Review Of Mister
Magoo’s Christmas Carol
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 11/28/12
The best ever.
Let those words penetrate. I state them in reference to the titular work under review and, mind you, I have seen every film and telefilm ‘straight’ version of Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol, plus almost every humorous take on it- be it spoof or satire, from lame musical adaptations to modernized updates to the brilliant reworking of the tale in the first season of the great American television sitcom, The Odd Couple. But, the animated Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol is the best version ever of the tale, and that includes Dickens’ own often too heavyhanded morality play itself. The reason is that the cartoon takes on all the best elements of the source work, mitigates that work’s flaws, deepens its positives, and adds a goodly amount of its own improvements. It is, in short, one of the finest examples of television cartoonery ever made, and, interestingly, try as I might, I cannot find a single objective flaw in it. But, there is a flaw, albeit in my own criticism. I just stated that Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol is ‘one of the finest examples of television cartoonery ever made,’ and that is incorrect. In fact, it is THE finest example of television cartoonery ever made, with the caveat that I have only a great knowledge of American cartoonery. It is also a great example of pop art made for children that succeeds on other levels, not unlike such films as The Curse Of The Cat People and Godzilla’s Revenge.
Before I get into the meat of my critique, let me state the reason for my effusiveness, and that is because this year, 2012, marks the 50th anniversary of the cartoon’s first broadcast on network television (NBC, on December 18th, 1962), and that network is, after many years, reputedly bringing the classic back to its home this year on Saturday, December 22nd, 1962. For the last two decades, this classic has only been available on video releases (VHS, DVD, and Blu-Ray), unlike other Christmas cartoon classics, like Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, A Charlie Brown Christmas, and The Grinch Who Stole Christmas. While those are fine, and arguably great, cartoons, in their own right, Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol is better. It is also the equal of other holiday classics like It’s A Wonderful Life, the pilot film for The Waltons tv show: The Homecoming, and Edward Asner’s 1970s classic, The Gathering. Why this is so is puzzling. I first saw the show annually, as a child in New York City, on local stations like WPIX (Channel 11), but then it was dropped from most stations at the advent of video.
Having stated that, the color cartoon runs 52 minutes (for an hour long show- compare that to the typical 44 minute long shows today that fill up an hour with twice as man commercials) and has a few deviations from Dickens’ tale- such as the appearance of The Ghost Of Christmas Present coming before The Ghost Of Christmas Past, some character traits specific to the Magoo character (notably his bad eyesight and non-English accent), and- obviously, some musical numbers. But, in every instance, the changes improve the tale, deepen it, and help move the story along quicker. Plus, coming in 1962, it’s Postmodern, with its breaking of the fourth wall of drama, and Postmodern in the very best sense, not PoMo just to show off a gimmick.
But, first, the basics. The show opens with Quincy Magoo (voiced by the peerless Jim Backus) on the way to the theater where he will perform the stage version of the novella. And, at commercial breaks, we actually see that the proceedings we, the home television audience, see are actually Magoo and other actors performing for an audience in the theater. The prelude finds Magoo singing a catchy, very mid-20th Century Broadwayvian tune called It’s Great To Be Back On Broadway. Unfortunately, in later airings of the special, the opening and closing ‘extra-Dickensian’ material was often omitted for commercials- a TERRIBLE choice that, while not fatal, reduces the cartoon to merely a very good rendition of the Dickens tale from a GREAT work of pop art, in its own right.
