Friday, August 13, 2010

Alternate universe movies: Alfred Hitchcock's "The War of the Worlds"

One of the more compelling ideas in author Neil Gaiman's beloved Sandman series is Dream's Library. There "every book that has ever been dreamed" has a place on its endless, well-cataloged shelves.

I've got a few novels there myself (it's good to know they're somewhere).

In the Hollywood Bios section, I'd hope to find Douglas Adams' biography of D.W. Griffith, So Long and Thanks for All the Gish.

What I'd like to see next is Dream's DVD collection, rows upon rows of movies that might have been, but weren't. Among the titles I'd search for are

Of course I'd also check out The Public Enemy with Louise Brooks instead of Jean Harlow, and The Maltese Falcon with Gene Tierney instead of Mary Astor.

And let us not forget Zeppelins v. Pterodactyls.

First things first, though. Immediately after snaring a copy of Orson Welles' Batman (who says hoaxes don't count?), I'd bee-line to the shelf holding several might-have-been movie adaptations of H.G. Wells' 1898 novel, The War of the Worlds, the ones directed by Cecil B. DeMille, Sergie Eisenstein, and particularly Alfred Hitchcock.

In our waking world, we know that Paramount gave us The War of the Worlds in 1953 by producer-as-auteur George Pal. This robust interpretation put a post-WWII spin to an impressive Technicolor actioner that was Paramount's must-see sci-fi thriller of the year. We "monster kids" of a later generation discovered it as a Sunday afternoon TV rerun staple throughout the 1970s.

More than 50 years later in 2005, Paramount handed the property to Steven Spielberg, who gave the story a darker, visually stunning modern re-interpretation fit for the Bush era. (Sure, Tom Cruise wouldn't have been my choice for the lead, but that version was truer to the novel and those Tripods were scary as hell.)

But there's more to this story.

According to War of the Worlds: from Wells to Spielberg, by John L. Flynn (Amazon), and a production account of Pal's movie reproduced here, in 1925 Paramount Pictures bought the book's film rights from Wells in perpetuity. The studio attached Cecil B. DeMille to direct it as a follow-up to his successful grand-scale achievement The Ten Commandments (1923). The plan was to make The War of the Worlds as a silent film, with at least some scenes enhanced with the two-strip Technicolor process used in The Ten Commandments.

A script treatment was prepared by Roy Pomeroy, but it was a dire thing. Perhaps he waved Wells' actual novel over his pages in a vague ritual blessing, but otherwise Pomeroy's divergences made his script something ridiculously other. For starters, the Martians ("hideous gnomes") are on Earth to (according to Pomeroy) "find beautiful women with whom they plan to breed and propagate a mixed Martian-Earth race which is to populate the Earth anew." Thus the most embarrassing trope associated with 1950s science-fiction movies could have gotten its start a generation earlier in the pre-sound era. This script set the story in the U.S., including the New York City subway, and period footage of the city then would be fascinating now. But still. Bill Warren, in his indispensable tome Keep Watching the Skies! American Science Fiction Movies of the Fifties, provides a comprehensive rundown of that 1925 script, which he accurately says is "best described as quaint."

In his book, Flynn says that in 1926 the New York Times leaked a story about Paramount's plan to put Wells' tale into production. The story stated that someone named Arzen Doscerepy, a famous German technical expert producing movies in Berlin, "has spent two years perfecting devices and mechanisms which will make Wells's Martians walk and spray death around the world."

Apparently DeMille couldn't shape a script to his liking (as the Pomeroy example testifies) and the project was abandoned in pre-production.

DeMille at work
It's a damn shame we'll never know what DeMille might have done with it. What would the man behind The Ten Commandments and The King of Kings (1927) have crafted out of Wells' story? Is it too much to fantasize about a version directed by DeMille, written by Harry Behn (King Vodor's The Big Parade), and shot by Charles Rosher and Karl Struss of Sunrise? What were those "devices and mechanisms"? Surely he'd use the two-color Technicolor in the scenes of Martian Tripods blasting their Heat Rays, annihilating armies, emptying London, and "spraying death" across world populations.

