From Martians to Rosebud: The Bizarre Tale Of Orson Welles' Entrance Into Hollywood

When War of the Worlds premiered on the radio program The Mercury Theater On Air, America was a paranoid nation as events overseas were fast leading to the development of WWII. Performed as a Halloween special on October 30, 1938, the performance caused quite a stir with the listening audience, many who tuned in and discovered that America was under attack. 

Written by English author H. G. Wells, War of the Worlds was originally published in serialized chapters in multiple issues of Pearson’s (UK) and Cosmopolitan magazine in 1897. Given the science fiction theme of Worlds, the story was highly advanced for its time and is one of the first to deal with extraterrestrial conflicts. Even more impressive, Wells wrote the imaginative story when the concept of flight was limited to Zeppelin prototypes. Worlds was written in a first person narrative, which made for an easy transition to radio. Stage performer/ director Orson Welles directed and narrated the one hour program. Unique for the time, the majority of the show was told through a series of news bulletins. The Mercury Theater On Air was a publicly funded program and the nonstop performance without commercial interruptions gave the emergency bulletins a sense of realism. Channel surfers who happened to stumble upon the program were shocked by what they heard. Welles wanted to dramatize the story in a way that would “appear to be a real event taking place at that time, rather than a mere radio play.” Little did Welles realize just how real the play would be perceived. What began as a little Halloween fun eventually lead to panic across the United States.

When the script was turned in for approval, CBS executive Davidson Taylor requested a re-write, calling the story too believable. The original script used actual well known buildings and locations, which Taylor felt could potentially alarm listeners considering the story’s invasion plot. In all, 28 changes were made to tone down the realism and give Worlds a more fictional presentation. Welles recruited radio conductor Bernard Herrmann and his orchestra to perform the transition music in between the news bulletins. Welles requested that the music be played for long stretches of times between segments to further simulate a crisis was taking place. A studio piano player was also recruited to perform pieces of classical music, often repeating the piece immediately after finishing, giving the listeners the illusion of an unprepared news team struggling to gather information. With a talented group of sound effect engineers, the cast brought to life falling meteorites, the assembly of troops, and a nationwide battle against an alien invasion, all in the course of 57 minutes.

The police received so many complaints during the Worlds broadcast that officers were sent to the studio to stop the performance, but by the time they arrived, the show was wrapping up. After signing off, the studio phone lines began ringing with complaints from angry listeners. Shortly after, the press showed up and Welles was bombarded by dozens of reporters, each inquiring about a variety of outrageous events his performance had caused.

There were multiple reports of drivers wrecking their cars as they searched the night skies for evidence of the martian invasion. Other reports claimed mobs of people were gathering in the streets to help protect themselves from alien intruders. More serious accusations involved fatal stampedes, riots, and mass suicides. As comical as it is to look back at how a radio show duped listeners into believing America was under attack from alien invaders, it’s equally ridiculous how quickly reporters were able to gather such an array of information. Welles managed to escape by sneaking out the back entrance of the CBS building, successfully avoiding a large gathering of reporters who were waiting outside the front entrance. He was accustomed to the sensationalism of the press, yet he didn’t realize the severity of public panic until later that night when he read the news “Orson Welles Causes Panic” on the lighted bulletin marquee that circled the New York Times building in Time Square. The following day Welles appeared at a press conference arranged by CBS to diffuse the “press fueled” angry public.

Today, the legacy of the War of the Worlds broadcast and the fabricated tales of its aftermath have given way to folklore. The press spent weeks criticizing the notorious radio adaptation, calling Welles irresponsible with his performance, and trying to hoax the public. Ultimately the mass exposure propelled Welles’ fame as an actor. He managed to conduct a radio performance with such conviction it fooled many listeners into believing the play was a factual event. It wasn’t long before he began receiving offers to appear on screen. 

In 1939, Welles signed an unprecedented two picture contract with RKO Pictures. Taking a gamble on an untried film director, Welles was given the green light to develop his own story, hire his own cast and crew, and the freedom of deciding the final cut of his film. Along with producing, directing, starring, and writing, Welles would have complete artistic control over any project of his choosing. The press had a field day with the legendary contract, mocking both Welles and RKO. The contract also stated RKO executives were only allowed to see footage Welles chose to show them and all potential cuts would need Welles’s approval, meaning any changes to the film outside his vision could only be suggested. The control RKO gave Welles was unheard of in Hollywood. The contract insinuated a lot of jealousy and resentment in the film community. There was a certain amount of sinister glee when rumors began circulating that Welles was struggling to impress executives with ideas to adapt previously written works. In December of 1939 he began brainstorming ideas with Mercury Radio script writer Herman J. Mankiewski. After crafting an outline loosely based on the life of news tycoon William Randolph Hearst, each man wrote their own separate script. Welles later combined the two, cutting, adding, and rearranging the story however he saw fit. With a script complete, Welles stepped from behind the microphone to behind (and in front of) the camera.

