Barrymore’s ghosts of Christmas past and presentNov 23, 2021 10:27AM ● By Jacqueline T. Lynch
For a generation, Lionel Barrymore played the part of the unlikable but redeemable Ebenezer Scrooge. But after his death, his Christmas legacy became that of the deeper, more disturbed and more modern Christmas villain: Mr. Potter.
Barrymore began the role of Mr. Scrooge in 1933 for a live annual radio event. He admitted in his crusty fashion that he took the job because radio work paid well. However, according to biographer Hollis Alpert, “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.”
For 20 years, Barrymore played the “Christmas Carol” curmudgeon on the radio every Christmas Day except twice; once because of tragedy and once because of his great generosity.
In 1936, Barrymore’s fortitude and his sentimental side were sorely tested when his beloved wife, Irene, died on Christmas Eve. His brother, John, stayed up with him that night to comfort him and then took his place the next day at the microphone to play Scrooge. Barrymore attended Christmas Mass, then collapsed from grief and spent several weeks at a sanitarium.
It was a horrible end to a bad year, the year that Barrymore broke his hip at home. His recovery period was long and painful, and though he managed to walk again with a limp and a cane, his handicap would eventually put him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.
Barrymore worried most about his career, expecting this injury would end it. Fortunately, MGM studio head Louis B. Mayer, who had a reputation for ruthlessness, was uncharacteristically kind to Lionel Barrymore. Mayer kept him on the payroll, even when the accounting department questioned it, and found Barrymore work in movies as a wheelchair-bound character—first in the Dr. Kildare series, and then in a number of major films.
Barrymore’s career actually thrived after his injury. He arguably became the most famous and successful wheelchair-bound person in the U.S., considering most Americans in the 1930s were not aware of how dependent President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was on his wheelchair.
An act of generosity
In 1938, Barrymore had a second accident that would put him in a wheelchair for good. Once again, Mayer came to his rescue and promised that his screen version of “A Christmas Carol” would star Barrymore as Scrooge as soon as he was able to do the picture.
But Barrymore knew there would be no recovery this time. Despite his famously crusty exterior, he generously suggested MGM go ahead and make the movie on schedule but with Reginald Owen in the role. Furthermore, Barrymore made himself available on set to coach Owen. To help promote both the film and Owen in the role, Barrymore insisted Owen do the Christmas radio broadcast as Scrooge that year.
The following year, in 1939, Barrymore 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.
However, today classic film fans are more likely to identify Barrymore in a different Christmas role: the evil Mr. Potter in “It’s a Wonderful Life” (1946). Interestingly, the annual Christmastime television broadcasts of “It’s a Wonderful Life” occurred long after his death, so Barrymore was ignorant of his future importance to classic film fans as Mr. Potter. But it was Mr. Potter, not Mr. Scrooge, that became Barrymore’s lasting Christmas legacy.
Scrooge embodied a Victorian Christmas, and Charles Dickens is often said to be the creator of the modern Christmas. But Mr. Potter is arguably a figure much more symbolic of the 21st-century era—cynical, greedy, unrepentant and unpunished. He revels in his meanness and believes that his very self-interestedness gives him actual omnipotence.
Unlike Scrooge, Mr. Potter never has a change of heart. In this Christmas film, George Bailey is the one with the epiphany in the movie. Though he does not vanquish Mr. Potter by destroying the villain, he does something through his epiphany which is perhaps more realistic—he cheerfully renders Mr. Potter totally irrelevant.