Wednesday, December 1, 2010

"The Greatest Ghost Story Ever Heard" Part 2

Continued from Part I. (Lionel Barrymore experiences setbacks and success in the role of Scrooge; and several of the most important actors in Golden Age Hollywood play Dickens not only at the movies and on stage, but in the theater of "the mind's eye.")

Join Craig on the RADIO ONCE MORE webcast Friday December 3rd at 9pm, to discuss the Carol's history, and to hear his own and Barrymore's productions of the story, as well as excerpts from several others:

Charles Dickens. Composite image by Art News.

MGM studios, impressed no doubt by the radio success one of the biggest members of their stable of “more stars than there are in heaven,” had planned to star Barrymore in a film version of Dickens’ classic, but the actor’s recurring hip injury flared up. Barrymore, not wanting to let the project die, recommended British character actor Reginald Owen for the role.

MGM hoped to promote both the film and its star on their in-house radio program, Good News. So Barrymore was paid not to play the lead –- but he did narrate the film. Evidently, he also agreed not to compete with MGM by playing the role for Campbell’s – so Orson Welles, radio's "boy genius" took on the role, apologizing for Barrymore’s absence.

Per usual for the Mercury, the 1938 production overall is good. The script is different from the norm – it opens with the Nativity story from the gospel of Luke. Ex-Lucky Charms Leprechaun Arthur Anderson, 16 at the time, is very good indeed as the Ghost of Christmas Past, who was described by Dickens as ”like a child: yet not so like a child as like an old man, viewed through some supernatural medium”. Alas, the performance of the show’s Scrooge is far from Orson Welles’s shining hour – the 23 year old actor sounds like he’s doing a comic opera “Old Man.”

But next year came the most famous of all of Lionel Barrymore's turns as the "squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous, old sinner!”

The Christmas Eve 1939 Campbell Playhouse presentation of Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, starring Lionel Barrymore as Ebenezer Scrooge, was a performance that helped introduce me to the wonders of the Theater of the Mind. It probably was for many others as well, as it is likely one of the best-known broadcasts from the Golden Age of American Radio Drama: it has been circulated on reel-to-reel tape, vinyl record, audiocassette, CD and mp3.

It is quite wonderful; at an hour’s length it's one of the longest of all of Barrymore’s performances of the story. Welles is terrific – Dickens’ classic "...I am standing, in the spirit, at your elbow..." line is thrillingly delivered by the former Shadow, and stands as a comment on the power of radio itself. Ernest Chappell (from the 1926 Carol mentioned previously) warmly announces; and Mercury actors including Everett (Journey into Fear) Sloane, George (Blood from the Mummy’s Tomb) Coulouris, Ray (Touch of Evil) Collins and Bea Benederet all bring their very best games.

Welles’ introduction stated that “‘A Christmas Carol’... has long been a classic ... and Mr. Lionel Barrymore’s appearance in it is rapidly becoming one,” and the actor’s hold on the role solidified throughout the 1940s. (A later Campbell’s press release suggests that the ’39 show was officially rebroadcast for Christmas of 1940, which was rare in the era of Old Time Radio.)

In 1941, the thespian presented the story as a part of Rudy Vallee’s Sealtest Show; and an abbreviated Carol was presented each year from 1942 to 1948 in the slot of Barrymore's own weekly series, The Mayor of the Town. (In fact, some records show that starting in this period, there was more than one Barrymore Scrooge haunting the airwaves –- both live and ghostly re-broadcast!)

Also in 1942, Barrymore moonlighted in a modern wartime variation on the theme: the Treasury Star Parade’s "A Modern Scrooge," hosted by Fredric March (later an early TV Scrooge, himself). In this one, a town crank refuses to buy Bonds until a ghost shows him his nephew’s peril on the battlefield, for want of the bullets that his money would have bought.

And so “Lionel Scrooge” marched on...

The Dec. 25, 1944, issue of Life magazine features a spread of full-cast, fully-staged pictures shot on the MGM lot – a tantalizing “what if?” look at what a Barrymore Carol film would have been like.
In 1948, NBC offered a special six-hour Christmas Festival, leading off with Barrymore in The Carol, followed by performances by the likes of Gene Autry, Danny Kaye, Burns and Allen, the Andrews Sisters, and Eddie "Rochester" Anderson.

And in 1949, the actor completed his “conquest by Christmas spirit” of the major radio networks: Mutual presented The Capehart Christmas Hour, with a program of A Christmas Carol and music. For the next two years, Barrymore stayed on Mutual.

But in 1952 it was back to where he had started for Lionel Barrymore -– CBS featured him on the Hallmark Playhouse that year. And the next season, the actor became host of that series, now called the Hallmark Hall of Fame. His 1953 performance there, featuring B-movie beauty Lynn Bari, marked 19 years since Lionel’s first essaying of the role.

And it was to be his last.

Lionel Herbert Blythe (his birth name) passed away at the age of 76, on November 16th of 1954. Hallmark that year reran the previous year’s production as a salute to the actor – and in tribute to a truly amazing achievement in broadcasting. Barrymore had been named Best Actor in a 1942/43 national radio listeners’ poll, based largely on the Carols and his work in Mayor; his annual Scrooges were always welcomed in the press like the return of an old friend; and he had to all intents and purposes finally played the character onscreen (without, sadly, the key redemption scene), as Old Man Potter in Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life. The actor's performance in A Christmas Carol had become for the United States what William Makepeace Thackeray had said that the original book was for England: “a national benefit, and to every man or woman who (heard) it a personal kindness." Barrymore even stated "As you know, I have played many roles during my career. But if there is one role I really hope I'll be remembered for, it's that of Ebenezer Scrooge."

