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.