THE ” WAR OF THE WORLDS ” MYTH – BY ELLIN CURLEY

I went to a presentation celebrating the 80th anniversary of Orson Welles’ 1938 radio broadcast of H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds”. The reason this particular broadcast has lived on in history and is still remembered and talked about today is really quite interesting.

Orson Welles broadcasting “The War of the Worlds”

The radio play starts with a typical program playing music from a live band. This fictional program is then interrupted by a realistic sounding “newscaster” reporting an increasingly destructive invasion by Martians. The Martians wipe out New Jersey and proceed to annihilate Manhattan. They are reported to be landing all over the east coast of the United States. The U.S. army is reported to be vanquished and the audience is told that we have no defenses left.

Rehearsal of War of the Worlds

Newspapers the next day, including the New York Times, headlined a nationwide panic that made this incident the most notorious event in broadcast history. The unprecedented mass hysteria was talked about in newspapers, books, articles and radio and TV shows for the past 80 years.

The day after the broadcast

There were reports of thousands of panicked calls to police and radio stations across the country. There were stories of traffic accidents, near riots and hordes of panicked people in the streets and on the roads, fleeing the Martian invasion. There were even reports of suicides and deaths due to the hysteria caused by the broadcast. It was claimed that the stories continued in the newspapers for two weeks, with over 12,500 articles about the panic.

The day after the broadcast

Today, however, this version of history has now been debunked and fallen out of favor. The current belief is that whatever panic occurred, it was small and not widespread. Most listeners understood this was a dramatization. While some may have been scared by the story, few panicked. Evidence shows that at the time of the event, newspaper reports of the story actually stopped after a day or two, not weeks. The story was not the long-lasting, national headline grabber we believed it to be.

In addition, far fewer people heard the original broadcast than most people believed. This fact makes the magnitude of the reported panic much more implausible. A rating service the night of the broadcast reported only 2% of listeners were even tuned in to The “War of the Worlds.” This was true, in part because Welles was scheduled opposite one of the most popular shows on the air – Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy.

In addition, several important CBS affiliates, including in Boston, didn’t even air Welles’ show. Instead, they aired local commercial programming, which further reduced Welles’ national audience.

History does show, however, that the story grew in magnitude and in detail as time went on. So the 1940 claim that one million people heard the broadcast is grossly exaggerated.

Just as the size of Welles’ audience has been inflated, so have the reports of mass hysteria. There is no documentation of any deaths or even hospital visits, as claimed, due to the shock of the broadcast. In reality, there were almost no contemporaneous news accounts of mobs in the streets or highways jammed with fleeing people. In fact, people later reported walking through the streets of major cities at the time of the broadcast and finding them as empty as usual at that time of night.

There is another piece of evidence used to counter the mass panic scenario. If the terror and chaos had been as bad and as widespread as reported, CBS and Welles would have been severely reprimanded or even punished. But no sanctions were levied and no official rulings or regulations were promulgated by the FCC.

Welles facing the press the day after the broadcast

So why was the mass panic story started and why did it survive for so long?

One credible theory is that newspapers were to blame for the origins of the story. Radio was still a relatively new medium in 1938 – only 18 years old. But already radio was taking advertising dollars and audiences away from the newspaper industry. So the newspapers seized upon this opportunity to trash the radio as an unreliable source of news. A newspaper trade journal at the time wrote: “The nation as a whole continues to face the danger of incomplete, misunderstood news over a medium which had yet to prove …that it is competent to perform the news job.”

You can’t trust the radio! Fake news!

People are now debating why this myth has persisted for so long. One answer is a man named Hadley Cantril. He wrote a scholarly book in 1940 that gave academic credence to the panic. He used numbers and statistics that made his story seem plausible, but which have subsequently come into question.

He had no hard facts to back up any of his assertions. And he is the only legitimate academic source that claims there was a sizeable panic. Yet his writing has kept this version of the story in textbooks, as it still is today.

There is a more philosophical explanation of the persistence of the mass hysteria myth. In 2000, Northwestern’s Jeffrey Sconce wrote an article called, “Haunted Media”. In it, he suggests that the “War of the Worlds” myth captures our unease with mass media and the internet’s power over us. We all fear, on some level, the media and the internet “…invading and colonizing our consciousness.” The myth is “…a cautionary tale about the power of the media.”

Jeffrey Sconce

Radio opened up a new means of mass communication and shared experiences. Now the internet is doing the same thing. Sconce states that “…today the internet provides us with both the promise of a dynamic communicative future and dystopian fears of a new form of mind control; lost privacy; and attacks from scary, mysterious forces.”

