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Our Favorite Scrooge

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Lionel Barrymore in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Recorded Sound Section, Library of Congress
Lionel Barrymore in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol (MGM Records 16A). Recorded Sound Section, Library of Congress

Of all the roles I’ve done, the one I’d like best to be remembered for is Scrooge. It is unquestionably one of my favorites. Lionel Barrymore, Dec. 21, 1947. The New York Times. (Interview with Dorothy O’Leary).

When MGM Records released A Christmas Carol in 1947, Lionel Barrymore had been playing Ebenezer Scrooge for twelve years on the radio. Starting in 1934, CBS presented the Charles Dickens’ classic story each year and it soon became a much loved Christmas tradition. Barrymore, in his radio debut, embodied Scrooge to perfection. As he  revealed in a 1947  New York Times interview, “I seem to shrink and an unnatural meanness of disposition comes over me. I seem to be Scrooge in body and mind.”

Barrymore went on to play the role 17 times before his death in November, 1954, and only the direst of circumstances prevented him from playing it. When his wife died in 1936 he was unable to perform, and his brother John rushed to fill in for him. He also missed the performance of 1938 when serious illness forced Orson Welles to substitute.

MGM Records assembled a stellar crew to produce the album. Dailey Paskman, a playwright and lyricist, had collaborated with Barrymore a few years before on “Halloween,” a radio production for children with story and lyrics written by Paskman and music written by Barrymore. In 1924 Paskman was the director of radio station WGBS and is credited with the first to produce a play on the radio.

Well known narrator Richard Hale appeared on both Serge Koussevitzky’s and later, Arthur Fieldler’s recordings of Sergey Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf.  He started his career as an opera and concert singer and later became a film and television star.

Sam Timberg, composer and conductor, was a contemporary of George Gershwin and Aaron Copeland. In 1931 he worked at Fleischer Studios scoring hundreds of cartoons, including those for Betty Boop and Popeye the Sailor.  Other achievements while working at the Studio were the scores for the renowned Superman cartoons. Timberg composed the music for Barrymore’s radio version of A Christmas Carol.

Originally released in mono, A Christmas Carol was so successful it was re-released in 1950, 1959, 1962,1971 and 1981.

Comments (3)

  1. I have been a Lionel Barrymore fan since seeing him in It’s A Wonderful Life. He was the perfect choice opposite Jimmy Stewart. Recently, I found his 10″ record A Christmas Carol where he plays Scrooge, narrated by Richard Hale with music composed by Timberg. The album is directed by Paskman. I appreciate the historical gaps you have filled in for me with your blog post. People like me are grateful for people like you! The copy I have is 33 1/3 rpm, hard plastic, and about 10″ dia. I see that you have listed many printings. Would you know from my description what year mine would have been released? Thank you.

    • Thank you, Kate. I’m glad you like our blog. Without knowing the label and issue number of your album, it is hard to find a date of the release. If your album is on the MGM label, issue number MGM-520, I would say the release date was around 1950, and the album was a release of the earlier 78 rpm version, MGM-16.

  2. Dear Kate, Karen, and other readers of this page –

    Lionel Barrymore did indeed play Scrooge for the first time in 1934; in fact, it was the stage and screen legend’s radio debut.

    But it was not the first time CBS had presented the Carol (that was 1928), and the actor was not always on that network (he would broadcast the tale on every other major American net by the time of his death.)

    He actually played the role 18 times, 19 if we count the MGM studio recording. That one has been released about 13 times, the last two on CD; and yes, the first time on 10″ 33 1/3 was in 1950.

    There’s much. much more about this and many other airwave Scrooges in my book STANDING IN THE SPIRIT AT YOUR ELBOW. (Available from ye author.)

    All best,
    -Craig Wichman
    (Who has himself played the role on the air several times.)

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