A week after the attack on Pearl Harbor, a program celebrating the 150th anniversary of the Bill of Rights was produced on all four radio networks of the day – CBS, NBC Red and Blue networks, and the Mutual network. It was narrated by James Stewart, and a host of Hollywood players joined him in bringing to life not only the struggles of post-Revolutionary War America to come up with this Bill of Rights, but how important it was to reflect on it, and rely on it, in a time of modern troubles. The program was performed live.
James Stewart was, at that time, a corporal in the Army Air Corps, loaned to the project for the occasion. His fellow players included Edward Arnold, Lionel Barrymore, Walter Brennan Marjorie Main, Bob Burns, Walter Huston, Edward G. Robinson, Rudy Vallee, and Orson Welles.
Walter Huston, rolling his r’s, introduces the program. Then, the familiar voice of Lionel Barrymore is brought to the mic.
“My name is Barrymore. I’m one of several actors gathered in the studio in California….” He joins 130 million fellow Americans in praise of a document “that men have fought for, that men are fighting for…”
He announces the cast, and adds, “Our names are meaningless unless your names are added.”
Then one by one, the cast fills in, leaving their Hollywood personas and adopting the guise, in our imaginations, of post-Revolutionary Americans. Jimmy Stewart like his character in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939),which we covered in this post, leads us on a tour of modern Washington, D.C., and as he describes monuments and their inscriptions, we are reminded of the movie, for he is intentionally channeling Mr. Smith’s awe and wonder.
Not only the message, but the script beams with elegant writing, no longer in fashion. Perhaps it is too idealistic, and we have learned to distrust everything.
On the National Archives building it is written, “ What is past, is prologue.” We hear the clicking of footsteps as Stewart climbs the stone steps to see the Bill of Rights in glass – the old parchment with faded writing. Then Stewart and the other actors proceed to bring it alive. “The words are dim, but not the meaning of the words…” Perhaps not. Perhaps we need this lesson.
Stewart brings us to the hall as the great men rise to speak and call the roll, to sign their names the draft when Constitution is written, which is then brought back to the states for review, but the people are suspicious. They want guarantees of certain protections. And so, this is the story of how the Bill of Rights came to be added as the most important addendum in history.
Other actors jump in to be those common people in the different states who express their curiosity for the new document, but who want more guarantees, more explanations of just what they have won in the Revolutionary War.
Walter Huston is a blacksmith. He doesn’t want anyone telling him he has to pray the way somebody else tells him. Doesn’t like state religion. Wants to make sure there won’t be any.
Others are suspicious of authority. They know that just wanting law and order isn’t enough—Nero had such.
Marjorie Main plays a woman whose husband died in the war. She wants guarantees that he didn’t die in vain.
Edward Arnold is a bricklayer who argues that the work is unfinished. There’s only a foundation and no house.
So many voices, so much dissent, so much yearning for rights. We are taken on a journey not only through history, but through the minds and souls of this nation.
Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, James Madison lend their voices, and George Mason warning us not only about a monarchy, but a “tyrannical aristocracy” taking over, the monied class.
Now the First Congress begins sifting through the amendments to the Constitution and hammering them out for the future. It’s not an easy job, but it’s important and they persist. Stewart passionately narrates, cajoles, shouts.
Most profound is Orson Welles’ impassioned speech. He takes over at this point and adds the other voices to the founders of the Bill of Rights – not just the men in Congress, but from the victims of the ages – “They had much help, the many nameless and unknown – from bleeding mouths, burnt flesh – from numberless and nameless agonies. The delegates from dungeons, they were there. The delegates from ashes at the bottoms of the stakes were there.”
We hear a voice, weak, pleading.
Orson continues, “The gallows delegates, whose corpses lifted gently in the breeze, they too…”
His voice grows booming, horrified: “The Christians killed for being Christians, Jews for being Jews, the Quakers hanged in Boston town, they made a quorum also… The murdered men, the lopped off hands, the shattered limbs, the red welts where the whip lash bit into the back. Must you know what they said? Must you know how they argued? Must you be told the evidence?
