More On Magoo: An In-Depth Look at Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol
Last Christmas, I wrote a little piece on Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962), an admiration of the work that remembered it fondly. This past year, I did some in-depth digging on the piece, and although it may be too soon to write about it again, enough of my readers have expressed a deep affection for this holiday special that I think it is okay to make an exception.
Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol is a beloved piece of holiday literature, arguably one of the greatest Christmas stories ever written. The 1843 novella about a miser named Ebenezer Scrooge and his visit from a series of specters who teach him about the spirit of Christmas is considered a classic, a parable, and one of the most important pieces of social criticism. What is more, generations had been warmed by its story of redemption, establishing Christmas as a time where magic can happen and people can change for the better. A Christmas Carol would be the ideal property around which to create a television holiday special.
The piece was commissioned by Timex, famous for their wristwatches and other quality time pieces. Their investment in the project would give them prime commercial property for advertising their wares just a week before Christmas. Produced by United Productions of America’s animation studio and U.S. film producer and distributor Henry Saperstein, and with NBC ready to air it on their network, A Christmas Carol had all the pieces in place to move forward.
Henry Saperstein had acquired the animation studio UPA in 1959 right after the feature film 1001 Arabian Nights had tanked at the box office. The film featured Mister Magoo, a near-sighted, good-hearted millionaire (voiced by Jim Backes) who was always getting caught in crazy situations thanks to his inability to see clearly. Mister Magoo had been around since 1949 and was usually a successful property for UPA, especially when he was at the forefront of the story. Saperstein was eager to offset the financial failures of 1001 Arabian Nights and decided to capitalize on the touchstone that was Mister Magoo. It was by this way of thinking that A Christmas Carol became Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol.
There as some concern that fans of the cartoon character would not accept Magoo outside of a contemporary setting, finding it jarring to see him in Dickensian London. To solve this problem, Barbara Chain (teleplay) devised a framework wherein Mister Magoo would be starring in a Broadway production of a Christmas Carol. This gave television audiences the chance to see the nearsighted and accident prone Magoo wend his way to the theatre and get ready for the show, complete with his usual antics before settling in to the traditional role of Scrooge. Another popular UPA cartoon character was Gerald McBoing-Boing, a little boy who didn’t speak but only communicated in odd beeps, bonks and other sounds effects. Some have speculated that UPA included McBoing-Boing in Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol as Tiny Tim, but that character has an actual speaking voice (Joan Gardner). If it is McBoing-Boing as Tiny Tim, it is definitely him in a modified form. Other voiceover artists rounding out the cast included Morey Amsterdam (Brady/James), Jack Cassidy (Bob Cratchit), Les Tremayne (Christmas Present), Joan Gardner (Christmas Past), Jane Kean (Belle), Royal Dano (Jacob Marley), Laura Osher (Mrs. Cratchit) and Paul Frees (covering a wide range of characters).
Part of the plan for Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol was to make it a musical. Ever since Mary Martin had flown into the hearts of TV audiences as a part of a live broadcast of the Broadway musical Peter Pan, songs had become a required ingredient of family programming of this caliber. Initially, the project was offered to composer Richard Rodgers and then Frank Loesser, but both turned it down due to involvement with other projects. Eventually, composer Jule Styne (recently having created songs for Broadway’s Gypsy) and lyricist Bob Merrill were brought together to create the score for Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol, a partnership to which they would return to several times over the years (Their first big Broadway collaboration would be the 1964 Funny Girl). For Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol, they would create six original songs in the musical theatre vein.
Bob Merrill was very much at home with the magical and poetic possibilities of A Christmas Carol. What is more, he also found in Jule Styne the perfect writing partner. Styne was vivacious, extroverted, the life of every party. Merrill was reflective, introverted, a still well running deep. Where one was lacking, the other was bountiful and vice-versa. The one point where they converged and excelled was in joyous whimsy and Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol gave them the perfect project to exercise this shared gift. The opening number of the piece would be the razzmatazz-infused “It’s Great to Be Back on Broadway”, setting up the show-within-a-show premise with all the bells and whistles associated with a flashy Broadway song. If anything in the score would come close to foreshadowing the electrical storm that would be the score for Funny Girl, this number hinted most distinctly at the possibilities.
The rest of the score is confined to the story of A Christmas Carol, Styne and Merrill finding appropriate places for the characters to sing. Scrooge sings “Ringle, Ringle” an “I want” song celebrating his love of money. The ever-optimistic Cratchit Family finds ways to be grateful in the face of poverty by imaging a wonderful holiday feast in the optimistic “The Lord’s Bright Blessing”, complete with Tiny Tim’s favorite “Razzleberry Dressing.” Scrooge as a child sings “Alone in the World”, a lonesome ballad that helps explain why he isolates himself from people. Perhaps the loveliest (and ultimately the most heartbreaking) song is “The Winter is Warm”, sung by Scrooge’s former love Belle as she reflects on how their romance was once sunny and warm, but has now faded into something cold and hard. The one other song is “We’re Despicable”, a spooky romp for the plunderers who are going through Scrooge’s personal effects in the Christmas Future scene. It is a compact little score with an occasional reprise for dramatic effect, perfect for spreading out over the 53-minute running time of the finished piece.
Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol may well-be one of the most beloved of holiday animated specials, especially considering how many of you, my readers, have written to me to express your love for this little bijou. It is hard to understand why, with such a passionate following, it isn’t re-aired with the frequency and excitement of say A Charlie Brown Christmas or Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. Perhaps it is just a little too quirky for that kind of mass appeal. It is, however, special to those who grew up on its wit, wisdom and melody and will always affectionately remain a big part of the musical theatre fans’ Christmas.