Monday, September 14, 2015

Mercury and Mars

It looks like we might be revisiting Citizen Kane and the Mercury Players in the near future. The topic has a way of leading to arguments over who did what (which is rather silly when you think about it. There is certainly more than enough credit to go around). Anticipating that discussion, I thought it might be interesting to take a look at how things worked at  The Mercury Theatre on the Air.

War of the Worlds, 1927 reprint in Amazing Stories.

Rightly, Orson Welles was considered the most promising talent of the American theater in the late 30s, as a director, actor, producer, and to a lesser extent, writer. Under the circumstances, branding the Mercury Theatre as a one-man show not only appealed to Welles' ego, it also made a great deal of commercial sense.

To get an idea on Welles' standing, check out the first few minutes of the first episode, Dracula.

Mercury clearly represented the vision of Welles, but it was also very much a collaborative effort. Check out the following from Wikipedia:
Producer John Houseman wrote that The War of the Worlds contrasted with the classics that had so far been adapted for The Mercury Theatre on the Air—"to throw in something of a scientific nature."[2]:392 Welles considered adapting M. P. Shiel's The Purple Cloud and Arthur Conan Doyle's The Lost World before purchasing the radio rights to The War of the Worlds in 1938. He had first read the story in 1936 in The Witch's Tales, a pulp magazine of "weird-dramatic and supernatural stories" that reprinted the story from Pearson's Magazine. An initial script was done.[9]:162

Howard Koch had written the first drafts for the Mercury Theatre broadcasts "Hell on Ice" (October 9), "Seventeen" (October 16)[9]:164 and "Around the World in 80 Days" (October 23).[10]:92 Monday, October 24, he was assigned to re-script "The War of the Worlds" for broadcast the following Sunday night.[9]:164

Tuesday night, 36 hours before rehearsals were to begin, Koch telephoned Houseman in what the producer characterized as "deep distress". Koch said he could not to make The War of the Worlds interesting or credible as a radio play, a conviction echoed by his secretary Anne Froelick, a typist and aspiring writer that Houseman had hired to assist him. With only his own abandoned script for Lorna Doone to fall back on, Houseman told Koch to continue adapting the Wells fantasy. He joined Koch and Froelick and they worked on the script throughout the night. On Wednesday night the first draft was finished on schedule.[2]:392–393

On Thursday associate producer Paul Stewart held a cast reading of the script, with Koch and Houseman making necessary changes. That afternoon, Stewart made an acetate recording, with no music or sound effects. Welles, immersed in rehearsing the Mercury stage production of Danton's Death scheduled to open the following week, played the record at an editorial meeting that night in his suite at the St. Regis Hotel. After hearing "Air Raid" on the Columbia Workshop earlier that same evening, Welles viewed the script as dull. He stressed the importance of inserting news flashes and eyewitness accounts into the script to create a sense of urgency and excitement.[9]:166

Houseman, Koch and Stewart reworked the script that night,[2]:393 increasing the number of news bulletins and using the names of real places and people whenever possible. Friday afternoon the script was sent to Davidson Taylor, executive producer for CBS, and the network legal department. Their response was that the script was too credible and its realism had to be toned down. As using the names of actual institutions could be actionable, CBS insisted upon some 28 changes in phrasing.[9]:167
On Saturday, Stewart rehearsed the show with the sound effects team, giving special attention to crowd scenes, the echo of cannon fire and the sound of the boat horns in New York Harbor.[2]:393–394

Early Sunday afternoon Bernard Herrmann and his orchestra arrived in the studio, where Welles had taken over production of that evening's program.[2]:391, 398
Keeping that process in mind, check out the opening and closing credits of the actual broadcast courtesy of the Internet Archive. [or in text form here]:

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