Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Late Great Harry Carey Jr.

Harry Carey Jr., best known for his many roles in Westerns by John Ford, Howard Hawks, and other directors, died 27 December 2012 at the age of 91.

Harry Carey Jr. was born on 16 May 1921 on his family's ranch near Saugus, California. His father was silent star Harry Carey Sr. and his mother was actress Olive Carey (herself the daughter of vaudeville star George Fuller Golden). He attended and graduated from Black-Foxe Military Institute in Hollywood, California. During World War II he served in the United States Navy.

Following Word War II Harry Carey Jr. made his film debut in Rolling Home (1946). He first worked with Howard Hawks on the Western classic Red River in 1948. His first feature film with John Ford was 3 Godfathers in the same year. In the late Forties Mr. Carey appeared in such films as Moonrise (1948), Blood on the Moon (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), Wagon Master (1950),  Copper Canyon (1950), and Rio Grande (1950). In the Fifties he appeared in such films as Cattle Drive (1951), Warpath (1951), The Wild Blue Yonder (1951), Monkey Business (1952), The Studebaker Story (1953), Niagara (1953), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1953), Island in the Sky (1953), The Outcast (1954), The Searchers (1956) , Mr. Roberts (1955), The Great Locomotive Chase (1956), Kiss Them for Me (1957), The River's Edge (1957) , From Hell to Texas (1958),  and Noose for a Gunman (1960).  He made his television debut on an episode of Chevron Theatre in 1952. He was a regular on the serial "The Adventures of Spin and Marty," which aired on The Mickey Mouse Club. He appeared on such shows as Racket Squad, Fireside Theatre, Big Town, The Public Defender, The Lone Ranger, Climax, The Gray Ghost, Broken Arrow, Tombstone Territory, Men into Space, Hotel De Paree, and The Tall Man.

In the Sixties Harry Carey Jr. appeared in such films as Two Rode Together (1961), The Great Impostor (1961),  A Public Affair (1962), The Raiders (1963), Cheyenne Autumn (1964), Shenandoah (1965), The Rare Breed (1966), Billy the Kid vs. Dracula (1966), The Ballad of Josie (1967), The Way West (1967), The Devil's Brigade (1968), Bandolero! (1968), Death of a Gunfighter (1969), and Dirty Dingus Magee (1970). He appeared in such TV shows as Gunsmoke, Whispering Smith, The Rifleman, Perry Mason, Rawhide, Lawman, Checkmate, Laramie, Have Gun--Will Travel, Wagon Train, Branded, Bonanza, Run For Your Life, The Outcasts, Mannix, and The Virginian.

In the Seventies Mr. Carey appeared in such films as One More Train to Rob (1971), Big Jake (1971), Trinity Is STILL My Name! (1971), Cahill U.S. Marshal (1973), Take a Hard Ride (1975) , Nickelodeon (1976), and The Long Riders (1980). He appeared on such television shows as Walt Disney's Wonderful World of Colour, Banacek, The Streets of San Francisco, Hec Ramsey, Police Woman, and Little House on the Prairie. In the Eighties he appeared  in such movies Endangered Species (1982), Gremlins (1984), Mask (1985), Crossroads (1986), The Whales of August (1987), Cherry 2000 (1987), and Back to the Future Part III (1990).  He appeared on such shows as Dallas, Crossbow, and B. L. Stryker. In the Nineties he appeared in the films Tombstone (1993), Wyatt Earp: Return to Tombstone (1994), and The Sunchaser (1996).

Like many actors who appeared primarily in Westerns, I think Harry Carey Jr. was always under-appreciated as an actor. In truth he was one of the best character actors of his era. He played a wide array of roles, from a reporter General Eisenhower in The Long Grey Line to Capt. Rose in The Devil's Brigade to a bartender in Crossroads. Of course, he was best known for his Westerns, but even then he played a variety of roles. He played  a cowboy (Red River),  an outlaw (3 Godfathers), part of the U. S. Cavalry (She Wore a Yellow Ribbon and Rio Grande), a lawman (Gun the Man Down), and several other various roles. And that is only counting his movie roles. On television he frequently appeared in the role of sheriffs, although he also appeared in such varied roles as cowboys, gunmen, Cavalry officers, and even bankers and shopkeepers. Harry Carey Jr. did all of them well. In fact, I suspect that was much of why he was a favourite of both John Ford and John Wayne, as well as the fact that he was so prolific. Harry Carey Jr. was an actor who could play nearly anything in any genre and not seem out of place.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Gerry Anderson: Master of Puppets

Gerry Anderson, the producer renowned for such series featuring marionettes such as Fireball XL5, Stingray, and Thunderbirds and such live action series as U.F.O. and Space: 1999, died on 26 December 2012 at the age of 83. Two years ago he had been diagnosed with mixed dementia.

