For years, The Stingiest Man In Town has existed as a kind of lost treasure of the earliest days of televised Christmas specials. Originally broadcast as an episode of The Alcoa Hour in 1956, the special has lived on as a very good original cast recording and an inferior Rankin-Bass animated special, but the original, live broadcast—recorded on kinescope—was thought lost forever until it recently turned up in the collection of a former Alcoa executive. The production was actually the second of two live musical versions of A Christmas Carol produced for television in the ’50s (a 1954 version featured a song score by Bernard Herrmann!), but its significance stems both from the craft on display from authors Janice Torre and Fred Spielman and the sheer scale of the production. Boasting a budget of over $1 million, Stingiest was one of the most expensive television productions made in that era.
As with most surviving live TV broadcasts from the ’50s, the video and audio quality of Stingiest Man is somewhat variable, and the production format and values will seem dated to modern eyes. Filmed using multiple cameras, the musical makes full use of the setup, sending cameramen into the throng of extras to track the lead singer as he walks along a crowded city street or using extreme close-ups to track the changing emotions in Scrooge’s heart. While the multiple-camera setup necessarily dates the production in many ways, there are several daring and unconventional shots (as when the cameraman shoots a portion of the opening number from inside one of the buildings on the large set) that few multi-camera shows would even attempt today, and the sheer number of people on stage—people who are often singing and dancing—at any given time suggests just how much of a logistical headache this was to coordinate.
But there are also several good reasons to watch Stingiest Man. Torre and Spielman’s score is delightful, with Torre’s lyrics and book condensing the tale of Scrooge ably in under 90 minutes. Spielman’s music evokes the Christmas season without utilizing any seasonal standards, and Daniel Petrie’s direction keeps things rolling along, always finding ways to suggest complicated emotional transitions through a simple image or camera move. The strongest moment for all three may be the closing of Act One, when a younger Scrooge’s estrangement from his young love is indicated efficiently by fellow dancers in the musical number constructing a wall between the two.
The special is also notable for featuring Basil Rathbone’s turn as Scrooge. While not at the level of an Alastair Sim or a George C. Scott, Rathbone offers an admirable take on the famous part. Spielman and Torre’s score requires him to sing an entire song—“Mankind Should Be My Business”—about his change of heart at the end of the musical, and Rathbone firmly commits to the idea that this man isn’t wholly changed yet but is willing to try. His “bad” and “good” Scrooge mannerisms are the same, suggesting a man who’s still figuring out the complicated business of doing the right thing after years of doing wrong.
Though filled with the sorts of minor mistakes that marked the live-television era—at one point, singer Johnny Desmond as Scrooge’s nephew Fred completely botches a musical cue and has to be saved by the chorus—and though faded away on both a video and audio level in spots, The Stingiest Man In Town remains a brisk retelling of one of the most famous stories ever told, a retelling that boasts fun songs, a good deal of TV history being made, and a great central performance. There’s plenty of value here for more than just TV historians.
Key features: None to speak of, although the special is followed by the original post-air messages from 1956, including a lengthy ad for Alcoa, for those of you who need to be convinced of the wonders of aluminum this holiday season.