Lionel Barrymore was Ebenezer Scrooge for a generation. For another generation, he became Mr. Potter, perhaps a deeper, more disturbed, and more modern Christmas villain.
In 20 years, he was absent only twice from playing Mr. Scrooge on the radio every Christmas Day; once because of tragedy, and once because of his great generosity.
He began the role on radio in 1933. He admitted in his crusty fashion that he took the job because radio work paid well, but according to author Hollis Alpert in his biography of the three Barrymore sibling actors: “But it was customary for Lionel to mask the sentimental side of his nature. Not only did he like Dickens as a writer, but he harbored hopes that Scrooge’s transformation might spark a few good or noble impulses among his hearers.”
In 1936, however, his fortitude was tried and his sentimental side nearly destroyed him. His wife Irene, to whom he was deeply devoted, died on Christmas Eve. His brother John Barrymore stayed up with him that night to comfort him, and then he took Lionel’s place the next day at the microphone to play Scrooge. The annual radio event was done live. Lionel attended Christmas Mass, then collapsed from grief and spent several weeks in isolation at a sanitarium.
It was a horrible end to a bad year. It was in this year that Lionel broke his hip at home while leaning on a metal drafting board on which he was working, pursing his other interest and talents as an artist. The board was heavy, and toppled over, and Lionel fell. His recovery period was long and painful, but though he managed to walk again with a limp and with a cane, it would be the beginning of his handicap that would eventually put him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
He worried most about his career, expecting this would end it. MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer, whose reputation for ruthlessness is the stuff of legend, was truly kind and magnanimous to Lionel Barrymore, keeping him on the payroll when then the accounting department questioned it, and found him work in movies simply as a wheelchair-bound character, first in the Dr. Kildare series, and then in a number of other major films. Not only did Lionel’s career not end, it actually thrived and he arguably became the most famous and successful wheelchair-bound person in the U.S., especially when we consider the irony that most Americans in the 1930s were not aware how dependent President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was on his wheelchair.
Lionel knew there would be no recovery this time. He also had a generous streak behind his famous crusty exterior, and suggested that MGM go ahead and make the movie on schedule but with Reginald Owen in the role. Lionel made himself available on set to coach Owen. To help promote both the film and Owen in the role, Lionel insisted Reginald Owen do the Christmas radio broadcast as Scrooge that year.
The following year, 1939, Lionel was back at the mic for A Christmas Carol and would continue this annual role for the remainder of his life. He died in November 1954.
Today, Christmas for classic film fans is more to be identified with Lionel Barrymore in another role: the evil Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). Unlike Scrooge, Mr. Potter never had an epiphany or change of heart. Interestingly, author Hollis Alpert’s book, The Barrymores, which is a wonderful collection of research and stories of John, Ethel, and Lionel Barrymore, was published in 1964, long before the annual Christmastime television broadcasts of It’s a Wonderful Life, so the author was just as ignorant as Lionel was of his future importance to classic film fans as Mr. Potter. The film does not even rate a mention. It was Mr. Potter, and not Mr. Scrooge, that became Lionel Barrymore’s Christmas legacy.
Scrooge embodied a Victorian Christmas, and Charles Dickens is often said to be the creator of the modern Christmas, but Mr. Potter, perhaps, is a figure much more symbolic of our 21st century era—cynical, greedy, unrepentant, and unpunished, reveling in his meanness and feeling that his very self-interestedness gives him actual omnipotence. It is a veil he dare not drop lest he lose his power.
George Bailey is the one with the epiphany in the movie, and if he does not vanquish Mr. Potter in the old-movie fashion of destroying the villain, he does something through his epiphany which is perhaps more realistic—he renders Mr. Potter totally irrelevant.
Becoming irrelevant is a deeper punishment to someone as power-hungry as Potter than even time in prison.
Here’s wishing you all a very happy holiday season and in the happy new year to come, may all the villains become rendered irrelevant.
Listen here for Lionel Barrymore's final radio performance as Scrooge.
Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Memories in Our Time - Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century. Her newspaper column on classic films, Silver Screen, Golden Memories is syndicated nationally.