What's gunslinger Gene Wilder's line from Blazing Saddles? "I must have killed more men than Cecil B. DeMille." Yeah, it probably would have been like that.

A question here: Was the New York Times "leak" a real story, or did the Times, accidentally or otherwise, simple release so much studio hype baloney? The name "Arzen Doscerepy" appears on a Google search only in context of the Times report. Did this "famous German technical expert" actually exist? Me, I wonder if "Arzen Doscerepy" was an anagram for someone in Paramount's publicity department at the time.

Stephen Cooke, of the site If Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger, There'd Be a Whole Lot of Dead Copycats, pointed me to the image at the right. It's from a 1926 Paramount release book promoting the studio's upcoming roster of movies. Among the ads for announced but not yet produced titles, there's the silent version of The War of the Worlds that never materialized:
"Mighty dramatic spectacle that depicts the clash of planet against planet, deeds of courage and terror beyond the wildest imagination and photographic effects that will astound audiences. With a golden romance of youth and love by one of the great masters of literature."
You gotta love that they pin a "golden romance of youth and love" on Wells, "one of the great masters of literature." He was that, certainly, though it's safe to assume that Paramount would've had no truck with randy ol' social shaker H.G.'s advocacy of "youth and love" in the form of polyamorous "free love," what he called "sexual rationalism." Or maybe Paramount had a bold new concept for the movie in mind....

Notice that DeMille isn't mentioned. I'd assume that after The Ten Commandments his name would be part of the promo blurb, like D.W. Griffith's name and face attached to The White Slave just below it. Was C.B. off the project but it was still slated to go ahead without him anyway?

(Of tangential interest: In the comments section below, Stephen points out that this same release book also announced Paramount's upcoming U.S. release of Fritz Lang's Metropolis, a film that had not yet seen its own world premiere, which happened in Berlin on January 10, 1927. Paramount, along with MGM, co-funded Lang's UFA production in exchange for, along with world distribution, the right to make any changes the U.S. companies found appropriate to ensure profitability. Paramount's U.S. distribution version cut out a quarter of the film, a vivisection undone — mostly — just this year. ref: Metropolis Found)

But wait, there's still more.

In 1930, Hollywood pioneer Jesse Lasky gained control of Paramount and set out to find a potential hit among the studio's properties. He picked The War of the Worlds, this time offering it to the esteemed Russian director Sergei Eisenstein (The Battleship Potemkin, '25), who was then in the U.S. at Lasky's invitation.

You just imagined Eisenstein's "baby carriage down the Odessa Steps" sequence, didn't you? Perhaps with a Martian war machine Tripod towering over the scene? (YouTube)

1927 cover
A script was prepared, but after four months of pre-production special effects work, Eisenstein left the project to direct Que Viva Mexico, a film he never completed.

Lasky declared the story technically impossible to film and shelved the project. As a concept, different parties resurrected it a number of times over the years, and ultimately Paramount archived five unproduced War of the Worlds screenplays.

What I wouldn't give to have a look at each of those scripts now.

In 1951 it was Pal's friend DeMille who handed Pal — then completing another erstwhile DeMille could-have-been, When Worlds Collide — the book's movie rights. In '52 Pal hired Barré Lyndon to rewrite and update the story. Byron Haskin signed on to direct.

Let's look at Pal's for a moment. Stick with me here. Context is key to the way movie-makers retell Wells' story.

For his Martian sturm und drang, Pal shifted the action to Atomic Age America, bringing the monstrous "intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic" up against the post-war era's — as Paul Frees' baronial narration puts it — "terrible weapons of super-science."

In the novel, Wells kept his telling of the invasion mostly local, close to his unnamed narrator's home in Woking, Surrey, with the narrator wandering the London suburbs, hoping to find his wife while reporting the Martian attacks on Shepperton, the Thames, southern England, and finally the heart of conquered London itself.

Pal resets the stage to fictitious Linda Rosa, California, then we follow "the rout of civilization and the massacre of mankind" to Los Angeles. Pal amply shows us, however, that this is a global conflict, with a scale and scope (and stock footage) worthy of the WWII epics then becoming their own genre in the theaters.

