Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Brits, Backus and Magoo

The Brits love their comedy, from James Robertson Justice to Norman Wisdom, to the Carry On films to Monty Python to Blackadder to Red Dwarf and, well, the list is endless.

They love cartoons as well, and not just the ones made back home (the original Willo the Wisp with the voice of Kenneth Williams is a personal favourite). Hanna-Barbera’s series appear(ed) on TV. And another favourite was that irrepressible vision-impaired codger Mr. Magoo.

Picture Show Annual was an English publication chock full of autographed photos of the stars (from both sides of the Atlantic) and a few articles. In the 1961 edition, a short piece on Magoo made it into print. 1½ of the two pages were photos so the text was limited to the size of the average wire service entertainment column in the U.S. It talks a little about Backus and a little about cartoon-making, and was published in the wake of UPA’s last hurrah—the Arabian Knights feature film that shoehorned Magoo into the plot to make it more saleable.
Everybody loves Mr. Magoo the cartoon character—he’s the little man who always makes big mistakes. A near-sighted retired banker, age has not brought him wisdom and usually he bungles his way through life although somehow, whatever horrible misadventures have befallen him, he comes out on top. Jim Backus is the American actor whose voice supplies life and personality to Magoo. He describes him as “the pompous little business man rather the equivalent of England’s Colonel Blimp.”
Backus will tell you that anyone can submit a story for the Magoo cartoons and that “I do the voice first then the film is made later.” It seems he can record the voice anywhere—sometimes does so in his bedroom—and rarely sees the completed product.
“Very few people know that Magoo’s first name is Quincy,” he says. For himself Backus is “happy and a little unhappy” about Magoo. Happy financially—his bank is impressed—and unhappy because his own name, he will point out, carries little weight with people but he only has to say “Mr. Magoo speaking” and he immediately achieves effect.
Backus’ own life began in 1913 in Cleveland, Ohio. Apart from his versatility as an actor on radio, television (including the husband in the I Married Joan series and other shows), stage and in films, in Hollywood where he lives with his wife Henrietta (Henny) Kay he is known as a wit and gives out with many droll expressions.
The Technicolor cartoons in which Mr. Magoo stars are made by United Productions of America and since the late 1940’s when the character was first formed there have been more than 50 short subjects and one full-length film—1001 Arabian Nights. It took just over three years for the latter cartoon to be completed and it was based on the most popular of the Scheherazade tales, that of Aladdin and his magic lamp with Abdul Aziz Magoo as a lamp-seller of old Baghdad.
Magoo’s scenes were evolved by the UPA staff who knew him best, therefore his reactions were quite routine, but the following will give you an idea of the gigantic task of making a full-length cartoon.
The movements of the individual characters are created by changing their position on stationary backgrounds. This illusion is accomplished by painting the characters on separate transparent strips of celluloid called “cels.” More than half a million cels had to be inked and painted to complete the film which ran nearly an hour and a half.

Backus got a first-hand look at what the English thought of his comedy. Syndicated columnist Charles Witbeck interviewed Backus about it. This appeared in North American papers on July 6, 1961 when Backus was failing in a starring TV role.
Jim Backus Very Large in London

Special Press Writer
Hollywood—Jim Backus has been running around the country on weekends pushing products for sponsors of Hot Off The Wire, his syndicated TV series about a newspaper reporter, and his handshake and jokes send sales up because he's a very likeable and funny man. Then he returns to MGM studios to film another epic. Backus once threatened never to return to TV, a noble gesture, but be sneaked in the back via the syndication system. "I hate that word syndicated." he said. "I keep thinking I'm working for the Mafia."
Naturally he is thinking of money and is hoping the show will go two years. "Our ratings have doubled," he said, but he can't figure out how the Madison Avenue advertising boys think about his chances. "It's always, 'Boy, that's marvelous.' You can't get a positive statement out of them."
Jim has also done 138 Mr. Magoo TV shorts in order to keep away from the golf course and he and wife Henny are in the middle of their second book.
His first, "Rocks On The Roof," went through five printings, and his second, at the moment, has two titles, "Back To Backus" or "We Never Left The Ground," the latter picked because the book concerns the couple traveling about Europe in train and auto.
"We don't know how we're going to get through the second book. The first took about thirteen years of material. I don't know where the rest is coming from." In publicizing his first book, Jim made the big trip, signing autographs in department stores and speaking at ladies' luncheons. He toured with Pappy Boyington and Leon Uris, author of "Exodus," who was then unknown, and Backus used to try to push Uris a bit, for fear he might be left out.
"I'll never forget my first banquet in Beverly Hills where I got drunk with power," Jim said. "Eighty women showed up and we sold ninety-two books. Two weeks later I was going to talk to the male side of the club. I told the bookstore owner to get a truck so we wouldn't run out of copies.
"Three-hundred men showed up and I went into my spiel and they laughed a bit. Afterwards I expected a long line to form in front of the books. I never saw the line. We managed to get rid of two books. There I learned my first lesson—men do not buy books.
"Now If I had given them a big pitch about helping out a deserving child, the money would be carted out in a bucket, but I wasn't hep to literary rules."
Traveling in Europe, which will be the subject of book number two, brought Jim and Henny to London, where they turned out to be very popular. It seems Mr. Magoo is a smash over there and so is the old TV series, I Married Joan, which starred the late Joan Davis and had Backus as husband and judge.
"The English think it's funny, because a judge is a very dignified person, and to see him buffeted about by his wife is hilarious to them," Backus said.
"We come on over there at 8:30 on Sunday nights and I asked a TV man how many people watched it.
"'I should imagine everyone,' he said quietly."
Backus then asked what was running opposite his show. The man said he didn't have the faintest idea. It turned out to be a knitting show.
But the point is the British aren't interested in ratings or how many people are really looking in.
Mr. Backus likes this disinterest in the business part and hopes to spend more time in the cultivated city where he is a hero.
But at the moment he just wants to be a prisoner at MGM, seeing this is the U. S. and sponsors do care about ratings.
When these articles appeared in print, Magoo was Backus’ biggest success. After the failure of his newspaper sitcom, he lasted one summer hosting a replacement variety show in 1962, then was cancelled after 13 episodes of Blondie in 1968. In between was, perhaps, Backus’ most famous role on a ridiculous-but-loveable slapstick sitcom called Gilligan’s Island. Whatever horrible misadventures on television befell him, he came out on top, as the Brits might say.


  1. Ralph Stevenson's book Animation in the Cinema showed how popular Magoo was in England, presenting him as the leading light in American theatrical cartoon characters, possibly behind only Mickey and Donald at Disney (Joe Adamson's 1975 book on Tex Avery referred to Stevenson's book as "The Outrage of Ralph", while my main memory of what set Adamson off was his virtual dismissal of all non-Disney/UPA work, as well as his reference to Elmer Fudd as "A Magoo-like character".

  2. I love Magoo. I recently read an article which stated that Magoo is no longer funny. I disagree. I collect Magoo memorabilia and have it on display with my other cartoon collectables. Jim Backus and Magoo to me are as important as any of the rest of cartoon royalty. Magoo will always be funny to me. He will always be wonderful as well.