Is An Episode Of ‘The Shadow’ The Real Inspiration Behind The Famous Opening Of The Mercury Theatre’s ‘The War Of The Worlds’?

January 22, 2010 § Leave a comment

By Lars Trodson

Ever since The Mercury Theatre broadcast its famous version of “The War of the Worlds” in 1938, there has been an ongoing debate over who created the idea of using authentic-sounding news bulletins to build up the story’s suspense.

And who wouldn’t want to take credit for it? Success, we know, has many fathers. This much is certain: Orson Welles directed the program, and Howard Koch is the credited writer of the script.

While the idea of simulated news flashes didn’t originate with The Mercury Theatre, no one had used the idea so effectively before. Several sources of inspiration have been cited over the years, including Archibald MacLeish’s radio drama (written in verse), “Air Raid”, but was it Welles or Koch that actually decided to use bulletins to move the story along?

We’ve uncovered a source of inspiration that may tip the debate over to the Welles side of the ledger, not because he was the originator of the idea but maybe he was the guy who knew how to expand on a good idea he had seen not long before “The War of the Worlds” was broadcast.

By October 1938 Orson Welles was a nationally famous celebrity. He had a very popular — and astoundingly inventive — season on Broadway with the Mercury players, and as a reward he was given his own radio slot on CBS to produce one hour dramas.

But just a year before, Welles was still very much a journeyman radio actor, appearing in numerous productions. The most famous of his acting jobs was that of “wealthy young man about town” Lamont Cranston, more famously known as “The Shadow.”

On Dec. 12, 1937, just 10 months before “Worlds” became a global event, Welles starred in a routine episode of “The Shadow” titled “The Death Triangle” (the names in The Shadow series are especially gruesome).

After the introduction, during which The Shadow asks the audience, “who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men…?” and an ad for Blue Coal — “Ask for it by name!” — the episode begins. The music fades and the sounds of a crowd mumbling and a drum roll are heard. A voice with a very bad French accent intones: “On this day, Dec 22, 1913, by order of the authority of Devil’s Island, you, Pierre Martin, are hereby sentenced to 100 days in confinement solitaire –” (murmuring in the audience heard here) “– and 100 lashes in the presence of the assembled prisoners as a warning to all who would attempt to escape! Let the punishment begin!”

The drum roll repeats, and Pierre Martin yells out “I will find the devil who betrayed me!” and a voice starts counting the lashes: “One! Two!” while Martin repeats his vow to find the person who turned him in.

As the lashes reach the count of eight, we hear, anachronistically and suddenly, 1930s-style organ music. This organ music fades and a voice breaks in to say:

“Ladies and gentlemen, we interrupt this program of organ music to bring you a special news flash from our affiliated news service. New York, Dec. 12, 1937…The Shadow has been found!”

Of course, “The War of the Worlds” opens up with an introduction by Welles, and then a fade in to an announcer who mentions the weather and then we hear: “We take you now to the Meridian Room in the Hotel Park Plaza in downtown New York, where you’ll be entertained by the music of Ramón Raquello and his orchestra.”

We hear the tango — but this of course is the same idea in both broadcasts: breaking up a music program with an urgent news flash.

In “The Shadow” episode, the news reader goes on to say: “Dr. James Evans, world famous child surgeon, told reporters this afternoon that a wounded man who claimed to be The Shadow forced his way into Dr. Evans’ private clinic and at the point of a gun forced him to remove a bullet. The wounded man then revealed that he was none other than that mysterious character, who has waged a one-man war against crime, The Shadow. Before Dr. Evans could report the case to the police, however, The Shadow mysteriously disappeared. The famous surgeon believes the Shadow has little chance of surviving his wounds.”

The announcer then says, “Our organ recital continues….”

We hear a little more organ music, but it fades out and the sound of a phone is heard ringing. A man picks up the receiver, says “Dr. Evans.” and then we hear the macabre laughter of The Shadow, played by Welles. The 30-minute mystery then plays itself out.

We may never know who actually came up with the idea of the news bulletin for “The Death Triangle” episode of “The Shadow.” It could have been Welles, or the scriptwriter. In any case it was ineptly used. The opening vignette of the punishment by lashing doesn’t appear to have been set up as a radio broadcast, the audience is supposed to be hearing an actual event (or flashback) played out in 1913. The scriptwriter simply didn’t seem to know how to jump effectively to the present day, so they inserted this “news bulletin” idea and then moved on.

But it mimics so closely the format adopted by Welles, Koch and The Mercury Theatre only 10 months later that it is worth noting, on the record, that maybe Welles heard a good idea, badly used, and kept it in his back pocket until the time came when he could put it to good use.

That time came on Oct. 30, 1938, and used it well he did. But some credit for the inventiveness and continuing fame of “The War of the Worlds” should always go out to another humble source: “The Death Triangle”, a long forgotten episode of “The Shadow” starring Orson Welles.

Listen to “The Death Triangle: here:

Listen to “War of the Worlds” here:


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