Saturday, 8 April 2017

The Appeal of Quincy Magoo

You can talk about Gerald McBoing Boing and “Rooty Toot Toot” all you want, but UPA’s biggest success was an almost blind old man.

Mr. Magoo had remarkable staying power. During his theatrical life, he starred in TV commercials for G.E. and a couple of beer companies, as well as a public service message. In the ‘60s, he moved into TV syndication, headlined the first television cartoon Christmas special, and then appeared in series in both prime time and Saturday mornings.

After a while, the misreading-sign/mistaking-things-due-to-blurry-vision gags got really, really tiresome. But in his early theatrical days, Magoo could be entertaining. Many of the reasons are elucidated in this article in the British publication Picturegoer dated November 1, 1952. One big reason that doesn’t get mentioned, as it is focusing on art and animation technique, is the voice work of Jim Backus. Magoo is a little grumpy in the earlier cartoons, buoyant and optimistic as the ‘50s wore on.

The scan of this issue wasn’t very good, but the fuzzy cartoon frames are kind of appropriate for a guy who has trouble seeing.

MR. MAGOO Can’t be Ignored
Even without circuit support the latest cartoon character is catching on. And all because he is good at making mistakes

The latest thing in screen heroes—he’s already a cult in America and must by now be blushing with the number of bouquets he’s picked up in Britain—is a dignified, jocular little man, inquisitive, far from handsome and almost fatally short-sighted.
He’s as far removed from the conventional screen idol at the Volga is from the Mississippi. His name is Mr. Magoo, and he is the drawing board creation of thirty-three year old, Canadian-born Stephen Bosustow and a steadily growing cartoon unit called United Productions of America. Though established as a top cartoon star among United States picture-goers, who have formed Magoo Clubs up and down the country, Mr. Magoo is known over here more by reputation than by acquaintance.
For the little man’s adventures—the first arrived in local cinemas about eighteen months ago—rely on bookings from independent British cinemas. There has been a West End season of Magoo films; thirty or so London and home counties cinemas have opened their projection-room doors to Mr. M.—yet the big three circuits have ignored him.
In many American circles you are thought too slow to bother with unless you tell of mistaking a Picasso portrait for a mirror, or the patter on a girl’s blouse for a bus map, in typically Magoo manner.
And in spite of limited distribution on this side, Columbia says that a sizeable Magoo fan mail is being received at its London office. Which rather indicates that, given wider showings, Mr. Magoo could become Britain’s pet gag of the fifties, just as the Little Audrey joke was the fashion of the thirties.
What is there about Mr. Magoo that makes him as something original and exciting, something more than a passing fancy? Well, visually he’s one-dimensional, yet he seems real—a little fellow with believable habits and tastes.
Like many active oldsters, he looks slightly ridiculous in holiday shorts, sun hat and golfing shoes. Especially when he shakes hands with a water pump and, as it creaks protestingly, mutters to his nephew, “Quaint sense of humour these mountain folks; very dry and droll” (that’s in Grizzly Golfer).
Or when he hopefully shouts, “Foot fault,” to the tennis-playing walrus in Fuddy Duddy Buddy, It is typical of his good-tempered philosophy that when he is told he has been playing with a walrus he is downcast for only a moment, then says: “A walrus, eh? Well, I like him . . . I like him.
We feel we should call him “sir” as, with homburg hat, velvet-collared coat, gouty foot and stout cane, he limps on to a swinging girder and, when he has been lowered dangerously to earth, observes to the operator: “How often have you been working a lift, son?”
His creator began cartoon-drawing in the Disney studios, was responsible for the first animations of Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs and did the story of Bambi. He was unlucky in the Disney economy drive of 1941, formed United Productions of America in 1945. Then he had a staff of six; now it is a hundred plus.
He believes that the startling success of U.P.A. in the United States is due to a policy of “allowing freedom of artistic expression, which has attracted a staff of outstanding craftsmen.”
He has created a new cartoon idiom, strangely enough, by being both conservative and experimental in technique. He is conservative in his return to the early Disney method of emphasizing the flat unreality of his drawings. While Disney now strives for a three-dimensional, photographic realism, Bosustow exaggerates and distorts to emphasize the comic essence of his cartoon personalities.
Mr. Magoo and his colleagues do not move in the smooth, articulated manner of live stars, as Disney characters do. They jerk and leap, as only animated drawings can. The technical difference is that Disney has one animation of each frame, Bosustow has one to every two or three frames.
Bosustow and his associates, John Hubley and Art Babbitt, have experimented and evolved a lively, modern style that makes any single frame as gay and inventive as a “New Yorker” cover. In the Oscar-winning Gerald McBoing Boing, for example, the screen is a canvas on which only the most important details are sketched, with a flowing, witty line, enriched by bold yet subtle washes of colour.
The eye is drawn by the composition of the lines and patterns, and held by the sudden blossoming of shapes in the primary colours against delicate pastel backgrounds. When this draughtsmanship is linked with the galvanic activity of the figures, the movement of the camera, an extraordinary effect is created—as though Van Gogh had got mixed up with Felix the Cat.
U.P.A. characters are about people more real than some of those in many a “B,” live-action film. Subjects touch upon are adult and intelligent, yet the atmosphere is never ponderous, always lighthearted, often impudent.
Apart from a number of Mr. Magoo pictures, Columbia is releasing shortly Rooty Toot Toot, a lively folk-tale based on the Frankie and Johnny ballad, which was talked about at this year’s Edinburgh’s Festival; Popcorn Story, a satirical story about the inventor of popcorn; Family Circus, the story of a little girl who is the terror of her home until her father discovers that jealousy of her baby brother is the reason for her behaviour. This line-up illustrates the point about Bosustow and U.P.A.: they have evolved a formula for animated shorts that are meant for thinking adults yet also are a great delight to the children.