Wells' novel turned Victorian era invasion literature and themes of aggressive imperialism and colonization on their heads, with homeland residents of the British Empire — at its height the largest empire in history and, for over a century, the supreme technological global power — for the first time getting a taste of overwhelming opposition and collapse under the heel (rather, Tripod foot) of a superior military power.

Likewise, Pal's version, set on American soil, flips and burns America's image of itself after World War II, then only eight years past. While the fearsome Martian ships succeeded in scaring the Grape Nehi out of every ten-year-old in the audience, how disquieting it must have been for the Cold War-agitated grownups to witness U.S. might — tanks, A-bombs, everything — brushed away helpless as the Martians' "skeleton rays" destroyed world capitals and gave all America the Dresden treatment. Those who credited the U.S. for recently saving the world now watched Los Angeles get pummeled and refugees by the thousands flee the sinister, graceful, cobra-headed war machines. These attackers' stance on interplanetary relations trumped the previous invasion by the lone marauder in The Thing from Another World, and rendered moot Klaatu's preemptive finger-wagging about our WMDs in The Day the Earth Stood Still.

So Mr. Wells' story is one that brings a malleable zeitgeist-y adaptability, with some viewers and commentators spotting 9/11 resonances in Spielberg's iteration.

1953 being what it was, Pal the devout Catholic infused the story with a Sunday-school piousness, and Paramount forced Pal to shoehorn a boy-meets-girl melodrama into his interplanetary blitzkrieg. Gene Barry's hero-jawed, can-do, outdoorsy celebrity-genius — the "top man in astro and nuclear physics" — brings the film quiveringly close to self-parody. And Ann Robinson's emoting, Max Factor'd screamer is one of the less appealing love interests of the decade.

Nonetheless, today Pal's version endures as one of the most favored and muscular of the 1950s science fiction popcorn-sellers.

An authoritative commentary track on this movie's 2005 DVD edition corroborates the DeMille and Eisenstein contacts.

Furthermore, a 30-minute featurette, The Sky is Falling: The Making of War of the Worlds, includes a clip from special-effects master Ray Harryhausen's portfolio of his own Martian octopoid emerging from its cylinder. It's test footage he shopped around in 1949 for his own proposed independent movie. No studio bit that lure, though there's yet another version we can seek out on Dream's Library shelves. (YouTube)

What intrigues me most, though, is a tantalizing nugget mentioned on this DVD and in the other accounts of DeMille's and Eisenstein's connection to the story. Evidently, in 1934 none other than Alfred Hitchcock approached Wells directly about securing the novel's movie rights. Hitchcock wasn't with Paramount, so no deal. But still....

Two scenarios suggest themselves:


In real history, Hitchcock did not leave his native England for the U.S. until 1939. So we can imagine his War of the Worlds as set and shot in its country of origin and starring a British cast we can cherry-pick from the films he made during his pre-war career in the U.K.

Whereas Pal's version arrived augmented by the global cataclysm of World War II, we can imagine Hitchcock's being informed by nightmarish memories of the First World War. Trench warfare, poison gas attacks (reminiscent of Wells' Martian "black smoke"), horrifying new weaponry (including, for the first time, war flying in from above), unheard-of casualty numbers, and virulent disease — all the latest horrors and anxieties of modern warfare were still within living memory, with physical and social scars remaining throughout England and continental Europe. Unlike American audiences, for British movie-goers the notion of civilization-routing invasion was no mere abstraction. And that doesn't even touch on French, German, and other audiences in a likely film distribution circuit.

It's a sure bet that Hitchcock's film would have tapped into that, even if not deliberately. Had his version gone into production late enough in the decade, the anxieties of imminent war — Hitler invaded Poland in '39, kicking off Round II — would have tinted any Martian apocalypse he put on British screens. It might have helped steel British patriotic resolve against any invading monsters threatening Old Blighty.

