It’s perhaps the most familiar of all Christmas-themed stories—the tale of a cold, unfeeling miser (whose last name has become synonymous with any individual demonstrating negative feelings toward the holiday season) who repents and changes his grasping ways after being visited by three spirits on Christmas Eve. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol has provided material for movies, television—and especially old-time radio, where during Radio’s Golden Age it became what author John Dunning calls “radio’s best-loved single program.” Many actors have taken at turn at portraying Ebenezer Scrooge on radio—among them Edmund Gwenn, Ronald Coleman, and Basil Rathbone—but no actor became more identified with the role than Lionel Barrymore.
Barrymore was practically a Christmas staple as the radio version of Dickens’ famous miser from 1934-53, in many different lengths and formats: dramatic anthologies, variety shows and specials, and even his own starring program, Mayor of the Town. The broadcast that I tuned in to last night showcased his appearance on the Campbell Playhouse from
December 24, 1939. It’s a stupendous production, aided immeasurably by Campbell Playhouse star Orson Welles’ narration (Welles had played Scrooge the previous year in Barrymore’s absence) and the wonderful Mercury Theatre company of players: Frank Readick, Everett Sloane, George Coulouris—even a young Bea Benaderet, who plays a small dramatic role that is a far cry from her more familiar work with Burns & Allen and Jack Benny.
But it’s truly Barrymore’s show—he creates an indelible impression as Scrooge, and I can’t help but think that his association with the character influenced Frank Capra’s decision to cast Lionel as the Scrooge-like Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). I particularly enjoyed how Barrymore captures the character’s sadness and melancholy that is more responsible for Scrooge's current condition than any ingrown evil or greed; he's definitely a three-dimensional character. (I should probably point out that while Barrymore is fantastic, the yardstick by which I measure the role still belongs to Alastair Sim in the classic 1951 film version.)
I probably don’t need to summarize the plot of A Christmas Carol since I’m sure everyone knows it by heart—it’s such a great story that even if Dickens had never written anything else he’d still be as revered as he is today. The story even proved to be flexibly serviceable as fodder for other OTR broadcasts—from comedies like Blondie (
12/25/39) and Duffy’s Tavern ( 12/21/45) to dramas like Richard Diamond, Private Detective ( 12/24/49) and The Six Shooter ( 12/20/53). Speaking for myself, it’s a timeless story that I never get tired of hearing, whether it’s the original or a variation of such. I think this one passage really hits home:
FRED: There are many things from which I derive good by which I have not profited materially, I dare say, Uncle…Christmas among the rest…But I have always thought of Christmas as a good time—a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time—and therefore, Uncle…though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe it has done me good and will do me good…and I say, “God bless us.”
I’m going to be taking a week off to spend some time with my family in
North Georgia, so I guess this means Thrilling Days of Yesteryear will be taking a hiatus until December 27th. Until then, I want to wish each and every one of you best wishes for the season—Happy Holidays and Merry Christmas, everybody!