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Scrooge U : Part III -- Barrymoore No More

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Scrooge U : Part III -- Barrymoore No More

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Picking up where we left off yesterday ... Most of you Disney dweebs out there will probably be able to identify this character.

Copyright 1964 Walt Disney Productions

That's right. Admiral Boom from Walt Disney Productions' 1964 release, "Mary Poppins." Naming this next character might be a bit trickier, though.

Copyright 1971 Walt Disney Productions

He's Sir Brian Teagler, the retired general who's in charge of the Old Home Guard in Disney's 1971 release, "Bedknobs & Broomsticks."

Okay. Now that we've established that you're good at Disney trivia, can you name the veteran character actor who actually played both of the roles?

His name is Reginald Owen. And the reason that I'm bringing him up today is that Mr. Owen is the star of the next version of "A Christmas Carol" that we'll be discussing today.

Copyright 2005 Warner Home Video

Truth be told, Reginald wasn't actually MGM's first choice to play the role of Ebenezer Scrooge. Academy Award winner Lionel Barrymore was. Barrymore had so been widely acclaimed for his portrayal of the miserable miser in a 1936 radio broadcast of "A Christmas Carol" that Louis B. Mayer decided that Lionel should star in a movie version of Charles Dickens' classic holiday tale.

The original plan was that Barrymore would begin working on "A Christmas Carol" as soon as he completed his role on "Saratoga." But Lionel injured his hip while working on this Jack Conway film. And this injury -- combined with a crippling bout of arthritis -- would basically confine Barrymore to a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

Mind you, this didn't stop Lionel from acting. Barrymore actually went on to appear in another 40 motion pictures. Where -- though he was stuck in that chair -- Lionel still managed to effortlessly steal scenes from his more ambulatory co-stars.

Anyway ... Getting back to MGM's version of "A Christmas Carol" now ... Obviously, Barrymore knew that an wheelchair-bound version of Ebenezer Scrooge wasn't going to work. Still, Lionel knew that the studio had already done an awful lot of prep work on this project. Which is why he was quick to suggest a possible replacement Scrooge: Barrymore's longtime pal, Reginald Owen.

Which -- on paper -- sounded like a good idea. Given that Metro already had Owen under contract. The only problem was ... Reginald was basically a character actor. Someone who mainly appeared in supporting roles in MGM's movies. Which is why there were those in studio management who really wondered if Reginald had what it took to carry this picture.

But Lionel pressed Louis B. to move forward with the production. With the hope that "A Christmas Carol" might then give Owen's career a seriously needed boost. Barrymoore even offered to do publicity for the picture. If that would then help seal the deal for Reginald.

FYI: One of the cooler "Extra Features" of the DVD version of this 1938 release is that you actually get to see the trailer that Lionel did to promote MGM's "A Christmas Carol." Which first shows Barrymore seated by a blazing fireside, then quickly segues into clips from the finished film as Lionel talks about " ... this character I've loved for many years."

Copyright 2005 Warner Home Video 

Mayer did finally agree to go forward with production of "A Christmas Carol." But because Reginald Owen was just a character actor whereas Lionel Barrymore was a really-for-real star ... MGM's movie version of this classic holiday tale was shifted from being an A picture to a B picture. Which meant that this movie was produced in a much shorter time for a much tighter budget.

Still, given that Metro-Godwyn-Mayer was the studio that prided itself on top notch production values, this version of "A Christmas Carol" is certainly really good looking. The sets & costumes are not to be faulted. Though -- that said -- that bald cap that the studio's make-up department slapped on Owen's head in an effort to age this then-51-year-old actor leaves an awful lot to be desired.

Copyright 2005 Warner Home Video

Don't get me wrong. It's not that Reginald actually turns in a poor performance as Ebenezer Scrooge. It's just that the way that this version of "A Christmas Carol" is structured, Bob Crachit actually gets more screen time than Mr. Scrooge does. Which -- as a result -- makes it kind of hard for Owen to make much of an impression.

Speaking of Bob Crachit, that role was played by another character actor who was under contract at MGM at the time, Gene Lockhart. And "A Christmas Carol" was kind of a family affair for Mr. Lockhart. Given that the role of Mrs. Crachit was played by Gene's own wife, Kathleen. And guess who played Belinda, the Crachit's middle daughter?

Copyright 2005 Warner Home Video

Lockhart's daughter, June. As in: June Lockhart. Timmy's mother on "Lassie." Maureen Robinson on "Lost in Space." June actually made her movie debut in this MGM production. She's the cute girl in pigtails just to the right of Tiny Tim.