Now, in all those years when the Babe Ruth of radio Scrooges was hitting them out of the park every season, there WERE other players in the league.

In 1949, Favorite Story presented host Ronald (Lost Horizon) Colman very ably embodying the lead, supported by Arthur Q. Bryan (best known as Elmer Fudd's voice) and Jimmy (Twilight Zone) Lydon. 1951 saw Stars Over Hollywood offer the story on CBS starring Edmund Gwenn (though his avuncular style fit his Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street better!) That same year, ABC presented a production starring Alec Guinness, that originated in Great Britain; and in 1953, another transatlantic Carol was a part of Theater Royal on NBC, with Laurence Olivier as Scrooge (though as with Welles in 1938, it’s far from the best performance of an otherwise gifted actor.)

During this same era the classic story was also recorded directly for home-use on 78 rpm discs.

The first such production is the 21-minute Decca version from 1941, starring Ronald Colman as Scrooge – who in a unique twist, narrates the story in the first person! Also in the cast are Barbara Jean Wong (known from the Charlie Chan series), Hans (The Twonky) Conried and Gale (The Lucy Show) Gordon – who, in another twist, plays a SPEAKING Ghost of Christmas Future! (The same script appears to have been also used for Colman’s 1949 radio broadcast.)

That same Christmas season (which was also, sadly, to include Pearl Harbor), RCA offered a version that featured another return to the Carol fold by writer/producer/narrator Ernest Chappell. This one also had a seasoned cast: Eustace (Gaslight) Wyatt in the lead, with Richard (Meeting at Midnight) Gordon, Bud (Superman) Collyer and Dick (Spaceballs) Van Patton. At a pleasingly long 40 minutes, it’s a very well done adaptation.

In 1942 it was Columbia Records' turn – featuring Basil Rathbone as Scrooge, with music by Leith (Destination Moon) Stevens. The script was by Edith Meiser and to this listener’s ears, uses too many of her own phrases and too few of Dickens’. But Rathbone is very good in the role, which he would play twice on television in the 1950s. And again, great vocal support comes in the form of Lurene (Psycho) Tuttle, Arthur Q. Bryan, Walter (Sherman and Peabody) Tetley and narrator Harlow Wilcox. And MGM records offered their own Barrymore “home edition” in 1947.

Moving on into the 50s and 60s, we enter the time when radio was being killed by the networks to pay for television... but all was not lost for audio Carolers!

There was another for-records production in 1960, by Caedmon – with a storied cast including Paul (A Man for All Seasons) Scofield as narrator and Ralph (Tales From the Crypt) Richardson as Scrooge. Even more recently, Patrick (Star Trek: The Next Generation) Stewart recorded a version of his smash 1989 Broadway one-man presentation.

Back to radio.

Amazingly, the post-"Golden Age of Radio Drama" era saw new network versions. On the Christmas Eve, 1975 episode of veteran producer Himan (Inner Sanctum) Brown’s CBS Radio Mystery Theater, series host E.G. (Creepshow) Marshall took a character role in addition to narrating for this single time, and makes a fine Scrooge. And in 1990, National Public Radio mounted a production with Jonathan Winters and Mimi Kennedy based on Dickens’ reading version.

If you'll indulge me, I'd like to mention just one other, more personal production. In 1995, by the good graces of NYC’s WBAI, I had the pleasure of joining the illustrious company mentioned above by producing my own one-hour radio version, and played the role of Ebenezer Scrooge. Directed by my friend Jay Stern, it had sterling work by all, and was topped off by Tony Award- winner Mark Hollmann’s score. We removed the quaint “Disneyfication” often added to the piece, returning to it the grit and fear of what its author called “a ghost story.” It was the inaugural production of Quicksilver Radio Theater, and can still be heard by way the Public Radio Exchange and through iTunes.

“The End of It…(?)”

On the occasion of Charles Dickens’ death in 1870, a poor London child asked a stranger, “Dickens dead? Then will Father Christmas die too?” But A Christmas Carol lives, and forever will, in the hearts of all of us who know how to keep Christmas well – if anyone alive possesses that knowledge!

And so, as Tiny Tim observed, “God bless us, every one!”

Craig Wichman is an Actor, Writer, Producer and lifelong lover of The Carol, who lives in New York City. His work includes the films The Devil You Know and A Christmas Carol – In Eight Minutes. He wishes to thank the veterans in OTR whom he has had the pleasure of talking with, as well as the esteemed members of the online OTR resources Old Time Radio Digest and The Digital Deli.

Corrections and additions to this information, and questions about acquiring recordings of several of these broadcasts, are welcome at

Portions of this material appear in the Autumn 2010 issue of NOSTALGIA DIGEST .

Primary Sources

Davis, Paul. The Life and Times of Ebenezer Scrooge.

Sammon, Paul. The Christmas Carol Trivia Book.

Kobler, James. Damned in Paradise.

Kotsilibas-Davis, James. The Barrymores.

The Digital Deli. November 2010. Web.


Chris 'Frog Queen' Davis said...

Thanks for the great post. I do love that story and getting all this information about the history in performance was amazing.

Put me right in the Christmas spirit :)


wich2 said...

Thanks, FQ!

Join us for the Webcast Friday night, and actually HEAR such Scrooges as Lionel Barrymore, Edmund Gwenn, Lawrence Olivier, and -

-Craig Wichman

Happy Christmas!


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