A Christmas Carol (1942) -- Audio, Basil Rathbone as “Scrooge”
Oh, Basil Rathbone--what an interesting career you’ve had. Spanning 46 years on film alone, his roles included villains in such films as 1935’s “David Copperfield” as Mr. Murdstone, 1962’s “Tales of Terror” as Carmichael in the delightfully spooky M. Valdemar segment, 1962’s “The Magic Sword”, shown for CC before in 1994--article linked here--as Lodac! Said film was also appreciated by MST3K. In 1939, he led “Son of Frankenstein,” which put a shock to the neck-bolts of horror in cinema and led the Second Wave of Universal Horror films throughout the 40’s. Most famously, Rathbone played Sherlock Holmes (whose adaptations outnumber Scrooge, and even Dracula!) across fourteen films over seven years, from 1939 to 1946, sometimes coming three in a year. Rathbone’s Holmes is considered one of the most definitive versions, and certainly the definitive version of the generation, followed by Cushing’s, then on towards modern adaptations like Mr. Downey, Mr. Cumberbatch…
Despite all these acclaimed roles, his Wikipedia image does him very few favors.
For our purposes, Basil Rathbone has been in four versions of “A Christmas Carol,” beginning with an audio adaptation here in 1940, then in three televised productions of varying quality--two of which also include Fredric March, which made it ludicrously confusing to track down which one was meant when one or the other was mentioned. But we’ll get to those in due time!
Rathbone’s first time out as Scrooge, which runs just shy of 24 minutes, was produced as a radio adaptation but is best known now as a surviving three-record set from Columbia Records. I’m guestimating that it’s from 1943 simply because the YouTube description estimates it as that, just as commenters say Arthur Q. Bryan was Elmer Fudd, “Also, Walter Tetley of The Great Gildersleeve! Harlow Wilcox was the announcer of Fibber McGee and Molly!” “Edith Meiser also adapted many of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "Sherlock Holmes" stories for Rathbone's "NEW ADVENTURES OF SHERLOCK HOLMES" radio program at the time.” “Arthur Q Bryan was Floyd the barber on The Great Guildersleeve, and Doc Gamble on Fibber McGee and Molly.” I have positively no idea what these programmes are, but I’m glad they’re well-remembered and well-loved.
“Recorded in 1942. There was a "recording ban" from August 1942 through November 1944, in which all AFM union musicians were ordered not to set foot in any recording studio until their union settled their differences with all the record companies over royalty payments.......”. Well, Goddammit, now I have to go change the year back! Grumble grouse grumble--Anyway! The YouTube video does provide us with our adaptation, and we’re first met by the beautiful sight of the record (set M-MM-521) and a gorgeous 1926 Victor VE8-30X (Credenza) orthophonic victrola. The YouTube description said all that; I have no idea about any side of this era of technology, but I know it’s very pretty, and very delicate, and those two adjectives combined make for a machine that’s wonderful.
We spin up with a joyous orchestration, at least until an extremely 1940’s announcer tells us that, “The SCENE is London, many years ago! It’s Christmas Eve! Cold, bleak, and biting weather,” perfect time to try one of our new dish detergents! It’ll leave your kitchen sparkling, and you on the floor! Do you want a list of chemicals in it? No!
But, we are told, we follow a young man with red cheeks--Raggedy Andy!--and wander through businesses to a warehouse door, above which reads the sign 'Scrooge & Marley', and there, as he leers through the window, Mr. Scrooge himself! But did you leave? NO! You wuhwuhwuhwuhwuh…
Ah! This is Raggedy Fred--and he stamps open the door, and calls out in a cheery voice: “BLART!”
Maybe that was the string section, sorry.
“Merry Christmas, Uncle, and God save you!” Cheerful Fred cheerfully calls. “Christmas! Humbug!” his uncle raspily replies, irate. “Oh.”
(There’s more to that line but I paused it to jot notes down and it makes for a perfect audio snippet.)
Basil Rathbone utterly spits his consonants, tearing at Fred bright and early (since we only have 20 minutes) and Raggedy Fred’s dialogue is slashed to smithereens for the purpose of getting on with it. We get the vague sense that he wants his uncle to come dine, and that Christmas has done him some good-- “GET OUT!”. Oh. Well, he’s gone now, in record time. Only two minutes in.
Maybe they heard my gripes about how late it took to get to the Spirits with Ernest Chappell?
