60 Years Ago Today: Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol

December 18, 1962 marked the television premiere of the semi-classic Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol.

This is a Christmas special that I think must have seemed a lot more special during the first few years of its existence, when there were only a dozen screen adaptations of A Christmas Carol, and not a dozen to the twelfth power, as there are now. Watching it again this year, I was struck by its oddness. It’s basically a straight version of the tale, done as a show-within-the-show, with “Magoo” playing Scrooge, which creates an effect not unlike the one generated by The Terror of Tiny Town: once your mind adjusts to the novelty of the cartoon cast, you’re just watching another version of A Christmas Carol. Most of the humor is in the framing device wherein the “real” Mr. Magoo (Jim Backus) is on his way to and from the production, causing his usual havoc along the way. Its virtues include UPA’s beautiful stylized mid-century backgrounds, terrific and even memorable songs by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill (who gave us “Razzleberry Dressing”), and a supporting voiceover cast that includes Morey Amsterdam, Jack Cassidy, Royal Dano, Paul Frees, Les Tremayne, Jane Kean, and Joan Gardner (who was also Tanta Kringle in Santa Claus is Coming to Town.) Its defects include VERY cheap and simple animation.

Now, as it happens, my recent screening of the special was shared with a younger person who didn’t know about Mr. Magoo apart from this holiday show (which I bet is more common than you might think), so I thought I would make this post double as a background on the character and the show in general. Mr. Magoo originated with a series of animated film shorts produced and shown in theatres from 1949 to 1959. Jim Backus’s Mr. Magoo character is an elderly man with bad eye-sight. To compound his predicament he is in denial about the situation and moves throughout life as anyone else would, causing accidents and mayhem where ever he goes. Cars crash and things catch on fire, while he blithely walks around on his errands never knowing that he is an engine of catastrophe. All the while, uttering Backus-isms like “By George, you’ve done it again, Magoo!”

Today’s take (by a substantial portion of the population) is that this premise is prohibitively insensitive. But it lasted a surprisingly long time. There was Mr. Magoo feature length version of 1001 Arabian Nights in 1959. After the theatrical films stopped being produced, there was a TV series that ran from 1960 through 1962. In this one he had a stereotyped Asian houseboy named Chollie! The animated version of the character with Backus was revived for The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo (1964-65), Uncle Sam Magoo (1970), and What’s New, Mr. Magoo? (1977). In 1997, Magoo was revived for a very ill-advised live action film version starring Leslie Nielsen. Magoo has been revived at other times and in other settings over the years, but you get the gist.