The actor Lionel Barrymore played Scrooge on the radio every Christmas morning for several years in the 1930s. He was slated to star in A Christmas Carol when MGM planned the production in 1938, following that studio’s success with the two Dickens adaptations we have already seen, David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities. David Selznick, who had produced the two earlier films at MGM, had left that studio to become an independent producer. Barrymore was in poor health when the production was scheduled to begin in October 1938. The picture was scheduled for release at Christmas that year and British character actor Reginald Owen was selected to play Scrooge instead. We saw him two weeks ago in A Tale of Two Cities playing Stryver, the senior barrister in Sydney Carton’s chambers. Lionel Barrymore’s immortality as a performer in perennially shown Christmas movies would have to wait until his 1946 performance as Mr. Potter, another curmudgeonly miser, in Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life.
Whether because of the absence of David Selznick, or the absence of Lionel Barrymore, this film version of Dickens’ Christmas story has not achieved the memorability of, say, the 1951 British movie, starring Alastair Sim. The 1938 film does have its charms. Among them are the performances of Owen; of Terry Kilburn (familiar as the schoolboy Colley in Goodbye Mr. Chips, which was made the next year) as Tiny Tim; of father, mother and daughter team Gene, Kathleen and June Lockhart as Mr. and Mrs. Cratchit and daughter Belinda; and of Leo G. Carroll as a close to perfect Marley’s Ghost. MGM’s art direction (by John Detlie), set design (by Edwin Willis), and costumes (by Valles) do not disappoint.
Saugatuck audiences are familiar with the story, because it is performed annually here. Whether you have seen it in previous years or not, I urge you to go see Steve Williford tomorrow night or over the weekend in A Christmas Carol at the Woman’s Club. The moves behind Steve’s performance have been honed over more than twenty-five years of playing Ebenezer Scrooge in front of our town’s audiences. By now his portrayal has achieved classic status. However, tonight, I hope you enjoy watching the 1938 film of A Christmas Carol with me.