I’d heard a lot about Lionel Barrymore’s great performances as Scrooge on radio, and decided today to listen to his most famous audio version of A Christmas Carol, broadcast at Christmas 1939 as part of Orson Welles’ Campbell Playhouse series.
Via Google, I found a website which claimed to have the show available for streaming. However, after listening for a while, I realised that the website in question (I won’t link to it to avoid further confusion!) had got in a muddle, and the programme labelled as being the 1939 broadcast was in fact the one broadcast the previous year, 1938 – when Barrymore was unable to take part and the 23-year-old Welles stepped in to play Scrooge as well as being the narrator!
It’s an astonishing double voice performance by Welles. He is unmistakably speaking in his own voice for his introduction, which includes him reading out the Nativity story, but sounds convincingly elderly and gruff as Scrooge. Indeed, at first I readily accepted that it was Lionel Barrymore, since he achieves a voice which is quite similar. Possibly even more remarkable, in the flashback sequences where he plays the young Scrooge, Welles sounds not like himself, but like a younger version of the elderly voice he has been doing for Scrooge – and the story’s emotions come across strongly in all his voices. I was interested to find that Joseph Cotten plays Scrooge’s nephew, Fred – he appeared in many of Welles’ radio productions before starring with him in Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons.
Anyway, I’m glad to have heard this version, which keeps a lot of Dickens’ language and is compelling listening, even though it isn’t the production I set out to hear! I do still hope to listen to the Lionel Barrymore version before too long, and here is a link to The Mercury Theatre on the Air, a site which has both the 1938 and 1939 dramas available for download, correctly labelled! They are also currently being streamed at Wellesnet, until January 1 2013.
A Christmas Carol has been produced on the radio many times over the years, with Lionel Barrymore playing Scrooge regularly for many years. His brother John stepped in to play Scrooge in 1936 when Lionel’s wife had just died, but sadly there doesn’t seem to be a surviving recording of John’s performance in the role. Laurence Olivier also played Scrooge on radio on one occasion. Here’s a link to the first half of a two-part article about the various old radio versions, with lots of fascinating illustrations. I’d definitely like to listen to more of these radio productions, and also to more of Welles’ other radio shows – he did adaptations of many classic novels and films, including Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities and The Pickwick Papers.
After watching a great production of Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part I at the Globe Theatre in London this autumn (sadly I didn’t make it to Part II), I was keen to see Orson Welles’ take on Falstaff, Chimes at Midnight. This film is less well-known than Welles’ other Shakespearean movies, and, for complicated reasons of copyright, until this month was only available on Spanish and Brazilian DVDs. I watched it on a Spanish DVD which I borrowed from a friend, with subtitles, which can easily be removed, and a good-quality picture. I have now heard that it has just been issued on a UK DVD as an exclusive from the HMV stores and website – I haven’t as yet heard from anyone who has bought this release and do not know what the quality is like, but a couple of people have suggested it is best to be cautious.
It’s a shame this film is so little-known, because it is excellent, with a towering performance by Welles as Falstaff dominating throughout. Just under two hours long, it brings together Falstaff’s main scenes from both the Henry IV plays, and the account of his death from Henry V. This works extremely well – I didn’t spot the joins and as far as I could tell most of the greatest scenes and speeches from Part I seemed to be intact, although it would have been nice to have a bit more of Henry Percy (Norman Rodway). I have a feeling that rather more of Part II has been cut, but it doesn’t feel rushed. And all the dialogue is taken from Shakespeare’s text, with just a couple of brief pieces of bridging narration by Ralph Richardson.
I’ve been meaning to write some more postings about Shakespeare films I’ve seen, but haven’t got round to it and my memories of some of them are starting to fade, so I’m going to do some brief capsule reviews instead of my usual epics – I’m looking to write more frequent and shorter postings anyway, although I’m sure I will continue to write at length occasionally!
The one I saw most recently was Orson Welles’ Macbeth (1948), which I had recorded from TV, and found much more impressive than I’d expected to after seeing some lukewarm and downright scathing reviews. Released the same year as Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, but with a much smaller budget, this production was very much overshadowed by Olivier’s big-budget Oscar-winner – but I’d say there are a lot of similarities between the two, as they both use minimalist sets and atmospheric lighting with a lot of darkness and shadows. Welles’ production is said to be influenced by German expressionism, and also has some weird camera angles.
They also both feature towering central performances by the actor-director – Welles might have a cheap and tacky-looking costume, but his speaking of Shakespeare’s verse is still great, and he completely overshadows all the other actors, including radio actress Jeanette Nolan as Lady Macbeth.
There’s a good background account of the making of this Macbeth in Kenneth S Rothwell’s book Shakespeare on Screen, where he recounts how the Poverty Row studio which released this film, Republic Pictures, made some hefty cuts before release and also forced Welles to rerecord the dialogue, which had originally been done with Scottish accents. The film has now been restored, with the cut footage added back in and the Scottish dialogue restored – I’d have to say the Scottish accents sound a bit unconvincing, but they definitely go with the wild, dark and bleak landscapes of this version.
The real problem with the dialogue, though, is that it was recorded separately, with the actors mouthing their dialogue on camera to go with the soundtrack. Rothwell suggests this method of production shows the influence of Welles’ background in radio. In any case, it didn’t quite work and a lot of the dialogue is noticeably out of synch. I was interested to read that some elements from Welles’ earlier touring stage production of Macbeth with an all-black cast, set in Haiti, have been included, such as the voodoo doll with Macbeth’s head – there is a clip of the ending of the stage version on Youtube, which is very striking and makes me wish it was possible to watch and compare the whole production.
For further reading, here’s a link to an article at Slant magazine about the making and restoration of Welles’ Macbeth.