THE NIGHT AMERICA TREMBLED (1957) – This is a reasonably enjoyable television movie sponsored by Westinghouse. The Night America Trembled presents what may be the very first dramatic production of the supposed panic caused by the 1938 Mercury Theater radio production of War of the Worlds. I’m always fascinated with accounts of this possibly overblown event, but the actual event – not so much.
Yes, it all comes down to my love of mythology and the manner in which occurrences get embellished until even the wildest embellishments become accepted into a culture’s shared experience and shared assumptions. But I’m an incredibly boring guy.
Newsman Edward R Murrow hosts the dramatization and as usual looks like he’d love to climb out of the screen and kick the asses of news pussies like Chris Matthews and Chris Hayes. The most entertaining aspect of this production is catching the future stars in supporting roles. Ed Asner, Warren Beatty AND Warren Oates, plus James Coburn, Vincent Gardenia, John Astin and more.
For die-hard trivia lovers John Cameron Swayze and Betty Furness show up in the commercials, which all by themselves are cultural kitsch that will have you laughing your asses off. The dramatizations of the alleged panic are pretty humdrum. A jock and his best girl are planning to elope but the Martian invasion stops them, an old lady sits around being scared by the faux newscasts on the War of the Worlds radio show, a babysitter panics and thinks she and her charge are in mortal danger and a tavern full of drunk tough guys rush out to volunteer to fight the Martian army.
In addition we see police stations getting bombarded with panicked phone calls and glimpses of the serene radio studio from which the broadcast originated. None of it is especially memorable but at least it’s barely an hour long. If Ken Burns had taken a look at this incident we’d be stuck with a nine-hour documentary. The later 1970s telefilm and the fictionalized version in Woody Allen’s movie Radio Days were much more entertaining.
For me the most fun still comes from the way in which accounts of the incident change in style over and over again as the decades go by. They go from smug dismissals of the panicking radio audience as rubes and yahoos to smug dismissals of people who BELIEVE the accounts of coast to coast panic as rubes and yahoos. And back again. At this point those cyclical attitudes to the events of October 30th, 1938 can tell us more about our culture and about mass media than any real hysteria ever could. ++
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