(In the real world's 1940, The Sea Hawk, directed by Mchael Curtiz and starring Errol Flynn, used an escapist adventure as an allegory for the new World War era, with Churchill and Hitler thinly disguised as Queen Elizabeth I and Spain's dastardly King Phillip. When Flynn's loyal pirate Capt. Thorpe states that "Spain is at war with the world," there's no doubt who the film is really talking about, jawohl. Witnessing Elizabeth's proud valedictory against "the ruthless ambition of a man" who "threatens to engulf the world," 1940 audiences rallied to her stout call to action aimed squarely at contemporary patriotism, with "the solemn obligation of all free men" including the so-far uninvolved United States. Later, in '42, Hitchcock's own Saboteur carried an almost bludgeoning smash-the-Axis fervor, with climactic fisticuffs atop the Statue of Liberty's torch.)

Let's picture Hitchcock at work on the film for Gaumont-British Picture Corporation, whose Lime Grove Studios was where he directed The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934), the keystone spy thriller The 39 Steps (1935), and The Lady Vanishes (1938). The latter two were also literary adaptations, as was his final film before heading to Hollywood, Jamaica Inn, the first of his three films based on works by Daphne du Maurier (his adaptations of her novel Rebecca and short story "The Birds" being among his Hollywood highlights).

I envision a scenario that hews closer to Wells' novel than Pal did, while still updating the action to then-contemporary England, let's say 1936, soon after the success of The 39 Steps.

For the third time, Charles Bennett is scripting a Hitchcock film, this time adapting Wells' novel. Settings include rural England and Woking itself. Mutz Greenbaum's atmospheric Doré-inspired black-and-white imagery (like 1933's King Kong) sets a high standard, notably when the Martians' space travel cylinders land in the bleak Great Depression landscapes of the English southern counties, then the moodily edited climactic final reel amid the stark ruins of London landmarks.

(by Nike Dorchain)
The movie keeps its thrilling climax in London, a deserted, grayed-out mortuary metropolis inhabited only by skeletons picked over by crows. The key pinnacle white-knuckle scene near the end occurs at a famous national monument (that Hitchcock signature). At the clock tower, say, or Trafalgar Square. A tentacled Martian Tripod meeting its end while toppling into St. Paul's Cathedral would be a fine touch, similar to Pal's urban church climax in his version.

Scenes recreating Wells' vivid chapter "Dead London" test the limits of permitted graphic, gruesome motion picture imagery, but Hitchcock has the clout to push those limits (forecasting Psycho and others years later?). When the narrator discovers dead and dying Martians in their fallen machines, their tattered flesh scavenged by dogs and crows, then expresses the revelation that the invaders had been "slain, after all man's devices had failed, by the humblest things that God, in his wisdom, has put upon this earth," meaning bacteria and germs — well, that's Hitch hitting box office gold, and the British Board of Film Censors approves it after first scrutinizing the entire film for any forbidden political messages.

The cast is headlined by Robert Donat as Wells' writer-narrator. (John Gielgud turned it down.) Here he's a newspaper and radio journalist. Margaret Lockwood is his wife, now given a more substantial role than in the book. The film leaves out Wells' narrator's brother, instead filling out the family with an imperiled niece, Sophia, played by 17-year-old Nova Pilbeam.

There's Leslie Banks as the traumatized curate whose evangelical ravings about Armageddon attract the Martians and seal his doom.

After his captain is killed by a blazing Heat Ray, Rex Harrison plays the brave young officer who takes command of the HMS Thunder Child (an ironclad torpedo ram in the book, now upgraded to a Royal Navy York class heavy cruiser based on the Exeter). He cuts a heroic figure (and gets his own orchestral motif in the score), saving the narrator and others by taking out a pair of Tripods off the Essex coast, but at the cost of his ship and his own life.

In his screen debut, Michael Redgrave receives critical accolades in his moving performance as the half-crazed artillerymen. (George Sanders auditioned for the role and didn't get it, though Hitchcock liked his audition and remembered him for Rebecca in 1940.)

Hitchcock was under pressure to add more women to Wells' story, and his flair for black humor is displayed in the fondly remembered dining room scene with Dame May Whitty as Lady Everhall, plus 22-year-old Lilli Palmer as her daughter Violet. (Palmer met Rex Harrison during the shoot, and they married the following year.)

