Saturday, 16 December 2017

Putting the Magoo in Christmas

As much as A Charlie Brown Christmas and How the Grinch Stole Christmas are loved and seen every Yuletide season on TV (and whenever people want on DVD), they weren’t the first animated Christmas specials on the tube.

The honour goes to Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, which appeared for the first time 55 years ago today. In Canada, that is. The CBC aired the special two days before NBC back in a day when Canadian television broadcast American shows before American TV did so Canadians would tune into Canadian channels.

Unlike the other two, which were annual events in our home (along with a few later seasonal offerings), I couldn’t be bothered watching Magoo. I had seen the TV Magoo cartoons and all they did was make me angry. It was the same annoying old thing, cartoon after cartoon after cartoon. Magoo misread a sign. Magoo mistook something for something else. Magoo would get into trouble without knowing it and someone would rescue him, with Magoo none the wiser. And why was that Chinese guy saying “Magloo” anyway? Who talks like that?

To be honest, I don’t even recall the special being on. That could be because it originally aired on network TV only from 1962 to 1967.

However, I was a minority. Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol received good ratings on NBC and there was much critical acclaim after the first broadcast. And there was a good deal of fanfare just prior to the airing. UPA may have cheapened out on the TV Magoo and Dick Tracy cartoons but it spent $300,000 on this hour-long special, ponying up for six original songs from the composers of Funny Girl on Broadway and a good voice cast, led by the great Jim Backus as Magoo/Scrooge.

Here’s a story that I suspect originated from a news release by the publicity department at UPA. It’s unbylined and appeared in the Salamanca Republican-Press of December 12, 1962. Backus comes up with some funny quotes. I’d love to hear Backus as Ethel Merman. Backus skips a story he told columnist Hal Humphrey while plugging the special in the Los Angeles Times. Backus claimed he had become the highest-paid actor per second in Hollywood, getting $3500 (plus residuals) for five minutes of work for saying “little old wine maker, ME!” in an Italian Swiss Colony wine spot (he needed two takes). He said a commercial producer had rejected him for a job and wanted a cheaper Backus imitator, but then heard the wine spot, and demanded his agency hire the voice to be his replacement Backus. Ol’ Jim seems to have relished the shock the guy had when he discovered who it was.

