University of Texas at Austin

Lester Cowan:

A Preliminary Inventory of His Papers at the Harry Ransom Center

Creator Cowan, Lester, 1907-1990
Title Lester Cowan Papers
Dates: 1943-1990
Extent: 6 boxes and 5 galley files (2.52 linear feet)
Abstract: This collection contains material relating to the 1945 film The Story of G. I. Joe, based on the writings of the journalist Ernie Pyle.
Call Number: Film Collection FI-00006
Language: English
Access Open for research

Administrative Information

Acquisition Purchase, 1999 (Reg. no. 14447)
Processed by Liz Murray, 1999

Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin

Scope and Contents

This collection, from the files of Lester Cowan, independent Hollywood producer of ten films from the 1930s to the 1950s, contains material relating to the 1945 film The Story of G. I. Joe, based on the writings of the journalist Ernie Pyle. Of particular interest is Arthur Miller's early work on the screenplay. In his autobiography, Miller wrote that Cowan was "looking for a young writer to make a screenplay of Here Is Your War, a collection of columns by America's best-loved war reporter, Ernie Pyle of the United Press.... Far, far down the road this project would finally emerge as The Story of GI Joe, but only after some four or five other writers had hauled and pushed and recarved my original screenplay about an infantry company moving through the war." The film starred Burgess Meredith in the role of Ernie Pyle and featured a new actor, Robert Mitchum, as Lieutenant Bill Walker. It received four Academy Award nominations including Best Song by Ann Ronell, Lester Cowan's wife, and Best Supporting Actor for Mitchum's portrayal of Lt. Walker. While the screenplay was also nominated, Miller's name does not appear on the credits. He left the project when writer Alan LeMay was hired as his collaborator, in an effort to create a storyline that was more palatable for Hollywood consumption. However, Miller's work was not wasted. He transformed his screenplay into his first published book, Situation Normal, which Miller described "as a book of reportage about army training drawn from my research for my screenplay The Story of GI Joe."
The papers are arranged in four Series: Series I. The Story of G. I. Joe; Series II. Paige Cavanaugh's "Indiana Story"; Series III. Lester Cowan; and Series IV. Ernie Pyle.
Series I contains material related to the writing and production of the film and is arranged in four subseries: Subseries A. Works by Arthur Miller, Subseries B. Other Screenplay Versions, Subseries C. Music, and Subseries D. Production Photographs and Ephemera. The works by Arthur Miller in Subseries A include an early outline of the motion picture, the earliest surviving Miller manuscript in the Cowan archive. Two versions of the "Diary of Arthur Miller" record Miller's experiences as he gathered research for the screenplay, talking with military personnel at U.S. army bases and installations and absorbing the day-to-day realities of military service.
A treatment and two screenplay versions are also present along with an uncorrected typescript of Miller's Situation Normal published in 1944. Although undated, it appears to be a final version, faithful to the published piece, with the exception of the last two chapters which do not appear in the book. One of these chapters describes Miller's ultimate departure from the film project, unable to solve the dilemma of delivering a screenplay which was faithful to the visions of both Pyle and Cowan.
The screenplays in Subseries B, written after Miller's departure, are substantially different from his screenplay but do contain elements of his original field work. These screenplays are dated and numbered for the most part, but authors are not indicated, with the exception of Albert Maltz's "American Sequence" which describes Pyle's return home to Albuquerque, his visit with his wife Jerry and friend Paige Cavanaugh, and his decision to rejoin U.S. troops overseas.
The music scores, many handwritten, and sheet music found in Subseries C, are the work of Ann Ronell and Louis Applebaum, both Oscar nominees for Best Scoring of a Dramatic Picture. A small amount of related correspondence, contracts, and holograph notes is also present.
The production, publicity, and studio photographs in Subseries D cover not only the cast and stars, such as Burgess Meredith and Robert Mitchum, but also Ernie Pyle, Lester Cowan, and Bob Hope who visited Pyle on the movie set. The ephemera in this subseries includes a page of storyboard sketches, a press preview brochure for the movie, and a typescript proposal for the premiere.
After the release of The Story of G. I. Joe and Pyle's untimely death on Ie Shima on April 18, 1945, Cowan planned a series of Ernie Pyle projects including a new screenplay which would portray Pyle's personal life. The outline and progression of screenplays in Series II reflect the work of Pyle's longtime friend and writer, Paige Cavanaugh, who had assisted Cowan on the initial film project.
Cowan's additional projects and business papers related to Pyle and The Story of G. I. Joe are reflected in his correspondence from 1945 to 1990 found in Series III. Plans for a TV series, proposed courses at the University of Indiana and University of Southern California, and a published compilation of Pyle's columns are discussed. Other projects not related to G.I. Joe are also mentioned in Cowan's correspondence.
Series IV includes articles by and about Pyle, correspondence written to Ann Ronell, information on the Ernie Pyle State Historical Site, memorials, an early draft of his will, Time magazine cover story, and fragments of Pyle's writing. Also of interest are galleys of an unpublished book of Pyle's newspaper columns, variously titled. Edited by Cowan, the book opens with a chapter from Miller's Situation Normal recounting Miller's impressions of Ernie Pyle after meeting with him in Albuquerque in 1943.

Lester Cowan Papers--Folder List