Gerry Anderson was born Gerald Abrahams on 14 April 1929 Feltham, Middlesex. He spent his early years in Neasden in north London. At the beginning of World War II he was evacuated to Northamptonshire.  It was in 1939 that his mother changed the family's name to "Anderson." Gerry Anderson attended Willesden County Grammar School with the intention of becoming a plasterer. Unfortunately, he had to forego his chosen profession when he found out that he was allergic to plaster. He then became a trainee with Colonial Films. Following his National Service as a radio operator for the RAF, Mr. Anderson became an assistant at Gainsborough Studios.  At Gainsborough Studios he served as an assistant editor on such films as The Wicked Lady (1945), Caravan (1946), Jassy (1947), and Jassy (1947).  He worked in the sound department on the Gainsborough movie So Long at the Fair (1950).  After Gainsborough closed he worked in the sound department of films from other companies, such as Never Take No for an Answer (1951), Appointment in London (1953), South of Algiers (1953), They Who Dare (1954), and A Prize of Gold (1955).

It was towards the mid-Fifties that he joined  Polytechnic Studios, where he met cameraman Arthur Provis. After Polytechnic Studios closed, Gerry Anderson founded Pentagon Films with Reg Hill, Arthur Provis, and John Read, with the goal of producing commercials. Pentagon Films did not last long and in 1957 Gerry Anderson and Arthur Provis founded AP Films. In the Fifties with AP Films, Mr. Anderson produced the TV shows The Adventures of Twizzle, Torchy, the Battery Boy and Four Feather Falls, as well as the movie Crossroads to Crime (which was also his first live-action credit as a producer and director).  In addition to his work with AP Films, Mr. Anderson also directed an episode of The New Adventures of Martin Kane.

It was on the Western puppet series Four Feather Falls that Gerry Anderson used an early version of what would later be termed Supermarionation, the technique he would use on all of his puppet series.  Throughout the Sixties, Mr. Anderson created and produced a number of programmes using Supermarionation, including what may have been his biggest hit, Thunderbirds. Starting with Supercar in 1961, Gerry Anderson's series included Fireball XL5, Stingray, Thunderbirds, Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, Joe 90, and The Secret Service. His Supermationation shows proved very successful, sometimes in the Untied States as well as the United Kingdom in which they first aired. Fireball XL5 aired on NBC on Saturday morning in the 1963-1964 season, while Thuderbirds was widely syndicated throughout the United States. Thunderbirds would prove so successful that two movie were spun off from it: Thunderbirds Are GO (1966) and Thunderbird 6 (1968). Despite his success, Gerry Anderson was a bit embarrassed to be working with puppets and viewed it only as a stepping stone to live action television programmes and films. It was then in 1969 that he produced the live action science fiction film Doppelgänger.  In 1970 he produced his first live action show, the science fiction series U.F.O.

The next series on which Gerry Anderson worked was one which he did not create, the live action programme The Protectors. While the series would prove successful, Mr. Anderson's experience on the show was not pleasant, clashing often with series star Robert Vaughn and having to deal with filming across Europe. It was following The Protectors that Mr. Anderson produced what might be his most famous series after Thunderbirds, the live action science fantasy Space: 1999. While the show would only last two seasons, it would develop a cult following that has lasted to this day. Between the two series of Space: 1999, Gerry Anderson produced the television special Into Infinity.

The Eighties would see Gerry Anderson return to working with puppets with the show Terrahawks. He also served as a producer on the series Dick Spanner. In the Nineties he produced Space Precinct and Lavender Castle. In 2005 he served as executive producer on a revival of Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons, simply called Captain Scarlet.

