Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form) 1939 Retro Hugos

There were a couple of categories where there was a pretty clear front runner as soon as it was decided to hold the 1939 Hugo vote, and this was one of them – though I must admit it was surprising that all of the viable nominees came from the same stable. My normal practice is to reveal my votes in reverse order of preference, and I shall do so here:

No vote: the BBC production of R.U.R. by Karel Čapek. It’s nice that the nominators decided to celebrate the kick-off of seventy-five years of BBC sf drama on television, but if I haven’t seen it myself I don’t think I can express an opinion on it.

5) Dracula, adapted for radio by Orson Welles, he himself doubling up as Dr Seward and Count Dracula. This was the first of the Mercury Theatre on the Air productions for CBS, and the team is still getting its act together. The crackly quality of the surviving recording does it no favours, of course, but it has some serious technical problems – the soundscape is too busy, with too many cases of music, sound effects and voices all competing simultaneously for the listener’s attention. Also the story, which is pretty rambling in the original, is compressed slightly beyond comprehension. I’m actually putting this below “No Award”; it fails the test of whether it would be embarrassing if it won. Having said that, I see one website claiming that this is one of the best ever adaptations of Dracula, so your mileage may vary. I should also add that, unlike the others, I listened to this in the car rather than on my iPod, which may have created extra difficulties in hearing.

4) No Award, as explained above.

3) Around the World in 80 Days, adapted for radio by Orson Welles, he himself playing Phileas Fogg. This is a much more competent piece of work, with the central narrative driving relentlessly forward; you can shear off a lot of the colourful detail and still have the story of a man with a vision, pursued by another man with an arrest warrant. The cast clearly had very little idea of what an Indian accent sounds like, with Arlene Francis’s Princess Aouda sounding almost as French as Edgar Barrier’s Passepartout. I am being generous in my own eligibility criteria this year, for reasons that will be made clear in due course; otherwise I would complain that there is nothing particularly sfnal about a play performed in 1938 and set in 1871 using only 1871 technology. But let’s give it half an extra mark for ending with an interracial marriage.

2) A Christmas Carol, adapted for radio by Orson Welles, who also plays Scrooge. This was the last in broadcast order of the plays, done after the deal with Campbell’s Soup (for which there is a long intrusive advertisement near the beginning). Of the four, it probably sticks closest to the original, which was of course at least partly intended for reading aloud to an audience. The source material is good, and Welles does good things with it. So do the rest of the team, with decent sound effects and cheery Christmas music used appropriately without drowning out the dialogue. I felt that the Christmas Future section’s grimness was slightly muted, but it is very grim in the original and perhaps Welles felt it went too far for 1938. He liked to story so much that he adapted it as a Cole Porter musical for Broadway in 1946.

1) The War of the Worlds, directed by Orson Welles who also plays Professor Pearson, but adapted by Howard Koch and Anne Froelick (the only woman named as a nominee in this category). I listened to this in 2009 and repeat what I said then:

It is only loosely based on the original novel; the brilliant introduction is retained, but then we are into light music interrupted by increasingly desperate news bulletins and horrible events, culminating with Times Square and the rest of New York succumbing to poison gas. That takes us to the 40-minute mark, at which point we are reminded that this is a work of fiction; and then the last third is essentially a post-holocaust survival story, Welles’ Martians having been much more thorough in their devastation than Wells’ originals. And at the very end, Welles himself steps out of character to remind everyone that it is Halloween.

The poison gas scene is particularly chilling. I think we have a winner.

You can vote in this year’s Hugos, and the 1939 Retro Hugos, by joining Loncon 3 at .

2014: Best Novel | Best Novella | Best Novelette | Best Short Story | Best Related Work | Best Graphic Story | Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form) | Best Professional Artist | Best Fan Artist
1939: Best Novel | Best Novella | Best Novelette | Best Short Story | Best Dramatic Presentation (Short Form) | Best Professional Artist