  1. The UPA Jolly Frolics cartoons have been released on DVD, as well as the complete Mr. Magoo theatrical shorts, the feature film "1001 Arabian Nights," the Christmas special "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol" and "Mr. Magoo: The Television Collection" which includes all of Magoo's television series and specials with the exception of the animated commercials and the Christmas Carol special, which is available separately. For several years, the theatrical cartoons were the hardest to obtain. The quality of all of this material varies wildly, and as to which is the most worthwhile viewing experience depends on individual taste. I for one am glad that all of this Magoo material has been released so that viewers can decide for themselves which ones are best.

    While the gag of Magoo mistaking one thing for another does get tiresome, it seems to have endless variations, because it is used over and over in different situations. Sometimes Magoo's eyesight is better, sometimes worse, depending on the situation. And contrary to what some people think, Magoo is not blind--he is near-sighted, which is a completely different issue. As a near-sighted person myself, I can totally relate to the world in which Magoo lives without glasses. When I do not have my glasses on, everything is quite distorted. And, yes, I have mistaken things--a towel for a small animal, for example--until I got close enough to see what it really was, or got my glasses on.

    But Magoo's main appeal, I think, is that even beyond the obvious near-sighted issues, he has some depth to his character. If he perceives that someone is in danger, for example, he will risk his life to help that person. And later as an actor in a repertory company, he performed a wide variety of roles that didn't always tie in with his near-sightedness. Of course, Jim Backus' characterization also adds depth which transcends the often-silly gags.

  2. In many of these cartoons, it's not just that Magoo is nearsighted...He often seems to have a shaky grasp on reality as well. Having seen the TV cartoons first, I had a hard time getting into the theatrical shorts because they moved so much slower than the 1960 series (which, to be honest, rarely rises above mediocre itself).

    1. The TV shorts are wretched blights. At least, they were when I saw them in the '60s. I doubt they've aged well. I've never seen the prime time thematic ones, but I'd hope they were better.

    2. I always thought that the '60 TV shorts were the best use of Magoo - present the premise, perform the gags, and iris out - all under six minutes. Anything longer than that is pushing it, which is why I feel the feature film and the DePatie-Freleng twelve-minute segments from the '77 show were ultimately unsuccessful. (And while I admire certain aspects of "...Christmas Carol" and "Famous Adventures of...", I believe those efforts were a misuse of the character.)

      The TV Magoos are comparable to those KFS-produced Popeye cartoons from the same year - some are good, and some are not so good. Generalizing both series as all terrible, as many do, is a mistake, in my opinion.

    3. Allow me to add, I also enjoy the Magoo theatrical shorts.

    4. Late to the party here because of a busy weekend, but the TV Magoos do benefit from better supporting voice work around Jim Backus, not only with Mel, but also people like Frank Nelson who only occasionally had done animation voices before.

      The animation's slightly better than the non-Paramount KFS Popeyes, and there definitely are some five-minute wastes of time in the group (especially the ones where Magoo only appears at the start and finish). But they're not a total loss as early 60s entertainment for the kids.

    5. To each his own. I was a kid in the early 60s. I saw the TV Magoos then. I wasn't entertained. I actively disliked them. I remember Abe Levitow's name on the credits and wondering why his cartoons were so bad; I evidently never noticed he had been credited at Warners.

  3. Magoo appeared in more than a couple of beer commercials. He appeared in a series of amusing commercials for Stag beer.

    1. I didn't say he appeared in a couple of beer commercials. I said he appeared in commercials for a couple of beer companies.

    2. My bad!'Sorry I misread that! By the way, what was the name of the other beer company?

    3. Rheingold. It was the first time Magoo was used in spots. UPA signed a deal in Feb. 1956 with Foote, Cone and Belding to use him in 60-second TV spots and other media.

  4. Ok, thanks. I've never seen that one, but I remember his General Electric commercials.