While Gerry Anderson had originally disliked working with puppets, as he grew older he changed his mind. He said later in his life, "It would be very churlish for me now to denigrate the puppets that brought me so much success. I’ve slowly changed my attitude. Now I’m really very grateful to these little things that I strung up, um, that strung themselves up, for my benefit." Indeed, Gerry Anderson had no reason to be ashamed of his Supermarionation productions. They were imaginative and interesting in a way adults that as well as children would find them entertaining. If Fireball XL5 and Thunderbirds are remembered to this day, it is because they captured the excitement of possible futures in ways some live action science fiction series never had. With varying degrees of success, the same can be said of Gerry Anderson's live action projects. Regardless of what one thinks of Doppelgänger, U.FO., and Space: 1999 (I personally like them--especially series one of Space: 1999), I think many would have to admit that they were different from any other science fiction movies or TV shows. Gerry Anderson was a true original, who created magic with his programmes, such magic that one didn't even mind when he or she saw the strings.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Charles Durning Passes On

Charles Durning, who appeared in films such as The Sting (1973) , Dog Day Afternoon (1975), and Tootsie (1982) and such TV shows as Evening Shade, died on 24 December 2012 at the age of 89.

Charles Durning was born 28 February 1923 in Highland Falls, New York. Born in poverty to a large family, Mr. Durning eventually dropped out of school and left for Pennsylvania. There he worked various odd jobs. He then moved to Buffalo, New York, where he again worked at odd jobs, among them an usher in a burlesque theatre. When one of the theatre's comedians did not show up one night, Charles Durning, who had memorised the comic's routine,  convinced the theatre's manager to let him take his place. After his experience on stage that night, Mr. Durning decided he wanted to take up acting.

During World War II Charles Durning enlisted in the United States Army. He was among the first of the waves of American soldiers to land on Omaha Beach during the Invasion of Normandy. He as the only one of his unit to survive D-Day. He was captured during the Battle of the Bulge, and was among the few to survive the Malmedy massacre, in which a German combat unit massacred American prisoners.  He ended the war having been awarded a Silver Star, a Bronze Star, and three Purple Hearts. Following the war Mr. Durning enrolled in the American Academy of Dramatic Arts. The school dismissed him in less than a year, maintaining he had no talent.

Charles Durning then worked at various jobs, including doorman, dishwasher, and cab driver, and even professional boxing and teaching ballroom dancing. In the meantime he did break into dancing. He made his television debut in a 1953 episode of You Are There. He made his film debut in 1962 in The Password Is Courage (1962). In the Sixties he appeared in such films as Stiletto (1969), Hi, Mom! (1970), and I Walk the Line (1970). On television he appeared in such shows as East Side/West Side, The Nurses, N.Y.P.D., and High Chaparral. He made his debut on Broadway in Poor Bitos in 1964. He appeared in such productions as Drat the Cat, Pousse-Café, The Happy Time, and Indians.

It was in the Seventies that Charles Durning's career really took off. He appeared in such films as The Pursuit of Happiness (1971), Dealing: Or the Berkeley-to-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues (1972), Doomsday Voyage (1972), Deadhead Miles (1973), Sisters (1973), The Sting (1973), The Front Page (1974), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Breakheart Pass (1975), The Hindenburg (1975), The Choirboys (1977), The Fury (1978), The Greek Tycoon (1978), The Muppet Movie (1979), Starting Over (1979), Starting Over (1979), and The Final Countdown (1980). On television he was the star of the short lived series The Cop and The Kid and appeared in the mini-series Captains and the Kings. He appeared on such shows as Madigan, All in the Family, Canon, Barnaby Jones, Baretta, and Hawaii Five-O. On Broadway he appeared in such productions as That Championship Season and Boom Boom Room.

In the Eighties Charles Durning became one of the regulars on Evening Shade, which ran into the Nineties. He also appeared on such TV shows as The Hallmark Hall of Fame, American Playhouse, Eye to Eye, Tall Tales and Legends, and Amazing Stories. He appeared in such films as Sharky's Machine (1981), Tootsie (1982), Two of a Kind (1983), To Be or Not To Be (1983), Mass Appeal (1984), Stick (1985), The Man with One Red Shoe (1985), Big Trouble (1986), Tough Guys (1986), Solarbabies (1986), Cop (1988), Brenda Starr (1989), and Dick Tracy (1990). He appeared on Broadway in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

