The Alcoa Hour: The Stingiest Man in Town (1956)

There were numerous live adaptations of A Christmas Carol made in the '40s and '50s, the majority of which were either lost or weren't notable enough to warrant a release. The Stingiest Man in Town seems to have been one of the better-regarded examples, and even that wasn't entirely exempt from being discarded. Until a black and white copy was found in the home of an Alcoa executive in 2011, it was believed lost. Since it's kind of miraculous any version exists, I won't complain too much about not being able to watch it in the original color.

Let's back up. The Alcoa Hour was an anthology series sponsored by Alcoa, an aluminum company that's still around. This is the same anthology responsible for the 1955 version of Amahl and the Night Visitors.

This 1956 musical adaptation of A Christmas Carol was one of the show's most famous installments. This was also remade as an animated movie in 1978.

Scrooge is played by Basil Rathbone, best known as the definitive Sherlock Holmes. Rathbone would go on to play Scrooge again in a 1959 televised production. He also played Marley's Ghost in the 1954 "Shower of the Stars" adaptation of A Christmas Carol, which was also a musical (Stingiest Man in Town is the far better of the two, incidentally).

The story is fairly straightforward, with a couple minor adjustments. Like many adaptations, this expands the role of Scrooge's love interest by integrating her into Fezziwig's party. It goes further, adding a dream ballet for her and young Scrooge in front of a fairy tale castle. That said, there's a trade-off: the sequence with her family is cut.

Likewise, the Cratchits lose their future scene, not that it makes a huge difference, since their scene in the present addresses Tim's impending doom.

A small deviation worth noting is Scrooge is actually able to affect the world around him when traveling with the Ghost of Christmas Present. He's still invisible, but he can move objects, leaving them out of place. The movie doesn't do much with this, but I don't recall seeing this in any other version.

The setting is also somewhat different. Details placing the story in Victorian London are mostly stripped out. Rathbone of course is British, though his younger self is played by an actor with an American accent (an odd choice creating a somewhat discordant effect). There are a few other exceptions, but for the most part American accents dominate the cast. The movie also folds in more modern Christmas references, mainly around Santa Claus, who's mentioned and discussed by name (multiple names, in fact) in several scenes and songs. This isn't Dickens' Carol: it's a generic 1950s reimagining using nonspecific "old-timey" costumes.

And that's okay. There's no law that says A Christmas Carol can't be recontextualized, updated, or transformed. This is a kids' movie, and there's nothing inherently wrong with that.

The live performance nature is a little harder to understand. It was a common style at the time, and I've never really understood the appeal. I suppose it's trying to evoke some of the energy and excitement that comes from live theater, but I've never really found the experience all that similar. What it does mean is the mistakes are still present. In this case, that includes some out-of-place props, some visible stagehands, a boom mic or two, and - most glaring - some sound balance issues. There's also at least one scene where an obstruction appears directly between a character and the camera.

That said, there are some impressive visual tricks employed, including the opening where the camera zooms in on a portrait on a "wall" which comes alive. Clearly, it's a cutout, but the effect is fun. Likewise, there are some neat costume choices and solid set design. This isn't movie quality, but the production values are impressive for television of the time.

The area this really shines, however, is the music. I've seen a handful of musical adaptations of A Christmas Carol now, including a few big-budget, theatrically released films. To date, I think the songs in this version put the others to shame. This isn't spectacular or anything, but the music is very much in the style of musicals from the era and a solid example of that form. I realize "average" doesn't sound like high praise, but none of the other versions come close in my opinion, despite significantly more resources. This aims for something achievable and hits its mark: that's really all you can ask for.

[Side note from the Ghost of Adaptations Yet to Come: having seen more versions of A Christmas Carol, I'd rank the music here below 2004's A Christmas Carol: The Musical, 2013's A Christmas Carol: The Concert, and this year's Spirited. I still consider the music in Stingiest Man solid, but it turns out there's some steep competition.

I actually might be selling this a little short. While the bulk of the movie settles for average, there are some experimental moments trying to be a little more surprising. The dream ballet is a good example, as is a bizarre dance in the Christmas Future section. I also think the choral narration from The Four Lads worked well.

I want to mention one thematic element that jumped out at me. The second song is called, "An Old Fashioned Christmas," and as the name implies, it focuses on just that concept. Moreover, the movie returns to that theme - both in the musical and story sense - throughout. While the plot follows Dickens's blueprint, the point drifted more towards a nostalgic celebration of Christmases associated with that story. In short, this is no longer arguing for progressive change, but is instead embracing regressive nostalgia. For better or worse, this is very much an artifact of 1950s politics and postwar perspectives on Christmas. We even see this in the movie's digressions to explore Santa Claus as a concept equated with the wisdom to seek out innocence.

Rathbone's performance is somewhat mixed. He's doing a fairly simple take on Scrooge, which is appropriate given the target audience (again, this is definitely a kids' movie). Visually, he's a great cast, and he sells the character's fear and pain well when it comes up. Where he falls a little short is the singing. I'm not sure if it's because he's lacking skill or if he's just trying too hard to channel the songs through the voice and mannerisms of the character, but either way, it comes out lacking power. Whenever he starts singing, it's like his stage presence evaporates: that's a pretty big flaw for a musical.

Overall, I found this interesting from an academic standpoint and impressive in several ways, but those compliments are littered with caveats. This is fascinating if you're interested in the time it came from, and impressive due to its limitations (many self-imposed due to its insistence on being live). But if you're looking for something timeless, you're going to be extremely disappointed. And while the songs may beat out other live-action attempts to put this particular story to music, that doesn't mean it ranks anywhere near the top tier of the genre.

This is good for what it is, but that "what it is" caveat is grading on a generous curve. This isn't something I'd recommend to most audiences, despite being better than it probably has much right to be.