A Christmas Carol, A Vintage Radio Broadcast by Orson Welles (1939)


Image by Carl Van Vecht­en, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

I wager that we could all recount the plot points of A Christ­mas Car­ol by heart. Fur­ther­more, I wager that most of us inad­ver­tent­ly com­mit­ted these to mem­o­ry not by read­ing and re-read­ing Charles Dick­ens’ 1843 novel­la (avail­able in our Free eBooks and Free Audio Books col­lec­tions), but by hav­ing seen or heard a dif­fer­ent adap­ta­tion of it each Christ­mas. The work has pro­duced an almost con­fus­ing abun­dance of pro­duc­tions on film, tele­vi­sion, and the stage, from Thomas Edis­on’s 1910 silent short to a Doc­tor Who Christ­mas spe­cial two years ago. Beyond that, we have count­less reimag­in­ings, like the ani­mat­ed Mick­ey’s Christ­mas Car­ol fea­tur­ing Scrooge McDuck as Ebenez­er Scrooge, and loose­ly Christ­mas Car­ol-inspired projects, like Scrooged with Bill Mur­ray. The sto­ry has also made its way to the radio many times, most notably in the 1930s, when Camp­bel­l’s Soup would spon­sor its year­ly appear­ance. In 1939, the “Camp­bell Play­house” brought in two espe­cial­ly for­mi­da­ble thes­pi­ans, Orson Welles and Lionel Bar­ry­more, and you can lis­ten to the result at archive.org, or right below.

Welles, of course, came in as no stranger to adapt­ing lit­er­a­ture for radio; he’d pulled off his infa­mous­ly real­is­tic Hal­loween drama­ti­za­tion of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds just the year before. My per­son­al favorite of his adap­ta­tions remains the haunt­ing­ly askew Orson Welles Show ver­sion of Carl Ewald’s My Lit­tle Boy, but I can’t deny that he brings an entire­ly suit­able tone of mild grandeur, ini­tial­ly stern but ulti­mate­ly pleased, to A Christ­mas Car­ol. Bar­ry­more, an actor of both the nine­teenth and twen­ti­eth cen­turies who man­aged to suc­ceed on stage, in silent films, and then in sound films, plays the now-arche­typ­al miser­ly cur­mud­geon Ebenez­er Scrooge with a style that, for my mon­ey, falls sec­ond only to Scrooge McDuck­’s. But then, we can’t go com­par­ing car­toon char­ac­ters to flesh-and-blood per­form­ers, and Dis­ney’s Scrooge sure­ly drew his own sig­na­ture miser­li­ness and cur­mud­geon­hood (not to men­tion his name) from Dick­ens’, a fig­ure already firm­ly lodged in our col­lec­tive hol­i­day con­scious­ness, thanks espe­cial­ly to per­for­mances like Bar­ry­more’s.

Relat­ed con­tent:

A Christ­mas Car­ol by Charles Dick­ens

Orson Welles Vin­tage Radio: The War of the Worlds That Pet­ri­fied a Nation

Cel­e­brate the 200th Birth­day of Charles Dick­ens with Free Movies, eBooks and Audio Books

Col­in Mar­shall hosts and pro­duces Note­book on Cities and Cul­ture and writes essays on lit­er­a­ture, film, cities, Asia, and aes­thet­ics. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall.

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