Having less breathing room than a dying fish, there’s a knock on the door and poor beleaguered Bob opens it to find a charity-man who must’ve bumped headlong into Fred! Bob sounds tired, and the charity-man earns Scrooge’s ire early by not speaking as quick and snappy as a racehorse announcer! “Are there no prisons? No workhouses?”, is delivered so blisteringly fast that it gives a very different impression of Mr. Scrooge--impatience.
Yes, he’s impatient in other versions, but it’s an impatience that sits idly while he suffers “fools” in his office. Here he’s borderline mimicking every haunted house, telling them the title of Jordan Peele’s first film.
It’s probably taken about 10 times as long to read these small paragraphs than it takes to just listen to these conversations. I’m reeling.
The charity-man is very thick; could you not tell that Scrooge is secretly the Flash, and a miserly Flash at that?
Just like that, Cratchit’s leg is chewed off when he tries to leave for Christmas. In a change that I barely caught because it goes by so fast, Scrooge insists that Bob return to the office at 4 the next day instead of taking it off. This doesn’t bode well for poor Raggedy Fred’s party.
As Scrooge hears a hint of frivolity outside, he explodes that the whole place is a bedlam; humbug, that’s what it is! HUMBUG! And merry strings usher us out, letting me finally catch a breath. I feel like a YA protagonist, letting out the breath I didn’t know I was holding.
It’s like those snappy quick-dialogue films from the 30s and 40s; the kind with the seedy detective and the cruel heiress. You know the kind. It’s like someone transposed Dickens into that and cranked up the pace.
It’s like the Energizer Bunny. That damned little automaton…
We come back to hear Scrooge grousing over his dinner, which is a small change but one that made me smile. Rathbone sounds downright malicious in the role, and commands his scenes as a result. This Scrooge beats urchins with a ledger, for sure!
Intriguingly, he mentions that his building has “other lodgers, away on holidays,” as he crosses the dark courtyard. As he hunts for his key, he realizes the knocker on the door is shining, and realizes further that it’s-- “Huh. It’s Marley’s face.”
Something about how he says it just doesn’t resonate with me. He sounds like he’s looking at a head of lettuce in the store and pooh-poohing that it’s up to $3.99 or something. It’s so-- calm?
I see; he’s laughing it off to himself--“That steak-and-kidney pie must’ve been bad!”
It certainly doesn’t sound good, but I’m a picky eater.
Scrooge gets home here at 12:00, and we have our first change of sides! This happens every five minutes (recorded across three records; six sides) but the video quite nicely edits these changes out to keep the audio flowing.
The chambers are dark, which Scrooge seems surprised by; the stairs are wide (which is a good reference to the novel saying you could fit a hearse along them, and Scrooge might’ve imagined one going along!), and Scrooge reprimands himself for feeling any fear. He’s definitely younger, this Scrooge of ours, and much more of a militant businessman, sharp-edged and sharp-tongued, holding himself up. Narrating his inner monologue gives way to effectively narrating the scene for us, and adds to the spookiness of it all…
“That smell!” (of the grave), “I’ll lock it out!” Sir, that is not how odors work.
I almost gave this version massive props for creeping me out with the absolute *faintest* “Scrooge…”, so solemn and mournful that you almost miss it. It chilled me to my core. Then I bumped the sound up and realized it was just a rogue clarinet or oboe, trying to scare me!
Nonetheless, Basil narrates how something is coming through the house (which we don’t… really… hear), and dragging chains! Coming up to the door-- but it’s bolted-- through the door! Why-- it’s Marley! No, it isn’t! It’s New WonderCO™ See-Through Marley; fun for the whole family! Hear his lamenting cries; terrorize the kiddies!
“What do you want with me?”, and I wait with baited breath to hear what this spectre sounds like--
…a dude. Marley’s just a dude. Kind of nasally. A bit nasally.
It’s underwhelming until he forces Scrooge to believe in him, not by howling lamentably but sounding like he’s being choked to death, oh my GOD, sir, are you okay???
Marley’s got a slower voice than Scrooge, letting him emote more and play off of Basil’s speed. More than that, the lower notes give it a very dark, dour quality, making me shudder a bit when he mentions the chains you wear…
Marley and Scrooge’s interaction, though brief (as all things are in a rush for a half-hour’s content, understandably), feels like it lasts precisely as long as it should, and more than that, has such a good back-and-forth to it. Basil interjecting about, “couldn’t I take the Spirits all at once?”, has that exact bleak humor the character had, coupled by Marley’s unheeding continuation.