American Robert Young, then on loan from MGM, plays the medical student.

A career-advancing standout here is Peter Lorre, whose Karl Brunner was added to the script in the late stages as an opportunistic antagonist who imperils Sophia. He's an immigrant portrayed with the crude brush strokes of the time, and though the characterization may make us wince today, we still lean forward for the scene when he is overcome by the deadly Red Weeds, then sucked dry via the Martians' blood feedings. (All off-screen, naturally, but the use of sound and shadow and suggestion makes sure those moments are shudderingly effective.)

As for Mr. Wells, who turns 70 within days of the film's September '36 release, he tells the London Times that Hitchcock's treatment is "as evocative of my own youthful imaginings as I could ever hope to see on a cinema screen. I give it my sincerest mark of approval." In private Wells is not entirely forgiving of alterations to the story, especially the insertion of "arbitrary distractions" such as Lorre's Karl Brunner character. After the premiere Wells visits with Hitchcock for several hours in Hitchcock's London home, again praising the production generally but nonetheless expressing dismay at the inserted "dining room scene."

Visualizing the Martian cylinders, Tripods, and the octopoidal Martians themselves would be a challenge for a 1936 production. However, we do have a few real-world analogs that demonstrate how such visual effects wouldn't be completely unavailable to Hitchcock at the time. From the U.S., King Kong and Son of Kong had been out for three years already, and 1925's The Lost World was over a decade old. Therefore skillful, effective model animation techniques for the Tripods and Martians were well past the proof-of-concept stage.

For grandiosity of scale and scope, we need look no further than Things to Come, released in 1936 by London Film Productions from a heady screenplay by H.G. Wells himself. Produced by Alexander Korda and directed by William Cameron Menzies (production designer for, to name just one, Gone With the Wind in '39), what Things to Come lacks in warmth and nuance it makes up for in visionary ideas and ambitious visuals, including a world scoured by war (another devastated London, for instance), super-advanced aircraft, and powerful futuristic machines filling the screen. Wells was no screenwriter, and today the film is as dated as a Buck Rogers serial, but as I say in my post here, Things to Come was epic on a Cecil B. DeMille Bible movie scale. Plus it was made in London at the same time as this would-be Hitchcock War of the Worlds.

In our imaginary scenario, Hitchcock's The War of the Worlds trounces Things to Come at the box office, and Wells' unhappiness with the compare/contrast commentary by the press and the public alike rankles him for years.


The second dream scenario that comes to mind sees Hitchcock contacting Paramount in 1936 about securing the novel's film rights. Paramount mogul Adolph Zukor seizes the opportunity and negotiates a Paramount contract for Hitchcock. Zukor is on the hunt for an audience-grabber to lift the studio's dire financial straits. This brings the director (with his wife Alma, their young daughter Patricia, and their Sealyham Terriers) across the Atlantic to America in early 1937, two years earlier than they did in real history, and attaches him to Paramount 17 years before Rear Window in 1954.

So let's imagine him now working at the same studio with DeMille, who, as I mentioned above, had once expressed interest in adapting another big-scale science fiction novel, When Worlds Collide, before directing 1934's Cleopatra instead. (Really.) Here he offers Hitch advice on achieving the sort of grandiose spectacle DeMille had become known for. The gentleman from England nods, rubs his nose thoughtfully, and cordially tells DeMille to blow it out his ass. They never speak again.

As in Scenario 1, this is a contemporized, pre-WWII, Depression-era adaptation. Zukor has just reorganized the company to save it from bankruptcy, and he and new Paramount president Barney Balaban are literally banking on The War of the Worlds for a high-cost/high-return box office hit. So while Hitchcock is given the most lavish resources of his career so far, his production moves the main action to San Francisco and the surrounding region for reasons as much economic as cinematic or demographic. Hitchcock likes the scenic Bay Area so much he returns there for several later productions.

