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Welles, Orson

Entry updated 19 February 2024. Tagged: Editor, Film, Radio, People.

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(1915-1985) US stage, screen and radio actor, screenwriter, producer and director; despite his intimate association with one of the most infamous events in the history of sf – as director and star of the notorious 1938 Radio play The War of the Worlds, roughly based on H G Wells's The War of the Worlds (April-December 1897 Pearson's; 1898) – he returned only intermittently to work in the genre. Yet so well remembered is the broadcast that his name continues to evoke the concept of alien Invasion, associated media hoaxes and theories of mass panic, though it is clear from reading the actual script – reproduced in Hadley Cantril's The Invasion from Mars (1940) [see details under further reading below] – that it was a patently fictional construction, with "live" coverage being interrupted by a station break, during which the programme was described as "an original dramatization" of Wells's famous novel, which was cited; after the break and the drama continued, as though days had passed, with a retrospective depiction of the aftermath of the invasion, with the Martians killed (as in Wells) by bacteria.

Welles was a child prodigy and a stage star with his own theatre company by the age of 22, and was active in radio from the mid 1930s, his extraordinary vocal range allowing him to perform many roles in the thriving New York Radio scene. Between 1937 and 1938 Welles played the supernaturally endowed crime fighter The Shadow on the Mutual Broadcasting System, though oddly it appeared that his vaunted talents failed him when it came to the sinister trademark laugh of The Shadow: the show resorted to stock recordings of the actor Frank Readick, who had played the role prior to Welles. Capitalizing on the success of his acclaimed stage company The Mercury Theatre, Welles secured in 1938 his own radio show on the CBS network, to be simply called The Mercury Theatre on the Air (11 July-4 December 1938; as The Campbell Playhouse 9 December 1938-13 June 1941 [the 1940-1941 series was without Welles]), which featured dramatizations of a wide selection of stories culled from already published fiction, beginning with Bram Stoker's Dracula (1897), and of course climaxing in The War of the Worlds. In the immediate aftermath of that broadcast, H G Wells professed displeasure at the liberties taken in the adaptation of his novel; and a digest of the tale – issued through its regular publishers with an arousing tagline: "When they told it on the radio ... it terrified the whole country" – was issued to exploit its new notoriety, the text was reduced from the original version. By 1940, however, when Welles and Wells did a radio interview together for a San Antonio station, no sign of lingering irritation remained. Courted by Hollywood in the aftermath of the broadcast, Welles signed a contract with the RKO studio, where he refused pressure to make a film version of The War of the Worlds, though it remains unclear whether this was to be an adaptation of the original novel or a retelling of events surrounding the broadcast. Given the groundbreaking techniques he employed on his eventual first studio film Citizen Kane (1941), it is tantalizing to imagine what that film might have been like.

During this period Welles broadcast on behalf of the American war effort and to this end starred in a series of propaganda broadcasts called Ceiling Unlimited. Designed to offer rousing support to the Air Force, the 21 December 1942 episode strayed (uniquely) into fantastical realms, with a humorous piece on Gremlins, the mythical creatures said to be responsible for mechanical failure and sabotage of aircraft – as also depicted by Roald Dahl in The Gremlins (1943 chap). He also starred in the first of a two-part radio dramatization of Donovan's Brain (1943) by Curt Siodmak, which was produced for the long-running and well-regarded CBS radio crime anthology, Suspense (18 May 1944).

In 1947 Isaac Asimov recorded in his diary an approach by Welles for film rights to his short story "Evidence" (September 1946 Astounding), which came to nothing. In 1949, still able to capitalize on his War of the Worlds fame, Welles ostensibly signed the introduction to the ghost-edited Invasion from Mars (anth 1949) in which he professed himself "addicted to the field of fantasy known to literature as science fiction." Peter Bogdanovich hints in This Is Orson Welles (1992) that the introduction may also have been ghosted. Besides the Howard Koch script for The War of the Worlds, this book reprinted stories by Ray Bradbury, Robert A Heinlein and Isaac Asimov. Welles also provided an introduction to S-F The Year's Greatest Science Fiction and Fantasy (anth 1956), edited by Judith Merril.

In later years, Welles occasionally found himself on the fringes of the genre. The disastrous spoof James Bond film Casino Royale (1967), in which he played the villain Le Chiffre, featured several sf tropes including a flying saucer (see UFOs) and Robot doubles; but it was to The War of the Worlds that Welles returned most often, as he relived and embellished the story on the chat-show circuit; he also participated in a brilliant spoof on the television series Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In (26 October 1970) during which he narrates a radio horror story, oblivious to the mounting chaos behind his back as the struggling sound man is attacked by a Monster. In F for Fake (1974), he briefly intercut his irreverent comments on forgery in the art world with reminiscences of the broadcast, utilizing stock footage from the film Earth vs. the Flying Saucers. Additionally, Welles narrated How Science Fiction Viewed the Moon (1969) as part of the CBS Moon landing coverage; the film Future Shock (1972), based on the book by the Futures Studies pundit Alvin Toffler; Who's Out There (1975), a short film for NASA about the search for life on other worlds – principally Mars – which gave him another excuse to reminisce about The War of the Worlds; the trailer for Star Trek: The Motion Picture (1979) directed by Robert Wise; and voice work – his final cinema involvement – for the animated film The Transformers – The Movie (1986): Welles was reportedly unhappy at voicing what he derisively dismissed (to his biographer Barbara Leaming) as a toy.

The enduring influence of his War of the Worlds broadcast on sf and the wider Media Landscape should not be underestimated. The broadcast has often been emulated and is frequently cited in the news as a metaphor for unexpected Disaster and hoaxes. Less obviously, The War of the Worlds could be said to have pioneered the interweaving of news broadcasts into fictional narratives, now almost de rigueur in sf disaster movies such as Independence Day (1996) and Armageddon (1998). The former comes close to being The War of the Worlds in all but name, owing as much to Orson Welles as to H G Wells. [JDG/JC]

see also: The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai across the 8th Dimension; Alternative 3; Walter B Gibson; Virginia Hamilton; Richard Adams Locke; The Night that Panicked America; The Shadow; Spaced Invaders.

George Orson Welles

born Kenosha, Wisconsin: 6 May 1915

died Hollywood, Los Angeles, California: 10 October 1985

works as nominal editor

further reading


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