By the way, this may be one of the few times the lacklustre Spunky and Tadpole got mentioned in a newspaper article.
TV Finds a New Scrooge in 'Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol'
A Christmas tradition during the high-riding days of radio was Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" with the late Lionel Barrymore in the tragicomedy role of Ebenezer Scrooge.
No actor since has quite been able to fill Mr. Barrymore's shoes when it came to portraying the grasping miser who turns philanthropist after a series of ghostly visions of the past, present and future.
On Tuesday evening, Dec. 18, over NBC-TV, a new Scrooge will be unveiled to millions of television viewers — and he will look mighty familiar. An hour-long musical adaptation of Dickens' classic in color and in animation will star the near-sighted Mr. Magoo in a special holiday show, "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol."
Veteran movie and TV actor Jim Backus will provide the rasping voice for Mr. Magoo, as he has done for more than 500 cartoons in which the irascible little man blinkingly blunders his way through life.
The musical score will be provided by Jule Styne with lyrics Robert Merrill. UPA, producers of the show, hope the program will become a Christmas perennial along with "The Wizard of Oz" and "Amahl and the Night Visitors."
Backus, who created Magoo a number of years ago, said the show hewed closely to the original novella by the famed English writer who penned it almost a century ago. "One doesn't tamper with a classic of this stature," he added. "Mobs of howling Dickens fans would rise up in rebellion throughout the country. We would all be swinging from yardarms."
Millions of Mr. Magoo fans will be pleased to note also that Backus has not changed his creation's belligerent manner of speaking.
"Usually the voice of cartoon characters are pretty anonymous and really not memorable," he added "but Magoo is Magoo and we couldn't change his bellow for all the money in the world. He may not be as old as Scrooge, but he has a pretty large following, too."
Other actors and actresses who give life to the animated characters and whose faces would be more familiar to audiences than their voices, are Morey Amsterdam of "The Dick Van Dyke Show"; Royal Dano, well known character actor who has played Abraham Lincoln on TV; singer Jean Kean [sic], who recently appeared in "Carnival" on Broadway, and Jack Cassidy, well-known Broadway and recording star, who portrays Bob Crachit.
Multi-voiced actress Joan Gardner will play several roles in the cartoon feature — Tiny Tim, Ghost of Christmas Past, as well as a little boy and a charwoman. Miss Gardner, who specializes in little boy roles, recently completed the voice role of Spunky in the syndicated series, "Spunky and Tadpole."
The Ghost of Christmas Present will be handled by actor Les Tremayne, the first time he has done a cartoon voice. A veteran of radio's "The First Nighter" for ten years, he has appeared in numerous TV series as a character actor.
The real star of the show is, of course, Mr. Magoo himself and even his creator does not take this away from him. "If Magoo creates enough interest for the kids to have them read the original story that will be reward enough for me," Backus said.
"Magoo was born as the result of my frequent train travel," Backus said. "He was the prototype of many men I had occasion to watch on the club car. He was bombastic and rude, a regular American 'Colonel Blimp.' He wasn't nearsighted when he was first drawn up at UPA. He just got that way, I guess, by trying to peer into other people's business."
A veteran of two other series in addition to his "Mr. Magoo" features, Backus was recently in formed that his 117 episodes opposite the late Joan Davis in "I Married Joan" had been seen by more human beings than any other TV show in the world due to its global syndication.
"Unfortunately I did this show before anyone knew about re-run money," he grinned. "So I got paid off in suits of clothes, funnily enough. I got a tremendous wardrobe and when I had to fork out some money for something I paid off in suits."
Backus said he has often been approached to do another television series and admits he has been considering the proposition with some interest.
"Doing a television series is like childbirth," he said. "You know, a woman has a hard time and says 'Never again. No more children.' Two years later she's back in the hospital having another child. Television is like that. You forget about the long hours and the hard work. Yeah, I guess I would do another show if the right thing came along."
Backus admits that he is not a "Man of a Thousand Voices" like some of his colleagues in the cartoons.
"The only imitations I can do are Ethel Merman and the principal of the high school I attended. I don't think I'm turning into a Magoo type, but I'm afraid I'm getting to look like him.
Director Abe Levitow, in charge of the production, said 10,000 drawings were made by UPA artists for "Mr. Magoo's Christens Carol" and that the hour-long show contains 300 backgrounds, some 600 scenes, 2,000 different shades of paint to get the proper colors and more than 200 sound tracks were employed to get the "right" voices.
"It took a week to record the speaking parts and we used an orchestra of 31 men, directed by Walter Scharf. Some 30 technicians worked full time on all production phases for more than a year, Levitow said.
Producer Lee Orgel said the biggest problem faced on the show — aside from technical ones — was licking Dickens.
"He had so much great dialogue in his book that we hesitated to tamper with it," he added. "Most of it was very subtle. But we got around it. With one song, 'Winter Was Warm,' for instance, we tell a portion of the story in 107 seconds that Dickens used 40 pages to tell."
Henry G. Sapersten, [sic] president of UPA, said "We think we have created something that will be shown every Christmas for years to come. We hope we have contributed something to the holiday spirit and feeling of good will that the season engenders."
You remember Jack Gould, TV critic for the New York Times, and how he ended up with pterodactyl egg on his face for decreeing in 1960 that The Flintstones was “an inked disaster.” And, once again, he proves to be (to mix seasonal special metaphors) a Grinch by putting coal in Magoo’s Christmas stocking. His review read:
“Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol,” seen over N.B.C., was an attempt to cast a near-sighted cartoon character in a liberal variation on the Charles Dickens classic. Mr. Magoo, of course, was cast as Scrooge, with Jim Backus as the voice. Unfortunately, the Magoo Scrooge was neither particularly amusing nor was his meanness convincing. For fleeting moments there was a delicate and haunted touch through the proceedings, but on the whole the program was much too labored and, in the introductory sequence, a shade course.
Oh, (Ma)Gould, you’ve done it again! Audiences disagreed with his Flintstones assessment, and they did when it came to the Magoo special. A.C. Neilsen reported it ranked 19th in its first broadcast and then ninth a year later (Variety, May 27, 1964). It hit for ratings in the high 20s and shares in the upper 30s in its first four years (Variety, April 20, 1966). But Timex apparently decided Magoo was taking a licking and the special was abandoned to keep on ticking elsewhere. Its 1967 numbers were a 20.2 rating and a 32 share, compared with a 34.3 rating and 51 share for A Charlie Brown Christmas (Variety, April 17, 1968). Another factor may have been the length; buying an hour of network prime time must have been extremely expensive. In 1970, Christmas Carol was paired with Mr. Magoo’s Little Snow White and shown in theatres on weekend matinees, and to decent audiences.