This is particularly true with today’s epidemic of fake news, foreign intervention, and manipulation of the internet and domestic political dirty tricks. We deal with political misinformation being spread to millions of people every day. A national panic may not have occurred because of a radio broadcast in 1938, but it is more likely to occur today because of the abuse of the internet.

A TALE OF THREE BONDS – Rich Paschall

Casino Royale, By Rich Paschall


When Eon Productions, maker of all those James Bond movies, finally made a film based on the very first Ian Fleming novel, fans of the super spy may have wondered what took them so long.  The novel, published in 1953, introduced us to the Cold War spy with a “License to Kill”, but why no movie?  In the book as in the films (plural, follow along), Bond’s mission is to bankrupt the evil Le Chiffre of the Russian secret service by beating him at cards at the Casino Royale.

Le Chiffre is desperate for the money but confident he will win.  His own life will be at risk if he loses.

Original hard copy with dust jacket

The book was a hit in the UK, but sales in the US were slow and this set into motion events that would keep a serious adaptation of the novel away the big screen for over 50 years.   In an effort to popularize his hero in America, Fleming sold the television rights for the novel to CBS to adapt into a live drama for the series Climax!

The program aired October 21, 1954, and probably would have been lost forever, if not for the eventual popularity of the novels and movies.

Casino Royale 1954
Casino Royale 1954

The television production starred Barry Nelson as James Bond, an American agent.  Sometimes he is referred to as “Jimmy” which ought to make long-time Bond fans cringe.  The American agent in the novel is now a British agent named Clarence Leiter (rather than Felix).

For the live drama, parts are condensed or eliminated and the focus is on the card game.  Since the game is baccarat, not poker as in the latest movie, a little time is spent explaining it for the American audience.

Le Chiffre is played by Peter Lorre, a veteran of the big screen, with just the right amount of evil.  A film star of the 1940’s and 50’s, Linda Christian, gets the honor of being the first “Bond girl.”  You are left to wonder, at least at the outset, whose side she is really on.  I guess for an early black and white television drama, it is not too bad, if you can get past Jimmy Bond as an American spy.

In 1955 Fleming sold the movie rights to film director and producer Gregory Ratoff for a mere 6 thousand dollars.  Perhaps it was big money then.  Unfortunately, Ratoff died in 1960, never having developed the story for the movies.  Next up was the producer, attorney, and talent agent Charles K. Feldman who represented Ratoff’s widow and ultimately obtained the rights.

By now, the Bond series was off to a good start, so how could Feldman possibly compete?  Failing to negotiate an agreement with Eon, he decided to do something that may have been typical of the mid to late 1960’s.  He produced a “madcap” comedy, a spoof of the spy series.

There just is not enough space here to explain what the producers and various directors did to this film.  Although they assembled what was meant to be an “all-star” cast, you can not say they got a lot of great performances from this crew.  Various writers created sections that were to be filmed by different directors and all would be edited together.  This allowed them to work with many stars doing different scenes at different locations and studios at the same time.

A movie monstrosity ensued.

John Huston, who also appears in the movie as M, directed one segment and left.  Five other directors worked on the project, one uncredited.  David Niven is “Sir James Bond” who must be convinced by Huston, Charles Boyer, William Holden, and Kurt Kazner to come out of retirement to deal with Le Chiffre.  Bond takes on the role of head of the spy agency upon M’s departure and they recruit Peter Seller’s (Evelyn Tremble), a baccarat expert, to impersonate Bond and play Le Chiffre at the Casino.  Le Chiffre is played by Orson Welles.

Explanations are pointless. See it — or not.  The temperamental Sellers left the project for a rest before his part was finished.  He was asked not to return.  Welles hated the unprofessional Sellers and they barely spoke to each other.  A gaggle of stars perform cameos.  When all was said and done, it was a confused mess.

Val Guest, one of the directors, along with the film editor, got permission to film additional scenes with Niven and Ursula Andress (Vesper Lynd) — a hopeless attempt to add some continuity to the script and deal with the missing David Sellers’ performance.

Watch for un-credited stars, especially at the end. There is no sensible explanation for the final scenes.

The critically-panned film did well at the box office, as many of the crazy comedies of the 1960’s did.  At least it provided a great musical score by Burt Bacharach, including the hit song The Look of Love.

The film rights next passed to Colombia Pictures, the studio that had put out this disaster.  They held onto them until 1989 when Colombia was acquired by Sony.  A legal battle followed, and the rights were used as a bargaining chip with MGM/UA for … wait for it … MGM’s portion of the rights to Spiderman.

Spiderman was traded for the original James Bond in 1999.

Casino Royale was not next as there was one more Pierce Brosnan movie to be made.  When Brosnan declined a fifth film, the opportunity to “reboot” the spy series was at hand.

