Saturday, December 17, 2016

Stubs - Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol (1962)

Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962) Starring the voices of Jim Backus, Morey Amsterdam, Jack Cassidy, Royal Dano, Paul Frees, Joan Gardner, John Hart, Jane Kean, Marie Matthews, Laura Olsher, Les Tremayne. Directed by Abe Levitow. Freely Adapted from Charles Dickens, by Barbara Chain. Based on A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. Produced by Lee Orgel. Songs by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill. Run Time: 53 minutes. USA Animated, Christmas, Musical, Drama

While normally, Trophy Unlocked does not review TV movies, we do occasionally make exceptions. In this season of good will and joy to the world, we are again making that exception as we look at Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol, which first aired on TV on December 18, 1962. Produced by United Productions of America, better known as UPA, the TV special was the first animated holiday special made specifically for television. Originally commissioned and sponsored by the Timex watch company, Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol is now considered a holiday classic by many.

Founded on June 19, 1943, UPA was never one of the major animation studios, like Disney or Warner Bros., however that doesn’t mean they didn’t have an impact on the field. They pioneered a technique known as limited animation. Characterized by its stylized design, limited animation creates an image with abstract art, symbolism and fewer drawings than studios like Walt Disney’s used. Originally a stylistic choice, limited animation came into wide use in the 1960s and 1970s as a cost-cutting measure.

Originally called Industrial Film and Poster Service, the company found success with government contracts during World War II as well as work for the United Auto Workers (UAW). But after the war, with the Red Scare, the government severed ties with Hollywood. To continue, UPA contracted with Columbia Pictures to produce animated theatrical shorts, including Gerald McBoing Boing (1951), which would win the Academy Award for best animated short, as well as shorts featuring another character, Quincy Magoo. also known as Mr. Magoo, voiced by Jim Backus.

Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol takes a very different approach to the story than do the Christmas Carols we’ve previously seen and reviewed. Not only is this one animated, but there is also a bookend story, that this is a Broadway musical production, starring Mr. Magoo as Ebenezer Scrooge. Not necessarily a new device, that was the basic story structure of The Jack Benny Show on radio and television, but it is new to the adaptations. And, given that this is supposed to be a musical, there are songs with words by Bill Merrill and music by Jule Styne.

Mr. Magoo (Jim Backus) sings "It's Great to Be Back on Broadway" as he drives himself to the theatre.

It is one of those musical numbers which opens our show, "It's Great To Be Back On Broadway", which introduces us to Quincy Magoo (Jim Backus) on his way to the theater for opening night. Of course, seeing how this is the nearsighted Magoo, a character audiences already knew, he not only crashes but rather than going in through the stage door entrance, he enters a restaurant next to the theater and is ushered by waiters to the theater.

In typical fashion, Magoo crashes his car but still walks away.

He is, of course, late and is informed of this by a frantic Director (Paul Frees) that they’ve held the curtain for half an hour. On his way to his dressing room, Magoo stumbles into a rolling office chair with his name on it and rolls the rest of the way. Just as Magoo is not bothered by such things as time, signage on doors means nothing to him, as he rolls into a women’s changing room before the Director guides him into his own. When Magoo goes out on stage, he manages to set in motion one of the scenery counterbalance weights to fall down on the Director, another typical Magoo occurrence; he manages to remain unscathed even if others around him get hurt.

Out on the stage, the curtain rises on a wintery London town. Carolers are out singing “Joy to the World” and everyone is the holiday mood. Everyone that is except Ebenezer Scrooge (played by Magoo), who is happily singing the wonders of money, "Ringle, Ringle," rather than the wonders of the season. When two businessmen (Paul Frees is the only one to speak) come in looking for handouts for the poor, the obviously wealthy Scrooge has them leave empty-handed, once again talking up the benefits of prisons and workhouses for those less fortunate. Staying close to the book, Scrooge exclaims that if the poor would rather die than seek out institutions set up to handle them, they should hurry up and relieve the excess population.

Bob Cratchit (Jack Cassidy) suffers in the cold with only one lump of coal in the stove.

Scrooge’s lone employee, Bob Cratchit (Jack Cassidy), labors on at his ledger. Cold, he tries to sneak another piece of coal for the fire, but is stopped by the tight-fisted Scrooge. As Scrooge goes back to his money counting and his happy song, “Ringle, Ringle,” Bob sings a counterpart "it's cold, it's frightfully cold" and begs Scrooge for "just one piece of coal".

Scrooge's happy song, "Ringle Ringle," about the joys of money.

Grudgingly, Scrooge gives Cratchit the whole day of Christmas off before going home. On the door knocker, he sees the image of his seven-year dead partner, Marley, on the door knocker. Thinking it is a smudge he tries to clean it off his handkerchief. But upstairs while eating his sour gruel, Marley’s Ghost (Royal Dano) is back from the dead to warn Scrooge about what fate awaits him in the afterlife if he doesn’t quickly change his ways. He warns the frightened Scrooge that he will be 
visited by three spirits starting at 1 o’clock, but is careful not to say whom will be visiting him first.

Marley's Ghost (Royal Dano) tries to warn Scrooge to change his ways.