As the window opens, we get a horrid (in a good way) little choir of voices, which Marley cites as his peers: Lost Souls. There’s a mine of that at Canobie Lake, which I like. “I warn you! I shan’t come again!”, Marley cries, with the same intonation as me holding back my frustration when my dog eats yet another piece of garbage off the kitchen floor instead of her food.
“It’s cold! Whuh! The fire’s out-- Ghosts? Huh! You never know… I’d better get into bed.” Scrooge has apparently seen that one scene from Ghostbusters that made parents rethink bringing their kids!
The music is excellent, ushering us out of side 2.
Scrooge wakes up to find a hand! A HAND!, drawing aside the bed-curtain! For a terrified moment, I’m transported back to my dad reading me “The Upper Berth” before we realized it’s not really a kid’s story, just got lumped into an Alfred Hitchcock collection--but we find our typical, strangely-changing Ghost of Christmas Past standing there instead of some wet thing. Christmas Past has a very pleasant, calming, in-control young man’s voice. Its face is “the face of everyone you have ever known,” which I don’t think is explicitly mentioned, but which is a very neat way to describe the ever-shifting features. (I’m almost certain the Ghost in the book is described with animal features once too, in its shifting; I could be wrong? Did Scrooge go to the zoo ever?)
The quick back and forth continues as Scrooge is ushered out the window and here we are then, guv’nah, out upon an open road. Basil sounds rather proud of his old schoolhouse and the boys coming up the road. He rushes carefully past the lines about his father not liking children (why does he keep Fan around then?) and seems almost dismissive of his younger, neglected self. Speaking of Forgotten Fan, she actually is mentioned here!!! She was so forgotten I just instinctively wrote “Belle” and we’re not trying to turn this into a V. C. Andrews book for God’s sake; Belle’s his doomed romance, Fan’s the sister. Fan even is mentioned by name, and for once it’s the right name; no added RRRR matey!
Maybe Scrooge grew up to speak at 300 words a minute because his younger self and his younger sister both speak very slowly. Or maybe they just seem slow because my concept of time has gotten jangled about with how blazingly fast this is.
Scrooge is made of eggshells now--Christmas Past mentions that Fan “died a woman” and had children you know. And a home. And was happy. And lived deliciously (maybe not that part), and Scrooge buckles immediately, not caring a jot for Fezziwig and apparently a bachelor who never once got a date in his life! Suddenly, he’s alone again in his bedroom, begging for sleep, sleep, a musical interlude, and sleep.
But as soon as he’s snoring, he’s awake by the clock striking One and Basil’s up with 20 exclamations of “What what what what,” and what’s going on in the sitting room?! Is it our mechanic, come to fix the metronome that’s going at 178 BPM? No! It’s a jolly fellow who’s not described by Scrooge because he’s introducing himself to Scrooge, and Scrooge meanwhile comments about “what an awful mess!”
I mean, I hadn’t really thought about it, but while garlands along the walls would be lovely decorations, I think I’m in agreement that having multitudes of poultry and foodstuffs in mountains on the floor would be rather awful. But care not! No sooner has this mysterious stranger (who looks like Father Christmas himself!) described his feast, then he’s asked who he is and his tone drops from jovial to serious so quick I thought it was two separate people. He sounds downright scary-solemn now.
And so, here’s church! Church, brought to you by the letters J. C. And on to the Cratchits; here’s a little kiddo, and here’s Martha, and here’s the Shining Twins pre-dead and in festive cheer saying “YAY” and don’t look now but here’s Bob and Martha hiding and Tim and going to look at pudding and Bob telling about Tim at church and what if Tim dies but NO here’s the goose! and punch and AAAAAA PLEASE LET ME BREATHE, GOD PLEASE Mr. Scrooge, the founder of the feast and MOTHER on Christmas in front of the children?! and God Bless Us, Every One, and Tim sounds five or six which is nice and “my time is nearly done; it’s a quarter ‘til midnight”
Spirit I feel like ya haven’t been here that long, to be quite frank with you.
“What’s that protruding from beneath your cloak? Is that a claw or a foot?”
