Sunday, December 23, 2012

Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol

It was fifty years ago on 18 December 1962 that Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol first aired on NBC. It might not have seemed so at the time, but the debut of Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol was a historic event. It was the first animated holiday special, paving the way for Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, A Charlie Brown Christmas, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and many others. It remained a holiday favourite and aired regularly throughout the Sixties and Seventies, although it would cease being aired on the networks in the Eighties (it has aired in syndication and on cable channels). Last night NBC aired Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol for the first time in years (although sadly they cut much of it for commercials), perhaps because it recently celebrated its fiftieth anniversary.

Although he might not be quite so well known now, in the Sixties Mr. Magoo was a cartoon superstar. Mr. Magoo originated in 1949 the UPA short "Ragtime Bear." When UPA sent "Ragtime Bear" to their distributor Columbia Pictures, Columbia wanted to know where the other six or seven were--the studio wanted a series. Although the bear of the title was supposed to be the star, it was the character of Mr. Magoo who stole the show. As a result, Columbia embarked on a series of Mr. Magoo shorts. As to Quincy Magoo himself, he was a wealthy, elderly man who refused to acknowledge the fact that he was extremely near sighted. In later cartoons his career was established as that of an actor. From the beginning Mr. Magoo was voiced by actor Jim Backus, who on radio played Hubert Updyke III on The Alan Young Show and would go onto play Thurston Howell III on Gilligan's Island.

Mr. Magoo proved extremely popular in the Fifties. In fact, two of the Magoo shorts ("When Magoo Flew" and "Magoo's Puddle Jumper") won Oscars for Short Subject (Cartoon). Unfortunately, the Fifties also saw the demand for animated shorts at cinemas go into a steep decline. Even the older animated studios would be affected, with Terrytoons selling out to CBS in 1955 and  MGM closing its animated studio in 1957.  Even the success of Mr. Magoo and other characters could not save UPA and the studio found itself in poor financial straits towards the end of the decade. The studio turned to television, producing The Gerald McBoing Boing Show for CBS in 1956 and The Mr. Magoo Show for syndication in 1960. The studio also attempted to break into feature films, their first being  1001 Arabian Nights starring Quincy Magoo.

Even though UPA was suffering more than its fair share of  financial woes,  Mr. Magoo continued to be wildly popular. According to a survey conducted in 1963, nine out of ten adults in the United States could recognise Mr. Magoo, and he beat out such competitors as Fred Flintstone and Popeye as their favourite cartoon character. It was little wonder, then, that Lee Orgel (then UPA's Director of Programme Development) struck upon the idea of Qunicy Magoo playing Scrooge in an animated production of A Christmas Carol. It was not an idea without precedent. After all, Mister Magoo had already played a character other than himself in 1001 Arabian Nights (the role of Uncle Abdul Azziz Magoo).

Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol was sold to NBC and Timex was brought on board as the special's sponsor. Conceived as a musical,  Lee Orgel had to seek out composers for its songs. He had wanted Richard Rogers or Frank Loesser, but was unable to get them. In the end the job went to composer Jule Styne and  lyricist Bob Merrill, then busy with their musical Funny Girl. Preproduction on the special had already commenced by March 1962. Barbara Chain, who had previously written an episode of the 1957 revival of Crusader Rabbit and an episode of The U.S. Steel Hour, wrote the teleplay. Abe Levitow, who had previously directed the television short "Magoo Meets McBoing Boing" and episodes of UPA's The  Dick Tracy Show and was then also directing UPA's second feature film Gay Purr-ee, directed the special. Production on the special got under way in July 1962. Even with the planning involved in the special, they found that it ran short. As  a result a sequence was added in which the thieves who robbed Scrooge's deathbed sing the song "We're Despicable." The sequence was animated in all of two weeks. The special had a fairly good budget for television animation of the time, at $250,000.

Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol was conceived not as a straight adaptation of Charles Dickens' novella, but rather as if Quincy Magoo was an actor playing the role of Scrooge in a Broadway musical. The opening featured Mr. Magoo arriving at the theatre where the production of A Christmas Carol took place, while the closing featured Mr. Magoo and the other players taking their bows (the near sighted Mr. Magoo destroying the sets in the process). Sadly, after the Sixties the opening and closing were often cut to make way for commercials. Mr. Magoo was not the only UPA character to appear in the special. The role of Tiny Tim was played by Gerald McBoing-Boing, who actually spoke for the role (generally he only makes sound effect noises). To a degree Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol was very faithful to the original novella.  Much of the dialogue was taken from Dickens, and it included the scene in which Marley's ghost shows Scrooge the many doomed spirits floating about London (often cut in most adaptations). At the same time, however, the special departed from the novella in other ways. Perhaps because of time constraints (in 1962 it could only run 53 minutes to make room for commercials), the character of Scrooge's nephew Fred was cut entirely (a shame given Magoo has a nephew, Waldo, who could have played the part...). Strangely enough, in the special the Ghost of Christmas Present visits Scrooge before the Ghost of Christmas Past.

Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol would prove extremely successful when first aired. This not only guaranteed that it would continue to be repeated for many years (NBC alone aired it until 1967), but it would have an impact on American broadcast network television  in other ways as well. Perhaps the most immediate impact the special had was that UPA head Hank Saperstein was able to sell NBC a regularly scheduled, half hour, primetime, Mr. Magoo series. With the exception of one episode, The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo placed Quincy Magoo in the role of an actor playing various roles from literature. There were adaptations of Gunga Din, Cyrano de Bergerac, Rip Van Winkle, Frankenstein, and so on. The exception to this format was the episode "Dick Tracy and the Mob," in which Dick Tracy convinces Mr. Magoo to impersonate a hit man for the mob. Despite the continued popularity of Mr. Magoo, The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo did poorly in the ratings and lasted only one season. Although it is difficult to say why the series failed, it is possible that much of the reason was because it cast Mr. Magoo in various roles rather than concentrating on the character of Mr. Magoo himself.

The more lasting impact of Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol is that it paved the way for the animated holiday specials that proliferated in the Sixties and Seventies. In the wake of Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol, several other holiday specials would follow in its wake: Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in 1964, A Charlie Brown Christmas in 1965, Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas in 1966, The Cricket on the Hearth in 1967, and Frosty the Snowman in 1969. By the Seventies animated specials were an established part of the holiday season on television. While they would decline in the Eighties, at no point since Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol has there been a time when there were no animated Christmas specials on the American broadcast network television.

While Mr. Magoo was an incredibly popular character in the Sixties, his popularity would eventually decline. UPA would close its animation studio in 1964. As a result, new material featuring Mr. Magoo would be rare in the following decades (aside from ads for General Electric). After The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo, the first new Mr. Magoo project would be Uncle Sam Magoo. In this television special Mr. Magoo took viewers through the history of the United States. Following Uncle Sam Magoo, there would be nothing new featuring Mr. Magoo until the Saturday morning, animated series What's New, Mr. Magoo? in 1977 (UPA contracted DePatie-Freleng Enterprises to do the animation). Since Mr. Magoo was much less visible than he had once been, the character declined in popularity and as a result Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol declined in the ratings as well. The special then last aired on an American broadcast network in the Eighties. It would find a home not only in syndication to local stations, but on various cable channels as well. Over the years the USA Network, the Disney Channel, and the Cartoon Network have all shown it at one time or another. This year marked its return to NBC for the first time in 45 years.

While the character of Mr. Magoo would fade in popularity over the years and as a result Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol would leave network television, the special left its impact on American broadcast network television long ago. Since Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol first aired in 1962, dozens of animated Christmas specials have aired and some have become annual events (Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and Frosty the Snowman). A case could easily be made that Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol paved the way for every animated holiday special to come. Even after having spent the past twenty or so years on cable channels and local stations, then, it had a lasting impact on American broadcast network television.

1 comment:

FlickChick said...

This was one of my absolute favorites and I have seen it countless times. IN fact, when I think of "A Christmas Carol," this is the version I really think of first (though I rarely admit it!).