Friday, October 21, 2011

Easy Joke Department


Blind Man Regains Sight Through Tongue

That tongue? Evan Rachel Woods'.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Norman Corwin, writer in the great days of radio, R.I.P.

A man named Norman Corwin died Tuesday.

I first heard of Corwin through J. Michael Straczynski, who is the creator and chief writer of the television series Babylon 5, and the screenwriter of films including The Changeling, directed by Clint Eastwood.

Straczynski admired Corwin inordinately, naming a recurring character in B5 after him and talking about him as "a writer's writer." So when I got a chance to listen to Corwin's work on one of those "Old-Time Radio" sets, I paid particular attention.

JMS was right. This guy was great.

Sometimes called "the poet laureate of radio," Corwin could be childlike in his passion for wordplay. A couple of his most acclaimed works, The Plot To Overthrow Christmas and my personal favorite, The Undecided Molecule, were written entirely in rhyme. They sound like Dr. Seuss before anybody sounded like Dr. Seuss, including Dr. Seuss.

As well-described by journalist (and Corwin's cousin by marriage) Cindy Sher, The Undecided Molecule-
relates the account of a molecule who refuses to work for one of the elements. In the story, the court charges the molecule with:
Unwilling to be named.

Rebelling when defined.

Declining to be blamed.

Objecting when assigned.

Protesting when selected.

Resisting an attack.

Refusing to be directed.

And talking back.

(BTW, the court that's mentioned is presided over by Groucho Marx.)

Defending itself, the molecule says through an interpreter:

I cannot chide
My inner soul:
I must confide
I've set a goal...

Let me explain to you how widely admired Corwin was in his day. He was famous enough to appear as a guest star on comedy programs of the time, where his work was satirized under the assumption that audiences would be familiar enough with the original. (This was a good assumption. Keep reading.)

He had his own radio shows--named after him and promoted on the strength of that name--as a writer. One of those programs, incidentally, was placed on the air opposite one of Bob Hope's. This put Corwin in the rare position of, as he put it, literally "hoping against Hope."

The period just before, during and at the end of WWII was probably Corwin's peak, and indeed he book-ended it with a couple of his most highly regarded works.

In 1941 he was asked to write a program commemorating the 150th anniversary of the bill of rights. Between his agreeing to write it and its broadcast, however, Pearl Harbor happened, and the US entered the war.

This lent an almost frightening intensity to the delivery of such picturesque phrases:

One hundred fifty years is not long in the reckoning of a hill. But to a man it's long enough.
One hundred fifty years is a weekend to a redwood tree, but to a man it's two full lifetimes.
One hundred years is a twinkle to a star, but to a man it's time enough to teach six generations what the meaning is of Liberty, how to use it, when to fight for it!

And in the closing Jimmy Stewart, who'd already enlisted, asked:
Can it be progress if our Bill of Rights is stronger now than when it was conceived?

In 1944, Corwin wrote a piece called Untitled. This reviews the life of a soldier only recently killed in action, from the varying perspectives of the M.O. who pronounced him, the doctor who delivered him, his mother; teachers, the girl he left behind, the editor of a paper reporting his death, his friend...and the enemy who shot him.

By the end of the piece, we learn that the voice that has been narrating all this is of course that of the deceased man wondering if his sacrifice has been worth it:

From my acre of now undisputed ground I will be listening:
I will be tuned to clauses in the contract where the word Democracy appears
And how the freedoms are inflicted to a Negro's ear.
I shall listen for a phrase obliging little peoples of the earth:
For Partisans and Jews and Puerto Ricans,
Chinese farmers, miners of tin ore beneath Bolivia;
I shall listen how the words go easy into Russian
And the idiom's translated to the tongue of Spain.

I shall wait and I shall wait in a long and long suspense
For the password that the Peace is setting solidly.

On that day, please to let my mother know
Why it had to happen to her boy.

That's heavy stuff, so let me give you a couple more examples of the lighter side of Corwin. The writer also acted as director for most of his broadcast work, and like the best writers (not just the best radio writers, the best writers) and directors, he was attuned to music and sound as well as the spoken word.

