By Lars Trodson
Ever since The Mercury Theatre broadcast its famous version of “The War of the Worlds” in 1938, there has been an ongoing debate over who created the idea of using authentic-sounding news bulletins to build up the story’s suspense.
While the idea of simulated news flashes didn’t originate with The Mercury Theatre, no one had used the idea so effectively before. Several sources of inspiration have been cited over the years, including Archibald MacLeish’s radio drama (written in verse), “Air Raid,” but was it Orson Welles or writer Howard Koch that actually decided to use bulletins to move the story along?
I’ve uncovered an unexpected source of inspiration that may tip the debate over to the Welles side of the ledger, not because he was the originator of the idea but maybe he was the guy who knew how to expand on a good idea he had been involved in for another radio broadcast.
By October 1938 Orson Welles was a nationally famous. He had a very popular — and astoundingly inventive — season on Broadway with the Mercury players, and as a reward he was given his own radio slot on CBS to produce one hour dramas.
But just a year before, Welles was still very much a journeyman radio actor, appearing in numerous productions. The most famous of his acting jobs was as that “wealthy young man about town:” Lamont Cranston, more famously known as “The Shadow.”
On Dec. 12, 1937, just 10 months before “Worlds” became a global event, Welles starred in a routine episode of “The Shadow” titled “The Death Triangle” (the names in The Shadow series are especially morbid).
After the introduction, during which The Shadow asks the audience, “who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men...?” and an ad for Blue Coal — “Ask for it by name!” — the episode begins. The music fades and the sounds of a crowd mumbling and a drum roll are heard. A voice with a bad French accent intones: “On this day, Dec. 22, 1913, by order of the authority of Devil’s Island, you, Pierre Martin, are hereby sentenced to 100 days in confinement solitaire —” (murmuring in the crowd heard here) “— and 100 lashes in the presence of the assembled prisoners as a warning to all who would attempt to escape! Let the punishment begin!”
The drum roll repeats, and the doomed Pierre Martin yells out “I will find the devil who betrayed me!” and a voice starts counting the lashes: “One! Two!” while Martin repeats his vow to find the person who turned him in.
As the lashes reach the count of eight, we hear, anachronistically and suddenly, 1930s-style organ music. This organ music fades and a voice breaks in to say:
“Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt this program of organ music to bring you a special news flash from our affiliated news service. New York, Dec. 12, 1937... The Shadow has been found!”
In “The Shadow” episode, the news reader goes on to say: “Dr. James Evans, world famous child surgeon, told reporters this afternoon that a wounded man who claimed to be The Shadow forced his way into Dr. Evans’ private clinic and at the point of a gun forced him to remove a bullet. The wounded man then revealed that he was none other than that mysterious character, who has waged a one-man war against crime, The Shadow. Before Dr. Evans could report the case to the police, however, The Shadow mysteriously disappeared. The famous surgeon believes the Shadow has little chance of surviving his wounds.”
The announcer then says, “Our organ recital continues....”
We hear a little more organ music, but it fades out and the sound of a phone is heard ringing. A man picks up the receiver, says “Dr. Evans.” and then we hear the macabre laughter of The Shadow, played by Welles. The 30-minute mystery then plays itself out.
We may never know who actually came up with the idea of the news bulletin for “The Death Triangle” episode of “The Shadow.” It could have been Welles, but he was not the director of that series. In any case, as a precursor to the "War of the Worlds" episode, the use of the news flashes were not as facile. The opening vignette of the punishment by lashing doesn’t appear to have been set up as a radio broadcast, the audience is supposed to be hearing an actual event played out in 1913. The scriptwriter simply didn’t seem to know how to jump effectively to the present day, so they inserted this “news bulletin” idea and then moved on.
But it mimics so closely the format adopted by Welles, Koch and The Mercury Theatre only 10 months later that it is worth noting, on the record, that maybe Welles heard a good idea, badly used, and suggested it when the time came to build the suspense in the Mercury broadcast on Oct. 30, 1938.
That's only a theory. Perhaps we'll never truly know, but some credit for the inventiveness and continuing fame of “The War of the Worlds” should go out to this humble source: an episode of The Shadow called “The Death Triangle”, a long forgotten episode starring Orson Welles.
Listen to "The Death Triangle: here:
Listen to "War of the Worlds" here: