The Alcoa Hour was a 60 minute live anthology drama which replaced The Philco Television Playhouse and began alternating broadcasts with The Goodyear Theatre in the fall of 1955. (For a few months Philco, Alcoa, and Goodyear shared a three-way alternation of the Sunday evening 9:00 to 10:00 P.M. slot on NBC. Philco withdrew sponsorship in early 1956.) The program was sponsored by the Aluminum Corporation of America and was produced by Herbert Brodkin formerly of ABC-TV. Among the program's directors, many of whom went on to distinguished careers in television and film, were Dan Petrie, Robert Mulligan, Sidney Lumet, and Ralph Nelson. Coming near the end of the "golden age" of live television anthology drama, The Alcoa Hour had a relatively short run of just under two years, but this was despite generally high quality programs and mostly favorable reviews.
The first broadcast of The Alcoa Hour was on 16 October 1955. An original teleplay by Joseph Schull entitled "The Black Wings," the production starred Wendell Corey and Ann Todd and was directed by Norman Felton. Both Variety and The New York Times praised the high quality of acting and the attractive sets but criticized the script. Times reviewer J.P. Shanley went so far as to say that the story was "melodramatic hogwash." Schull's narrative dealt with a German physician (Corey) who had been a Luftwaffe pilot during WWII. He secretly endows a clinic for the treatment of victims of a bombing raid he led over England, then falls in love with an English girl (Todd) who was crippled by the bombing. In spite of the script's weaknesses, the program was deemed a success because of the excellent performances and fine directing and critics felt that The Alcoa Hour would become a worthy successor to the famous Philco Television Playhouse.
During its two years, The Alcoa Hour broadcast a wide variety of dramas including the sixth consecutive Christmas season airing of Gian Carlo Menotti's television opera Amahl and the Night Visitors on 25 December 1955. During the Christmas season of 1956, TheAlcoa Hour broadcast a musical version of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol entitled "The Stingiest Man in Town." The adaptation featured Basil Rathbone in a singing role, crooner Vic Damone, songwriter Johnny Desmond, opera singer Patrice Munsel, and The Four Lads, a popular singing group.
Typical programs were "Thunder in Washington" (27 November 1955), and "Mrs. Gilling and the Skyscraper" (9 June 1957). "Thunder in Washington" was an original script by David Davidson, directed by Robert Mulligan. The broadcast featured Melvyn Douglas and Ed Begley in a story about a highly competent business executive, Charles Turner, who answers a call from the President of the United States to come to Washington to introduce efficiency into numerous sprawling governmental agencies. Soon Turner's efforts at reform offend almost everyone and he finds himself defending his actions before a House Appropriations Committee. The program ends with Turner vowing to continue his crusade to clean up Washington and the Committee Chair promising to stop him. New York Times reviewer Jack Gould praised the broadcast by saying that it was "a play of uncommon timeliness, power, and controversy. With one more scene, it could have been a genuine tour de force of contemporary political drama." An interesting footnote to the production is that actor Luis van Rooten, hired to play the part of the President of the United States, spent hours studying the voice and mannerisms of then President Dwight D. Eisenhower to make sure his performance was authentic, even though the President was to be seen only in a head and shoulders shot from behind.
"Mrs. Gilling and the Skyscraper" was a very different sort of play. An original script by Sumner Locke Elliot, it was a vehicle for distinguished actress Helen Hayes who played the part of an elderly lady who tries to save her apartment from the owners of her building who intend to demolish it to make way for a skyscraper. Both the superb acting and sensitive script were praised. The script in particular was noted for how it dealt with the generational clashes between the old lady and new tenants in her building. Confrontations between the old and new were becoming increasingly common during the 1950s as large stretches of turn-of-the-century dwellings were leveled to make way for modern buildings. The plight of Mrs. Gillings was a familiar one for many older Americans and their families.
Perhaps the most noteworthy Alcoa Hour was the broadcast of 19 February 1956 entitled "Tragedy in a Temporary Town." The script by Reginald Rose told the story of a vigilante group formed after a girl is assaulted at a construction camp. According to Jack Gould, "Mr. Rose's final scene--the mob descending on an innocent Puerto Rican victim--did make the viewer's flesh creep. And the raw vigor of the hero's denunciation of the mob--the man's language had uncommon pungency--was extraordinarily vivid video drama." Directed by Sidney Lumet and staring Lloyd Bridges as the man who opposed the mob, "Tragedy in a Temporary Town" won a Robert E. Sherwood Television Award and a citation from the Anti Defamation League of B'nai B'rith as the best dramatic program of the year dealing with intergroup relations.
The 1956-57 season saw the networks shifting away from live broadcasts and turning more to the use of film. Faced with this change and competition from a new crop of popular programs, The Alcoa Hour went off the air after its 22 September 1957 broadcast of "Night" starring Franchot Tone, Jason Robards, Jr., and E. G. Marshall. As of 30 September 1957, both The Alcoa Hour and its companion program The Goodyear Theatre became thirty minute filmed programs and were moved to Monday nights at 9:30 P.M. Other Alcoa shows followed in the late 1950s and early 1960s: Alcoa Premiere, Alcoa Presents, and Alcoa Theatre.
-Henry B. Aldridge
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