Paramount slates the release date for October 1938 to capitalize on the novel's 40th anniversary. The studio markets the film as an adaptation of a literary classic, downplaying the science fiction facet lest the film become associated with tawdry pulp magazine tales and Edgar Rice Burroughs' "Barsoom" novels, which are looked upon as lowbrow and juvenile.

As is typical, the Paramount movie factory aims for a production that spotlights the star power of its contract players. The publicity department transforms the casting of the lead — now written as American family man and ex-Army photojournalist George Calder, who is desperate to save his wife and son while yet capturing the "story of a lifetime" by infiltrating a Martian lair — into a high-profile media event.

Magazines and newspaper showbiz columnists report on the "star-studded" series of screen-tests with Anthony Quinn, Fredric March, Madeleine Carroll, Miriam Hopkins ("a right bitch," says Hitch, according to a later biography), Jean Arthur, and other luminaries.

Hedda Hopper leads the gossip mongers who invent a feud between Carole Lombard and Claudette Colbert for the role of Calder's wife Helen. In fact, neither star is under serious consideration because of their budget-busting salaries and reputations for lighter comic roles.

As soon as word of the project leaks out, James Cagney, eager to move away from gangster roles, tries to set up a meeting with Hitchcock personally. But Cagney's recent explosive departure from Warner Bros., cementing his reputation as "difficult," makes the free-agent actor too big of a risk, especially for Hitch's first film in Hollywood. Fortunately, Cagney is back at Warners in time to shoot Angels with Dirty Faces, which opens soon after The War of the Worlds in November '38. (Source: Forrest J. Ackerman's definitive Heat Rays Over Hollywood: The Making of Hitchcock's 'War of the Worlds', Knopf Doubleday, 1962,  rev. 1980.)

The publicity surrounding the high-stakes production puts a strain on Hitchcock that is visible both on the set and at home. Finally, Alfred and Alma take a week-long holiday with fellow Londoner Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard. (Chaplin's Modern Times is still in some theaters.) This rather secretive trip provides a curative, although the details of the much-rumored getaway will remain a mystery to Hitchcock biographers.

Ultimately it is announced that Gary Cooper will play Calder. Helen is given to Barbara Stanwyck.

Walter Brennan is cast as the clergyman. With the censorious Production Code strictly enforced, and the Catholic Legion of Decency aiming its crosshairs at the project from the beginning, mandated script changes redirect Wells' original traumatized curate away from suicidal insanity toward self-sacrificing piety. Sly dialogue in the script, however, delivered by Brennan's subtle performance, hint at a hidden past and dark undercurrents churning within the otherwise watered-down character.

At first DeMille favorite Ian Keith accepts a choice role: the captain of the U.S.S. Thunder Child. But he backs out when DeMille (still bruised by Hitchcock's earlier rude brush-off) goes to Zukor himself to secure Keith for The Buccaneer. The part then goes to Ray Milland.

It's 20-year-old newcomer Robert Preston who lands the role of the artilleryman. Wells' medical student is changed to nurse Elizabeth Marsden as played by Susan Hayward. Spring Byington appears as the landlady who has witnessed her husband being grabbed by a steely tentacle and reeled up into a Tripod; she provides shelter for Gary Cooper's half-starved, on-the-run hero. The pair of looters and murderers who threaten Cooper and Byington are played by J. Carrol Naish and Brian Donlevy.

Production sketches, R. Harryhausen
As suggested above, the screenplay goes through numerous, often contentious, revisions. Early drafts touch on the hardships and anxieties of the Great Depression backdrop, with displaced refugees of all classes plainly echoing the migrant Dust Bowl "Okies," and the Martian armada seeming to represent unstoppable and unpredictable forces laying waste to lives and societies. The studio bosses, wary of Wells' well-known socialist leanings and on the lookout for "red talk" among the writers, forbid anything that smacks of social commentary and new drafts soon replace the old. They also order a more dramatic ending than the source novel's, with Cooper's Army-trained hero taking more visceral action to ensure the Martians' defeat, rather than solely relying on invisible bacteria and germs to save the day. (Under pressure from the Hays Office and the CLD, the original references to "God, in his wisdom" are returned after being cut in earlier iterations.)

