When people are aware of the pre-television entertainment medium of radio drama at all, they tend to have heard faint echoes of one particular play: the notorious adaptation of H.G. Wells' War Of The Worlds.
Broadcast live the Sunday night before Halloween Monday, 1938, director Orson Welles and producer John Houseman feared arrest and imprisonment could be their kindest fate when, to their surprise, a frightened nation mistook the dramatized news accounts of a Martian invasion as the real thing. The grim police officers waiting for them by the end of the broadcast made it sound as if the streets were choked with bodies, Houseman later recalled.
(Many years ago I had occasion to read the archived October/November 1938 New York Times newspapers, to follow up the original reporting on the War Of The Worlds story. Everyone has probably seen the "day after" headlines; well, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that within the morning edition of the fateful Sunday itself, the Grey Lady had published a rather lavish article previewing the upcoming Orson Welles WOTW show scheduled for later that evening..! I guess few New Yorkers read the Sunday NY Times in those days, either.)
The resulting outrage over the national panic sparked by the show planted Orson Welles front and center on the cultural map, leading soon to Hollywood calling and the making of the "greatest film of all time", 1941's Citizen Kane.
For nostalgic reasons the Orson Welles-directed War Of The Worlds radio play is often re-broadcast on or around Halloween in our own time, and gets treated as if it should be considered the "greatest radio play of all time". Well, it's a fascinating historical curiosity, to be sure, but it doesn't truly represent the frequent skill dramatic radio demonstrated in sending shivers down the spines of faithful listeners. Even the participants in the WOTW play considered it below average, and when we take the time to listen to the rest of this incredible series, and one harrowing episode in particular, we discover why.
The War of the Worlds broadcast had been part of Welles' ongoing Mercury Theatre On The Air anthology series, begun as a summer replacement program for radio's ratings giant Lux Radio Theatre in July 1938, keeping the time slot warm until the popular show was scheduled to return in the fall. While Lux Radio Theatre brought adaptations of Broadway plays and Hollywood movies to radio, Welles filled his Mercury Theatre radio series with adaptations of the classics of litterature. Week after week listeners were treated to selections ranging from Charles Dickens to Mark Twain, Jules Verne to the aforementioned H.G. Wells, even making room for Welles' personal favorites like R.L. Stevenson's Treasure Island and G.K. Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday.
Welles and John Houseman continued on air the creative partnership that brought them much attention for their work on the New York stage, and the CBS radio network considered their contribution a prestigious addition to their programming line-up. As summer turned to fall, CBS did what they could to retain the Mercury Theatre series beyond its initial seasonal booking, slotting it in strategically within their Sunday night line-up as high-brow literary counter-programming to what was considered a low-brow comedy show on a rival network.
Virtually the entire run of the Mercury Theatre series has survived, making it that much more of a shame that the modern interest in the singular War of the Worlds play rarely gets extended towards the rest of that first season's offerings, such as the episode Orson Welles himself wrote for October 9th, 1938: an adaptation of a book that came out the previous February, Hell On Ice.
Commodore Edward Ellsberg's haunting naval recounting of the fate of the arctic exploration ship, the Jeannette, was a best-seller that year, and unlike the fantasy Martian invasion of Grover's Mill, New Jersey, Ellsberg's account is based on a true story, pulling together threads from the diaries and journals of crew members who starved or froze to death in the arctic wastes, as well as personal accounts of the pitiful few who survived the disaster... a disaster that may have been avoided:
Naval engineers shook their heads over the Jeannette, reported skeptically that "so far as practicable" she had been fitted for Arctic service. No naval vessel was on hand to do her honor as she waddled out of San Francisco Bay. No naval functionary attended the celebration when she sailed. The Jeannette went to her ruin with only the cheers of landlubbers speeding her voyage.
Orson Welles disappears into the role of reknowned naval engineer George W. Melville, who in real life was one of the few survivors of this polar nightmare, an expedition gone horribly wrong in the worst way imaginable.
Broadcast on October 9th, 1938, three Sundays before the more famous War of the Worlds adaptation cast all of Orson Welles' radio work behind its overwhelming shadow, the forgotten masterpiece Hell On Ice remains one of the most blood-curdling plays produced during the height of the art of radio drama, a forgotten story of real-life courage in the face of an unrelenting cold hell.
So be thankful for the warm sweater on your back and the hot chocolate at your side, as you dim the lights to better imagine yourself eavesdropping on the memories of explorers trapped in ice, and thereby trapped in Hell:
For previous Radio Memories posts:
Gunsmoke: Indian Raid?
Biography In Sound: George M. Cohan
Fibber McGee And Molly: The Scrap Drive
D-Day Broadcasts (from June 5, 1944)
Red Skelton: Vacations
Frontier Gentleman: Gambling Lady
Information Please: Guests Walter Duranty and John Gunther
The Aldrich Family: Cleaning The Furnace
Tom Mix, Terry and the Pirates VE Day broadcasts from May 8 1945
You Are There: The Capture Of John Wilkes Booth
Fort Laramie: War Correspondent
CBS Radio Workshop: Son Of Man
Great Gildersleeve: Easter Rabbits
Dimension X: Time And Time Again
An American In England: Women Of Britain
Cavalcade Of America: Bob Hope Reports
The March Of Time: Feb 10 1938 broadcast
Hear It Now: Coming Home From The Korean War
Escape: Vanishing Lady
Rogers Of The Gazette: Rewinding The Town Clock