Hammering out the movie's own theme on the piano, lanky neurosurgeon-crimefighter Jeff Goldblum figures out the villain's secret lair in the 1980s cult movie Buckaroo Banzai: Grover's Mill, New Jersey. Orson Welles wasn't playing a prank in 1938 when he broadcast on the radio that aliens had landed, he was actually telling the truth, deduces Goldblum.
"Orson Welles?" asks one of Goldblum's compadres. "You mean the old guy from the wine commercials?"
Welles may have been best-known as a pitchman for Paul Masson jug wine near the end, but his tremendous influence on filmmakers is acknowledged through the movie's sly citation. Just 25, he made Citizen Kane, considered by some to be the best film ever. While not a film noir, its chiaroscuro lighting, low-angle photography and nonlinear structure influenced the genre. Welles later ventured into noir territory with Lady From Shanghai, an ambitious film with a sophisticated use of voice over, and Touch of Evil, which has a stunning, one-of-a-kind opening shot.
|"I always felt I was letting my parents down. That's why I worked so hard. That's the stuff
that turned the motor."
At precisely 8 p.m., a CBS announcer welcomed the audience of about a million to the Mercury Theatre production of ''War of the Worlds.'' A Latin dance band swung into action only to be interrupted by a series of chilling bulletins: Alarming atmospheric disturbances had been observed on Mars; ''a huge, flaming object'' believed to be a meteorite had fallen on a farm in Grover's Mill. A roving ''reporter'' described the aliens' emergence: ''Ladies and gentlemen, this is the most terrifying thing I have ever witnessed. . . . Someone's crawling out of the hollow top. . . . There, I can see the thing's body. It's as large as a bear and it glistens like wet leather. But that face. It . . . it's indescribable. I can hardly force myself to keep looking at it.''
Listeners who switched over from other programs sat by their radios stunned; without hearing the introduction, many took the urgent reports as God's truth. As the drama continued, they were told that hideous invaders had wiped out the New Jersey militia, the Army and the Air Force; that President Roosevelt had declared a national emergency; that New York City had been taken over by aliens as tall as skyscrapers. Though members of the audience, which rapidly swelled to 6 million, were assured four times by an announcer that they were listening to a work of fiction -- and though Welles stated in an epilogue that ''((This was)) the Mercury Theatre's own radio version of dressing up in a sheet and saying 'Boo!' '' -- about a million people missed the message.
By all accounts, Welles was shocked by the panic that ensued. ''He hadn't the faintest idea what the effect would be,'' says Houseman. CBS was inundated with calls; newspaper switchboards were jammed. Hysterical mobs took to the streets in New York and northern New Jersey. It was reported that only a husband's intervention saved a Pittsburgh woman who tried to poison herself rather than die at the hands of Martians. Welles himself later told the story -- perhaps apocryphal -- that the actor John Barrymore was drunk when he heard the broadcast and, convinced the world was coming to an end, ran into his backyard and threw open the door to the doghouse where his two Great Danes were kept. ''Fend for yourselves!'' he was said to have thundered.
Henry Sears, a carpenter whose parents owned an inn and tavern near Grover's Mill, remembers the scene as one of bitter confusion. ''I was sitting upstairs over the bar doing my homework and listening to the radio,'' says Sears, then a teenager, now 63. ''And all of a sudden come this break -- a news flash -- that the Martians had landed . . . at Grover's Mill. I listened again and kept hearing some more, then I unplugged the radio and took it down to the bar. There were about eight or so local customers, most of them farmers. I made them stop their checkers games, and I asked them to please listen to this. I was impressionable and believed what I heard, and so did everyone else.
''One man, Sam Dye, owned a bar. He said, 'Gawl darn, I'm going to get my shotgun, and we're going to get those Martians.' Everyone got their guns and came back. I had my .10-gauge shotgun, and we had an entourage of autos all heading toward Grover's Mill. We didn't much know what we were going to see, but we knew we were bound to see something. We got right up close to the lake, and everybody was milling around and getting excited. I can tell you, people were upset and aggravated, and some of them were disgusted. I think it was a mixed mood."
--from a story in People Weekly on the 50th anniversary of the Martian "invasion"
"This office has never been able to establish that WELLES is an actual member of the former
Communist Party or the present Communist Political Association. [But] he has consistently followed the
Communist Party line and has been active in numerous `front' organizations."
"WELLES has never been placed as a member of the Communist Party."
"I thought they were talking such nonsense that I began to hoot and holler."