And, here is where I should debunk another urban legend regarding this cartoon, and that is that the show’s producers, Lee Orgel, Henry G. Saperstein, and UPA Animation, used another of their characters, Gerald McBoing-Boing, in the role of Tiny Tim. Some critics have even claimed that McBoing-Boing is listed as an ‘actor’ in the end credits. This is not true- at least of the full, unbowdlerized version of the show I watched on Netflix. The fact of the matter is that, in the animation Dark Ages of the late 1950s to late 1980s, many studios- from Warner Brothers to Disney to Hanna-Barbera to UPA to Famous Cartoons to MGM, often used knock off and generic versions of more well known characters in minor roles (often in the same cartoons as the ‘star’ characters, as a cost cutting device (hence the derogatory ‘cookie cutter cartoons’ claim that many critics rightly leveled at productions in this era, and, actually, in previous Golden Ages, as well). Go ahead, rewatch some old Looney Tunes, Disney shorts, Courageous Cat And Minute Mouse, Rocky And Bullwinkle, Casper the Friendly Ghost, Little Audrey, or Felix The Cat cartoons, and this manifests itself. The character of Tiny Tim, while looking like Gerald McBoing-Boing, acts nothing like that character (most obviously in having an actual articulate voice (Joan Gardner, who also does The Ghost Of Christmas Past), not a bevy of special effects noises), and, unless there is definitive diegetic proof of this claim (beyond later claims on some DVD commentaries), the McBoing-Boing as Tiny Tim claim is just cookie cutter cost saving-cum- anecdoture.
As the play starts, the blend of Dickens’ themes and the superb musical numbers by Jule Styne, book by Bob Merrill (both of Funny Girl fame), conducted by Walter Scharf, put to shame many of the books of real overrated Broadway musicals, and I, for one, would love to see an expanded adaptation of this cartoon on a real live stage, with human actors (herein a live amateur production), rather than the crap that geniuses feel the public wants (The Lion King, Spider-Man, etc.). The first song within the ‘play’ is Ringle, Ringle, wherein Scrooge delights over the value of pelf as Bob Cratchit (voiced by the underrated Jack Cassidy) sings the refrain of ‘It’s cold.’ Later on, after Scrooge’s epiphany, the same song is used, with slightly altered lyrics, to deftly portray the change in the man’s attitude. But, while lyrics like ‘coins when they mingle,’ and then their being meant for ‘passing around’ are solid, the song’s hook is when they are called ‘little eyepoppers,’ and Magoo, as Scrooge uses one as a monocle, literally showing the obsession of Scrooge that brilliantly collapses the picture is worth a thousand words canard.
Scrooge then berates charity workers, Cratchit, and heads home, wherein a genuinely frightful (for children) vision of his dead partner, Jacob Marley (Royal Dano), foretells Scrooge’s future hauntings which, as mentioned, are nonsequential, for diehard Dickensians. The Ghost Of Christmas Present (Les Tremayne) takes Scrooge to the Cratchit household where we get the sweet, complex, antiphonal, elegiac, but uplifting The Lord’s Bright Blessing, which ends with the claim of ‘a Christmas far more glorious than grand,’ which is notable in its utter lack of dumbing down for people who might equate glorious and grand for synonyms. It’s a grand song, and I’d suggest that people watch the above Youtube link for the song and its reprise. When The Ghost Of Christmas Past visits, we see Scrooge as a young child, resigned to a lonely schoolroom dunce corner, tracing an outline of his four fingered hand on a chalkboard, and wailing All Alone In The World (first by himself, then in a duet with his older self), which contains such stellar lyrics as this:
A hand for each hand was planned for the world
Why don’t my fingers reach?
Millions of grains of sand in the world
Why such a lonely beach?
Now recall, this is a song ostensibly crafted for a ‘childrens’ cartoon, yet all but the top tenth of a percent or so of Broadway and pop songs lack such wonderfully self-reflexive yet wise and knowing lyrics as these. Then, the reprise of this song takes on a totally different tenor when it’s re-sung by the older Scrooge, alone, sitting on his grave, shown to him by The Ghost Of Christmas Yet To Come. But, The Ghost Of Christmas Past also shows Scrooge his young love, Belle (Jane Kean), whom he eventually drives away with his ‘wisdom’ of insecure greed. She then croons the enchanting Winter Was Warm, and, again, this song condenses so many of the more maudlin, saccharine, and didactic passages that plague Dickens’ source work. As if the bowdlerizing of this cartoon by dropping off its Postmodern frame was not bad enough, many television stations also cut this classic song from the special.