Back to the beginning.  Our hero became “007,” and the silver screen welcomed Daniel Craig as “Bond, James Bond.”

A TALE OF THREE JAMES BONDS

Casino Royale, By Rich Paschall


When Eon Productions, maker of all those James Bond movies, finally made a film based on the very first Ian Fleming novel, fans of the super spy may have wondered what took them so long.  The novel, published in 1953, introduced us to the Cold War spy with a “License to Kill”, but why no movie?  In the book as in the films (plural, follow along), Bond’s mission is to bankrupt the evil Le Chiffre of the Russian secret service by beating him at cards at the Casino Royale. Le Chiffre is desperate for the money, but confident he will win.  His own life will be at risk if he loses.

The book was a hit in the UK, but sales in the US were slow and this set into motion events that would keep a serious adaptation of the novel away the big screen for over 50 years.   In an effort to popularize his hero in America, Fleming sold the television rights for the novel to CBS to adapt into a live drama for the series Climax!  The program aired October 21, 1954 and probably would have been lost forever, if not for the eventual popularity of the novels and movies.

Casino Royale 1954
Casino Royale 1954

The television production starred Barry Nelson as James Bond, an American agent.  Sometimes he is referred to as “Jimmy” which ought to make the long time Bond fans cringe.  The American agent in the novel in now a British agent and named Clarence Leiter (rather than Felix).  For the live drama, parts are condensed or eliminated and the focus is on the card game.  Since the game is baccarat, not poker as in the latest movie, a little time is spent explaining it for the American audience.

Le Chiffre is played by Peter Lorre, a veteran of the big screen, with just the right amount of evil.  A film star of the 1940’s and 50’s, Linda Christian, gets the honor of being the first “Bond girl.”  You are left to wonder, at least at the outset, whose side she is really on.  I guess for an early black and white television drama, it is not too bad, if you can get past a Jimmy Bond as an American spy.

In 1955 Fleming sold the movie rights to film director and producer Gregory Ratoff for a mere 6 thousand dollars.  Perhaps it was big money then.  Unfortunately, Ratoff died in 1960, never having developed the story for the movies.  Next up was producer, attorney, talent agent Charles K Feldman who represented Ratoff’s widow and ultimately obtained the rights.  By that point, the Bond series was off to a good start and how could Feldman possibly compete?  Failing to negotiate an agreement with Eon, he decided to do something that may have been typical of the mid to late 1960’s.  He produced a “madcap” comedy, a spoof of the spy series.

There just is not enough space here to explain what the producers and various directors did to this film.  Although they assembled what was meant to be an “all-star” cast, you can not say they got a lot of great performances from this crew.  Various writers created sections that were to be filmed by different directors and all would be edited together.  This allowed them to work with many stars doing different scenes at different locations and studios at the same time.  A movie mess ensued.

John Huston, who also appears in the movie as M, directed one segment and left.  Five other directors worked on the project, one is uncredited.  David Niven is “Sir James Bond” who must be convinced by Huston, Charles Boyer, William Holden and Kurt Kazner to come out of retirement to deal with Le Chiffre.  Bond takes on the role of head of the spy agency upon M’s departure and they recruit Peter Seller’s (Evelyn Tremble), a baccarat expert, to impersonate Bond and play Le Chiffre at the Casino.  Le Chiffre is played by Orson Welles.

OK, now we will stop trying to explain it.  You have to see it (or not).  The temperamental Seller’s left the project for a rest before his part was finished, and he was asked not to return.  Welles hated the unprofessional Sellers and they did not speak to one another, or work together much apparently.  A whole gaggle of stars make cameo appearances.  When all was said and done, and there was a confused mess on film, Val Guest, one of the directors, along with the film editor, got permission to film additional scenes with Niven and Ursula Andress (Vesper Lynd)  It was an attempt to find some continuity to the script and deal with the missing David Sellers’ part. Watch for un-credited stars, especially at the ending. There is no good explanation for the final scenes.

The critically panned film did well at the box office, as many of the crazy comedies of the 60’s had done.  At least it provided a great musical score by Burt Bacharach, including the hit song The Look of Love.  The film rights then passed to Colombia Pictures, the studio that put out this mess.  They held onto them until 1989 when Colombia was acquired by Sony.  A legal battle followed, and the rights were used as a bargaining chip with MGM/UA for…wait for it…MGM’s portion of the rights to Spider-Man.  Yes, Spider Man was traded for the original James Bond in 1999.

Casino Royale was not next as there was one more Pierce Brosnan movie to be made.  When Brosnan declined a fifth film, the opportunity to “reboot” the spy series was at hand.  It was back to the beginning.  Our hero becomes “007,” and the silver screen welcomes Daniel Craig as “Bond, James Bond.”