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The Night America Trembled (September 9th, 1957)


The Night That America Trembled, opening title.

Like the later 1975 telefilm The Night That Panicked America, this is a dramatisation of the events of October 30th 1938, when Orson Welles scared a nation witless with his adaptation of The War of the Worlds. However, this is a virtually unknown gem of a production dating back to 1957. Made for the renowned weekly anthology series "Studio One", it is a really extraordinary 50 minutes of live television, featuring an incredible cast of soon to be major movie and television stars and a very accurate re-enactment of the broadcast.

The program starts with a filmed introduction (the Studio One broadcasts generally went out live except for these pre-recorded interludes) of a car careering through the night while the radio reports poisonous gas attacks. The car fails to take a tight turn and comes to an abrupt halt against a wall. As the wheels spin on the wreck, we move to the studio setting and an introduction from Edward R Murrow.

Edward R Rurrow.In what must have surely been a deliberate fine touch, Murrow is the absolutely perfect choice to host this production, since during the second world war, he had become famous for his pioneering on the spot news reports from Austria and Czechoslovakia. In was in this tense atmosphere that Welles made his broadcast, and it is fair to say that this underlying fear of the Nazi menace contributed greatly to the intensity of the panic. Murrow (click here to hear him) touches on this very point in his introduction.

The Night America Trembled begins.We move next to the CBS radio studio (in a curious co-incidence the original broadcast also came from a "studio one") where the Mercury Theatre players are rehearsing The War Of The Worlds. Here we meet the cast and crew, though most interestingly, this re-enactment is missing one key element in the person of Orson Welles. His name is completely and glaringly absent. He appears neither in the cast of characters in the studio, nor is he mentioned by name by Murrow. He is just "the director" or "the host". It is a curious omission, but considering Welles tempestuous nature, it is not unreasonable to conclude that he himself had himself expunged from the dramatisation. It should however be noted that no one in the cast is explicitly named and so this theory is offered without firm evidence.

It is however quite fun to try and work out from the cast list, and the delivery of lines, just who is who. This is made more difficult by the fact there seem to be some composite roles. Robert Blackburn takes on the roll of "the director", in that his character is very much the driving force in the studio, but the famous closing speech of the original broadcast, in which Welles reassured the nation that whole thing had been a Halloween spoof, his read out by "the host", played by Alexander Scourby. Just to confuse things even more, and going by his other dialogue, Scourby is also essentially taking the role of Frank Readick, who played the reporter Carl Phillips. Scourby is another great piece of casting, since he has a very commanding voice, such that he went on to become synonymous with an epic reading of the Bible. The perfect voice then to commentate on the end of the world.

The Night America Trembled.Confusing or not, the actual script is extremely faithful to the original broadcast, right down to the use of the original orchestral arrangements. You get the impression that someone on this production had some first hand experience either of the actual War of the Worlds broadcast, or at the very least, of this period in broadcasting history. It's a great piece of work, and captures the infectious air of mischief that is said to have permeated the studio that night. Alas, we do only get the first half of the broadcast re-enacted, and much of the material that would have been read by Welles is missing or only hinted at, but this does not really detract from the performances and the authentic feeling of realism.

Between the scenes in the studio and further interludes of explanation from Murrow, we are treated to a number of short stories in the outside world. In one, students at a card game become gradually enthralled and then terrified by the broadcast. Look out here for a very young looking Warren Beatty. In another, a babysitter becomes hysterical at the horror she is hearing, such that the concerned parents rush home to find out what is happening. One of the concerned parents is none other than James, or in this case "Jim" Coburn, again looking unfeasibly youthful. Other scenes are set in a bar, a newspaper office and a police station. Interestingly, during those scenes in the police station, which is realistically getting bombarded with frantic calls, the harassed and exasperated policeman insists several times that there is no such place as Grover's Mill. Of course as students of the broadcast will know, there most certainly was and is, a real Grover's Mill. Look out also in the cast for Warren Oates, Edward Asner and John Astin.

There is little available information about the director Tom Donovan, other than that he directed a number of other anthology shows of the time such as Playhouse 90 and The Dupont Show of the Month, but working from a great script, he certainly does a polished job in combining all the elements together, capturing the growing sense of panic and confusion that was spreading throughout America. Written by Nelson Bond, this was either another example of serendipity, or again the unknown hand of a genius at bringing together exactly the right people for the job in hand. Bond was a prolific writer for radio in the 1940's. He wrote an incredible 46 half hour crime dramas for the ABC series Hot Copy during the 1943-44 season and any number of other episodes for shows such as the Ford Theatre, Mystery On The Air and Dimension X. His script for The Night America Trembled brought Studio One the highest ratings in its history.

Alexander Scourby- Host
Robert Blackburn - Director
Casey Allen as 1st announcer
Norman Rose as 2nd announcer
Ray Boyle as 1st actor
Frank Marth as 2nd actor
Edward Asner as 3rd actor
Freda Holloway as Mary
John Gibson as Mary's father
Clint Kimbrough as Bob
Tom Clancy as Tom
Vincent Gardenia as Dick
Fred J Scollay as Harry
Jim "James" Coburn as Sam
Priscilla Gillette as Elaine
Susan Hallaran as Millie
Graham Denton as Mac
Al Markim as Brownie
Frank Daly as Editor
Roger Quinlin as timid man
Larry Robinson as Dealer
Warren Beatty as 1st Card Player
Warren Oates as 2nd card player
Fritz Weber as 3rd Card Player
Rob Kilgallen as Student
Musical Director and conductor Hank Sylvern
Setttings designed by Larry Eggleton
Directed by Tom Donovan

Buy

You can buy The Night America Trembled in two ways.

This edition also contains an early performance from James Dean and a documentary on Studio One.

This version contains the Studio One episode of The Night America Trembled and a recording of an encounter between H G Wells and Orson Welles.


See also in:

Film & TV

1975
The Night That Panicked America

The Night That Panicked America. This is the second dramatised version of The War of the Worlds radio broadcast of 1938, with a stand-out performance from Paul Shenar as Orson Welles.

2005
H G Wells and The War of the Worlds documentary

H G Wells and The War of the Worlds. In the wake of the Spielberg movie comes one of several new documentaries on Wells and The War of the Worlds.

2005
Best Sellers Illustrated: The War of the Worlds

Best Sellers Illustrated. The Martians invade in the early years of the 21st century in this post 9-11 re-imagining of The War of the Worlds.

Comics

2005
Graphic Classics: H.G. Wells

Graphic Classics: H.G. Wells. A nicely illustrated collection of stories including a graphic retelling of the 1938 radio broadcast.

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