Were we really that naive? The PBS American Experience documentary War of the Worlds (Tuesday, Oct. 29) commemorates the 75th anniversary of the Orson Welles radio play The War of the Worlds, a tale of a deadly Martian attack on the U.S. that panicked many thousands of people across the country — perhaps even a million or more — who thought it was the real deal. TV Guide Magazine spoke with one of the participants in the documentary, the great film director Peter Bogdanovich (The Last Picture Show, Paper Moon), who was a close pal of the late Welles.
TV Guide Magazine: You and Welles collaborated on the terrific 1992 book This is Orson Welles. What's your take on why we Americans were so susceptible to hysteria that night before Halloween in 1938?
Bogdanovich: The audience was primed to react in such an extreme way to Orson's radio show because there was already a lot of alarming stuff coming through the radio on a regular basis — from the news about the Great Depression to Hitler's growing power in Europe to the crash of The Hindenburg. It was a very shaky time and people were ready to bolt. Orson's broadcast was an extraordinary event to the point where it still reverberates to this day. We keep talking about it, making programs about it, and wondering, "How could this have happened?" It must have been quite something at the time!
TV Guide Magazine: Though listeners were alerted that this radio show — adapted from the H.G. Wells novel — was only a dramatization, anyone joining the broadcast in progress wouldn't know about the disclaimer. Welles had to be aware of that. Was he secretly hoping to cause a fuss?
Bogdanovich: He expected something, but he certainly wasn't expecting that kind of an uproar. He knew it could be big because he took the idea of doing a fake news broadcast from someone who'd done something similar in Spain the year before. Now fake news is against FCC rules. The guy in Spain went to jail for what he did and Orson, himself, landed in a lot of legal hot water. But he didn't go to jail. [Laughs] Instead, he went to Hollywood.
TV Guide Magazine: And he quickly struck a deal to make what many consider the greatest film of all time, Citizen Kane. Do you think that film would have eventually happened anyway without The War of the Worlds?
Bogdanovich: I don't think so. He had already been on the cover of Time for his work on the New York stage and he was probably the greatest director who ever worked in radio, but Hollywood wasn't calling. War of the Worlds was such a notorious event that it got him an unheard-of contract where he had total control. It's what made Citizen Kane possible. Nobody was allowed to f—k around with that picture. In fact, many years later Ted Turner wanted to colorize the film and then checked the contract and found out he couldn't touch it. Orson had made a deal that said the film had to be left exactly as is, forever.
TV Guide Magazine: You couldn't get a deal like that today, right?
Bogdanovich: I can't imagine it. But, then, you couldn't get a deal like that back then, either! RKO gave him anything he wanted. Every time he'd ask for something impossible, they gave it to him.
TV Guide Magazine: So his film career was that accidental?
Bogdanovich: Like all careers, you can only plan them up to a point, then destiny or fate takes over and things happen that you have no control over — sometimes for good, sometimes for ill.
TV Guide Magazine: Truth be told, his broadcast of The War of the Worlds isn't really all that good.
Bogdanovich: I remember asking Orson what he thought of it and he said he'd always considered it one of his lesser efforts. And, if you listen to the whole thing, it isn't anywhere near as good, in terms of compelling drama, as many of his other radio shows. Once the Martian catastrophe happens and the news announcer's mike goes dead, from then on the show isn't all that interesting. [Laughs] But, by then, it didn't much matter. Everyone was terrified! He did so many brilliant, extraordinary shows on radio. In fact, Citizen Kane owes a lot to the radio days. The score, for example, is a typical radio score, and his use of overlapping dialogue is something he'd pioneered in radio and in the theater.
TV Guide Magazine: Had he lived, Welles would have been a master at social media, don't you think?
Bogdanovich: Oh, definitely. He defined every medium he touched — even with the television show he did, The Fountain of Youth, which was a pilot for a series. I just don't think the panic he created back in 1938 could ever happen today. Those were such simpler times. There's so much communication now, between Twitter and Facebook and the internet. Everything is instant this, instant that, Instagram! Orson would have loved the communication possibilities of today — but he'd never be able to pull off the kind of mass hysteria he did with that Martian invasion. [Laughs] Fortunately!
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