For the FIRST TIME since the 1910 production, and even there only partially, we FINALLY GET IGNORANCE AND WANT. Yes, it’s done in less than 45 seconds, but the music is still eerie, the descriptions are straight from the book, and the emotion of repulsion from Scrooge and calm sneering from Christmas Present are spot on.
That made me so happy I don’t even mind that Scrooge is dropped off back at his room, or that Fred and the montage are left on the cutting-room floor. WE FINALLY GOT THE TWINS!
Mr. The Music once more takes the role of the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come with a good set of spooky strings, and once we change sides, we’re off to the Future. Intriguingly, the XCHANC men are standing outside a certain… window… looking up at it. It makes me wonder if, once more, Scrooge is meant to have moved houses before he’s died, because he makes no comment about the house looking at all familiar. But not a moment later, we see the charwoman! And the undertaker’s man! And they’re both carrying bundles. And rather than get on to Old Joe’s, they stop to discuss their wonderful woeful wares in front of ol’ Scrooge himself. Scrooge, finding it too terrible to lie there, dead and hated, asks to be shown some tenderness connected with death, and I’m getting whiplash from the sense that after talking about how quick we’ve gone, we’re pausing to get all the minute details of Stave IV and the bleak grim details from III. I kind of love it for how different this is.
The Spirit unfurls itself like wings and reveals then another house, showing the Cratchits, and as Scrooge asks “but where’s Tiny Tim? I don’t see him!” I realize that I think this might be the very first version (that includes Tim, that is) where Christmas Present doesn’t highlight that Tim’s going to be reciting “The Conqueror Worm” soon! It adds a bit more weight here--instead of the dread of going into the scene knowing what we’re about to see, we go in with the dread slowly unfolding into the worst possible outcome.
Mrs. Cratchit “isn’t crying-- th-the light hurts my eyes,” which remains the favored way for me for people playing this role, because aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa I don’t like it it’s upsetttiiiiiinggggg.
We rushed the rest of the story to save plenty of room for the actors to act here, and pause, and let the scene extend which does the amazing job of making you want to scream and claw wildly at the Spirit to haunt you no longer. It’s absolutely fantastically done.
My one gripe is that Basil sounds a bit either… impatient? Or vaguely annoyed? Or frustrated like “God dammit they took Tiny Tim!” but not-- not the mortal, “this child, oh God no” that many other Scrooges have here?
Seeing that there’s more to do, Yet To Music whisks us quickly to a graveyard and a headstone and I love that Basil pauses to read Eb.. Ebuh… Ebenezer Scrooge?! His panic is hampered by having to narrate everything as well as act the scene, but aided by how frantically fast he’s speaking--
His curtains! He’s alive! He’s as lightasafeatherasmerryasaschoolboyIdon’tknowwhatdayitisIdon’tcare how are you speaking this fast?! So many modern rappers WISH THEY COULD SPIT BARS THIS FAST!
“Hello-- BILLS!” Marley come back he’s regressed!!! “Church Bells, oh glorious!” …Never mind!
Scrooge gets the boy to go running quick as he can, and the boy’s so enthused! And down he goes into the fine air and the knocker, ah the knocker, lovely knocker, same ol’ knocker, please stop with the knocker? Here’s the turkey! Two crowns for it! There we go; and to go to Fred! But fir
I was typing this as quickly as I could while it played in my headphones so I didn’t have to keep pausing. The document literally reloaded itself because it was screaming at me.
But first here’s the charity-man! Why are you hanging around my yard? (that’s all I wrote out before the reload; the queue to type out) Who cares! Put me down for-- “Lord Bless Me…. Lord--” We don’t have time for you to act! Shut up; go away! Here’s Fred’s party! I’m all a-flutter like a girl at her first party! Scrooge, I have questions for you, buddy, but we certainly don’t have time to unpack them now what with no time left-- Betsy; here’s Uncle Scrooge, come to dinner!!!
GAsp… GASP… gasp…
Oh what a good dinner. Oh right, Bob’s supposed to be here at 4pm in this one? I-- right; that happened-- like, forever ago. It’s been 20 minutes but like-- it’s been years. I’m overwhelmed. Not as overwhelmed as Bob though; Basil does a great job berating him into getting a salary raise! It’s marvelous. Bob actually starts to cry. My fingers and Google Docs are too, Bobbert old boy. Now Basil’s crying too. A cast list is playing over the final string of music!