Very different from the book, the first to visit is the Ghost of Christmas Present (Les Tremayne), who takes Scrooge to view the Cratchit family’s Christmas meal. Bob and his wife and family seem to be happier than their lot in life would indicate as they sing "The Lord's Bright Blessing." Tiny Tim (here played by another well-known UPA character, Gerald McBoing-Boing and voiced by Joan Gardner, sings of "razzleberry dressing" and "woofle jelly cake." While these foodstuffs sound like ingredients from Dr. Seuss’ cookbook, that’s probably not really that far-fetched. Gerald McBoing-Boing’s first appearance in a short, in 1950, is based on a story written by Dr. Seuss, aka Theodor Seuss Geisel.

The Ghost of Christmas Present (Les Tremayne) appears first.

After asking about Tiny Tim, Scrooge is informed by the Ghost that unless things change, there will be an empty seat and a well-preserved cane, but no Tim by next Christmas.

Scrooge is informed that Tiny Tim (Joan Gardner) might not live until next Christmas.

Since this is supposed to be a Broadway production, visitations are treated as acts in a play. While this was a convenient way to place commercials, no doubt originally promoting the toughness of Timex watches, “Takes a licking and keeps on ticking,” it also brings us back to our bookend storyline.

Since this is supposed to be a Broadway musical, there is an audience shown between acts.

In the next Act, Scrooge wakes up in his own bed, still not sure if he believes what has happened. But he doesn’t have long to wait before he is visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past (Joan Gardner).

The Ghost of Christmas Past (Joan Gardner) beckons Scrooge to come with him.

This spirit, who has a constant flame just above their head, takes Scrooge back to his school days, where Ebenezer sees a younger version of himself (voiced by Marie Matthews). Left at school over the holidays, young Ebenezer sings “Alone in the World” before being joined by his sympathetic older self as he sings:

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?

Young Scrooge (Marie Matthews) sings about his loneliness while his elder self sympathizes.

Next, Scrooge is taken to see his first boss, Fezziwig (Paul Frees), who seems to have the spirit of the holiday. He has his apprentices, Ebenezer and Dick Wilkins (Jack Cassidy), clear the warehouse so they can throw an elaborate Christmas party. We watch during the party as Belle (Jane Kean) is pursued by various suitors, but only has eyes for the young Ebenezer.

Fezziwig (Paul Frees) dances at his company's Christmas party.

With the Ghost of Christmas Past’s time growing short, he takes Ebenezer to Belle breaking up with him. She feels she simply can’t and won’t compete with Scrooge’s other love, money. She sings a rather slow and forgettable song: “Winter Was Warm” about lost love. (Note: this song is often times cut when the show is broadcast, even though it’s musical theme still permeates the production as bridge music.)

Belle (Jane Kean) breaks up with Scrooge and later sings "Winter Was Warm".

After that show stopper, Scrooge is left by the Christmas Past and given over to the Ghost of Christmas Future, a hooded silent and menacing presence. He leads Scrooge to three businessmen, Billings (John Hart), Brady (Morey Amsterdam) and James (Morey Amsterdam), who are standing on a street corner discussing the recent death of an acquaintance. While none of them seem sad to hear the news, they grudgingly agree to go to the funeral as long as a meal is served.

The Ghost of Christmas Future.

Scrooge is perplexed about whom the men are discussing and what effect they would have on his future. But the Ghost doesn’t say a word, instead leading him through the fog to a junk shop, Old Joe’s (Paul Frees), where a charwoman (Joan Gardner), a laundress (Laura Olsher) and an undertaker (Paul Frees) are there with items they’ve purloined from the recent deceased, including the curtain that hangs around his bed. They sing "We're Despicable (Plunderer's March)" about their dirty deeds.

The Undertaker (Paul Frees), the Charwoman (Joan Gardner), the laundress (Laurs Olsher) and
Old Joe the junk store owner (Paul Frees) sing "We're Despicable (Plunderer's March)"

Scrooge asks to be shown some tenderness connected with a death and he’s taken to the Cratchit’s, as Bob is returning home from visiting Tiny Tim’s gravesite. Scrooge is disturbed by Tiny Tim’s death. He asks if there was something he could have done to have saved Tiny Tim and asks to be taken to where he is now. That answer is a cemetery, where the Ghost of Christmas Future takes him to his own grave.

The Ghost melts away, leaving Scrooge alone. He reprises “Alone in the World,” ending the Act.

The next morning, Scrooge awakes in his own bed after pleading again for the Ghost to give him answers. Realizing he’s still alive, he promises himself that he will not let the future end as predicted.

Scrooge greets the Christmas morning full of love.

He thanks Marley for showing him the way. He dances about the bedroom before lighting to the window, not sure how long he’s been with the spirits or even what day it is. He sees a boy (Laura Olsher) down on the street who tells him that it’s Christmas. He beckons the boy to go buy the large turkey, bigger than the boy, that hangs in a nearby butcher’s shop window.

