December 4, 2006

Cast members of We Hold These Truths include Orson Welles, Rudy Vallee, Sterling Tracy, Bernard Herrmann, Edward G. Robinson, Bob Burns, Jimmy Stewart, Norman Corwin, Walter Brennan, and Edward Arnold. Seated are Lionel Barrymore, Marjorie Main, and Walter Huston.

I ran across this picture of the many radio and movie stars that were members of the cast of this show called WE HOLD THESE TRUTHS. Of course, I wondered, what was the show about. I, of course went to Google and here is what I found:

Commissioned by FDR to commemorate 150th anniversary of the Bill of Rights, this hour-long program was aired over the combined national networks (CBS, NBC Red, NBC Blue, and Mutual) eight days after Pearl Harbor. The Crosley Rating Service estimated 63 million people listened, half the US population at the time, and this was the largest audience in recorded history for a dramatic performance.

Of this program, Corwin said:
" of the programs that was very productive in my career - good for me, and also recognized as good for CBS, and good for radio - was on the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the ratification of the American Bill of Rights. That happened in 1941.

"It was a program that had been suggested to the four networks by President Roosevelt. He said, 'Why don't you people get together, simultaneously broadcast a commemoration of that day?' The networks had never combined before. I was lucky enough to be invited to write, produce and direct it.

"It was accidental, an accident of the calendar. But what drama surrounded that, because the date of the anniversary was December 15, 1941. That followed, by only eight days, the attack on Pearl Harbor."

Corwin's 45-minute production came from Hollywood. President Roosevelt then spoke from the White House, and the program ended in New York, where Leopold Stokowsky conducted the Philharmonic in our National Anthem.

The program's magnificent cast included:
Corporal James Stewart, U.S. Army Air Corps, as "the Citizen." (Jimmy Stewart is today a retired General in the U.S. Air Force - he was then at the beginning of his flying career, and at the height of his fame as an actor.)

Edward Arnold (distinguished actor in many movies; you know his burly figure, his face and his voice even if the name is not immediately familiar)

Lionel Barrymore (brother of John and Ethel; "Mr. Potter" in It's A Wonderful Life and many other stage and screen roles)

Walter Brennan (remember him from early TV's The Real McCoys?)

Bob Burns (popular Arkansas radio comic of the time, who invented a silly musical instrument he called a "bazooka" - a name borrowed, later in the war, for the anti-tank weapon)

Dane Clark (solid performer starting a long career, many movies)

Walter Huston (father of John, star of Treasure Of The Sierra Madre among many others)

Marjorie Main ("Ma Kettle" in the movie series, and many other roles)

Edward G. Robinson (Rumanian-born, longtime favorite in Universal's gangster movies, and many other roles)

Rudy Vallee (the original "crooner" came from Maine)

Orson Welles (if you don't know, we don't have space to tell you!)

Address by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt from The White House,

Original Orchestral Score by Bernard Herrmann, and...

Performance of The Star Spangled Banner by The New York Philharmonic Orchestra, under the direction of Leopold Stokowski.

The story of this program is fascinating:
In the fall of 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt faced a world in great turmoil. The Nazis had overrun most of Europe, and it looked like they might soon conquer Russia. In the Pacific, the Japanese had invaded China and were brandishing a powerful, modern war-machine. FDR suggested that the 150th anniversary of the ratification of the Bill of Rights would be an excellent occasion for a powerful presentation of America's fundamental message to the world.

Norman Corwin's achievements in the art of radio drama made him the obvious choice to create a special radio broadcast, and the President's suggestion came to him, through the U.S. Office of Facts and Figures. Corwin wrote a script, assembled a "million-dollar cast" of major stars, and commissioned Bernard Herrmann to create an original score for symphony orchestra.

Then, just 8 days before the broadcast, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, and the United States was at war.

Norman Corwin has told us the following:
"I still had some of the script to finish when I boarded the train in New York to go out to Hollywood for the broadcast. I worked in my compartment, and finished by the time we got to - near St. Louis, I think.

"Coming out into the aisle, I went to find the Conductor and get a radio. Orson Welles was producing one of my plays in Chicago that evening, and I wanted to hear how it went. In those days, you could rent a radio on trains; it was a small portable unit. You unwound a wire antenna in the back and stuck one end of the wire up on the train's window with a little suction cup.
"I found the Conductor but he told me there were no radios available. 'Haven't you heard?' he said. 'The Japanese have attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.' Friends of mine, Mr. & Mrs. Herbert Marshall, happened to be on the same train, and I went along to their compartment where we listened to the news reports for several hours, until it became obvious that no new information was available for the moment.

"Going back to my compartment, I got out my portable typewriter again and began to revise the script. I added several things in the text, and polished some other areas, but did not change the basic thrust of the program. When I got off the train in Los Angeles, it was done."

After the broadcast, Corwin waited for the control-room telephone (his primary barometer of audience reaction) to ring. It was silent. After a long time, there was one call - a woman friend, inviting him to a party. He went to bed that night convinced that the massive undertaking, with its million-dollar cast, had been a failure.

The next morning, like Howard Koch after the War Of The Worlds broadcast, Corwin woke up to headlines. The program was acclaimed from coast to coast. It developed that people were unsure of where to call, since different parts of the program had originated from Hollywood, Washington, and New York.

We Hold These Truths would be fascinating for its historical aspects alone, but beyond that, it remains a brilliant exposition of the principles on which the United States was founded, gripping and intensely relevant after more than half a century. It has been named to the National Recording Registry as one of the the programs which is most "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant", by the Librarian of Congress.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

In my quest for more material on my personal hero, I recently discovered a Leonard Maltin review of DVD movie called "The Poet Laureate of Radio, An Interview with Norman Corwin". I found this interview to be very informative and to hear my hero reflect on current events as well as World War II was fulfilling way to spend an evening. Check it out when you get a chance. I've provided the link below.