In the Nineties he appeared in such films as The Music of Chance (1993), The Hudsucker Proxy (1994), I.Q. (1994), The Last Supper (1995), The Grass Harp (1995), Spy Hard (1996), Recon (1996),  Never Look Back (2000), O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000), and State and Main (2000) .  He appeared on such TV shows as Orleans, Homicide, Cybill, and The Practice. On Broadway he appeared in Inherit the Wind, The Gin Game, and Gore Vidal's The Beat Man. In the Naughts he was a regular on the show First Monday and Rescue Me, and had a recurring role on Everybody Loves Raymond. He appeared on such shows as NCIS, Everwood, and Monk. He appeared in such films as L.A.P.D.: To Protect and to Serve (2001), Turn of Faith (2002), River's End (2005), Dirty Deeds (2005), The Golden Boys (2008), Three Chris's (2010), and The Waiter (2010). In the Teens he appeared The Great Fight (2011), The Life Zone (2011), Rogue Assassin (2012) , and Amazing Racer (2012).

Charles Durning was an incredibly prolific actor who worked in his craft until his death. He also worked in three different media: stage, screen, and television. It was his talent that allowed him to do so. He played an amazing array of different roles, everything from Santa Claus (multiple times) to Big Daddy in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. His film roles covered a broad area, everything from Sgt. Moretti in Dog Day Afternoon to lonely widower Les Nichols in Tootsie to a homophobic priest in The Last Supper. He was the consummate character actor, able to play anything from crotchety to gruff to kind to friendly. It is not many people who could play both a crooked cop (in The Sting) and Santa Claus (in several TV movies) and be convincing as both. Charles Durning was sometimes called the "King of Character Actors," and in  the modern era there can be no doubt he deserved the title.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

The Late, Great Jack Klugman

There are those stars who have been a part of our lives so long that one feels almost as if they know them. They form a part of one's earliest memories so much that they seem like a part of the family or an old friend. Jack Klugman was such a star for me. I really don't know where I first saw him. Given I watched it loyally as a child, it could have been The Odd Couple, but given just how much Mr. Klugman did in his career, it could have been any number of other TV shows or movies. Sadly, Jack Klugman died this Monday, 24 December 2012, at the age of 90.

Jack Klugman was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on 27 April 1922. He was either 14 or 15 when his older sister took him to see the play One Third of a Nation, a production of the Federal Theatre Project. The play kindled in him an interest in acting. During World War II he served in the United States Army. Following the war he auditioned for the drama department at the Carnegie Institute of Technology. The school did not think Mr. Klugman was suited to acting, but accepted him as with the war just coming to an end there were few male college students. He studied at Carnegie for two years before leaving for New York City to try his hand at acting. He made his television debut in 1950 in an episode of Actors Studio, also appearing in an episode of Suspense that same year. He made his debut on Broadway in 1952 in Golden Boy.

In the Fifties Mr. Klugman would appear on Broadway twice more, in A Very Special Baby and Gypsy. He appeared on television in such shows as The Big Story, Colonel Humphrey Flack, Rocky King Detective, Inner Sanctum, Big Town, The Philco-Goodyear Television Playhouse, The United States Steel Hour, Suspicion, General Electric Theatre, Studio One, Kraft Theatre, Alfred Hitchcock Presents, and Playhouse 90. He made his movie debut in Grubstake (1952), and also appeared in the films Time Table (1956), 12 Angry Men (1957), and Cry Terror! (1958). It was in 12 Angry Men that he played one of his most notable roles, that of Juror #5, a young man who had a particularly rough upbringing.

In the Sixties Jack Klugman played the lead in the TV series Harris Against the World. It was in 1970 that he was cast in what may his best known role, that of sports writer and slob Oscar Madison on The Odd Couple. Although the series did received particularly high ratings in its initial network run, The Odd Couple was well regarded by critics and had a very successful syndication run. In the Sixties he also appeared on such shows as Follow the Sun, The New Breed, The Untouchables, Naked City, The Twilight Zone, The Virginian, The Defenders, The Fugitive, I Dream of Jeannie, and Then Came Bronson. He appeared in such films as Days of Wine and Roses (1962), I Could Go on Singing (1963), The Yellow Canary (1963), Act One (1963), Je vous salue, mafia! (1965), The Detective (1968), The Split (1968),  and Goodbye, Columbus (1969). On Broadway he appeared in Tchin-Tchin, The Odd Couple, and The Sudden & Accidental Re-Education of Horse Johnson.