The final screenplay is credited to Robert Carson, Curt Siodmak, and Clifford Odets, who joined the team at Wells' request.

Willis O'Brien and his 17-year-old protégé Ray Harryhausen, along with model-maker Marcel Delgado, are hired to create the Tripods, Martians, and enveloping Red Weeds. They also create a prologue set on Mars itself among the remains of the dying Martian civilization. (Harryhausen's friend and fellow enthusiast, Ray Bradbury, contributes to this sequence, leading to his own renowned screenwriting career.)

Their pathbreaking work using miniatures, stop-motion animation, matte paintings, complex compositing, and the Schüfftan process lead directly to the creation of Paramount's Creative Visual Artistry department, with O'Brien and Harryhausen as its director and chief production designer. Delgado heads the state-of-the-art model shop. Together they receive their first of ultimately six special Academy Awards for visual effects.

During the World War II years and into the 1950s, footage from the Mars setting prologue is recycled in "B" movies such as the serials Spy Smasher on Phobos and John Carter vs. The Black Pirates, Basil Rathbone's Sherlock Holmes and the Crystal Egg (loosely based on another Wells story), and the live TV anthology sci-fi series Tales of Tomorrow.

In a year graced with such superlative popular films as The Adventures of Robin Hood, You Can't Take It With You, Bringing Up Baby, Boys Town, and Angels With Dirty Faces, Hitchcock's The War of the Worlds is received well by audiences and critics alike. It becomes the year's third highest box office draw after You Can't Take It With You and Robin Hood. It is Paramount's only Top 10 grosser in a year dominated by Warner Bros., MGM, 20th Century Fox, and Columbia. Zukor and Paramount get their high-return box office hit and the modern A-list science fiction movie is born. Thanks to Hitchcock, it's a genre that comes to represent big-budget, high-gloss, star-caliber Hollywood class for generations.

Press critics comment favorably on the film's "paradoxical naturalism" (Otis Ferguson, The New Republic) and its "watershed" status among "goose-pimply monster-tale spectacles" (Los Angeles Times). The critic for the San Francisco Chronicle opines that "never again shall we so mesmerically witness our beloved Golden Gate Bridge quite so frighteningly obliterated." Time magazine reports that "recent concern over a possible European Armageddon has badly spooked the U. S. public," and asserts that this anxiety feeds into the public's possibly cathartic reception of the war-charged fantasy.

In the New York Times Frank S. Nugent writes, "Surprisingly, given the relish of Mr. Wells's otherworldly creations, [the movie] bears the Hitchcock stamp as unmistakably as 'The Thirty-nine Steps' did. All that Hitch envisages is depicted with visual fascination and arrives as impressively staged as Wells's previous fantasy 'Things to Come' from two years ago. While this one is the less inspiring picture, it is, for its assured audiences, the more entertaining."

Graham Greene in his review dismisses Hitchcock's flair for "melodramatic" suspense and "tricky amusements." Still, he accurately predicts that Hitchcock's "machine-tooled methods" will be copied, most often less successfully, by other directors for years. He allows that the film captures the spirit of the source material, but is not so generous toward the "clever trick photography." Or, in fact, the story's very premise, stating that "thrillers are like life, more like life than you are. A fantastical Outer-Space pretend-thriller, which is nothing like life, can therefore deliver no thrill." He does observe, though, that Susan Hayward "satisfies a primeval instinct for a really nice girl."

Controversially, the New York Film Critics Circle snubs the film entirely, with no nominations in any category. It gives its Best Picture Award for the year to King Vidor's The Citadel (coincidentally starring Robert Donat from our Imaginary Version #1 above). Paramount takes out a full page in Variety to publicly protest, thereby garnering still greater publicity, and thus box office revenue, for The War of the Worlds.

