Among Corwin’s most notable radio programs was the hour-long “We Hold These Truths,” which he wrote in 1941 as a celebration of the 150th anniversary of the Bill of Rights. Featuring music by Bernard Herrmann; the U.S. national anthem conducted by Leopold Stokowski; the voices of Edward Arnold, Lionel Barrymore, Bob Burns, Walter Brennan, Walter Huston, Marjorie Main, Edward G. Robinson, James Stewart, Rudy Vallee, and Orson Welles; and concluding remarks by president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the program was broadcast simultaneously on all four radio networks (CBS, NBC Red, NBC Blue, and Mutual) on Dec. 15, eight days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. “We Hold These Truths” earned Corwin a Peabody Award.
“I find it difficult to turn down an offer to be heard,” he would decades later explain in a 2001 public radio interview. “Whether it’s an anniversary, whether it’s on the ending of a war, whatever the subject, I am ham enough to enjoy communicating to people, to an audience.”
Throughout his seven-decade career, Corwin (born on May 3, 1910, in Boston) also communicated to people by way of books, television programs, and movies.
For the big screen, Corwin’s first credit was as one of the writers of the 1943 omnibus drama about the British war effort, Forever and a Day (1943). Though not exactly one of the most widely praised releases of the time, Forever and a Day is notable because of its multiple set of writers (Corwin, Christopher Isherwood, Claudine West, Donald Ogden Stewart, etc.), directors (Edmund Goulding, Herbert Wilcox, René Clair, etc.) and stars (Ida Lupino, Merle Oberon, Charles Laughton, Edmund Gwenn, Dame May Whitty, Brian Aherne, Anna Neagle, Ray Milland, Claude Rains, Herbert Marshall, etc.).
Solo or in partnership with other writers, Corwin was also credited for the “story” of Alexander Hall’s whimsical Cary Grant-Janet Blair 1944 comedy Once Upon a Time, about a dancing caterpillar; Curtis Bernhardt’s hard-to-find nanny-love melodrama The Blue Veil (1951), which earned Oscar nods for Jane Wyman and (supporting) Joan Blondell; and Scandal at Scourie (1953), the last pairing of once-popular duo Greer Garson and Walter Pidgeon.
Corwin’s most notable screenplay was his adaptation of Irving Stone’s novel Lust for Life. Directed by Vincente Minnelli, the successful 1956 biopic of Vincent Van Gogh, starred Best Actor Oscar nominee Kirk Douglas and Best Supporting Actor Oscar winner Anthony Quinn as Paul Gauguin. Corwin himself received a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, though during the ’50s he was at odds with the populist, far-right elements in the House UnAmerican Activities Committee.
Corwin would write three more feature-film screenplays, but none resulted in successful movies: Henry Koster’s The Naked Maja (1958), a failed attempt to recreate the success of Lust for Life, with Anthony Franciosa as Francisco Goya and Ava Gardner as the Duchess of Alba; Koster’s Biblical tale The Story of Ruth (1960), starring Stuart Whitman and Elana Eden the story subject; and H. Bruce Humberstone’s big-business melodrama Madison Avenue (1962), with Dana Andrews, Jeanne Crain, and Eleanor Parker.
Eric Simonson’s A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin, featuring the likes of Robert Altman, Walter Cronkite, and Norman Lear discussing Corwin’s 1945 radio program “On a Note of Triumph” – broadcast on May 8, the day of the allied victory in Europe – won the 2006 Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject.
Corwin, for his part, was awarded the Writers Guild of America’s Valentine Davies Award in 1972.
As for the future, Norman Corwin said at the dawn of the third millennium: “As long as there is room for compassion in this world, we need not despair.”
Norman Corwin quotes via The Associated Press.