In the Seventies Mr. Klugman continued to appear on The Odd Couple on television. In 1977 he was cast as medical examiner Dr. R. Quincy on the TV series Quincy M.E. The series originated as part of The NBC Mystery Movie before going onto another six years as its own programme. He also appeared on the shows The Name of the Game, Love American Style, and Banyon. He appeared in the films Who Says I Can't Ride a Rainbow! (1971), and Two-Minute Warning (1976). In the Eighties Mr. Klugman starred on the show You Again and appeared on the mini-series Around the World in Eighty Days. He appeared on Broadway in I'm Not Rappaport.

From the Nineties into the Naughts Mr.Klugman appeared on such shows as Diagnosis Murder, Brother's Keeper, The Outer Limits, Third Watch, and Crossing Jordan. He also appeared in a reunion television movie, The Odd Couple: Together Again with Tony Randall. He appeared in the films The Twilight of the Golds (1996), Dear God (1996), When Do We Eat? (2005), and Camera Obscura (2010). He appeaed on Broadway in The Sunshine Boys and Three Men on a Horse.

If Jack Klugman was a prolific actor, it was probably because he was a great actor. Although most people might be inclined to think of him as Oscar Madison from The Odd Couple and Dr. Quincy from Quincy M.E. (both two very different roles), he played a wide of roles in his career and did all of them quite well. Over the years he played everything from a police detective (in The Detective) to the getaway driver for a heist (The Split) to a gambling addict (Two-Minute Warning). He was not an actor who was afraid to show emotion either. His style was forthright, so that he always showed whatever emotion his characters were feeling. That having been said, Mr. Klugman never overplayed his role, displaying just enough feeling to be realistic. He was a great actor, not a ham.

Jack Klugman was also seemingly indestructible. In 1974 he was diagnosed with throat cancer, yet he continued acting. Even after the cancer returned in 1989 and he had a vocal cord removed, Mr. Klguman still returned to acting. Indeed, he continued to appear in roles until 2010, when he played his last role in Camera Obscura. Jack Klugman seemed unstoppable. He also seemed to be a genuinely nice man. In interviews he always seemed warm and open, and possessed of a great sense of humour. 

Jack Klugman spent five decades acting and appeared in three different media (film, television, and the stage).  He had roles in major motion pictures and two successful television series. Few actors ever achieved the success that Jack Klugman did, but then few actors were as talented as Jack Klugman was.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Ann Miller for Christmas

When people think of World War II pin ups they might be inclined to think of Betty Grable or Rita Hayworth, but I suspect gorgeous, leggy Ann Miler may have been the true queen of the pin ups. Not only did she do literally dozens of pin up pictures, but she also seemed to have at least one--usually more--for every single holiday or occasion. Quite naturally, then, she did several Christmas pin ups over the years. As a "Merry Christmas," "Glad Yule," "Happy Holidays," or what have you, then, I offer you a few Yuletide pin ups of the beautiful Ann Miller.

Merry Christmas!

Monday, December 24, 2012

It Happened on Fifth Avenue

When people think of holiday films, they are likely to think of It's a Wonderful Life (1946), Miracle on 34th Street (1947), or A Christmas Story (1943). They might also think of such films as Christmas in Connecticut (1945),  The Bishop's Wife (1947) and Holiday Affair (1949). Unless they happen be a classic movie buff, it is unlikely that they will think of It Happened on Fifth Avenue. This is sad, as it happens to be something of a lost gem from the same era as It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street (1947).

It Happened on Fifth Avenue is a comedy in which a hobo (Aloyisius T. McKeever, played by Victor Moore) makes his home in the mansion of the second richest man in the world (Michael J. O'Connor, played by Charles Ruggles), which is boarded up for the winter, every year starting in November until its wealthy owner returns in March. McKeever finds his usual occupancy of the mansion complicated when he takes in a young, newly homeless veteran (Jim Bullock, played by Don DeFore),  after which he is joined by O'Connor's runaway daughter (Trudy, played by Gale Storm, who pretends to be a thief) and later McKeever's friends (a young Alan Hale Jr. among them).

