15 December: The Bill of Rights provides a Corwin triumph

Norman Corwin, while still in CBS's good graces. (Photo: CBS.)

Norman Corwin, while still in CBS’s good graces. (Photo: CBS.)

Norman Corwin’s biographer R. LeRoy Bannermann will recall how Corwin, planning a special commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Bill of Rights, was completing the script when the news of Pearl Harbour reached him. And from the moment it airs tonight, it may become Corwin’s signature composition and presentation.

The timing of We Hold These Truths will give it historic significance enough, airing eight days after Pearl Harbour, its nationalistic but hardly jingoistic theme kindling within its listeners both an indignant patriotism and a renewed dedication. Which is, when all is said and done, a remarkable achievement for a man who’s just been cashiered by CBS—because his work, much heard, heeded, and honoured, has become too “speculative [and] experimental” for a network in need of becoming more “competitive.”

But when he began work on We Hold These Truths, Corwin believed only that he was offered a chance to develop something for which he was assured he was the only man in radio who had the ability.

In the fall of 1941, Corwin had no way of knowing the ultimate importance of the endeavour. He could not envision the program’s impact on the people—or, for that matter, on his own career. He was drained, exhausted, after the long and grueling 26 By Corwin. And when William B. Lewis, who now directed the radio division of the government’s Office of Facts and Figures, asked him to develop the special, Corwin at first resisted. But Lewis was adamant. He finally persuaded Corwin that the effort was vital, that his participation was essential . . .

It was the first time in months the two broadcasters had seen each other, and Lewis asked how things were going at (CBS headuqarters at) 485 Madison. Corwin brought him up to date on developments at CBS, then told him of (Lewis’s successor as CBS vice president of programming Douglas) Coulter’s conversation the week before (when Coulter in effect fired Corwin). Lewis was surprised at the network’s attitude, but told him not to worry. He would be getting in touch within the next few days “about something big,” and several days later he telephoned Corwin to explain the plans at the Office of Facts and Figures to celebrate the sesquicentennial of the American Bill of Rights . . . The director of OFF, Archibald MacLeish, had named a planning committee . . .

Lewis had urged the committee to think in terms of radio. In fact, he proposed a monumental media effort that would be aired on all national networks in prime time. Moreover, he made known his feelings that only one person, Norman Corwin, was capable of creating the program he had in mind. Corwin, though flattered by the faith of his former boss, did not greet the proposition with enthusiasm, but Lewis persisted . . .

. . . With the deadline only twenty-six days away, Corwin again found himself facing pressure. Moreover, the difficulty of the task became quite clear upon his first visit to the Library of Congress. After several hours poking through files to unravel the bibliography of the Bill of Rights, he found the evolution of the first ten amendments a complicated, often fragentary story. To his dismay, research often dead-ended and left him frustrated.

At lunch with MacLeish November 21, he told the OFF director of his problem. MacLeish, who was also librarian for the Library of Congress, was sympathetic and granted Corwin’s request to remain in the library after closing time . . .

R. LeRoy Bannerman, in “The Anniversary: The Bill of Rights Show,” from On A Note of Triumph: Norman Corwin and the Golden Years of Radio. (New York: Lyle Stuart, 1986.)

There will be those to argue you can say Corwin may “improve” after tonight’s presentation but not that he will get “better,” because radio just doesn’t get better than this. Their argument is not necessarily a fatuous or effronterous one.

The cast of We Hold These Truths; Lionel Barrymore is seated at the microphone. (Photo: CBS.)

The cast of We Hold These Truths. Back, left to right: Orson Welles, Rudy Vallee, unknown, composer Bernard Herrmann, Edward G. Robinson, Bob Burns, James Stewart, Norman Corwin, Walter Brennan, Edward Arnold. Seated, left to right: Lionel Barrymore, Marjorie Main, Walter Huston. (Photo: CBS.)

Special: We Hold These Truths
(historic presentation; Combined American Networks, 1941)

I couldn’t possibly improve upon Bannermann’s description:

With poetic allusions, image, insight, Corwin exploits the attributes of radio in bringing to life the persistent, often painful course of constitutional development in the United States. He blends past with present and evoke aural excitement, which made history timely, relevant, rewarding. He melds an all-star Hollywood cast into a moving, compelling performance that transcends the identity of famous and familiar personalities.

The program is heightened even further when President Roosevelt finishes with a short talk.

The talent presenting the Corwin jewel (whose title is taken not from the Bill of Rights but from the Declaration of Independence) only begins with James Stewart. (Corwin has seen Stewart as the show’s narrator from the moment he began work on the project). It merely continues with Edward Arnold, Lionel Barrymore (who gives a striking preface), Walter Brennan, Bob Burns, Dane Clark, Walter Huston, Elliott Lewis, Marjorie Main, Edward G. Robinson, Rudy Vallee, and Orson Welles. Not to mention Leopold Stokowski leading the New York Philharmonic through “The Star Spangled Banner.”

There may never again be a more pungent, poignant, and powerful exposition of the promise within the Bill of Rights. A promise that is too often forgotten, indeed too often broken, both by the very government to whom its defense and enforcement are entrusted, and by enough of the people to whom it was bequeathed. Through fashion, fear, or both, too often for comfort.

Music: Bernard Herrmann. Writer/director: Norman Corwin.


Further Channel Surfing . . .

Columbia Workshop: A Trip to Czardi (dramatic anthology; CBS, 1938)
Lux Radio Theater: All This and Heaven Too (dramatic anthology; CBS, 1941)
Burns & Allen: The Swami’s Predictions (comedy; CBS, 1942)
Fibber McGee & Molly: Misplaced Christmas Money (comedy; NBC, 1942)
Lights Out: Knock at the Door (horror; CBS, 1942)
The Fitch Bandwagon: A Present for Fitch Stockholders (comedy; NBC, 1946)
My Friend Irma: Dancing Fools (comedy; CBS, 1947)
Quiet, Please: Little Fellow (fantasy; Mutual, 1947)
Dragnet: Garbage Chute (crime drama; NBC, 1949)
Duffy’s Tavern: Archie Wants Veronica Lake to Help Promote a New Latin Singer (comedy; NBC, 1950)
Escape: Passenger to Bali (adventure; CBS, 1950)
Broadway is My Beat: The Lucille Baker Murder Case (crime drama; CBS, 1951)
Dragnet: The Big Brink (crime drama; NBC, 1953)
Fibber McGee & Molly: Molly Loses an Earring (comedy; NBC, 1953)
Fibber McGee & Molly: Wimpole Assists Fibber’s Deliveries (comedy; NBC, 1954)
Fibber McGee & Molly: Profits to Charity (comedy; NBC, 1955)
Gunsmoke: Ugly (Western; CBS, 1957)
Bob & Ray Present the CBS Radio Network: One Fella’s Family—Missing Christmas Ornaments (improvisational comedy; we’ll give you a hint, 1959)

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