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Farewell To A Giant: Norman Corwin

Features
by Leonard Maltin
October 19, 2011 3:46 AM
13 Comments
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Norman Corwin was one of my heroes; I never dreamed that one day I would also be able to call him a friend. When you’ve accomplished as much as he did, still have all your marbles as you turn 100 and live to be 101, it’s difficult to complain…but I’m still saddened by his death yesterday. Norman had a healthy ego and told Cris, his wonderful caregiver, that he hoped he would die on an unimportant day so people would take notice. I think he would be pleased by the news coverage of his passing.
I expressed my feelings about Norman in a centenary piece that ran last spring; in case you missed it, I’m reprinting it today as my epitaph for a great man.

I asked Norman to pose with this 78rpm album of his most famous radio broadcast and he graciously obliged; this was nine years ago when he was just 92.

HAPPY 100th, NORMAN CORWIN

Norman Corwin is widely referred to as “the poet laureate of radio.” That won’t have much meaning to people who didn’t grow up in the 1940s or haven’t sought out his brilliant audio dramas. But if you love great writing…if you have a curiosity about the world around you… if you wonder why Americans were so galvanized by World War Two…or if you’d like to learn why performers from Charles Laughton to Groucho Marx were eager to work with one brilliant writer-director above all others, you really ought to check out Corwin’s work.

For an overview, you might start with Mary Beth Kirschner’s loving and informative tribute that aired—

—this past Monday, on NPR’s All Things Considered. The occasion: Corwin’s 100th birthday. When you hear such devotees as Ray Bradbury, Philip Roth, the late Studs Terkel, Charles Kuralt, and Robert Altman speak their piece, you begin to appreciate what a wide net this man cast on an entire generation.

Norman with William Shatner, who loved him and participated in many recent broadcasts and readings of his work. This was taken at Peggy Webber’s production of the Ray Bradbury piece “Leviathan 99,” which coincided with Norman’s 99th birthday in 2009.

While most of America was tuning in to Jack Benny and Fibber McGee and Molly, and mainstream drama often consisted of adaptations of popular Hollywood movies (as on Lux Radio Theater), Corwin conceived a series of original radio plays. You never knew what you were going to hear, from week to week: his work could be whimsical, somber, poetic, pointed, or provocative. He had no commercial sponsors to please; CBS was required to fill air time, and gave him carte blanche, knowing he would always deliver something interesting—and just possibly, something great.

He composed many patriotic programs during the 1940s, none more famous than the hour-long show he was commissioned to write for VE Day in 1945—the moment of victory in Europe after four long years. That night, some sixty million listeners tuned in, on all four radio networks, to hear a unique and thrilling program that not only rejoiced in our victory but asked Americans to stop for a moment and ponder what we had fought for, what we sacrificed, and what we learned that might help rebuild a world of peace. There has never been anything like it since. It is called On a Note of Triumph, and it was issued as a record album and a book. Martin Gabel’s sonorous voice narrates the text, set to music by Bernard Herrmann. Five years ago, Eric Simonson directed a documentary about Corwin and called it, with good reason, A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin. It won the Academy Award as Best documentary Short Subject.

Although radio gave him his greatest platform, he has never stopped writing, teaching, or thinking. He is incapable of uttering an inelegant phrase, and at least one volume of his letters have been collected in book form. (Most recently, Continuum published One World Flight: The Lost Journal of Radio’s Greatest Writer.)

The word “all-star cast” surely applies to this gathering, assembled one week after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941 to perform Norman’s script about The Bill of Rights called “We Hold These Truths.” Top row: Orson Welles, Rudy Vallee, unknown, composer Bernard Herrmann, Edward G. Robinson, Bob Burns, James Stewart, Corwin, Walter Brennan, Edward Arnold. Front row, seated: Lionel Barrymore, Marjorie Main, Walter Huston. Norman never quite forgave Welles, who narrated the show, because he reached such a fever pitch during dress rehearsal—and was so roundly complimented for his work—that he started the broadcast at that level of intensity and had nowhere to go from there!

Getting to know this astonishing man has been one of the joys of my life, and last Saturday I was honored to host a tribute to Norman, organized by the indomitable Peggy Webber, founder of CART (California Artists Radio Theatre) and one of Norman’s most devoted followers. The Writers Guild of America theater was nearly full for the matinee program, which consisted of two full-length Corwin pieces—one lighthearted, one serious—and a series of tributes spoken by such friends and admirers as Carl Reiner, who remembers performing Corwin scripts under the auspices of the WPA; Hal Kanter, the unfailingly funny comedy writer-director-producer who’s been mistaken for Norman over the past sixty years; Phil Proctor, who as a cofounder of Firesign Theater continued the tradition of creating entertainment for “the theater of the mind,” and his wife Melinda Peterson; and Norman Lloyd, who in his 90s continues to deliver forceful performances in CART productions—including those by Corwin.

For someone who’s best remembered for his “serious” work, Norman wrote some very funny pieces as well, including the one Peggy decided to highlight, Mary and the Fairy, which originally aired in 1941 with Elsa Lanchester in the leading role. An amusing jibe at the lofty promises of advertising to free ordinary people of their everyday problems, it’s just as relevant as ever. Joanne Worley and Marvin Kaplan did a beautiful job as the naïve heroine and her wish-granting fairy. This was followed by an excerpt from the first play of Norman’s to be broadcast by CBS, in 1938, The Plot to Overthrow Christmas, and a slice of Soliloquy to Balance the Budget, a puckish, blatantly bare-bones entry in his “26 by Corwin” series performed by Shelley Berman.

Norman Corwin, as I will remember him.

But the piece de resistance was Our Lady of the Freedoms and Some of Her Friends, a latter-day radio drama commissioned by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 1997 and not nearly as well known as it ought to be. Norman has always been an independent thinker, but he is patriotic in the fullest sense of that word, and his paeans to all things American are among his finest works. Ed Asner took the role of narrator in this eye-opening (and well-researched) saga of how the Statue of Liberty came to be. The ensemble included Samantha Eggar, Ian Abercrombie, Shelley Long, Phil Proctor, Tom Williams, Richard Herd, Paul Keith, Shelley Berman, Marvin Kaplan, Simon Templeman, and John Harlan. (As always, Tony Palermo provided live sound effects and Kenneth Stange composed and arranged the music cues.) But it was Asner—who started out in New York radio as a young man, back in the 1950s—who grabbed hold of Corwin’s soaring prose and brought it to an emotional crescendo at the end of the performance. The audience cheered its approval along with its praise for the playwright, who beamed in appreciation. (In the course of time, audio recordings of this event will be available through CART. In the meantime, you can check out their other offerings HERE.

Norman Corwin’s greatness as a writer-director for radio never quite translated to other media, although he did work in television and penned some screenplays including The Blue Veil, The Story of Ruth, and most notably, Lust for Life, the Vincent Van Gogh biography (directed by Vincente Minnelli and starring Kirk Douglas) which earned him an Academy Award nomination. But he never completed one project for which he seemed uniquely suited, the adaptation of Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men. In all my discussions with Norman I had never discussed this aborted project, so at a recent lunch I asked why he left the production. His answer was immediate and candid: “I struck out on that,” he said. “I failed so miserably [that] I did not contest for a minute Bob Rossen’s decision to drop my screenplay. I have no defense; sometimes we just screw up and I screwed up.” Robert Rossen fashioned his own screenplay and directed the celebrated film. I told Norman that if it was any consolation, one of the smartest screenwriters of our time, Steven Zaillian, struck out just as miserably with his 2006 adaptation of the novel starring Sean Penn and Jude Law.

Radio Spirits has just released a new boxed set of CDs that includes many Corwin classics, including his Bill of Rights special We Hold These Truths, which aired just days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, with a cast headed by Orson Welles, James Stewart, and Lionel Barrymore, and his masterpiece, On a Note of Triumph. Corwin’s use of heightened language and blank verse may not be fashionable today, but it still retains its enormous power. You can learn more about it or make a purchase HERE.

A private birthday party—and a special citation from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which he served for many years—wrapped up three days of celebration. Norman’s reaction was simple: if he’d known how pleasurable these events would be, he would have reached 100 even sooner!

To watch a fine, feature-length documentary about Norman Corwin’s remarkable career, produced by the University of Southern California School of Journalism (now the Annenberg School) in 1996, free of charge, click the arrow below.

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13 Comments

  • Terry Pace | October 21, 2011 1:11 AMReply

    Leonard,

    Thanks so much for such a beautiful tribute to our mutual friend -- and an American treasure. I am heartbroken over the loss, but so honored and grateful to have known him for so long and so well.

    Bless you,
    Terry Pace

  • Ken Greenwald | October 20, 2011 7:38 AMReply

    As you know, Leonard, I have worked at the Pacific Pioneer Radio Archives for over 30 years and has the pleasure of seeing and talking to Norman whenever he came to visit. His importance to radio history knows no bounds. Gentle, quiet, intelligent and really perceptive both in his radio presentations, the films he wrote, and in person. I had the great honor of working with Norman when he did a presentation of his work at The Friars Club some years ago. It was a marvel to work with him. He knew exactly what he wanted and where in the presentation to put the sound clips. I am one of the fortunate ones to have known the man. Others can feel his power and his abilities by listening to his radio shows. They are a wonder to behold in a time when television and the internet makes radio seem so ancient. Which, of course, it is not! Thank you Norman for all you did for us!

  • Jeff Heise | October 20, 2011 7:24 AMReply

    I treasure my copy of the Mark56 LP of ON A NOTE OF TRIUMPH, which I was fortunate to have Mr. Corwin sign at an event honoring Fred Allen at the DGA some years ago. His use of language is unparalleled, in radio, film or print, and we are so lucky to have lived within his lifetime. He was, and will continue to be, along with Jean Shepherd, one of my heroes.

  • Judi Leff | October 20, 2011 5:25 AMReply

    At 18, I called my parents to tell them I was taking a class at SDSU with "some guy named Norman Corwin." They responded as though I said I was taking religion with "some guy named Moses."

    30 plus years later I am well aware of the magnitude of their response. He was, for me, the most magical person I ever had the privilege to know. And he touched his students with that magic to help them create some magic of their own. May his memory and his eloquence live on forever.

  • Dr. Betsy A. McLane | October 20, 2011 2:14 AMReply

    Leonard,
    I had the privilege of being acquainted with Norma. I recall how at 80+ he was planning visits to his mother. I am glad to see your tribute and glad to know that AMPAS has many records of his many accomplishments.

  • Nat Segaloff | October 19, 2011 9:49 AMReply

    He was a gentleman and a mentor. I spent four years in radio writing and speaking over 2,000 pieces, long and short, on all subjects, mostly movies. Not one of them left my typewriter without a nod to Norman Corwin, whom I had the honor of interviewing back then. Ripple dissolve. It's now 2007 and I am producing, for the ACLU of Southern California, an all-star a re-creation of the 1947 radio broadcast "Hollywood Fights Back" that he, Millard Lampell, and Robert Presnell, Jr. wrote in protest of the HUAC witch-hunts. Norman gives us permission to use his script, but he can't attend that night because he has another commitment: his new play is opening across town.

    He is, all of us, our father, and, for many of us, our conscience.

  • Tom Meyers | October 19, 2011 8:35 AMReply

    Wonderful tribute to a great American - thanks to you Leonard I listened to "A Note of Triumph" and it is remarkable - for those who have not check out this link:

    http://www.radio4all.net/index.php/program/33233

  • Mark Orr | October 19, 2011 7:56 AMReply

    What a loss. I love old time radio, and Corwin's shows were definitely among the best. If I could pick one job from all time I'd love to have done it would've been to act on radio, especially in a Corwin production. Alas, I was born too late.

    Could the mustachioed unidentified gentleman in the picture above be Bill Johnstone, who succeeded Welles as the Shadow? It looks a little like pictures I've seen of him.

  • JLewis | October 19, 2011 7:52 AMReply

    Hope I didn't sound too "critical" in my last post... and pardon the spelling "We're less patriotic..."

  • JLewis | October 19, 2011 7:46 AMReply

    The end of an era... wonder how many are still left from the "golden age" (pre-circa 1962) of radio? One thing that always struck me is how many from radio's golden age and how many from Hollywood's silent era managed to live past their eighties and even past the century mark. OK... maybe this isn't really the case. It just appears that way. I just feel like fewer from the movies post-1930 and TV since 1950 lasted quite as long... either due to more stress on the job, more smoking and/or less enthusiasm for what they were doing...

    I must confess that I always appreciated Corwin's genius, but have found some of his stuff... to be frank... just a little bit over-the-top prose-wise at times. You said it best it that he may be less "fashionable" today. Were are less patriotic today and more cynical... seeing the gray as well as the black and white. Unfortunately, much of what I've heard of his was from various radio compilations (like "On a Note of Triumph'), so my taste-testing isn't covering a wide enough sampling of his work. Either that or I am completely spoiled rotten by the Jack Benny shows, the CBS sister shows "Suspense" & "Escape", the unique "Quiet Please", "X Minus 10" and a couple others that are totally "ageless" no matter how often you hear them. With some of Corwin, I just feel a need to "be there at the time" to fully appreciate it. Then again, I feel the same way with Bob Hope's radio shows (not his Road pictures with Crosby though) as well... LOL!

  • Karen Snow | October 19, 2011 7:46 AMReply

    A unique and treasured talent, so sad he's gone. You were so lucky to have him for a friend; sympathies on your personal loss.

  • Norm | October 19, 2011 7:34 AMReply

    Requiem for a Heavyweight...
    God Bless...Corwin..Dying is never unimportant...

  • Mike Martini | October 19, 2011 7:12 AMReply

    A great writer and a great humanitarian who believed in the best about people and the never ending quest for decency and fairness toward all. He represents the possibilities and responsibilities or media, particularly radio, which he understood, mastered and defined for all who followed. God Bless you, Norman.

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