The War of the Worlds:
A Radio Program and A Film Score
2 DVDs: Includes a 75 minute documentary and
the complete radio drama from 1938
THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953)
also includes three other film scores
(Intrada, 2 CDs)
This year marks anniversaries of two depictions of the same story in two different media. The famous Columbia Broadcasting System radio broadcast from 1938 is 75 years old and the 1953 film, with a score by Leith Stevens, is celebrating its 60th anniversary.
Most people have heard about the 1938 radio drama of the H.G. Wells novel, THE WAR OF THE WORLDS, adapted by Howard Koch and directed and narrated by Orson Welles. This program was performed on a long ago Sunday evening the night before Halloween (30 October 1938). The actors from The Mercury Theater on the Air included: William Alland, Ray Collins, Kenny Delmar, Frank Readick Jr. as Carl Phillips, and Paul Stewart. Some of these actors would follow Orson Welles to Hollywood where they appeared in CITIZEN KANE. A good description of the 1938 radio drama and its national attention can be found here.
As a film music historian, I must mention the conductor of the radio orchestra who directs the various short music cues of dance music during the radio play. That conductor, Bernard Herrmann, also went to Hollywood with Orson Welles, and he composed his first film score to what many believe, myself included, to be the best Hollywood film ever made, CITIZEN KANE (1941). Herrmann's score is at the very top of my list of 100 Essential Film Scores of the 20th Century.
For those old enough to remember the good old days of the 1950s when
science-fiction (not then called sci-fi) films were being dropped into movie theaters like an invading force of aliens, one of the best of the bunch was released in 1953. It had wonderful special effects, a well executed screenplay by Barre Lyndon, very good believable acting by handsome Gene Barry and the beautiful Ann Robinson, and a memorable film score.
THE WAR OF THE WORLDS film score is by Leith Stevens (1909-1970), a composer who never received his just rewards for his fine film scores. His work is remembered mainly for the many TV scores he scored, which are listed on IMDb. Stevens also worked on lower budget films like several of the Ma and Pa Kettle and Abbott & Costello comedies. But he really made his mark with early '50s science-fiction films, three of which produced by George Pal and not even on the IMDb list: DESTINATION MOON (1950), WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE (1951) and THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953). Stevens also composed a lively jazz score in 1954 for THE WILD ONE, starring Marlon Brado.
Two of the Leith Stevens film scores are on the Intrada CD listed above, along with two other scores by Daniele Amfitheatrof and Van Cleave.
Both WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE and THE WAR OF THE WORLDS are relatively short film scores. But the music is very atmospheric and subtle in both, unlike today's overblown film scores for science-fiction films. The orchestrators for each of the film scores is typical of the days when films were made by a team of talented musicians. On WHEN WORLDS COLLIDE, there were four orchestrators: George Parrish, Sidney Cutner, Leo Shuken and Nelson Riddle -- yes that's Frank Sinatra's favorite arranger and conductor. On WAR OF THE WORLDS, only Geogre Parrish is credited with the orchestrations so that music sounds more uniform in its presentation.
The sound on the Intrada CD is mostly in vintage Mono and only the brief Main Title (1:11) of THE WAR OF THE WORLDS is in Stereo. One of the best cues on the Intrada CD is Track 2 (The Thing/ It's Moving). It nicely sets the mood of expectation and suspense as the opening of the hatch to the spaceship and the first sight of the destructive machines which will threaten to destroy all in their path. Another outstanding track is "Evacuation" (track 6) which Jeff Bond describes in the CD notes as "a gloomy yet propulsive dirge for humanity." This theme nicely establishes the somber tone of the mass exodus of people leaving the city of Los Angeles before the Martians arrive to destroy the city with their heat rays and with terrific sound effects too.
I believe the Leith Stevens score is more effectively handled than the John Williams score in Steven Spielberg's heavy-handed and overwrought filming of THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (2005). Spielberg's main homage to the 1953 film is having its two stars, Gene Barry and Ann Robinson, appear in the final scene of the film in Boston. But their appearance is so brief that many film fans of the 1953 film may miss seeing them. It's basically a waste of time for these two fine actors who were so good in the 1953 film. Couldn't they be given at least one word to speak?
If I were to suggest the best way to hear the Leith Stevens film score, I would recommended listening to the Intrada CD and then watch the 1953 film and listen carefully to the music and how it is used sparingly and very effectively to reinforce the action.
This is the recommended DVD of the 1953 film,
THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (1953)
It isn't very often that you can celebrate the same story twenty years apart in two different media -- radio and film.
I salute those who made the radio program such a success while also terrifying a large segment of its listeners in 1938. The same applies to the 1953 film which terrified me when I first watched it in my local movie palace as a young boy.
And it's appropriate to also remember the two film composers who were part of the success of each project: Bernard Herrmann, conductor of the orchestra in the 1938 radio drama; and Leith Stevens for his fine 1953 film score.
To use an expression heard from those who appreciate the achievements of worthwhile entertainment from the past:
"They don't make them like they used to."
-- Roger Hall, 30 October 2013
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The War of the Worlds (Radio and Film Score)
75th anniversary CD Collection
with 1938 and 1955 radio programs
and Orson Welles Meets H.G. Wells
Bernard Herrmann Tribute DVD
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