This episode then gives way to the appearance of the Grim Reaper-like The Ghost Of Christmas Yet To Come. Several vignettes are terrific, including the graveyard scene that sees the reprise of All Alone In The World, but the scene (and song) that is most fondly remembered by most people who recall the cartoon at all, is We’re Despicable (Plunderer's March). The song takes place between four fiends who laugh after Scrooge’s death, when the laundress, charwoman, and undertaker try to sell Scrooge’s wares to a pawn shop owner. Great voice actor Paul Frees voices the undertaker and pawn shop owner. It’s a great comic interlude, and the sort of song that, despite being the least noteworthy, musically. Yet, incredibly, in one of the few online reviews of the cartoon, a bad critic, named Mark Anderson, of Blogcritics, used this song’s very strengths in a critique against the cartoon:
Things begin with your typical Magoo-ish sight (or lack thereof) gags, but quickly move to a very standard performance of Dickens' classic, and, oddly enough, it's the faithful rendition that really cheesed me off.
Where's the fun?! Not once in the entire Christmas Carol portion is Magoo really Magoo. I mean he's counting stacks of coins for crying out loud! Somehow Magoo is able to give a brilliant performance on stage, but once he's off he's back to walking into the women’s' dressing room?! What gives?!
Honestly, what's the point of having a Magoo special if you're not going to take advantage of the comic possibilities? Why not just do a non-Magoo version and save me the disappointment? (Gerald McBoing-Boing as Tiny Tim is irritating too, but still not as bad as Magoo.)
Sadly, not only did they drop the ball character-wise, but decided to make it a musical to boot. Jules Styne's and Bob Merrill's music is grating at best. Take this lyric, sung by thieves looting Scrooge after his death - “We’re reprehensible/we’ll steal your pen and pencible!”
"Pencible?!" What the hell is that?!
When one reads such pap from a claimed critic it makes one embarrassed. First off, to open with the song lyrics, the comic corruption of pencil to pencible is brilliant, and an essential part of songwriting in the Tin Pan Alley tradition, wherein corruptions and malapropisms are standard fare. Then there’s the claim that Scrooge is no Magoo enough. It makes one wonder if this person actually watched the show, because, both inside and outside the ‘play’ there are numerous references to Magoo’s personality and near blindness. In fact, The Ghost Of Christmas Present even notes that Scrooge refuses to buy spectacles for his cheapness. Go find that in Dickens’ original novella, Mr. Anderson. In fact, the whole scene where Magoo is salivating over his gold coinage gives in to the Magoo persona when, as I noted, he makes a monocle of one of the ‘little eyepoppers’! And, of course, Anderson repeats the Gerald McBoing-Boing myth. I won’t even give more time to this idiocy, save to say that Mr. Anderson should stick to his comic strips.
The cartoon play ends with an even more upbeat reprise of The Lord’s Bright Blessing, then the frame of the stage play sees Magoo accepting applause and, literally, bringing down the house- in an overt nod to the Magoo character that obviously eluded the Blogcritic. But, simply reading my praise, or even following the assorted video links within, does not do this cartoon justice. The animation, in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio, while a standard cheap look for a 1960s cartoon, actually enhances this production, for the minimalism 1) heightens the focus on the interior lives and thoughts and feelings of the characters and 2) allows for a poetic transition of images from humorous to scary at the turn of a lyric, or change of a color. Color plays off itself in odd ways that make Abstract Expressionism an even more obvious fraud than it is, by comparison. Director Abe Levitow deserves great praise for getting this production done in only a few months, and Barbara Chain deserves equal props for her deft, comic, and utterly seamless screenplay.
I watched the show on Netflix, in an hour and 17 minute version that included an episode of the 1964 television series spun off from this special, The Famous Adventures Of Mr. Magoo, but any unbowdlerized version will do, and such can be found on VHS, DVD, Netflix, or even Youtube. Hopefully the 50th Anniversary broadcast will be likewise faithful to the original version because I guarantee that any lover of art and cartoons will not be disappointed. This is a great cartoon, work of pop art, and, yes, art itself. And, as stated re: an adaptation of A Christmas Carol:
The best ever.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Salon website.]
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