Monday, December 20, 2010

Memories of Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol

I ran across this Lorain Journal TV listing for Friday, December 13, 1963 while reviewing microfilm for all those Christmas ads I've been posting.

Of course, the thing that caught my eye (besides the TV listing for I'm Dickens... He's Fenster) is the photo promoting the broadcast of Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol, one of my all-time favorite holiday specials.

What a lot of people may not know is that Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol was the very first animated holiday special produced for television. It first aired on NBC-TV in 1962, beating the perennial favorite Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964) by two years, and A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) by three.

Back in the 1960's, it was a big deal waiting for these specials to show up on the TV schedule. You had one chance to see them and if you missed them, too bad – you had to wait another year to see it again. That made them really special.

And Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol really was special. It's an excellent adaptation of the classic tale, complete with memorable characters and wonderful tunes.

The concept of the special was unique, with Mr. Magoo starring as Ebeneezer Scrooge in a Broadway stage presentation of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." And I didn't know it at the time, but popular cartoon character Gerald McBoing-Boing – known to audiences from his big-screen animated adventures – played Tiny Tim.

The beginning of the special had Mr. Magoo on his way to the theater in his familiar old-fashioned jalopy (and driving the wrong way on a one-way street). I think this sequence was designed to allow kids to see him in his familiar comic, near-sighted persona, because once the play started, he would be playing the role of Scrooge straight. And, many of the scenes in the special were so scary that I think kids needed to be reminded that it was only a play-within-a-cartoon.

For example, I remember being really scared when the ghost of Marley began to clomp and clank up the stairs before confronting Mr. Magoo. (For years after, I would race up the stairs from our basement, imagining Marley being right behind me.)

Other parts of the TV special also pack an emotional wallop. After watching Mr. Magoo's regular cartoons on TV (with his Chinese houseboy Charlie and funny talking pets), it was hard for me to watch him being sad while he visited himself as a lonely child in the boarding school scene.

It was even harder watching him be visited by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come, which was also pretty scary, with its bony fingers! And when the creepy, cloaked spirit leaves Mr. Magoo alone in the cemetery, I still get a lump in my throat. Fortunately for kids, several times during the show the camera pulls back to show an audience watching Mr. Magoo on stage, reminding kids it wasn't "really" happening.

Mr. Magoo and Gerald McBoing-Boing
But these touching vignettes give the show a lot of depth, and help tell the story of Scrooge better than most live-action versions I've seen. That's a real tribute to the people who produced the special, and to Jim Backus, whose performance as Magoo was always good but was particularly great here.

While Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol hasn't had a major network broadcast for many years, it is enjoying renewed popularity due to its availability on DVD, as well as a recent book about the story of the making of the TV special by Darrell Van Citters.

To visit the official website of the book, click here. It's got a nice history of the special and some great images.

And for an interesting comparison of Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol versus the Jim Carrey big screen version, click here to visit the Paley Center for Media website.


Ken said...

This has been my holy grail for many years, since it is so hard to find on TV, and even when you find it they have edited out one of the ghosts- the little guy with the flame on his head! But you're right, those ghostly feet climbing the stairs have scared the hell out of me for years- and also when he opens the window and sees all the spooks flying up and down the street. When I was little I was always so happy to see the bony guy taking a bow with everyone else.

Lets not forget that this was one of a series of classic stories. I remember Magoo doing Gunga Din too.

Ken said...

And Moby Dick too I think. It was a regular Sunday series.

Dan Brady said...

Yup I remember that TV series as well, Bro, especially the theme song and beginning credits where they show Magoo as famous people throughout history via shifting paintings.

The ones I remember is where Magoo was Friar Tuck in "Robin Hood"--and the one with Dick Tracy!

Ken said...

Oh yeah! I remember the theme song too, with the popping bulbs. Funny that you brought up this topic today, I watched a lot of Magoo's Christmas Carol yesterday on YouTube. Still gets to me. Probably we like it because it reminds us of the time when we still believed in Santa Claus and still had a Mom and Dad to protect us.

What's really extraordinary is how closely it followed the assassination of JFK, that never occurred to me.

-Alan D Hopewell said...

That program you're talking about was called, "THE FAMOUS ADVENTURES OF MISTER MAGOO", and starred the nearsighted curmudgeon as Cyrano, Dr. Frankenstein, Don Quixote, and many others.

I watched that every year, along with Boris Karloff as the Grinch, and "A CHARLIE BROWN CHRISTMAS".

Does anyone remember "CHRISTMAS IS", with Benji and his dog, Waldo?

Ken said...

Check out the big brain on Alan! Every episode that you mentioned there jostled long-dormant brain cells in my head and brought them back to life. Except for the Benji one, unfortunately. Hope you have a very Merry Christmas!

Bob Kovach said...

One of my favorites also.Many things are left behind from childhood,but for me I always carried the Christmas specials with me.I have then all on tape and still watch them.How about this one,does anyone remember Cosmic Christmas?

Dan Brady said...

Sorry, Bob! I had to Google that one. The images on the Wiki page look vaguely familiar (and kind of creepy). I'll bet you watched the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special too!

Dan Brady said...

Just watched this classic cartoon again on tape, and noticed that all the ghosts are still in it; the little guy with the flame on his head (Ghost of Christmas Past) actually is the second ghost in the Magoo version – instead of coming first as he does in the other versions. (Remember how he laughs when he leaves Mr. Magoo in the cemetery?)

Ken said...