First broadcast live and in colour by CBS on December 24, 1954, and twice thereafter in 1955 and 1956, this seasonal episode of Chrysler Corporation’s Shower of Stars featured an excellent cast of film and theatre actors in Maxwell Anderson’s severely compacted but workable adaptation of Charles Dickens’ classic tale, but what’s most unusual – certainly for today – is how the story was told as a teleplay with operatic segments featuring music by Bernard Herrmann, and a libretto by Anderson.
Herrmann had scored a radio version of A Christmas Carol for Orson Welles’ Campbell Playhouse production on December 23, 1938, featuring traditional carols and a wholly different score to accommodate Welles’ narration and dialogue, with Scrooge played by Lionel Barrymore. (Barrymore would in fact play Scrooge several times for the series.)
By 1954, the musically inclined Anderson had also written several respected stage plays that were turned into feature films - the best-known being The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (1939), Key Largo (1948), What Price Glory (1952), and The Bad Seed (1956). Anderson also wrote the script for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man (1956), which indirectly reunited him with Herrmann, who by then was the director’s chief composer.
So why a partial operetta?
It seems like a curious choice to contemporary TV audiences, but early TV was still carrying on with radio’s longtime relationship with the arts – classical music, opera, Shakespeare, popular works, comedic shows, dramatic plays, and so on – so TV was still pretty much game for entertaining the masses, and it was also a kind of melting pot where talent from the stage and radio could try out a visual medium that perhaps would lead to a feature film career.
For aging silver screen stars Fredric March (Scrooge) and Basil Rathbone (the Ghost of Marley), the teleplay melded some classic literature with a bit of theatrical fun, and the two made good use of their makeup and wardrobe, drifting through some primitive but smoothly rendered dissolve effects and scene transitions, using live footage and previously filmed inserts.
Neither veteran sings, although March recaps, in his own out-of-tune style, the corkscrew tune “A Very Merry Christmas.” (He also adopts a weird pronunciation, “Crees-maath,” but that’s another matter.) The small town set with snowfall is very convincing, as are the interior sets and costumes, and certainly for the opening third, the teleplay has a brisk but engaging pace, before the first of two Chrysler ads kind of muck of the temporal setting from old England to small town America, where family members young and old celebrate Christmas with their “Forward Look 56” Chrysler sedans, station wagons, and coupes by the porch.
The last act is also rushed, because the ghost of Christmas Future has been replaced by a wary crow and Scrooge’s quick stumble through a graveyard, but so goes the drama when there’s less than 10 mins. left on the clock, and two more songs to croon.
Sally Fraser (old love Belle, plus the Ghost of Christmas Past) and Craig Hill (Young Scrooge) have a lovely duet in “What Shall I Give My Lad for Christmas,” and Ray Middleton (nephew Fred, plus the Ghost of Christmas Present) plays his dual roles with a potent gusto, but there is a powerful current of pure melodrama that makes this production very much a slice of vintage fifties.
Some might find the truncated script far too rushed and bereft of Dickens’ character bits, and as lyrical and folkloric as Herrmann’s harmonies and arrangements are, Andersons’ lyrics are occasional grating in the way the same few sentences are repeated to create catchy by evil corkscrew tunes (of which “A Very Merry Christmas” is the worst).
Herrmann’s fans will undoubtedly find the mini-operetta fascinating, and feel a bit sad the composer didn’t have longer and more literate dramas to adapt for the stage during his peak years as a top Hollywood composer, but the teleplay ought to be appreciated as rare a sampling of Herrmann writing in the Americana vein, and in a buoyant style quite reminiscent of his Oscar-winning The Devil and Daniel Webster (1941).
The surviving black and white kinescope has been available on VHS and as a bonus on DVD of The Bing Crosby Show, but A Christmas Carol (probably the repeat broadcast from 1955 or 1956) is available as a free download from Archives.org (albeit as a Real Media file).
Included are the original Chrysler ads (“Plymouth! Dodge! DeSoto! Chystler! and the Exclusive Imperial!”) with period vocals by The Roger Wagner Chorale underscoring host William Lundigan’s soothing sales pitch:
“Now there’s still time to get delivery on the car of your choice, so why not make this time of joy for giving the way to enjoy the living for this very special present for your family that will help keep the spirit of Christmas in your hearts throughout the year. See your Plymouth, Dodge, DeSoto or Chrystler dealer right now.”
After all that pap, our mellifluous hosts holds back a wry smile for the whole silliness.
Lundigan returns for the show’s closing, and quickly introduce actors Joan Evans, Brandon De Wilde, Barbara Hale, and Leif Erickson, set to appear in the following week’s episode of Climax, The Day They Gave Babies Away (1955), also to be scored by Herrmann.
Dickens purists are likely to be turned off by this rare slice of live TV, but fans of the genre will relish the chance to see March and Rathbone together, as well as actress Fraser, who shows off her singing skills prior to a prolific career guesting in subsequent TV shows before the trio of cult sci-fi flicks cranked out in 1958: Giant from the Unknown, War of the Colossal Beast, and Earth vs. the Spider.
© 2008 Mark R. Hasan