Interestingly enough, the history of It Happened on Fifth Avenue is tied to another holiday classic, It's a Wonderful Life. The film originated with the story "It Happened on Fifth Avenue" by Herbert Clyde Lewis and Frederick Stephani. Frank Capra acquired the rights to the story in 1945 with the intention of directing a movie based upon it. It was then planned that It Happened on Fifth Avenue would be the first film released by Liberty Films, newly formed by  Frank Capra and Samuel J. Briskin. This would never come to pass, as RKO head Charles Koerner suggested to Frank Capra that he read "The Greatest Gift," a story by  Philip Van Doren Stern optioned by RKO that the studio was unsuccessful in developing into a script. After reading the story, Frank Capra bought it from RKO with the intent of developing it as the first film to be released by Liberty Films. In the end, it would become the movie It's a Wonderful Life. As to It Happened on Fifth Avenue, Frank Capra sold the film rights to Monogram Pictures.

While It Happened on Fifth Avenue would not be the first film released by Liberty Films, it would become the first film released by Allied Artists. Allied Artists began as a subsidiary of Monogram Pictures, a Poverty Row studio known for z-grade movies. Anxious to get into the major motion picture business, Monogram Pictures established Allied Artists so they could make A-pictures without having to release them under the "Monogram" name. Producer and director Roy Del Ruth was set to direct It Happened on Fifth Avenue, while  stage and movie veterans Victor Moore and Ann Harding were cast in key roles. About a month later Don DeFore and Gale Storm were cast.

Despite being set at Christmas and having a holiday theme, It Happened on Fifth Avenue was released in the United States on 19 April 1947. Regardless, the film received generally good reviews and did well at the box office. The film was nominated for Academy Award for Best Original Story (it lost to another holiday classic, Miracle on 34th Street). A song from the film, "That's What Christmas Means to Me," would even be a minor hit for Eddie Fisher in 1952. It was released to television in 1954 as part of a package of Monogram Pictures and Allied Artists films. And over the years, it developed a loyal following. It would seem that it would have been destined to be counted among such holiday classics as It's a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street.

Unfortunately, things would not go smoothly for It Happened on Fifth Avenue. For whatever reason, It Happened on Fifth Avenue disappeared from television screens after 1990, and it remained unreleased on DVD for many years (the Warner Archive released the film in on DVD in November 2008). The film would not return to television until 2009 when Turner Classic Movies broadcast it in 2009 during the holiday season. Since then TCM has shown it at least once a year during the Yuletide.

I have to say that it is a real shame that It Happened on Fifth Avenue was not broadcast for twenty years, as it is a true holiday classic. In fact, of the holiday films released from what I consider the "Golden Age of Christmas Movies (about 1941 to 1949)," it is perhaps the one that touches upon the concerns of post-war America the most. It Happened on Fifth Avenue deals with soldiers returning from the war, the housing crisis that occurred upon their return, the problem of unemployment many soldiers experienced upon their return, and so on. That is not to say It Happened on Fifth Avenue is a boring sociological treatise. It also happens to be one of the funniest holiday movies ever made.

Much of this is due to Everett Freeman's adaptation of the story (with additional dialogue by Vicki Knight). While It Happened on Fifth Avenue takes a while to get started, once it gets started the laughs come fast and furious. Indeed, there is one conversation that is not only hilarious, but so innuendo laden I have to wonder how it got past the Breen Office. Of course, the script is helped by a fantastic cast, in which the lead roles are both played by two of the greatest character actors of all time--Victor Moore and Charles Ruggles. The two of them both give stand out performances that are among the best of any Christmas movie. While It Happened on Fifth Avenue may not have the big names that some other holiday films do (most notably It's a Wonderful Life  and The Bishop's Wife), it has one of the best casts of any of them. In the end, I have to say that It Happened on Fifth Avenue is one of the best holiday comedies. It might not be quite as funny as Christmas in Connecticut or The Lemon Drop Kid, but it almost so.

Fortunately, while It Happened on Fifth Avenue was not broadcast for twenty years, it appears to be making up for lost time. Those who saw it before it left the air in 1990 are now able to rediscover it, while many who have never seen it are able to find what has long been a lost gem among holiday movies. Since TCM started broadcasting the film in 2009, it has gathered yet more fans. While It Happened on 5th Avenue may not currently be regarded as a holiday classic in the same way that It's a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street are, it may soon be.

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.