Citizen Kane

Considered the greatest film of all time by many film critics, Citizen Kane is a marvel full of quirky production tales and controversy that only add to its legend. Welles recruited many of his colleagues at the Mercury Theater for his first feature film. In all, 10 radio actors would make their screen debut in Kane. Although they had never been in a motion picture, the public was familiar with many of the actors from their radio and stage performances. Welles cast Dorthy Comingore as Susan Alexander Kane after a recommendation from comedy legend Charlie Chaplin. Although she too had never appeared on screen before, Welles offered Comingore the role immediately after meeting her at a party in LA. Welles also hired CBS radio composer and Worlds colleague Bernard Herrmann to provide the music for Kane, the first film score for the soon to be influential conductor.

The first day Welles stepped onto a film set was also his first as a film director. Already a stage veteran, he adjusted the lighting as he would for a play and requested the cast rehearse their roles and scenes on set, which was an unheard of practice in Hollywood. 

Welles was familiar with his duties as a director, but film added a new dimension to story telling. He approached film making with a “learn as you go” mentality. He began filming Kane on a Saturday, when most RKO executives would be gone for the weekend. He didn't announce he was filming, nor had he been given approval. When RKO officials inquired about his weekend activities, he told them he was working on several camera tests. To avoid further suspicion, the footage and paperwork were labeled "Orson Welles Tests." At the time, the studio was trying to persuade Welles to direct a film called "Men from Mars," hoping to capitalize on the success of the War of the Worlds radio broadcast. Welles expressed interest to appease the studio, but confessed he prefer to make a different film first. When RKO finally approved Kane, Welles had already been filming for nearly 2 months. While RKO president George Schaefer was a fan of Welles, there were many executives in the company who did not share Schaefer’s enthusiasm. Most did not like the idea of a film being made on their lot without any knowledge or input. The veil of secrecy in which Kane was being made annoyed studio heads, and it wasn't long before spies were assigned to gather details from the film’s production. Welles quickly caught on to the spies, and would instruct the cast and crew to play softball whenever he noticed them nearby.

To better learn the process of film making, Welles watched the John Ford film Stagecoach (1939) over 40 times, often inviting film technicians to watch with him. During viewing he would ask how certain scenes were filmed, and how the technical elements were achieved. Production adviser Miriam Geiger made Welles a “How To” book highlighting various production techniques. Welles was floored when respected cinematographer Gregg Toland asked Welles to use him in his film. The fact that Welles had never made a movie before was appealing to the cameraman. Welles was known for his imaginative stage productions, and Toland seen the opportunity to break away from standard camera techniques and try something new. Toland also acted as a mentor to Welles during production, silently advising him on camera positioning and scene lighting. Filming took 5 months, and had its share of mishaps. Welles fell 10 feet down a flight of stairs while filming one scene, chipping two bones in his ankle. The injury disabled him for two weeks. During that time, Welles directed from a wheelchair. Afterwords he needed the assistance of a steel brace to help get on his feet and resume his acting duties. Welles also accidentally cut one of his wrists while shooting a scene where Kane breaks apart bedroom furniture. Welles only took one or two takes for most scenes, but the film’s final shot proved to be difficult. A working furnace was built on the set, and several takes (and sleds) were needed to capture Citizen Kane’s famous ending. During the 9th take, the furnace got so hot that the flue caught fire, which resulted in a visit from the fire department. With the difficult shoot over, Welles soon discovered his troubles were just beginning.

A rough cut of Citizen Kane was screened for the press on Jan 3rd, 1941. Almost immediately, review columnists pointed out the comparisons between Charles Kane and news tycoon William Randolph Hearst. When Hearst found out about Kane he was furious and began an assault against the film. Hearst employee and film columnist Louella Parsons demanded a private screening and hinted at serious consequences if the studio refused to comply. Parsons was granted a screening a week later, and arrived with two of Hearst’s lawyers. She walked out in the middle of the screening and threatened RKO with a lawsuit if they released the film. Afterwords she contacted the management at Radio City Music Hall and demanded they boycott the film. To prevent any further exposure, Hearst enforced a ban on all RKO produced movie in his papers. When Schaefer refused to shelf Kane, Parsons resorted to bully tactics and began calling other studios, threatening to expose the dark secrets of the Hollywood elite if RKO refused to comply with Hearst’s demands. With all the major studios in Hollywood now involved in a potential smear campaign, Schaefer was feeling the pressure. Parsons took it a step further and threatened to expose Welles’s relationship with Mexican actress Dolores del Rio. At the time del Rio was still legally married, and had begun a relationship with Welles while waiting for her divorce to be finalized. In hopes to appease the situation, Welles released a statement, publicly denying the film was inspired by Hearst. Unsatisfied by Welles’ statement, Hearst publications began drafting a series of articles revealing Hollywood’s practice of hiring immigrants rather than American citizens. When information began to leak out about the articles it turned the industry on its head. Shortly after, a joint offer of $805,000 was presented to RKO on behalf of several studios to destroy all prints of Citizen Kane and its negatives. RKO’s legal team assured Schaefer that Hearst had no legal ground to stand on in regards to a lawsuit. RKO turned down the payoff settlement to destroy Kane, and announced they planned to release the film as scheduled. A private screening was held in New York for the other studio heads to calm their concerns. Afterward Wells agreed to cut 3 minutes from the film to soften its tone and satisfy the corporate lawyers.