Describing a cue for music he wanted in his play Savage Encounter, he wrote:
A nocturne expressing the south sea island you remember from your fondest imaginings. Healthy lusts and red flowers and blue skies and bare breasts are all mixed up in it.

Obviously, this was my kind of guy.

For another play he needed the sound of his characters rushing down the stairs in fear of missing their train (the play was about a romantic meeting on the railways between a soldier and a girl).

For authenticity's sake, rather than rely upon the sound effects men, he directed his leads to walk away from the microphone (given a portable one so there was no break). Then they went out of the studio completely and into the building's stairwell, where they performed their dialogue before returning.

And remember, this was in the days when everything was broadcast live. It worked without a hitch.

Okay, everybody got their breath back? Good.

As the end of the war approached, Corwin wrote There Will Be Time Later, the intent of which was to fight off complacency, isolationism, and political attacks. He used the characters of a fascist and the diffident to ask:

Why should we bother with the Great Unwashed?

And gave this reply:

...when you tell him it's the Great Unwashed who wash away the stains of high corruption,
It's the common man, un-manicured, whose hand prevails against the Elite Guard,
He will rejoin:

You make me sick, you and your people with a capital P.

At that point you can break the news to him:
The People shall remain in capitals, coming before Princes in the alphabet of things...

I have a book about Corwin called On A Note Of Triumph. The author of that book, R. LeRoy Bannerman, said critics of the day
"...saw in Corwin a fresh, new influence: an independent whose concept of broadcasting dared to be different. They saw in his work literacy uncommon in the communicative arts."

In his book Raised on Radio Gerald Nachman says of Corwin:
"Whatever his shortcomings--purple passages, heavy-handed
irony, liberal bias--they were overcome by the programs' ambitions, impact,
superior writing, and high production values."

Bannerman's book is named after what is arguably Corwin's most famous work On A Note Of Triumph, written for the end of World War II. The first broadcast of this show was heard by some 60 million Americans. (That's over half of the adult population at the time. Remember what I said about it being a good assumption that audiences knew his work?)

The response was both overwhelming and overwhelmed. One person wrote, "I didn't expect this so soon."

Expect what?

Expect this:

How much did it cost?

Well, the gun, the halftrack, and the fuselage come to a figure resembling mileages between two stars-
Impressive, but not to be grasped by any single imagination.
High octane is high, and K rations in the aggregate mount up; also mosquito netting and battleships.
But these costs are calculable, and have no nerve endings.
And will eventually be taken care of by the federal taxes on antiques, cigarettes, and excess profits.
However, in the matter of the kid who used to deliver folded newspapers to your doorstep, flipping them sideways from his bicycle,
And who died on a jeep in the Ruhr,
There is no fixed price, and no amount of taxes can restore him to his mother.

Expect that.

(About five years ago, a documentary about Corwin and that broadcast, A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin, won the Documentary--short subject--Oscar.)

But, for that piece he had months to prepare. For his last program written about the war, he had one night. He began on August 13th a program he completed on, and titled, 14 August, read by Orson Welles.

Once again, Corwin refused to rejoice while forgetting to count the cost:

The turtle is young at sixty-one, but the flier is dead at eighteen.

Remember them when July comes around
And the shimmer of noon excites the locusts
When the pretty girls bounce as they walk in the park,
And the moth is in love with the fifty-watt bulb
And the tar on the road is blistered.

For further reading: An interview with Corwin from about 15 years ago.

"Pre-e-e-pare thee the way of the lord!"


Monday, October 17, 2011

Time for this blog's most popular recurring feature

That's right kids, once again it's...

"Who's searching for me now?"

Today's contestant comes to us from an IP Address for Comcast Cable in Detroit, Michigan, here in the great USA.

To my knowledge, I do not know anyone in Detroit, Michigan.

Spent a few hours in the airport there when I was flying back-and-forth to Tennessee, and was much impressed with same (the airport, not Tennessee).

But whoever this is, he, she or undecided (and with some of my friends past and present it's hard to tell) found this blog by Googling my name; stayed around for almost a minute.