This Week in Universal News: The War of the Worlds Broadcast, 1938

On October 30, 1938, CBS broadcast a radio play of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds. The novel, first published in serial form in 1897, tells the story of an alien invasion of England. The Mercury Theatre on the Air production changed the location to New Jersey and employed a series of news bulletins to heighten the realism of the story. The next day, national media reported widespread panic, with citizens taking to the streets and scores of injuries resulting. The “panic” was more likely media hype: while some listeners were tricked, there is little evidence that the few who missed the frequent disclaimers actually took action or injured themselves because of the broadcast. Whatever the extent of the terror The War of the Worlds incited, the broadcast has become legendary. In a press conference the following day, 23-year-old Orson Welles explained why he didn’t expect listeners to think the well-known story was true. The actor-director’s exhaustion is more than just mental–Welles had stayed up until dawn rehearsing a new play.

From the release sheet:

RADIO PLAY TERRIFIES NATION.   New York, N.Y. Thousands of radio listeners throughout the U.S. are frightened into mass hysteria by a dramatization of H.G.Wells’ old thriller, “The War of the Worlds”, as staged by Orson Welles, young actor-manager.

Orson Welles is surrounded by reporters at a press conference.

You may view the complete reel, which also includes stories about new car technology and a college football roundup, on our YouTube channel. The newsreel is incomplete and the full soundtrack no longer exists.

About the Universal Newsreel Collection at NARA:

The Universal Newsreel Collection is one of the most used motion picture collections at the National Archives and Records Administration. Universal Newsreels were shown in movie theaters twice a week, from 1929 until 1967, and covered a wide range of American life and history during that time period. Each release usually contained five to seven stories averaging two minutes in length.

In 1974, Universal deeded its edited newsreel and outtake collection to the United States through the National Archives (NARA), and did not place any copyright restrictions on its use (some stories may contain other underlying intellectual property or proprietary use rights).

While Universal disposed of many of the soundtracks, leaving the newsreels incomplete, supplementary material like scripts, shot lists, and event programs can be found in the production files, available for research at Archives II in College Park, Maryland.

Learn more about the Universal Newsreel Collection in this post and in this Prologue article. Watch other Universal Newsreels in our research room, in OPA, and on this playlist.