Director: Abe Levitow
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Oh, Magoo, you’ve done it again!
In 1941, John Hubley and several other animators who were on strike from Disney left that studio altogether to form United Productions of America (UPA) and produce cartoons that use what is now called “limited animation.” Hubley felt constrained by Disney’s emphasis on realism and wanted to create more stylized cartoons. In 1949, UPA came up with a very distinctive character—the short, bald, near-sighted Quincy Magoo, with actor Jim Backus as his first and only voice. The Magoo cartoons were hits, with two of them winning Academy Awards. When times got tough for UPA, Mister Magoo transitioned to television. It was there that Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol first appeared.
Although many consider this animated film a classic, you’re not likely to see it airing with the same frequency as A Charlie Brown Christmas and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. In fact, you may not find it at all, and that’s a real shame. Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol tells a shorter, but still faithful version of Dickens’ story bookended with classic Magoo comedy and a glorious score by Jule Styne, composer of “Let Me Entertain You,” “Let It Snow, Let It Snow, Let It Snow,” and many more great standards. The 1960s would see a radical change in musical styles, but since the setting of Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol is a Broadway stage, Styne produced a score fit for the Great White Way. (In fact, one song not used in the animated film went into a real Broadway show and became a hit—“People” from Funny Girl.)
The film opens with Magoo driving the wrong way down a Manhattan street singing the pizzazz-y “It’s Great to Be Back on Broadway.” Magoo narrowly misses hitting dozens of cars and ends up wrecking against a pole. Never missing a beat, he crosses busy streets, forcing cars to screech to a halt to avoid hitting him, and arrives at the theatre where his musical “A Christmas Carol” is playing to boffo B.O. Looking for the stage door, he misreads the sign of an adjacent restaurant and clangs and clatters his way through it and past a nervous stage manager to make his triumphal entrance in the offices of Marley and Scrooge. This opening is classic Magoo.
Once the musical gets underway, it’s played fairly straight. Magoo as Scrooge is drawn with a nasty scowl; his face only brightens when he begins counting his gold coins in “Ringle, Ringle.” The song becomes a contrapunctal duet with Bob Cratchit (Jack Cassidy), who contrasts Scrooge’s love of money with his own misery at working in the cold. The song ends as Scrooge stops Cratchit from taking any more coal for his stove. The famous confrontation between Scrooge and the men collecting for charity manages to remain as shocking in cartoon form as it is in live-action versions of the story.
Returning to his home, Scrooge sees a strange face overlaying his lion’s head door knocker—a bit of a joke on Magoo’s poor eyesight that fits perfectly into the story. No time is wasted once Magoo dons his night clothes and tucks into bed. Climbing up the stairs, only legs, chains, and strong boxes visible, comes the ghost of Jacob Marley (Royal Dano) to confront Scrooge. In response to Scrooge’s dismissals of his reality, Marley gives a truly frightening wail and points through the window to the other chained apparitions wandering the night sky. He tells a shaken Scrooge that he will be visited by three ghosts that night who present a way for Scrooge to save himself from Marley’s fate.
The Ghost of Christmas Present (Les Tremayne) takes Scrooge directly to Bob Cratchit’s home to view his assistant’s meager Christmas celebration. All are waiting for Bob and Tiny Tim to come back from church. When they do, a line Bob speaks strikes a particular Christmas note: “(Tiny Tim) hoped the people saw him in church because he was a cripple and thought it might be pleasant to let them remember upon Christmas Day who made lame beggars walk and blind men see.” I could be wrong, but I don’t remember this line in other filmed versions of the story. Then a wonderful song, “The Lord’s Bright Blessing,” begins in quiet anticipation as the Cratchit children imagine what it would be like to have a Christmas tree, stockings stuffed with treats, and jars and cakes of “Razzleberry dressing,” a particular obsession of Tiny Tim (Joan Gardner). When their humble Christmas dinner of soup is served, Bob leads them in the song’s buoyant chorus.
The past provides two of the best sequences of the film. First, The Ghost of Christmas Past (Joan Gardner) takes Scrooge back to his boarding school where he has been left alone for the holidays. The song “All Alone in the World” has the kind of lyrics a child can relate to, but it is the animation that is particularly poignant. There is no rescuing sister in this version—only a chalk family drawn on a chalkboard. When young Ebenezer traces his four-fingered cartoon hand and attempts a handshake with it, he shows his frustration by smearing the chalk.
If you’re a believer in root causes, this simple song shows how a miserly heart can grow from one deprived of love. We move quickly through Fezziwig’s Christmas party, where Belle (Jane Kean) only dances with Ebenezer, to Belle’s rejection of Scrooge. “Winter Was Warm” is a lovely ballad that talks about the beginning and the end of love; it certainly ranks with some of the best love ballads written.
Scrooge does not return to his bedroom to await the arrival of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come; instead Scrooge is plunged into this part of the tale directly from Belle’s rejection. It is a bit abrupt, but there is something appropriate about juxtaposing the death of love with the death of the body. Nothing is left out of this part of Scrooge’s journey, from the businessmen talking about his death, to the scavengers who pawn his belongings in a ghoulish musical number, “We’re Despicable (Plunderer’s March),” to the death of Tiny Tim and Scrooge’s discovery of his own tombstone.
Scrooge’s rebirth in the morning as a man of love and generosity is handled particularly well. As Scrooge flatters the young boy he sends to buy the prize turkey, the boy shows pleasure at every compliment—again something I don’t think I’ve seen in other versions. When the butcher arrives with an enormous turkey, the near-sighted Magoo pokes the butcher’s belly instead of the bird, a welcome visit by the star within the play. A rousing finale of “The Lord’s Bright Blessing” ends the show, and Magoo literally brings down the house with his bumbling.
I know I’m reflecting the bias of my own childhood in thinking that the simple animation and show tunes of Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol have an enormous appeal, but I also think that for children, anyway, I’m right. Children’s movies are the last refuge of movie musicals, reflecting the importance of music to children’s development and entertainment. There are few children’s films today that have music to match the quality of Jule Styne’s score for this film, and with a return to realism in animation—hyperrealism, actually—visual experimentation of the type practiced at UPA is becoming something of a lost art. I know that illustrators are still interested in it, if the number of visitors linked to my review of The Dot and the Line through graphic design sites is any indication. If they can produce anything as pleasurable, intelligent, and graphically interesting as Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol, I’d personally like to encourage them to pursue movie-making for the whole family. To all those families out there, pick up the DVD of this wonderful seasonal cartoon and welcome a new-old classic into your home. l