Dressing in a top hat, but still in his night clothes, Scrooge goes outside and meets the butcher, paying him to deliver it to the Cratchits, but not tell them who sent it, and paying the boy for running the errand. Later, fully dressed, Scrooge walks the streets of London spreading the good word of Christmas. When he comes across the charity solicitors on the streets, he gives them a healthy donation for their cause.

Meanwhile, the Cratchits are sitting down to their Christmas meal. Bob offers a toast to Mr. Scrooge, which his wife (Laura Olsher) only sarcastically agrees to. She seems upset, even though there is a large turkey on their table. Bob is only beginning to carve it when there is a knock on the door.  Scrooge is at the door and initially berates Cratchit for not being at work. Fearing the worst, Cratchit is surprised when Scrooge offers him a raise instead of discipline. Scrooge wishes him and his family a Merry Christmas.

Scrooge lavishes the Cratchits with gifts and gives Tiny Tim his attention.

Scrooge reprises “Ringle Ringle,” but the lyrics are now skewed towards the joys of giving away money. He showers the family with money and gifts, including the “razzleberry dressing" and "woofle jelly cake” that Tiny Tim so loves. The musical ends with a reprisal of "The Lord's Bright Blessing," but the show is not quite done.

The cast sings together at the end of the musical.

While the cast takes bows to the applause of the audience, Magoo gets turned around, but straightens himself out. He goes to get the Director so that he can get applause for his work. Already in bandages, the Director is reluctant about going out front, but Magoo insists. On the way to the front of the stage, Magoo gets his foot caught in a rope that when he pulls it brings down all the scenery falling on top of  the poor Director. Magoo acknowledges that he has once again brought down the house.

The special was so much of a success that it led to a Mr. Magoo TV Series, The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo (1964), which UPA had a hard time making. Quality suffered and the series only ran for one season. In order to keep the struggling studio afloat, its owner, Henry G. Saperstein, abandoned animation and contracted with Japan’s Toho studio to distribute that studio’s giant monster movies in the U.S.

In 2000, after Saperstein’s death, his family sold the studio and what was left of its library, Columbia retained the theatrical shorts, to Classic Media, which in turn was bought by DreamWorks Animation in 2012. That studio was acquired by NBCUniversal in 2016.

Many consider this to be their definitive version of A Christmas Carol, but in reality, the show diverts from the book. Not only are the Ghosts presented out of order, but many of the book’s characters are jettisoned as well. There is no sister Fan and thus no nephew Fred to worry about. While the screenplay retains much of the original language of the novella, how the characters speak, it changes the ending. In the book, Scrooge waits until the next morning to give Cratchit his overdue raise. In this version, Scrooge not only drops in on the Cratchits on Christmas, but offers him the raise that same day.

The "Freely adapted" credit is well-earned. Some of the changes are most likely due to production costs, even limited animation costs money, and to fit the story into the hour-long time slot. The differences between book and show don't really take away from this telling, but they are interesting to note.

And there are the songs which are sort of uneven. There is the sometimes whimsical "The Lord's Bright Blessing" with its razzleberry dressing and woofle jelly cake, the memorable “We're Despicable (Plunderer's March)," the sentimental “Alone in the World” and the forgettable “Winter Was Warm.” So unmemorable is the last one, is that even though this wasn't our first time to watch this, none of us remembered the song and only grew restless hearing it for what had to be the fourth or fifth time.

The voice acting is pretty much dominated by Jim Backus, who is better known to a generation as Thurston Howell the third on the television show “Gilligan’s Island.” While not Shakespeare, the part gave Backus the chance to ham it up and bring home a steady paycheck. Backus also makes a cameo in the star-studded It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963).

While there has been much speculation that talented voice actress June Foray appears in the special, she has denied it and was in fact not in the cast. Several women voice actresses were in the production, perhaps most notably Joan Gardner and Laura Olsher, both of which play multiple roles. No doubt their talents helped keep the production costs down. Other actors, like Paul Frees, play multiple characters, while others like Morey Amsterdam receive higher billing than their limited work would suggest. For the most part, all the characters sound different.

Even though this was made for television, rebroadcasts have not been kind to the story. As mentioned before, the bookend stories are often edited out for more commercials and there is a sequence that appeared in the original broadcast that has not made it to subsequent airings or even to its DVD release. That scene involves the Ghost of Christmas Past taking Scrooge to a large country home, where he sees Belle with her husband and children. While she has a happy family life, when her husband mentions seeing Scrooge in town and how unhappy he looked, it brings back fond memories to Belle. "Winter Was Warm" is reprised, underscoring the happiness Scrooge has missed out on and the feeling of loss Belle still feels when it comes to her love of Scrooge.

There were other scenes that were discussed and even sketched, but not produced. One involves the death of Tiny Tim, which one can only imagine might have been a strong image for family animated show in the early 1960s.

A prime example of limited animation, Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol is interesting to watch to see how much UPA can do with so little. While not my favorite version of A Christmas Carol, there is still a lot to like. I appreciate the fact that they didn’t dummy down the dialogue for their audience, the way some more modern interpretations have. A little dated around the edges, it is still a lot of fun to watch and share with the family.

To read reviews of other Christmas films, please see our Christmas Review Hub.

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