Welcome to December, the month of overindulgence, copious candy canes, happy ho-ho-ho’ing, and a plethora of productions of that grandpa of time travel stories, A Christmas Carol. Whether it’s at the theater, movie house, or on TV, no way will you be able to miss a rendition of the Dickens classic this month.
We here at Old Time Travel Radio don’t want to be left out of the fun, so we’re presenting to you, dear readers, not one but three of old time radio’s takes on Scrooge’s yuletide time trips.
Best remembered as the warped, frustrated old man Potter from It’s A Wonderful Life, Barrymore playing Scrooge was an old-time radio Christmas tradition from 1934-53.
He missed only two performances: in 1936 when his wife died suddenly on Christmas Eve, and in 1938 due to a serious illness.
His brother John Barrymore filled in for him in ’36 (no recording exists, but I’m betting John, known for playing smoldering, tortured lovers with a comic flair, provided a heck of a take on ol’ Scrooge!). A post-War of the Worlds, pre-Citizen Kane Orson Welles stepped in for Lionel in 1938.
I listened to the 1939 production (the most widely-available online), in which Welles narrates and delivers the opening lines in a stentorian voice. Not exactly sure what stentorian means, but Welles’s voice defines the word. After the big personality of Welles exits, the big personality of Barrymore enters as Scrooge. I don’t think these two actors ever worked together, but if they had, the clash of thespians might’ve been as explosive as two time-streams colliding.
I’m not going to recap the story, because we all know the drill: Scrooge is cranky, Tim is tiny, nephew Fred delivers a lecture-y speech worthy of Parliament and so on.
Ably supported by members of Welles’s Mercury Theatre troupe (including soon-to-be Citizen Kane cast members Everett Sloane and George Coulouris), Barrymore the old pro delivers a stellar performance. He’s so good as the crotchety old miser Scrooge, it didn’t take much more than a sober black suit and a pinched expression for the man to slip into the character of It’s A Wonderful Life’s Old Man Potter.
Moving on to a show that put its own stamp on the old story is a western series called The Six Shooter. The show ran only one season of 39 episodes late in the radio era, 1953-54, and probably only got the go-ahead because of its star—James Stewart.Stewart plays Britt Ponset, a grizzled old cowboy in the waning days of the Wild West, traveling from old west town to town, dispatching wisdom and getting involved in people’s lives. Sort of an old west version of the ’70s show The Incredible Hulk without the rage issues.
Stewart’s cowboy Ponset meets a sad boy who’s running away from home because the mean old auntie he’s been sent to live with after his parents died thinks he’s too old for Christmas.
“I hate Christmas now,” the boy pouts.
Poppycock, ol’ Jimmy retorts and proceeds to tell the boy the story of a penny-pinching prospector-turned-rancher named Eben who hated Christmas too, but changes his mind when some ghostly ranch hands show him the error of his ways.
All the classic Dickens ingredients are there—time travel, the lecturing nephew Fred, Eben’s fiancee breaking off their engagement, tiny Tim in an iron leg brace—mixed in with lots of western goodness. The ghost “Jake” Marley wears leather saddle bags weighed down with the gold nuggets, mortgage papers, land grants he greedily hoarded in life. The Ghost of Christmas Past is a young guy of eighteen all “duded up in fancy chaps and a red bandanna around his neck.” We learn young Eben traveled west in a wagon train and old Eben gets around on horseback.
I enjoyed this production a lot. Stewart is outstanding as the narrator, hitting all the right emotional notes without going overboard. The rest of the cast is great too, including Howard McNear as Eben Scrooge. McNear had a long, productive career in both radio and television, but is best remembered as Floyd the Barber on The Andy Griffith Show; typecast perhaps after this early turn (pictured above) as “Andy the Barber” in an episode of Leave It To Beaver.
The third production I’m showcasing comes from Richard Diamond Private Detective. The show, which ran on NBC (and later ABC) from 1949-53, starred hoofer-turned-tough guy Dick Powell and was created by Blake Edwards, the man behind The Pink Panther series and Victor/Victoria, so the show was full of crackling dialogue and oddball characters.
Powell as Diamond charmed and wisecracked his way through more than a hundred mysteries, some light, some not, with the help of his 51st precinct pals, Lt. Walt Levinson (character actor Ed Begley Sr.) and dopey Sgt. Otis Loveloon (Wilms Herbert).
Once the case was solved, Rick dropped by his wealthy girlfriend Helen Asher’s Park Avenue penthouse and serenaded her (I guess you don’t hire popular crooner Dick Powell for a gig without getting a weekly song out of the bargain). Prolific radio, TV, movie actress Virginia Gregg (who voiced Mrs. Bates in Psychos I, II, & III) played Helen, as well as various old ladies, drunks, and tough-talking gangsters’ molls.
This episode, which aired on December 24, 1949, takes a wild turn from the usual Diamond sleuth-fest by presenting a play-within-a-play; the regular cast act out their characters putting on a Christmas show. Powell/Diamond narrates, while Begley/Lt. Levinson plays Scrooge, Herbert/Sgt. Loveloon is Marley, Gregg/Helen Asher as Tiny Tim’s mother, and so on.
Got it? No worries if you don’t, just sit back and enjoy the show.
To set us up for this contemporary Christmas story, Powell/Diamond intros the story as taking place on “a little side street just off the Bowery,” where we meet Ebenezer Scrooge, “a businessman who didn’t like anything, except maybe all the dough he can get his hands on.” And it rolls on from there, following the classic story fairly closely, including a visit from lecturing nephew Fred.
I really enjoyed this! The performances are top-notch, with Ed Begley the standout as Scrooge—he grumps and gripes with such scene-chewing fervor Barrymore was surely envious.
Other things that makes this production enjoyable: the story takes a few inventive twists and turns from the original, the sound effects and music are terrific, and the dialogue is total fun.
A few favorite lines: When Cratchit complains the office is so cold his “fingers look like popsicles,” Scrooge shoots back, “I don’t care if they come in six delicious flavors, every time you turn the heat on you cost me money.” Scrooge, when he sees Marley’s ghost, “Jake Marley? No! I gotta stop eating lobster!” The Ghost of Christmas Present wants to fly Scrooge across the city; Scrooge is all, “Okay, take me where you want to go, but believe me, next time I take the train!”
My favorite part is when Scrooge shows up at his nephew Fred’s house at the end and the poor kid can’t do more than stutter and stammer. Finally, the lecture-y guy who can’t shut up is shut up!
Take a listen to one or all three, I think you’ll enjoy them!
Lionel Barrymore in Campbell Theater – A Christmas Carol
The Six Shooter – Britt Ponset’s Christmas Carol
Richard Diamond – A Christmas Carol
Happy holidays, folks, and if by chance you’re visited by 3 ghosts on a certain chilly eve this month, say hello and a hearty Bah, Humbug from me!