Norman Corwin
The Making of Lust for Life


     In the early 1930s when silent movies were replaced by talkies, Hollywood had a sudden need for writers--or at least those who could string together a narrative.  The major studios raided the Broadway and London theaters recruiting playwrights  to adapt their own works or those of others.

      In the 1940s film companies filled their writing departments with novelists and short story writers, including Dashiell Hammet, Dorothy Parker, William Faulkner, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. It is surprising that, in their search for talent, the studios overlooked radio writers.  After all, those who wrote for that slightly older medium were able to write under pressure and turn out dialogue that was clear, direct, and, above all, imaginative.

      A few, of course, did make the transition from radio to film, most notably Orson Welles.  Another writer who worked in both mediums was Norman Corwin, whom Carl Van Doren, the Columbia University professor, and sometime radio actor, called "an acknowledged master" of radio drama.

      Corwin was born in Massachusetts in 1910.  As a teenager, he worked on local newspapers, then joined one of the radio stations that were springing up around the country.  Soon Corwin found himself a writer-director for CBS radio in New York City.

     During the heyday of radio in the 1940s, Corwin wrote dramas for the Columbia Workshop and Campbell Playhouse, weekly shows that filled the airwaves. Corwin's scripts often centered upon historical subjects--Ann Rutledge, Lincoln's lost love, was one popular show. Another was The Oracle of Philadelphia, part of a series that celebrated liberty and "the Pursuit of Happiness" that Corwin believed was every American's birthright.  (Norman Corwin, Thirteen by Corwin, New York, Henry Holt and Company, 1942)

     Despite Corwin's success as a radio dramatist, he only wrote a handful of screenplays. These included The Story of Ruth (1960) and Lust for Life (1956). The latter movie was directed by Vincente Minnelli and starred Kirk Douglas in the role of Vincent Van Gogh, the Dutch-born Impressionist whose work was neglected during his troubled life.

     Corwin's outlook may have been too political for Hollywood, and with the decline of radio, he turned to essay writing. He focused on contemporary culture and current affairs and approached his subjects with a Stevensonian "Let's talk sense to the American people" bluntness.

     Although a staunch supporter of the First Amendment, Corwin believed that writers and artists hold a public trust to behave responsibly. In a 1981 essay, Corwin excoriated Andy Warhol after the artist denied that his painting Race Riot had any political significance and claimed that the work should be viewed as "an expression of indifference" to the subject of race. (Norman Corwin, Trivializing America, New Jersey, Lyle Stuart, 1983)

     In addition to his writing, Norman Corwin lectured widely and taught at San Diego State University.  In the 1990s Barricade Books issued a collection of Corwin's letters, written to his wide circle of friends, famous and not, reflecting a lifetime of good deeds and generosity.

     This interview was first posted in March 2006. As an interview subject, Corwin was gracious and complimentary. He died in October 2011 at the age of 101.



AL: In his book on Vincente Minnelli, Stephen Harvey writes that MGM's efforts to film Lust for Life were jinxed. The studio had owned the rights to Irving Stone's novel since the 1940s and had shelved several screenplays, including one by Dalton Trumbo and another by Stone. How did you get involved?


Stone had an arrangement with another studio to shoot Lust for Life as soon as Metro's option expired. Metro was worried. They were going to lose their option in a month or two. That was why they came to me, knowing I was accustomed to pressure and that I could get a job done on time, and I did.


AL: John Houseman was assigned as the in-house producer.


Yes. John called me from Metro and asked how I'd like to do the script. I asked him to send me the book which I was not familiar with. John asked me if I wanted to see the prior screenplays, and I said, no thank you, I'll just read the book.


AL: Your screenplay departed from the Stone novel.


While I thought that Irving Stone did a good job of introducing Vincent Van Gogh to the American public, the book was somehow not mature for a screenplay. So I decided to read Van Gogh's letters, and, in doing so, I was aware that no one could write about Van Gogh better than he wrote about himself. I persuaded John that the picture should be based on Van Gogh's letters, and he agreed.


AL: Stephen Harvey refers to Van Gogh's letters to his brother and supporter, Theo.



The record was more plentiful in the case of Lust for Life than it usually is in any biographical drama. I was guided not only by the letters Vincent wrote but also by Paul Gauguin's journal of his days with Vincent at Arles and by contemporary records. That's why I think that the movie is truer than any other film made about a painter.


AL: Vincente Minnelli was the director. Did he follow your script?


There are directors who would have taken over. Minnelli was respectful of the script. He approached it almost as a writer would to get the essence, and be true to the material, true to history, true to the letters, true to what I had written.



How would you describe Minnelli's directing technique?



He was workmanlike. Minnelli did not spend an outlandish time rehearsing. I felt he was measured in his work. He got to the bottom of things.


AL: Kirk Douglas played Van Gogh. Anthony Quinn played Paul Gauguin, his friend and rival. On the set, Minnelli had two healthy egos to contend with.


That's right. They worked well together, and I give Minnelli credit for that. He had authority and handled it successfully. They respected him. It was a production without the usual jealousies and without envy. I don't know how Kirk Douglas feels about it today, but I certainly believe it was the best role of his career. His performance was moving. It was a different Kirk Douglas.


AL: How did Anthony Quinn come to play Gauguin?


Happily, I played a role in the casting. I told John Houseman I thought Anthony Quinn would make a good Gauguin. John agreed. So I called Tony, and he said, "Send me the script." After he read it, Tony said he thought he'd pass. He said, "The role is so small compared to Van Gogh." I said, "Come on. You're not weighing some ham--this is an important role." Tony went along, and, as work progressed, warmed up to the role.


AL: The rest of the cast were not well-known.



Much of the movie was shot on location. I was only on the set in Hollywood. To save time and money, Houseman recruited actors abroad. Theo was played by James Donald, a British actor.


AL: What material did you draw from Vincent's letters to his brother Theo?



Theo worked for the art dealer Goupil in Paris. At one point, Theo wrote Vincent that a dealer said, "Tell your brother that he paints too fast." Vincent wrote back, "Tell your friend that he looks too fast." I saved that exchange for a scene between Van Gogh and Gauguin who was patently jealous of his friend's output. Van Gogh would go out in all kinds of weather and would set up a wind defying easel and paint outdoors. Van Gogh turned out a canvas a day for a long time. Gauguin just sat in that "yellow house" in Arles which he shared with Vincent and painted.


AL: Dore Schary had taken control of MGM from Louis Mayer. Did the movie reflect Schary's own progressive views?



Well, in terms of the art world, the film could be considered a progressive movie. Van Gogh was a radical. He certainly was not a tranquil personality. He was in everybody's hair, but I don't think the progressivism of Schary was reflected by that picture.


AL: Van Gogh's life was tempestuous, culminating in self-mutilation and madness. Were there many problems with the Hollywood censors?


No, their only objection involved a quarrel between Gauguin and Van Gogh in which Vincent accused his friend of sitting on his behind--instead of painting. The Production Board objected to the word "behind."


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