life has become). It would be a terrific, much-overdue wake-up call. And think of all the horrible current events ready-made for an irresponsible, "scare-the-bejesus-out-of-them!" broadcast.

Perhaps Errol Morris or Morgan Spurlock or Gabriela Cowperthwaite could pull it off. Or Steven Soderbergh or The Coen Brothers. Or Mr. Provocateur himself, Michael Moore. Wait! I'm not sure about Moore, now that he's been sucked into a pointless Twitter war-of-words with Trump.

It would be perfect. After all, Welles' broadcast was the original Fake News. How appropriate would it be if the viewing public (it would have to be on TV these days) was sucked into faux "breaking news" about Trump or white nationalists or out-of-control police - a story even more outrageous than the ones routinely aired by ABC, NBC, CBS, CNN, MSNBC and Fox News?

"Our actual broadcasting time, from the first mention of the meteorites to the fall of New York City, was less than forty minutes," Welles' producer John Houseman later reminisced. "During that time, men traveled long distances, large bodies of troops were mobilized, cabinet meetings were held, savage battles fought on land and in the air. And millions of people accepted it - emotionally, if not logically." And, surprisingly, there were no real ramifications from a prank that unsettled the nation, other than Welles and company being subjected to relentless hounding by the media.

I don't recall reading anything of a serious reprimand by the government or about any charges brought against Welles and the Mercury Theater.

Of course, these days, there would be consequences, with the usual suspects - the assorted talking heads of TV - self-righteously scolding the filmmaker in question for being either "inappropriate" or "insensitive" or "irresponsible" or "politicially incorrect." Or all of the above.
Happy Halloween!

~ (from top) the scare headlines of The Boston Daily Globe, The New York Daily News and The New York Times © from October 31st, 1938


Kiki said...

BRILLIANT!! oh, if you are making dinner reservations, don't use the names Gates, Papanapoulus or Manafort. They are under house arrest. Try Werner, Chaney and Goodman instead. Boy, what a crazy ride these last nearly 60 years have been!

Bill from Philly said...

Whoever would have the nerve to pull off such a prank these days would have Paul Ryan all over his/her ass.

w.c. said...

MY FATHER FELL FOR IT in West Palm and tried to takes HIS MOTHER AND MY SISTER INTO THE Everglades to hide from the enemy. But found out before being leaving town... Boy how things have changed!

Marvin said...

Joe, very clever; good Halloween blog!

Joe Amodei said...

Just watched an old Studio One episode first broadcast in 1957 that was a reenactment of this story and narrated by Edward R. Murrow. The show was dated but the cast was, well, here you go...James Coburn, Warren Oates, Warren Beatty, Alexander Scourby, Ed Asner, Tom Clancy, Vincent Gardenia and Robert Blackburn. The title is "The Night America Trembled."