(As a side note, while the Toronto Globe and Mail liked Magoo [see above left], not all Canadian reviewers did. Les Wedman of the Vancouver Sun decided “Mr. Magoo and Charles Dickens just don’t mix,” that for children “it was an hour of waiting for Mr. Magoo to be funny,” for grown-ups Magoo “lacked any of the believability” that Lionel Barrymore, Basil Rathbone or Seymour Hicks had as Scrooge and declared the whole programme “humbug.”)

Today we have the internet and people uploading all kinds of video, copyright and public domain, on various sites so you can, no doubt, watch Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol if you don’t have it on DVD. And, better still, director Darrell Van Citters realised someone had to write the definitive history of TV’s first animated Christmas special—so he did it, thanks to an enormous amount of careful research. The book is sold out but you can find out more about the special on Darrell’s web site and even more on his blog.


  1. It actually does hold up well 55 years later because outside of the bracketing opening and closing of the 'Broadway play' with Magoo in his normal nearsighted trouble-causing role, they played the story straight, the songs were memorable, and Backus' Scrooge portrayal of Magoo was sort of a call-back to the character's angry, bull-headed personality as used by John Hubley, before it was softened over the years by Pete Burness and the UPA wirters.

  2. My favorite Christmas special. Even though the opening credits say "freely adapted" it's amazing how much is word for word from Dickens. And the music is great (except for "Back on Broadway"). I would love to have seen it in its original projected 90 minute form with act breaks showing Magoo backstage arguing with the director.

    1. The "Back on Broadway" song is necessary, though, particularly for audiences of the time who were familiar with Magoo as a "modern day" character. It sets up the rest of the special and establishes a solid reason why Magoo morphs into the character of Scrooge. It's also a chance to get in some of the familiar nearsighted gags before settling down to the actual story. Magoo had appeared as a semi-professional actor in some of the theatrical shorts as well as one or two of the made-for-TV shorts, but this had never been particularly emphasized until "Christmas Carol" and later on in the series "The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo" which similarly opened with Magoo as actor before delving into the role of the week.

      Network airings of "Magoo's Christmas Carol" generally lop off the opening and closing sequences to make room for today's larger number of required commercials, and while it thus goes directly into the story with no preliminaries, it eliminates the concept that Magoo is playing a role. My two cents' worth is that this weakens the premise--might as well have a generic cartoon Scrooge.

      I agree that it is amazing how much of Dickens' actual text is preserved. And Jim Backus' Magoo-as-Scrooge voice is arguably the most spirited rendition of the character since Lionel Barrymore.

    2. Magoo could even just BE Scrooge (I.e., with absoultely NO backstage stuff) and I'd be happier than a Christmas turkey in razzleberry dressing. A largely serious take, it does have the famous "We're Just no Good" song, with Paul Frees doing that deep voice and a light one, and Laura Olsher & Joan Garnder as well. But how come they switched around a few ghosts? :) SC Oddly, Jim Backus's Thurston Howell on "Gilligan's Island" (which debujted two years later, 1964), who was really "greedy", never portrayed a Scrooge type on Gilligan, even in a dream...though all kind sof other stories got spoofed on the Island.:)SC

  3. A dear friend of mine who grew up in Ontario, saw the first broadcast of Magoo's Christmas Carol on Canadian Television. The family later moved to New York, where he still never missed an airing. Must have been some special childhood memories.I remember as an adult, he owned a VHS copy.