Christmas is coming, and there will be television specials aplenty for the whole family!
That’s long been one of the most enjoyable parts of this wonderful holiday. The (ahem) children in our lives have so much to choose from, including classic marionette/stop motion/animated specials likeThe Spirit of Christmas(1953), Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer(1964), A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) and How the Grinch Stole Christmas!(1966).
It may surprise you to know the first animated Christmas special made specifically for a U.S. television audience featured an unconventional protagonist. He was a short, bald, elderly man with a popular catchphrase, “Oh Magoo, you’ve done it again!”
Yes, the loveable and near-sighted Mr. Magoo holds this unusual distinction.
UPA introduced him in the animated short The Ragtime Bear (1949). He was created by two left-wing artists: Millard Kaufman and John Hubley, an ex-Communist. Mr. Magoo therefore appeared as a somewhat angry, Joseph McCarthy-like reactionary figure. Other possible inspirations included comedian W.C. Fields, Harvard University professor Francis Peabody Magoun, and the artists’ uncles.
Magoo’s famous voice was done by Jim Backus. He would gain notoriety with several other memorable roles, including Thurston Howell III in Gilligan’s Island.
Columbia Pictures was reluctant to release this cartoon, and only did so because of the banjo-picking bear. Yet, it was Mr. Magoo who turned The Ragtime Bearinto a box office success. UPA realized they had created something special, and started expanding his character.
Magoo was given the first name Quincy. He was depicted as a Rutgers University graduate who came from an affluent background. He (mostly) refused to wear his glasses, which caused many near-fatal accidents and calamities—and often led to him talking to animals and inanimate objects instead of to people. The McCarthy-like bark was eliminated, and replaced with biting satire and amusing rants directed at secondary characters such as his nephew Waldo, a stereotypically Asian houseboy named Charley, and his cat Bowser.
Mr. Magoo was featured in 53 theatrical cartoons. When Magoo Flew(1955) and Magoo’s Puddle Jumper(1956) won Academy Awards for Best Short Subject (Cartoons), while Trouble Indemnity (1950),Bathtub Horn(1950) and Pink and Blue Blues(1952) received nominations.
He would also star in three animated TV series between 1960 and 1977: Mister Magoo, The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magooand What’s New, Mr. Magoo?A 1997 live action film, Mr. Magoo, starring Leslie Nielsen, bombed in the theatres – as did Kung-Fu Magoo, a 2010 Mexican-American animated film. A 2018 French-American animated series, Mr. Magoo, is still in production and getting good reviews.
Which brings us to Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol. This historically important Christmas special first aired on NBC on Dec. 18, 1962. It ran for 53 minutes, more than double its particular genre. (A Charlie Brown Christmasand How the Grinch Stole Christmas! have running times of 25 minutes.)
All things considered, it was a huge gamble on NBC’s part. Could Mr. Magoo, the star of animated shorts, keep an audience engaged for this long? Jim Hill, an animation and entertainment blogger/podcaster, amusingly wrote on Nov. 27, 2006 that this adaptation “never should have worked. I mean, the very idea of nearsighted Quincy Magoo as Ebenezer Magoo. What kind of lamebrained idea is that?”
As usual, Mr. Magoo defied expectations with his near-sighted…er, far-reaching appeal.
The show was written by Barbara Chain, directed by Abe Levitow and included original songs/lyrics from Jule Styne and Bob Merrill. Backus provided Magoo’s voice, while noteworthy actors (Morey Amsterdam, Jack Cassidy, Paul Frees) and actresses (Joan Gardner, Jane Kean) voiced supporting roles like Bob Cratchit, Fezziwig and Tiny Tim.
Noel Murray of the entertainment website AV Club noted on Dec. 20, 2010 that it was “one of the first TV shows to place an existing character within the rough outline of Charles Dickens’ classic novella about an elderly miser named Ebenezer Scrooge and the series of ghosts who provide him with some historical perspective on his life.” There will always be appreciation for a modern adaptation that respects the original text and keeps a lid on artistic liberty. The abbreviated, child-friendly version also remained true to the original 1843 story, and contained subtle religious/traditional references that some TV viewers appreciated.
Young viewers simply enjoyed watching a brilliant TV special featuring one of the most beloved animated characters of all time.
As the story unfolds, Mr. Magoo is playing the starring role of Ebenezer Scrooge in a Broadway musical production of A Christmas Carol. Driving his trademark old-fashioned jalopy, he arrived 30 minutes late and nearly took out the director. Nevertheless, he gave a stupendous acting performance showing different sides of Scrooge’s character. This included the miserly old man with a lump of coal in his heart, the fearful time-traveller visited by the Ghosts of Christmas Present, Past and Yet to Come, and his full embrace of the Christmas season.
The audience roared in appreciation. Magoo brought out the director to take a bow, but accidentally took him backstage where all the props fell on him. “Ah, Magoo, you’ve done it again,” he says, “and by George, I’ve brought down the house!”
The show “was such a hit,” Murray wrote, “that it opened the floodgates for Christmas cartoons on TV” – including the ones we enjoy today.
NBC ran Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carolannually until 1969. They finally brought it back in 2012 in a shortened form and with cuts for commercials. The CW ran the entire show in 2014, although the new NBC version returned the following year.
Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carolis available on DVD and Blu-ray. If you are lucky, you’ll find it in The Original Christmas Classicsbox set that I’ve had for years. It’s the perfect gift or stocking stuffer, and a great way to get acquainted (or reacquainted) with Mr. Magoo’s misadventures and the animated Christmas special that begat so many others.
Merry Christmas, everyone!
Michael Taube, a Troy Media syndicated columnist and political commentator, was a speechwriter for former Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper.