Wednesday 19 October 2011

The Man Who Didn’t Like Norman Corwin

Radio has turned into the din of repetitious positioning statements and almost identical-sounding young people droning almost identical-sounding autotuned songs. But there was a time when radio was much more.

I speak not through misty eyes of nostalgia. For one thing, I wasn’t born when radio was in its Golden Age. Let columnists Edwin Seaver and Robin McKown speak from that time, from June 9, 1945 about a man who died today at age 101, Norman Corwin.

Robert E. Sherwood says that Norman Corwin is undoubtedly the finest radio writer in the United States. He has developed new techniques in the field of radio writing. His poems and dramas are written to be heard rather than to be read. Yet his two books, “Thirteen by Corwin” and “More by Corwin,” read surprisingly well.
Maybe you heard his new one—“On a Note of Triumph”—broadcast over CBS on V-E Day. It began like this:

So they’ve given up,
They’re finally done in, and the rat is dead in an alley back of the Wilhelmstrasse,
Take a bow, G. I.; take a bow, little guy,
The superman of tomorrow lies at the feet of you common men of this afternoon.
This is it, kid, this is The Day, all the way from Newburyport to Vladivostok,
You had what it took and you gave it, and each of you has a hunk of rainbow around your helmet.
Seems like free men have done it again.

Schoolteachers in the future are going to have a hard job defining Corwin’s radio entertainments, like “On a Note of Triumph.” Here’s how the publishers try to define it: “It is much easier to describe by telling what it isn’t than what it is. It isn’t an essay, an epic poem, a photo drama, a play, a novel, a short story, or a series of vignettes, yet it has the elements of each.”

Certainly, Corwin was a pioneer in television when few people had even seen a television. His “Untitled” was adapted from radio and broadcast on WCBW on May 24, 1945 in support of the Seventh War Loan. He won an Emmy a number of years later. But despite all that, radio truly was his medium.

“Brilliant” was just one of the words being used on a regular basis to describe Norman Corwin and his radio work only a few years after arriving at CBS in 1938. By then, he had achieved fame, not only working with Edward R. Murrow on ‘An American in England’ series, but with dramas such as ‘We Hold These Truths,’ and the rhyming “The Plot to Overthrow Christmas,” which was among Corwin’s sterling efforts repeated year after year.

George Tucker, in his syndicated ‘Man About Manhattan’ column, summed up Corwin’s life and career to date in 1941.

NEW YORK. March 20.—Norman Corwin’s press-agent calls him “the 31-year-old genius of radio.” If Corwin isn’t a genius, he has certainly found the short cut to promotion and pay.
Recently, just one of his broadcasts was listened to by 60 million people. This was “We Hold These Truths,” written in observance of the 150th anniversary of the Bill of Rights.
Recently, his services were acquired by the four major networks all at once, as conductor of the government’s series, “This is War.”
Recently, a baker’s dozen of his radio plays were published under the title of “13 by Corwin.”
Recently, he said, “Some radio writers feel they must shock on audience into listening. They’re afraid to ask the people to think. But some audiences like to think, and who am I to discourage them.”
After his Bill of Rights broadcast Corwin received 1,350 letters. Among those congratulating him were Irvin S. Cobb, Maxwell Anderson, George Jean Nathan, and President Roosevelt. Then “We Hold These Truths” was published, and his first act was to waive the royalties.
There isn’t anything too spectacular or unusual in Corwin’s early record. He was a newspaperman, a color writer. For awhile he was a dramatic critic and got himself banned from various theaters for his blunt opinions. He came to New York and politely sought an audience with the heads of the various radio stations. He had an idea and he thought he’d like to give it a play.
This reserved approach got him nowhere, and in a short time he became a voluminous letter writer, knocking off scores of letters to all radio stations within reaching distance. Finally, one of them gave him a minor opening.
Then he began to write radio plays that have touched so many high “O’s” in the last few years. Not all of them have been wonders. Most of them have been excellent.
He tells you that he is a defeated poet. For awhile, during his newspaper days, he used to write about the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox in rhyme. Or maybe it was just blank verse. After reading a number of these, his editor quietly moved him into the spot of radio columnist, and his versifying came to an end.
Corwin is a soft spoken young man who wears a moustache.
He has been highly praised and emphatically damned by critics.
So maybe he is a genius after all.
I am told he was offered a seven-year writing and directing contract in Hollywood only a few weeks ago—and turned it down.
He looks at the mounting baskets of mail today, and remembers a time back in his career when he made his first broadcast. That was in Boston. He was on the air ten weeks. During that time the fans wrote him exactly three letters.

One of the emphatical damners was Axel Storm of the King Features Syndicate, whose ‘Broadway Nights’ column of August 27, 1941 ripped apart a mystery/horror that was pulled off the stage after eight performances. He then pointed his poisoned pen at another topic:

[t]here are many things worse than death. And one of these things is to have to sit through a play written by an author of radio sketches.
We’ve squawked about the movies so much that our readers surely know that we are a highbrow of the worst and most snobbish sort. But harsh, and bitter as were the things we have said about what we cognoscenti call “the silver screen,” they’re lullabies and panegyrics compared with what we think of radio sketches.
In the first place, a writer of radio plays writes for the ear. There’s a Mr. Norman Corwin who writes the way Mr. Orson Welles acts—that is, you can just hear the corn grow and bask in the orotundity of his prose-poetry. And Mr. Corwin appears, by popular acclaim, to be tops in his questionable profession...There may be something in a loud speaker which makes you scare easy, but we’ve yet to hear a scary sketch on the radio which doesn’t have the suspicious odor of frying ham...
There’s an old saying in French (we’re a world-famous linguist, as you should know) on which we’ll improve slightly. It’s to the effect that “chacun son metier les cochons seront bien garde” and in English it means that if everyone stuck to his own trade there’d be no lack of swineherds.
Let this be a warning to ladies and gentlemen who write sketches and skits for the radio. Avoid, we beseech, the legitimate stage as you would the plague. It’s a different medium which requires, despite your lofty salaries and your high-minded desire to educate the public, a little something that radio scripts don’t need and can’t use. Remember that the stage is a mature author’s playground, and that a blood-curdling shriek can be appallingly, heart-rendingly funny.

The play which raised Mr. Storm’s bitchy ire was not written by a radio writer, as best as we can tell, let alone Norman Corwin, so his “warning” is little more than a chance to prove his point he is indeed a snob. He offers no specific criticism of any of Corwin’s works. And while Axel Storm is long forgotten, Norman Corwin is remembered today. You can read more about his career HERE.

And here is ‘The Plot to Overthrow Christmas’ from 1942. It takes about 11 seconds to get going. The opening announcer sounds like Tony Marvin.


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