“This is the happiest day of my life,” isn’t quite “God Bless Us, Every One!” but y’know. The End!
AHHhuuuuuuuhhhhhhhhhh my typing skills got a WORKOUT. That was… a lot.
This is a very good version! It packs a lot (a lot, a LOT) into its runtime, and blows by with powerful performances and good music. It’s got a strong sense of the story, and a strong sense of the characters too--Scrooge is very much different than the older, doddering, terrified men, but nonetheless still very recognizably Scrooge. The Cratchits here, for as little time as they get, manage to be endearing and especially heart-wrenching. The Spirits are all well-done, and honestly the hardest part of this performance-wise is just Mr. Rathbone trying to separate narrating from acting during Stave IV.
The downside is, of course, the pace, because holy GOD this goes by quick. It’s-- actually impressive how blisteringly fast Rathbone performs, and speaks, and then we’re in the next stave, and the next, and for once I’ve got no bones to pick with “why did Stave I and II drag again?!”
The downside of this is that the first half or so is chopped down extreeeeeeemely tight, so that every 1-2 minutes BAM! new scene. It gets kind of disorienting--but that might also be that I was trying to analyze it and summarize it during listening. For other versions from the time, you have time to sit… and listen… and marinate in the story… and take in the details… of our voices…
Here you hit the ground sprinting pell-mell and you keep going until the screeching halt of the Death of Tiny Tim which achieves t-boning you like a truck.
It’s definitely better in the second half, and that’s not just me being biased by Ignorance and Want. It’s difficult to just find footing in the first half, to the point where I think that actually completely cutting Fred here, like so many contemporaries, might actually benefit the story more for the simple sake of letting earlier scenes just breathe. Or cutting the charity-man; I don’t know. For the sake of pacing, something needed moving, because right now it’s all held together by bursting seams.
But, that’s also my listening to it while busy. It’s probably great as a run-through, and when the article comes out, this is my note to myself to pause the day and just take a listen. It really felt like only five minutes long; it sails on by. Basil Rathbone isn’t my preferred Scrooge here, but I think that’s entirely because of his tempo. He has glimpses of being emotive, but the pace doesn’t really allow it. But it’s not like he’s unemotional, just not always-- dramatic enough?
Either way! This version is very good--please watch, or rather, listen, here! Basil Rathbone is certainly an interesting Scrooge, if not the most memorable to me.
We’ll get to see him again though! Three times in the 1950’s! I hope they’re good--
2 are… live TV musicals. And the last one… was covered by Rifftrax.
“This is the happiest day of my life.”
I love Jeanne Moos on CNN - she ALWAYS comes up with the best human interest stories and the funniest videos. Have you gotten your tree up yet (and licked your bruises over yesterday's tree battle?)? Well, now it needs ornaments - and not just ANY kind! Behold the homemade empire of ... HORRORNAMENTS!
Want to order some for yourself? Of COURSE you do! Here you go!
Wow, this takes me back! I usually have Christmas Records on while working on these entries (starting in October ... thankfully I have the area to myself). I always pull up the Christmas Records YouTube channel, which I'm subscribed to, and just let it go from album to album. As of today's writing, the moderator has 338 albums up !!!
But back to our current selection, Peter Ustinov charmingly narrating The Nutcracker Suite. I had to stop and listen to it all, and thought back to one of my earliest favorite memories. I've mentioned many times of my secondary school education at military schools. Well, when I was in my first school in Baxter, Tennessee, we were taken once a year into the 'large' city of Cookeville to see a live performance of The Nutcracker. At this old age and looking WAY back, I don't know if it was a high school or college production, or just a regular troupe who traveled around the state, but it was INCREDIBLE to Young Me - the Sights, the Sounds and THE MUSIC! My first time hearing Live Music to the accompaniment of this enduring and endearing Christmas tale was sensory overload of an epiphanal kind! It was one of the annual Christmas traditions I looked forward to the most, and as I listen to the LP, the magical characters of the story spring back to life in my imagination (ala the very end of Labyrinth), smile and wonder where I've been all this time. I've missed you guys! I'll be bookmarking this album for play Every Year from now on. Give it a listen yourself and see what memories you conjure up!
And when you're done, click on the Christmas Records icon and explore all the other varieties of the Sounds of the Season.
We hit the One Week Mark tomorrow, with Three Tiny Visitors stopping by with their Evergreen Earwig - that and much more - see you then!