And -- as an extra added bonus to all you 1960s TV fans out there -- guess who plays Jacob Marley in this version of "A Christmas Carol"? Leo G. Carroll ...

Copyright 2005 Warner Home Video

... Who is probably best known to you "The Man from U.N.C.L.E" fans as Alexander Waverly, Napoleon Solo & Illya Kuryakin at the United Nations Command of Law Enforcement.

Getting back to the MGM version of "A Christmas Carol" now ... It's not that this is actually a bad film. It's just that ... Well ... This movie of Dickens' classic holiday tale is just a little too slick and polished for its own good. As a result, this motion picture just doesn't have the grit & the heart that the very best versions of "A Christmas Carol" do.

That and -- now that you know about the Lionel Barrymore version of "A Christmas Carol" that we almost got -- it's hard not to wonder how much better that version of Dickens' classic holiday tale might have been.

Mind you, just because Lionel missed out on appearing in this movie version of "A Christmas Carol" doesn't mean that Barrymore lost his enthusiasm for playing the role of Scrooge. Over the next decade, it became a holiday tradition to gather around the radio and listen to Lionel once again portray Ebenezer. If you'd like to hear what his performance of that character was like, I suggest you pick up this CD.

Besides, even though he didn't get to portray Ebenezer Scrooge in MGM's version of "A Christmas Carol," Lionel still got to appear in that other holiday film that plays such a huge part in the contemporary American Christmas celebration.

Copyright 2006 Paramount Home Video

Remember mean old Mr. Potter in Frank Capra's "It's a Wonderful Life" ? Yep, that's Lionel.

Okay. Let's cram in one last story before we move on to our next "Christmas Carol." Remember how Reginald Owen only got the part of Ebenezer Scrooge because Lionel Barrymore wasn't available? Well, that's also the way that Owen wound up in "Mary Poppins."

You see, Walt Disney had originally planned to have Stanley Holloway (I.E. The English musical hall veteran who had played Eliza Doolittle's dad in the Broadway version of "My Fair Lady") play the nutty former naval officer in his new musical. Walt had even had the Sherman Brothers write a musical hall-style novelty number for Stanley to perform in the picture.

But then the actor that Jack Warner had originally wanted to portray Eliza's father in the film version of "My Fair Lady (Would you believe James Cagney?) had suddenly dropped out of that picture. Which was why the head of Warners was forced (at virtually the last minute) to recruit Stanley to reprise his performance as Alfred P. in the "Fair Lady" film.

This left Walt without an Admiral Boom. Which is why Disney was forced to quickly hire Reginald Owen to play this role in "Mary Poppins." But once again, just because Owen wasn't quite as big a name as Holloway was, it just didn't make sense that Reginald would then have his own musical number in the movie. Which is why the "Admiral Boom" novelty number (except for a little snippet of this song that you can hear as part of the film's under-score) was cut out of the picture.

Anywho ... That's the story of MGM's version of "A Christmas Carol." Tomorrow, we discuss the film that many people consider to be the definitive version of Charles Dickens' holiday tale.

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  • Oooh, I LOVE Mr. Potter! Barrymore was an excellent actor, both when he was playing 'good' guys and 'bad' guys. it's too bad we never got to see him as Scrooge--his performance as Potter shows how good he would have been in the role, I think.

    I'll have to look into the radio drama.
  • Just this past year they released the 1937 "Captains Courageous" on DVD, with Spencer Tracy, Freddie Bartholomew, and Lionel Barrymore.  It was beautifully done.  I don't think I've seen a movie with Lionel in it that I didn't like -- he brought a lot to the pictures he was in.

    It's sad, but logical the studio brass changed it to a B picture.  Had it remained a high priority production, it would've benefited no doubt from the screenwriting/directing team of John Lee Mahin and Victor Fleming (who'd already made huge hits out of "Treasure Island" and "Captains Courageous").  
  • Looking forward to coverage of the 1951 "Christmas Carol" (aka "Scrooge") which IS the definitive version.  The best Ebenezer and the most full-bodied realization of the story.  Well, that and "Mickey's Christmas Carol" of course.

  • Jim Hill returns with yet another installment of his new JHM series. This time around, he talks about the 1978 holiday special where master impressionist Rich Little played every single speaking role in "A Christmas Carol" as a different celebrity

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