On The Air:
Orson Welles, William Randolph Hearst,
And The Battle Over A Mercury Theatre Radio Play
By Chris Oakley
Summary: In the first two chapters of this series, we studied the court battle between Orson Welles and William Randolph Hearst over the controversial radio play Citizen Kane and the effect that the trialís verdict had on the lives of both men. In this chapter, weíll look at the final downfall of Hearst and the production of Welleís classic film adaptation of War of the Worlds.
Orson Welles wasnít the least bit daunted by the enormous challenges facing him in his quest to bring War of the Worlds to the silver screen. A part of him, in fact, utterly thrived on those challenges-- and for that matter the same was true of his cast, most notably Joseph Cotten, whoíd been chosen to portray the newsreel reporter who was the protagonist of the film. In a move that raised quite a few eyebrows at the time, Welles had opted to change the storyís setting from the Victorian London of the original novel to contemporary New York City-- the directorís logic being that movie audiences would be more able to relate to a tale set in a familiar urban environment than one based in the semi-countrified England of H.G. Wellsí heyday.
War of the Worlds employed some of the most complicated special effects yet seen in a feature film up until then; Welles had directly invested a considerable portion of his own money in the development of revolutionary types of FX technology he believed would give Worlds the verisimilitude it needed to sell audiences on its premise of an Earth under full-scale Martian attack. The Mercury Theatre impresario went out of his way to make sure the model cities he would use for filming his attack sequences resembled as closely as possible the actual urban areas whose annihilation would be portrayed in the movie. He even took photos of his own office and incorporated them into his storyboards for the movieís climactic scenes of the Martiansí rampage through the streets of New York.
Wellesí narrative was framed in a pseudo-documentary style readily familiar to anyone whoís seen The Blair Witch Project or Cloverfield. In fact, Welles himself spent hours watching actual newsreel and documentary footage in preparation for a voiceover cameo as the commentator whose grim dispatches punctuate Worlds. The kind of authenticity Welles was striving for doesnít come cheap; he gave the bigwigs at RKO Pictures screaming fits with his massive spending on FX and other technical elements of the filmís production. "That crazy son of a b---- will land us in the poorhouse." one RKO senior executive is supposed to have grumbled when he saw a studio accountantís tally of what Worlds was costing the company.
Another RKO exec was concerned about the movie for different reasons; he questioned the wisdom of releasing a feature film about an imagined apocalypse at a time when a very real apocalypse was threatening to engulf western Europe, if not the entire world. Welles, however, would not be deterred from bring his vision of War of the Worlds to the big screen. Still riding high on the rush of defeating William Randolph Hearst in court, Welles threw himself into the making of Worlds with a vigor that often amazed his cast and crew-- and even sometimes Welles himself.
One thing Welles couldnít do was film on location in Paris, where he had hoped to shoot a sequence depicting Martian death rays annihilating Notre Dame Cathedral and the Eiffel Towel.1 With the German army steamrollering its way across Europe, RKO was not all that eager to run the risk of having Welles end up in a Nazi prison camp; neither was Welles himself, for that matter. So he scrapped the Paris attack scene(albeit with a great deal of understandable reluctance). Because of diplomatic red tape and worsening US-Japanese relations, Welles also had to abandon plans to shoot a six-minute scene which would have shown Martian warships vaporizing Tokyo and sinking ships in the harbor at Yokohama.
He was able to film an epic battle scene involving a desperate stand by the US Army against the Martians in San Francisco. One of War Of The Worldsís supporting cast members figured prominently in the San Francisco sequence, and some people today credit that appearance with helping to make the actor in question a major figure first in the film industry and then in Washington.
The supporting playerís name? Ronald Reagan.
In July of 1940, in spite of objections from RKO executives and his own anxieties, Welles went to Great Britain for several weeks of filming in London and Coventry. By then, France had surrendered to the German army and most military experts-- including a number at the U.S. War Department --thought it was just a question of time before Hermann Goeringís Luftwaffe started unleashing its wrath on the British. As it turned out, however, Welles and his cast and production crew would be well on their way back to America by the time first German bombs fell on British soil.
While the Worlds team was rendering their fictional account of Londonís annihilation by Martian death rays, a very real apocalypse was unfolding in William Randolph Hearstís personal life. On July 10th, 1940 Marion Davies finally broke off her relationship with Hearst; she could no longer tolerate being associated with a man who had brought untold humiliation on himself and her by picking a childish, needless fight with Orson Welles. The breakup plunged Hearst into a depression that lasted for weeks. It also provided ample gossip fodder for radio stations and newspapers throughout America as Davies disparaged her onetime lover to anybody who would listen(and a few who wouldnít). For those who hated Hearst, it was a wonderful case of the chickens coming home to roost; some of his rivals in the newspaper world were openly gloating about his post-trial misfortunes.
The relationship between Hearst and his sons also suffered as a result of the fallout from the Welles lawsuit. Although initially the junior Hearsts had been supportive of their fatherís decision to sue Welles, they had changed their minds as the legal battle dragged on; eventually, they tried to persuade their father to settle the matter out of court and in the process set off a bitter argument which nearly led to the elder Hearst disowning his progeny. As it was, a cold and lengthy silence fell between father and sons for much of what was left of Hearstís life.
