The Bootleg Files: Who’s Out There?

BOOTLEG FILES 672: “Who’s Out There?” (1975 documentary short hosted by Orson Welles).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: On a public domain label.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: Produced for the federal government, hence the absence of a copyright.

CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: One public domain label carries it, but a full-throttle digital restoration is unlikely.

During the 1970s, a great deal of attention was being paid to outer space. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) kept people focused on the sky with its various lunar missions and probes into the deepest corners of the galaxy. But many people insisted that space traffic was a two-way endeavor, and sightings of UFOs along with various claims of personal encounters with intergalactic visitors became headline news throughout the decade.

Officially, the federal government either downplayed or ignored the notion that E.T. and his friends were joyriding in the skies above America. In 1975, NASA took a different approach to the concept of life beyond Earth. The agency tapped Drew Associates, a documentary production company best known for its early 1960s films on John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign and ill-fated administration, to create a nonfiction short that would directly address whether there were other inhabitants of the universe.

To host the film, Drew Associates tapped another entity who was quite ubiquitous in the 1970s: Orson Welles. As part of his Sisyphean efforts to finance a seemingly endless number of self-produced films that were in various forms of incompletion, Welles made countless appearances in television variety shows and commercials and in less-than-stellar films, often bringing a touch of class to silly proceedings but occasionally making a fool of himself in the process. Welles was an inspired choice for the NASA film, titled “Who’s Out There?”, as many people in the 1970s still knew him best for his notorious 1938 radio drama based on H.G. Wells’ “War of the Worlds.”

Welles did not receive any directing or writing credits on “Who’s Out There?” – the film carries no directing or screenplay credit, only citing Robert Drew as producer – but it is fairly obvious he was more than a passive on-screen presence. Gary Graver, his preferred cinematographer during his late-career endeavors, was behind the camera to film his sequences, and the Welles segments look strikingly different from the rest of the film. Not unlike his appearances in the films he directed during this era, Welles is dressed in black and is mostly shot from the chest up, with shadowy lighting used to camouflage his distinctive girth. In “Who’s Out There?”, he is set before a bookcase with leather-bound texts, positioned in a wing-tipped chair beneath an ornate Tiffany light while occasionally smoking a cigar.

Welles opens the film by calmly recalling the havoc created by his “War of the Worlds” broadcast and the initial anger that H.G. Wells had about the controversial presentation – Welles added that the British author would later become a close friend of his. A few unidentified people claiming to recall the panic created by Welles’ broadcast offer brief recollections of their actions when they believed Martians were taking over the world.

Welles laughs that the Martians of “War of the Worlds” were hostile beings – not to mention being “much uglier” than the human race – but then he notes that “we have been invading Mars” via the NASA probes around the planet and the efforts to ready the 1976 Viking mission. “It’s our own world that has turned out to be the interplanetary visitor,” Welles playfully observes. “We are the ones who are moving, out there – not with death rays, but with cameras. Not to conqueror, but simply to learn. We are in fact, behaving ourselves, far better out there, then we ever have back home on our own planet.”

“Who’s Out There?” then tiptoes into an outline of whether Mars or the other planets were ever able to support environments that would encourage life similar to Earth’s flora and fauna. Welles’ narration explains the presence of polar ice caps on Mars and efforts in laboratories to track adaptive organisms in unlikely settings such as the cooling systems of atomic reactors and the oxygen-free vacuum of a space stimulator – and, for a while, his erudite narration makes “Who’s Out There?” an entertaining film. But then the production switches to badly shot video footage of a NASA scientist talking about whether Venus ever had condensed water on its surface, and then to a monotonous symposium at Boston University where several scientists (including a young Carl Sagan) pontificate on astronomy to an audience whose expressions range from mild indifference to undisguised boredom. Welles returns before the closing credits, but the mood created by his presence and his peerless narrative skills cannot be recaptured.

No one in “Who’s Out There?” has the temerity to announce that higher forms of intelligence life are dwelling on the far side of the stars. Instead, Welles diplomatically states that ongoing NASA research will be “searching the planets and the galaxies to fill in the new clues we’ve been discovering – the evolution of evolutions that has produced us and the possible millions of other civilizations.” But Welles adds that we need to be cognizant of the “difference between science and science fiction” – clearly, this is a NASA-condoned attempt to dismiss the UFO mania of the era.

“Who’s Out There?” runs slightly less than a half-hour, and there is no record of a theatrical release; it may have played on local television stations that broadcasted NASA and other federal films to fill time in their schedules. NASA probably shuttled the film into the educational market, though it is unclear whether the school kids of the mid-1970s who knew Welles primarily as the hammy spokesman for Paul Masson wine would have been aware of his “War of the Worlds” fame from nearly four decades earlier.

Because the film was created for a federal agency, it carried no copyright. But for a public domain film, “Who’s Out There?” was barely seen on labels specializing in copyright-free films. There was a VHS release on the United American Video label in 1998 and a DVD presentation by Alpha Video in 2017, but outside of those public domain companies it is absent from the home entertainment market. However, Welles fans have made multiple postings of the film on YouTube, thus enabling a new generation to appreciate the great man talking about space and himself.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

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