H.G. Wells’ 1898 novel “War of the Worlds” inspired not only the famous 1938 radio broadcast but a legacy of artistic interpretations that include at least two major feature films (including the 2005 Steven Spielberg-produced film that, like the radio broadcast, has Martians landing in New Jersey), graphic novels, an especially designed (or concept) album that had also become a stage production, and a television series.
The famous radio broadcast was likewise a source of inspiration — for two television productions as well as the catalyst for a regional sculpture relief, a mural, and, perhaps, an art tradition.
The first, and most engaging, of the two television productions is the Westinghouse Stage One’s “The Night America Trembled,” broadcast in 1957 (19 years from the radio broadcast date), and available for viewing on YouTube (goo.gl/hfTDcV).
The 60-minute black-and-white production follows the routines of people that eventful Sunday night and focuses mainly on the characters’ confusions and the reactions: parents leaving their child with a teenage babysitter who hears the broadcast and panics; a young couple slipping away for a romance in the car hear the broadcast on the car’s radio; a group of young men in a bar hear the news and take action; an old woman home alone becomes frightened; two bored New Jersey State Police officers in Trenton become perplexed by phone inquiries about marauding space aliens; the ho-hum proceedings of a newsroom readying the next day’s paper likewise reacts to public cries; and the Mercury Theater Company routinely gets ready for its weekly broadcast.
The production is framed by an introduction by famed American broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow, who returns to provide commentary or continuity between commercial breaks.
Created on studio sets, the production is more akin to a series of stage scenes, though the direction allows the camera to fitfully position the players in positive composition groups or smoothly cut to reactions.
Over all the Stage One production is an entertaining hour and, given that it was made when the creators of the radio drama and those it affected where still alive, its depiction of what actually happened seems to be a good testament to the actual proceedings. It also is distinguished that it too was broadcast live from New York City by CBS.
An extra bonus is seeing many well known TV and film personalities in their early days, including Ed Asner, Warren Beatty, James (Jim) Coburn, and a non-credited John Astin (later Gomez on “The Addams Family” TV show).
In 1975 ABC decided to revisit October 30, 1938, and produced a made-for-television “film” similar to the CBS production in title and events: “The Night That Panicked America,” also available for viewing on YouTube (goo.gl/VVt8oK).
The 90-minute production uses more advanced recording technology, life-like settings, and color.
While both TV productions use similar characters and situations, the 1975 version introduces additional characters and places most in overly contrived melodramatic subplots that introduce social or emotional issues, many of which are resolved while the radio broadcasts scares the characters into sense.
The result is that production is more an overblown (like the era’s hair styles) curiosity than an engaging story. It also suffers from uninspired lighting, writing, and direction. It has the artistic sense of an idea cooked up by a studio executive who assembled the crew and set a deadline but forgot the commitment and talent used by the Mercury Theater or Stage One.
Perhaps the most interesting part of viewing both programs is watching the recreation of the Mercury Theater’s preparation and execution of the show, even though the writers of the 1975 production change elements and exaggerate others.
“The Day America Panicked,” however, can be of extra interest to the U.S. 1 region. It includes characters based in Grovers Mill: mainly a farmer father and his son, who argue about pacifism and fighting against the Nazis (the son wants to join the war that has not yet happened). They then take arms to defend the area against non-existing aliens and ruin a water tower by mistaking it for a Martian and blasting it with shotguns. The father then realizes that his son is right and gives him the nod to join the war against Hitler. During the late 1930s, the point would make sense. In 1975 and today, it is just strained.
While the TV productions electronically keep the memory, three-dimensional and two-dimensional works art works also help keep the memory of the non-event alive in area.
At Grovers Mill Pond a monument commemorates the October 30, 1938, broadcast. It is an eight-foot-tall bronze relief with clearly realized images of Welles theatrically delivering lines, an attacking Martian’s tripod, and a 1930s-era family huddled before a vacuum-tube radio.
The monument was dedicated 25 years ago (for the 50th anniversary of the non-event) and designed by nationally recognized Oregon-based sculptor Thomas Jay Warren. The sculptor, in addition to creating this memorial of a fictitious war, also designed the New Jersey World War II Memorial in Trenton, the New Jersey Korean War Memorial in Atlantic City, the Vietnam Memorial in Holmdel, and various works ranging from the political to the erotic.
The memorial, located near where the actual water tower was shot at by locals, commemorates the all-too-real response to a high-tech Halloween tale (or, as Welles said at the end of the broadcast, a “boo!”).
The two-dimension work that directly connects to the radio event is the mural (actually a large painting) in the Grovers Mill Coffee House (which capitalizes on the local and sells coffee blends called Martian Mocha Java, Rocket Fuel, and Cosmic Cravings). Plainsboro-based artist Robert Hummel’s “The Battle at Grovers Mill” imagines a scene from the radio broadcast when the war machines from Mars begin wreaking havoc on the farm community. The four by six-feet work was created for the broadcast’s 70th anniversary in 2008.
Hummel has recently finished a companion work, “The Battle At Grovers Mill II,” which shows the escalating conflict (with flaming barns and trucks being lifted into the night by a Martian war craft’s tentacle). As part of the 75th anniversary the new painting is now on public view at the coffeehouse, located the Southfield Shopping Center (near McCaffrey’s), 295 Princeton-Hightstown Road, West Windsor (for more information, call 609-716-8771 or go to www.groversmillcoffee.com).
By the way, a video on “The Battle At Grovers Mill” painting, complete with 1950s-style “special Martian” sci-fi music performed on the theremin by area artist Kip Rosser, can be viewed by visiting www.battleatgroversmill.com.
While it may not be connected to Grovers Mill as the landing place for the first visitors from Mars, a mural advertisement and a specially designed wall mural can also be found in the area.
The ad is in the dairy section of Trader Joes in West Windsor, where Grovers Mill is located, and features a flying saucer hovering over cows. The mural is in Vita’s Pizza Parlor on Route 33 in nearby Hamilton. Created by regional painter and muralist Morris Docktor, the work shows a leather-coated greaser and his poodle-skirted date rushing to a 1950s-era big-finned convertible automobile as a flying saucer blasts a diner with a light ray.
The ideas for all of the above, though, are directly connected to the Mercury Theater Company’s announcement to the world that Martians had landed in Grovers Mill. But what really landed was an idea and become part of a regional reference, sensibility, and an artistic theme.
And if there are actual space creatures and crafts in places such as Roswell, New Mexico, who cares? The aliens landed here first and have made themselves home in both history and our collective imagination.