'American Experience, War of the Worlds' review: Fun and informative

Orson Welles reads from his script in the Orson Welles reads from his script in the 1938 broadcast of his radio show "The War of the Worlds." Wells' account of a Martian invasion of Earth created widespread panic in thousands of listeners. Photo Credit: AP

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REVIEW

THE SHOW "American Experience: War of the Worlds"

WHEN | WHERE Tuesday night at 9 on WNET/13

WHAT IT'S ABOUT We know that in the early years of the 20th century, or exactly 75 years ago, there lived a brilliant rascal of a theater director named Orson Welles, who decided to play a Halloween trick on a nation. His CBS "Mercury Theater" adaptation of H.G. Wells' "War of the Worlds" aired Oct. 30, 1938, at precisely 8 p.m. By 9 p.m., a million or so people around the country were in a dead panic, or as The New York Times reported the next day, "A wave of mass hysteria seized thousands of radio listeners . . . when a broadcast . . . led [them] to believe that an interplanetary conflict had started with invading Martians spreading wide death and destruction in New Jersey and New York."

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MY SAY In the interest of accuracy and public safety, let me begin with this unassailable fact: There are no Martians, or at least the kind that Welles described -- specifically, with mouths that are "V-shaped [and have] saliva dripping from [their] rimless lips that seem to quiver and pulsate." Think Kang and Kodos from "The Simpsons."

How could anyone have been panicked after hearing this line? Tuesday night efficiently -- and cleverly -- establishes how. Welles knew precisely at what point to begin the "invasion" because he assumed millions would change channels from NBC's top-rated "Chase and Sanborn Hour" when it broke for a musical interlude. He knew how to dress up his drama with tricks, stunts and camouflage that would maximize the effect. He deployed a faux news announcer, ("Carl Phillips"), exquisitely timed silences (that seemed to last a short eternity at the time) and even an orchestra, led by one Raymond Rocello, which was interrupted with the urgent news from Grover's Mill, N.J.

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Everyone now knows just how far ahead of his time Welles was. They just didn't know then. He would shortly afterward get his groundbreaking RKO deal, which would yield the greatest movie in history. We have Martians to thank for that.

Meanwhile, this "AmEx," in the spirit of the master, deploys its own amusing little trick. I won't spoil it but -- hint -- they are actors.

BOTTOM LINE Fun and informative.

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GRADE A

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