For his radio drama anthology series "Mercury Theatre on the Air," the prodigious young writer-director Orson Welles performs a Halloween episode of The War of the Worlds on October 30, two weeks after the movie's opening. Directed and narrated by Welles and broadcast over the Columbia Broadcasting System radio network, it fails to generate a sizable audience, so is largely ignored and immediately forgotten. This failure, inflated by the movie's success, spurs Welles into leaving radio and theater for the motion picture business, where he makes his name with films such as Citizen Kane, The Magnificent Ambersons, Touch of Evil, Chimes at Midnight, and the infamous farrago of his own European remake of The War of the Worlds, a film he never completes.

Academy Award nominations include Best Picture plus "Best" nods for screenplay, Hitchcock himself, Cooper, Stanwyck, Brennan, Victor Milner's striking cinematography, and Werner Janssen's original score. Brennan and Milner take home the prize.

Today The War of the Worlds is lauded as one of the eminent movies of Golden Age Hollywood.


The legacy of Alfred Hitchcock's 1938 The War of the Worlds still infuses our cultural history. It began Hitchcock's enduring reputation as Hollywood's "master of science fiction." Although he occasionally returned to his suspense-mystery-thriller roots for classics such as Rear Window, Vertigo, and North by Northwest, he never fully abandoned the genre that brought him to Hollywood. Further literary adaptations — The Caves of Steel, The Demolished Man, The Door Into Summer, and I Robot — preserve his sci-fi legacy, as do episodes of TV's Alfred Hitchcock Presents, including "All You Zombies," "Arena," and "Vintage Season."

Gary Cooper's famous line, "There's too many of them! But not for long!," became a pop culture catchphrase. Not only was it the title of a best-selling biography of Cooper, it reappeared in, among other places, the Warner Bros. cartoon Duck Dodgers in Martian Mayhem, the Howard Hawks classic Two Moons in My Sky, and Billy Wilder's comic The Martians Are Coming, The Martians Are Coming, reuniting Jack Lemmon, Walter Matthau, and Shirley MacLaine.

Critic Roger Ebert hails Martin Scorsese's Orion Rendezvous as "the best film of the '80s." In its DVD commentary track, Scorsese says that this powerhouse drama, bolstered by Robert De Niro's Oscar-winner performance, can trace its inspiration back to when Scorsese first watched an old print of Hitchcock's movie as a kid.

In an episode of The Simpsons, a Halloween "Treehouse of Horror" segment transports the Simpson family back to 1938 in a spoof of Hitchcock's film. It features alien invaders Kang and Kodos mistaking Homer for Hitchcock himself.

In a similar vein, on TV's Doctor Who the 2007 two-part story "Daleks in Hollywood" takes place on The War of the Worlds' production set, with Hitchcock (Ian McNeice) helping the Doctor (David Tennant) and his companion Martha defeat a Dalek plot to replace influential Hollywood stars and execs with Dalek-controlled duplicates. It's one of the season's most popular stories. 

The 1938 movie and H.G. Wells

What did the story's original author think of Hitchcock's interpretation? A revealing account offers a personal glimpse of the man.

H.G. Wells (age 72) and his wife attend the Hollywood premiere at Grauman's Chinese Theater. He revels in his trip to Hollywood, where he is treated as a celebrity. During the premiere party at Adolph Zukor's mansion, he breaks away from the crowd to stroll the grounds. There in the formal gardens he meets Zukor's nephew, 16-year-old Stewart Stern, enthusiastically "working through a bit of drama" using his uncle's collection of imported carved mahogany figures. Young Stewart tells the kindly old Englishman that he is staging adventure narratives called "Martians Attack" and "Red Planet Safari." Wells joins in with the play for an hour or so.

Stewart Stern grows up to become the well-regarded screenwriter of Rebel Without a Cause ('55) and, significantly, David Lean's epic The Martian Chronicles starring Paul Newman ('69).

As Stern recounts the event decades later, Mr. Wells told him that he liked his uncle's picture, but still would have preferred Jimmy Cagney.

Hitchcock and Salvado Dalí's painting "Movies", 1944, clearly inspired by Hitch's WotW Tripods.

Poster for a 1965 British double bill. (This one's real.)

Music: Jessica Williams Trio, A Song That I Heard
Near at hand: Long Time Leaving, by Roy Blount Jr.