Despite the cuts, RKO officials still had their concerns about Kane, and the film’s premiere was delayed. Welles, who had had enough of Hearst and RKO executives, threatened to sue the studio’s board of governors if they didn’t release the film. Schaefer stood by Welles during the difficult ordeal. Citizen Kane finally premiered on May 1st, 1941 at RKO Palace Theater in New York after Radio City Music Hall refused to debut the film. Upon hearing Citizen Kane was to be released, Hearst banned any mention of the film in his papers. He was still a very powerful individual, and he convinced several theaters to boycott the film. Distribution became a struggle and RKO began including Kane as a package deal with their other new releases. Many theaters took the deal, but few choose to show Welles’ film. While the movie was praised by most critics, Kane failed to break even at the box office. RKO executives were quick to voice their disappointment with the film’s performance. In the end, Hearst was a great factor in the movie’s initial lack of success. Despite its poor financial showing, Kane was nominated for 9 Academy Awards, yet only managed to take home one Oscar for Best Writing (Original Screenplay). The snubs came as no surprise to Welles. In true Charles Foster Kane fashion, Hearst’s attacks against Welles stretched beyond Hollywood. After the release of Kane, Welles directed the play Native Son on Broadway. The play received positive reviews from critics, but Hearst owned papers trashed the performance and accused Welles of being a communist. While on a speaking lecture for Kane, a police detective quietly approached Welles and warned him not to go back to his room. The detective explained that a 14 year old girl had been hidden in his hotel closet and that two photographers were reportedly waiting outside for him to return. Realizing the severity of even a false statutory rape accusation, Welles left on the first train out of town.

The making of Citizen Kane, and the aftermath that followed was a trying experience for Orson Welles. Under the advisement of his business manager and attorney, a new contract was drawn up by RKO that took away most of the luxuries of the original contract. Welles reluctantly sign the modified contract, and became an employee of RKO. He would only direct one more film for the studio, The Magnificent Andersons. After its completion, RKO dramatically re-cut the film and shot a new ending despite Welles’s protests. They also heavily edited Bernard Herrmann’s score. When Herrmann discovered RKO editors had removed half the music he had written for the film, he demanded his name be removed from the credits and threatened the studio with legal action if they failed to do so. Like Kane, The Magnificent Andersons lost money at the box office. Shortly after the film’s release, Schaefer resigned as head of RKO and his successor quickly terminated Welles’s contract. 

Toland and Welles on the set
of Citizen Kane
Today, Citizen Kane is widely considered by many critics to be the greatest film ever made. If the War of the Worlds broadcast had not caused the media ruckus that it did, it calls into question if Kane would have ever been made for the silver screen. Under the RKO contract, Welles initially attempted to make screen adaptations of plays he had previously produced.  Had Welles succeeded in adapating those works, he most likely would have never written an original screenplay for RKO. For all the troubles Welles endured after the film's release, justice finally came in 1947 when French film critic Andre Brazin wrote an article called, "The Technique of Citizen Kane", which greatly swayed the public's opinion of the film in Europe. In 1956, more praise came from American critic Andrew Sarris who called the film one of the most influential in cinema. In the following decades, Kane's popularity continued to grow and the film soon began topping many top ten lists. Consistent praise has also been given to Gregg Toland's cinematography in the film. His experimental use of deep focus, lighting, and low angle shots created an entirely new viewing experience for film goers. Welles was so impressed by Toland's vision and commitment, to show his gratitude, he placed Toland's name beneath his on the final title card of the opening credits. In 1989, 4 years after Welles' death, Citizen Kane was selected for preservation by the Library of Congress. 

Considering all the hurdles and adversity Welles encountered during Kane, he could have easily thrown in the towel. His entrance into Hollywood may have had a fairy tale beginning, but the golden age of cinema was quick to reveal its infamous past. Yet Welles’ resilience and stubborn dedication may have been fueled by the same machine that enabled such a lucrative opportunity in the first place. The media. Hearst aside, the sensationalism of War of the World placed a spotlight on Welles, one that attracted the eyes of Hollywood. It was the same press fueled spotlight that criticized Welles once he signed with RKO. Many in the collective journalism beast were licking their lips at the possibility of reporting Welles’ career ending failure. Needless to say, such actions can provoke a man to astonishing new levels he never knew capable. In the end, Welles responded to the ridicule with the greatest of comebacks, a metaphoric mirror entitled Citizen Kane.

-Lee L. Lind