Monday, February 1, 2016

"The Night America Trembled"

Can you make a television show about Orson Welles without mentioning his name? It turns out you can — and you can swear while you do it. Who says the 50s were dull?

By Lars Trodson

“The Night America Trembled,” a 1957 episode of the highly respected live television program “Westinghouse Studio One,” may be the only drama about Orson Welles that doesn’t actually feature Welles himself.

The broadcast may also include another historical anomaly: It seems to contain the first time an actor swore on American television, only no one seems to have noticed.

But back to the elimination of Mr. Welles. 

Here’s how it happened: “The Night America Trembled” is a dramatization of the famous Mercury Theatre On The Air broadcast of “The War Of The Worlds.” (Both Studio One and the Mercury show aired on CBS.)

The 60 minute teleplay shows just what kind of effect the Mercury production had on its listeners — not just on the east coast but all across America. The radio play is, of course, about the night Martians invaded the earth, only to be defeated by the presence of bacteria.

While the host of the Studio One program, no less a personage than Edward R. Murrow, repeatedly invokes the name of the Mercury Theatre, the name of Welles has been mysteriously scrubbed from the action.

During his introduction, Murrow — sitting, smoking — mentions that the broadcast took place on the “eve of Halloween” during which, in a studio at CBS, “the actors and staff of the Mercury Theater On The Air” are “in their final moments with their director.”

Their director. I wonder how Murrow felt when he had to speak those words?

We then see a busy radio studio, with an orchestra, actors, producers and a sound effects man. A tall man with a lick of hair curled down over his forehead is clearly the director (played by Robert Blackburn).
Robert Blackburn, at right, plays the director of The Mercury Theatre On The Air who is not Orson Welles.
He’s pacing scenes and working with actors. Is this Welles? We can’t say for sure because he, along with most of the other characters, are not named. It turns out he is never named and doesn’t play much a role after that initial introduction. Later, however, when the broadcast finally begins, another actor (Alexander Scourby) speaks the lines so famously spoken by Welles in the original radio production. So, not only is Welles not in the show, it took two actors to replace him. Was Welles such a persona non grata that no one in New York even wanted to speak his name?

This is worth noting only as a historic curiosity rather than anything that directly impacts the effectiveness of the Studio One drama. Anyone watching the original telecast on Sept. 9, 1957 (they couldn’t have waited another six months?) would have easily remembered that Welles and his merry band of players were responsible for the mayhem, and the realistic recreation of the broadcast leads me to believe that maybe more than one bit player among the actors might have actually been there on the night Welles played his infamous prank.

But once all this is set aside, the viewer is left with a remarkable 58 minutes of drama, replete with a rare scene shot outside the studio (and obviously taped before the live broadcast) and the presence of an unduly somber Murrow. And also, of course, that cussing.

Mr. Murrow, for his part, never lets the audience forget about the “frenzy” of that night in 1938, evoking some pop psychology as to why people behaved the way they did. Over footage of Hitler and planes flying in the shape of a swastika, Murrow says that the audience of the late 1930s will have had “their comfortable illusions of security shattered... “ which will in turn leave “men shaken and unsure and open to unreasoning attack on their reason and logic...” 

Another reason for the audience’s fear, Murrow said, was an “instinctive terror of the great unknown." Halloween, he said, is a time "when fiends and demons walked the winds of the world.”

During his brief interludes, Murrow, in a script by Nelson Bond, calls the radio play a “terror tale.” Reaction to it was “vivid and violent" leading to "ungovernable terror” and “dawning panic,” all of which was forceful enough to wake people out of their “smug complacency.” The broadcast, Murrow said, "shook the nation.”

Thankfully, the rest of the production itself is never this overwrought. The director, Tom Donovan, interweaves no fewer than a half a dozen subplots — the listeners who are affected in various ways by the radio play — with such sureness that it puts most big budget Hollywood movies today to shame. 

This is also the first meta-film in the history of television.

As for those reacting to the broadcast, there is the boy and girl out on a date, Mary and Bob, (and not just a date, but a night in which the two kids plan to elope, and they hear the show on the radio), the teenager Millie alone babysitting while a couple is at the country club, the boys at the neighborhood bar who get all riled up after hearing the Martians have landed, the college students playing poker, the reporters on the night desk at the local paper, a little old lady trying to get to church, the night shift at the state police station — not to mention the elaborate recreation of the “War of the Worlds” broadcast itself. All of this on sets that look like they were built out of cardboard in an area no larger than a galley on a small sailboat. I will also say that the production barely tries to evoke the feel or look of the 1930s. The clothes and furniture look straight out of "Leave It To Beaver," but, hell, they were putting on one of these shows each week.

There doesn’t seem to have been a line flubbed or a cue missed among the three dozen actors, and one scene, at the police station, features some pretty good overlapping dialogue. The cast, by the way, includes Warren Beatty and Warren Oates (as college students), Vincent Gardenia is one of the guys in the bar ("Hitler's just a big bag of wind," he says), James Coburn (as one of the parents going to the country club party), actor Frank Marth (seen in hundreds of shows), Ed Asner as one of the Mercury Actors, and an uncredited John Astin as a newspaper reporter.
Warren Beatty, top right.

It is during one of the subplots, however, where a little bit of television history seems to have been made when an actor says a mild epithet. (It can be heard in both the print available on Amazon Prime, as well as the version available on YouTube.) During a scene with the state troopers, the actor playing State Trooper Mack (Crahan Denton), fields calls from panicked residents. To find out more about what is going on, he asks his deputy to turn on the radio. When one of the actors in the radio play says the Martians have landed in "Grovers Mills," Trooper Mack says to his deputy, “What the hell’s he talking about, Grovers Mills?”

There is no mistaking the word. It is clearly there, in context, for all to hear. It happens almost exactly at the halfway mark. This predates by almost 10 years when scholars say that swearing began to pop up on television both here an abroad. No one, including online commentators or anyone else, has seemed to notice. I can't find any reporting on it anywhere.

So there you have it. Welles, even when he wasn't around, was always pushing the envelope.