We hear a blood-curdling scream.
“That was an argument for an amendment.”
They are words for our times, how shockingly, sickeningly current.
“How much of all this must be told to be believed? How much of this must be diagramed: X marks the spot where decency was last observed?”
Nero was there, Caligula, Cotton Mather, all the tyrants were observing in the hall. “All the long and bloody history of fanaticism, murder in the name of God.”
Christ was there too. “He, too, sat in the Congress, the mild Man, with scars in His hands and feet where the spikes went through. He was a consultant in the business at hand. Had He not died because the rulers of the realm denied free speech? Was He not nailed up on a cross between two thieves because His preachments were considered treason?”
Orson growls, wails his words. “Out of the agonies, out of crisscrossed scars of all the human race they made a Bill of Rights for their own people…To stand against the enemies within, connivers, fakers, those who lust for power, those who make of their authority an insolence.”
Listen to Orson’s impassioned speech, and think of now.
The Bill of Rights “Threw up a bulwark…and made a sign for their posterity against the bigots, the fanatics, bullies, lynchers, race haters, the cruel men, the spiteful men, the sneaking men, the pessimists…”
The Bill of Rights is ratified! Jimmy Stewart breathes easier and brings the document to the thirteen states.
Then Edward Arnold, Walter Huston, Marjorie Main, Walter Brennan and others join in as the amendments are read, each one, and voices answer to illustrate what each one means. We go to the homes of farmers, the blacksmith shop, all the new citizens. The war gave them separation from Great Britain, but the Constitution and the Bill of Rights makes them citizens.
We hear a woman tending the grave of her soldier husband. We hear a Colonial folk tune. Through all, James Stewart’s folksy ruminating weaves a thread to guide us to the present. Edward G. Robinson is a political protester who praises the rights that allow him to speak and fight corruption in city hall.
“A promise is a promise,” Jimmy Stewart says, “Has America’s been kept?”
It is a fair question, but in only a short time Japanese Americans would have their rights taken away by virtue of their ethnicity. It was not the Bill of Rights that failed them; it was their fellow citizens and a president and government who shamefully allowed their mistreatment. Even in those days when war was declared and Americans were coming together for mutual support, even in times of great pride, patriotism and cheerleading, something monstrously unfair could occur. How much easier it is to occur in times when we are not one, when we are fighting amongst ourselves? When a foreign enemy knows how to divide and conquer. Abraham Lincoln said:
“From whence shall we expect the approach of danger? Shall some trans-Atlantic military giant step the earth and crush us at a blow? Never. All the armies of Europe and Asia...could not by force take a drink from the Ohio River or make a track on the Blue Ridge in the trial of a thousand years. No, if destruction be our lot we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of free men we will live forever or die by suicide.”
We've come to that suicidal brink, however, with the aid of Vladimir Putin’s mafia, and the fascism that is rotting our government. We have far superior technology in our media than they did when this radio program was broadcast in December 1941, but we have lost the gift of eloquence that they possessed then. Such well-written and carefully crafted words would today seem to be talking above the heads of the crowds whom the spokesmen try to reach. Maybe because they are above the intelligence of the spokesmen.
This was a live program, so neatly coordinated, so passionately and intimately put together. Listen to this program and marvel not only at how it was written, acted, and produced according to the technology of the day when we were only a week at war, but marvel – for God’s sake, marvel at the message of warning, of love, and of integrity, of pride for our Bill of Rights.
At the end of the program, James Stewart introduces in a soft, gentle voice President Roosevelt, who then speaks live from Washington, D.C. “Ladies and gentlemen, the President of the people of the United States.”
Of the people.
It was reported by Screen Guide magazine in the March 1942 issue, from which some of these photos are taken, that after James Stewart introduced the President, he ripped off his earphones at the mic, and burst into tears.