As if Hearstís courtroom defeat had been some kind of cue for a greater calamity, the Hearst Corporation began to sink deep into the red. Circulation for most Hearst-owned newspapers went into a massive decline as readers defected to rival publications in steadily growing numbers. By the time Orson Welles completed principal photography on War Of The Worlds in early September of 1940, at least two of Hearstís major dailies had been forced to close their doors and half a dozen or so others were staring bankruptcy smack in the face. In order to avoid going into bankruptcy himself, Hearst was forced to sell off most of his business assets and art collection; at one point he even faced the grim possibility of having to liquidate his San Simeon home.
Just when he thought things couldnít get any worse for him, they did: on February 16th, 1941 Los Angeles police found gossip columnist Louella Parsons, Hearstís leading secret weapon in the press, dead of arsenic poisoning in her Hollywood home. Although initially there was considerable speculation she had been the victim of foul play at the hands of one of her vast legion of enemies, the coroner ruled Parsonsí death a suicide-- a conclusion bolstered by the discovery of a half-finished letter of resignation from Hearstís syndicate in which she blamed the fallout from the Welles vs. Hearst court case for derailing her once-brilliant press career and making her the laughing stock of Hollywood.
Overnight Hearst found himself accused in some quarters of having caused, or at least permitted, Parsonsí untimely demise. He vigorously defended himself against these accusations, but few people were in the mood to listen to him anymore, and eventually the strain took a severe toll on the beleaguered press baron. On June 20th, 1941, just two days before the Nazi invasion of Russia, he was rushed to Cedars of Lebanon Hospital after suffering acute cardiac arrest. He spent his final days in the hospitalís intensive care wing in an irreversible coma; at 1:30 AM on the morning of July 1st he was pronounced dead of a stroke at the age of 73.
Not long after Hearst himself passed away, what was left of his publishing empire began to disintegrated. One by one Hearst magazines and newspapers either folded, merged, or got bought up by rival media companies only too happy to dance on the grave of what had once been one of the most powerful publishing conglomerates in America. Within barely five months after Hearst was laid to rest, Hearst Corporation stock was trading for less than $15 per share on Wall Street and there were whispers it was in danger of sinking even lower; by the time the United States officially declared war on Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the corporation was running a massive deficit and the companyís attorneys and accountants were circling the wagons as they tried everything they could think of to prevent the dying press giant from going under.
As it turned out, their efforts would be in vain. By mid-February of 1942, the Hearst Corporation had filed for bankruptcy and Hearstís family was having to spend much of their own personal funds to settle all the legal and financial debts accumulated as a result of the late William Randolph Hearstís obsession with getting revenge against Orson Welles; for decades to come, the Hearst clan would continue to suffer the consequences of their patriarchís single-minded hatred of Welles.2 Hearstís press empire, once among the most dominant forces in American social and political life, would fade into memory and from there into the history books.
Welles, by contrast, seemed to be leading a charmed life. The War Of The Worlds crew wrapped up post-production in January of 1941 and released the finished film a month later to almost unanimous critical praise and sellout audiences in every theater where it played. H.G. Wells attended Worldsí London premiere and was suitably impressed by the Mercury Theatre directorís interpretation of his science fiction epic(although he later joked to friends that he hadnít expected Woking3 to so closely resemble Roswell, New Mexico4). When Joseph Stalin saw a Russian-dubbed version of Worlds in his private screening room at the Kremlin, he emerged from the room with a look of mute awe on his face. Even Nazi propaganda chief Joseph Goebbels ruefully admitted in his private diary that he couldnít come close to matching the eye-catching and apocalyptic spectacle Welles had created.
When the 1942 Academy Award nominations were announced, War Of The Worlds received the nod in ten categories: Best Picture, Best Special Effects, Best Actor(Joseph Cotten), Best Actress(Cottenís leading lady Ruth Warrick), Best Music Score Of A Dramatic Picture, Best Original Original Screenplay, Best Cinematography(Black & White)5, Best Film Editing, Best Art Direction(Black & White), and Best Director(Orson Welles). All of Hollywood was on pins and needles to see if Worlds and its rookie director could pull off the upset against cinematic veteran John Ford and his mining drama How Green Was My Valley, which were both heavy favorites to bring home Oscars in their respective categories; when the envelope was opened to reveal the identity of the 1941 Best Director award winner, the Biltmore Hotel6 was literally so quiet one could hear a pin drop...
To Be Continued
 Had this sequence made it into the film, it would have served as a prelude to the climactic Martian assault on New York City.
 One particularly tragic victim of the Hearstsí post-1941 misfortunes was Patricia Hearst, the daughter of William Randolph Hearstís fourth son Randolph Apperson. Embittered by the hard times which her family had fallen prey to, she turned to a life of crime and was killed in 1974 during a shootout with Los Angeles police after a bank holdup attempt had been foiled.
 The Surrey town which is the Martian landing site in the original novel.
 The spot where the Martians began their assault on Earth in Wellesí movie.
 Welles had originally wanted to shoot the film in color but had to scrap that idea for budgetary reasons.
 Site of the 1942 Academy Awards.