"You'll never get ahead if you don't take care of what you have." - Doris Waddell, RIP

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn

A historic building on our U of M-Morris campus - morris mn
The multi-ethnic building was the original home of the music department at UMM. (B.W. photo)

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

"Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol" a holiday gem

"Mr. Magoo" might be viewed as politically incorrect. The character pokes fun at sight-challenged people.
Our society used to have a less restricted sense of humor. Wiping out the less-tasteful excesses is naturally a good thing.
Such a laudable drive can have its own excesses.
Once in a while we can laugh at ourselves, even at characteristics we have no control over. I remember reading once that an issue was being made of Johnny Carson's "Aunt Blabby" character. Yes it made us laugh at some of the traits of older people. But my gut sense was that it wasn't disrespectful.
We have to trust our basic senses sometimes. Sometimes we can just follow our impulse and laugh.
Or feel joy, as when we watch a Christmas TV special from the 1960s called "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol."
Remember the character Thurston Howell III from "Gilligan's Island?" The actor was Jim Backus, whose voice brought Magoo to life in the special.
The special was commissioned by Timex. It first aired in 1962. I remember it vividly from several Christmases, as I'm sure countless boomers do.
It charmed us in a time when many nasty things were going on in the world. We saw escalation of the Viet Nam War and the ugly resistance to civil rights in the South. Richard Nixon wouldn't go away. Oh, finally he did (in 1974).
As children us boomers would sit transfixed at the TV and be charmed and educated by a holiday classic.
"Educated" is a proper word because we were being exposed to a literary classic.
"A Christmas Carol" was written by Charles Dickens and was so powerful, it made the holiday more prominent than it had been. Right now I'm reading the original book, checked out from our Morris Public Library. How many people have taken the trouble to do that?
We have seen several productions of the story over the years so we feel we are most familiar. The book is naturally fascinating but there are rather substantial "archival" hurdles. Written in a different time and in a non-U.S. culture, there is much language that can seem befuddling. I'm fighting through all that. It's a worthwhile effort and in the process I might learn something from the antiquated references.
I will forever associate "Mr. Magoo" with Scrooge. He portrays the "good" Scrooge as effectively as the antisocial one. We want the good one to linger in our memories of course.
Magoo certainly couldn't see very well. We wouldn't want him working at the Morris Liquor Store during compliance checks (LOL).
Would blind or semi-blind people find him funny? I would hope so. It's funny in the sense of pure levity, like Aunt Blabby, and I see no disrespect.
The late Leslie Nielsen made a "Mr. Magoo" movie. I didn't see it. I'd be surprised if that portrayal worked.
Nielsen made a number of movies after he re-invented himself as a pure comedian. Much of the time he wasn't really acting like a comic, he just continued his old stiff straight man persona only with comic lines. "Airplane" and "Naked Gun" vaulted him to the top.
But he made other movies that were closer to being the "direct to video" kind. He's to be lauded on his career.
The Backus voice was essential to appreciating the "true" Magoo. Voices other than the original might suffice for Yogi and Boo Boo and Fred and Barney, but the Magoo voice is not so routine to replicate.
Backus made our Christmases rich by giving Magoo (as Scrooge) life - tremendous life.
"Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol" was a musical. Musicals didn't ordinarily interest me much but this was an exception.
Mention the term "Razzleberry Dressing" to someone my age and that person might well remember where it came from. "Tiny Tim" sang of such fare in the song "The Lord's Bright Blessing."
A young Scrooge sings "Alone in the World." And how can we forget "Ringle Ringle?" The creative effort here was highly inspired - kudos to Timex. It wasn't just a job to be done according to a certain budget, the way it might be today.
The Broadway team of Jule Styne (music) and Bob Merrill (lyrics) wrote original songs for Magoo's "Carol." The two went on to give us "Funny Girl."
I have asserted that many boomers will forever associate Magoo with Scrooge as if the two are one and the same. It applies to me. And I can cite support for this. It comes from the National Public Radio show "Talk of the Nation." In 2006 many listeners said Magoo was their favorite Scrooge.
Through the years as I have come upon other versions of the story, I have found all of these lacking when compared to the 1962 cartoon with that classic Backus voice. I'll admit that some of my fondness might owe itself to my young age when getting introduced.
I'm sure some of the cinema versions have been well reviewed.
I was delighted several years ago to find the Magoo special available on DVD at our Coborn's store. Nothing at Christmastime could have made me happier. I shared my delight at the time with Dean Mithun, store manager.
Coborn's!! Once a fixture in the Morris shopping scene, Coborn's has left us, the plug perhaps having been pulled by a true Scrooge-like person.
Coborn's was making money. It supported many employees. Maybe it wasn't making quite enough money.
Maybe the plug got pulled through back-room dealing where certain heavy hitters decided it would be better to "consolidate" the grocery business here. That's a common ethos today, to promote "efficiency" in such a way that the Bob Cratchit-like working people get squeezed. This is a reason we see the "Occupy" movement growing. The "good" (reformed) Scrooge would be behind them.
Playing the DVD, all the warmth of the original viewing experience comes through. There is a slight archival issue with the sound quality.
I learn through research that the show lasted as an annual special into the 1980s. But, not after that? Was it just displaced because of the "progress" of new specials being made? Is it possible the "political correctness" angle played in, as pertains to Magoo's sight-challenged nature? I don't know.
I'm reminded of when a cable movie channel planned a "Charlie Chan Marathon." A tempest broke out. The critics won. Had the channel not planned a marathon, the movies could continue into today mostly "under the radar" just like the myriad westerns that seem disrespectful of Native Americans. Will many of those westerns someday be so excised?
What about old comedies including The Three Stooges that show African Americans in menial domestic worker roles and who "scare easily," as with mysterious noises. Their eyes grow big and they can take off running. This is an old disrespectful stereotype. But such material still appears on our TV screens.
"Chan" meanwhile may be banished.
And Magoo? He doesn't seem to surface too often in our current entertainment culture.
I'd love to see kids today exposed to "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol." I'll gladly loan my DVD to anybody. I hope it can grab kids' attention as well as "Spongebob" but I'm not sure. It impresses on them the Christmas spirit as well as anything.
"Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol" is written as a Broadway theater play. The cartoon is divided into acts with a stage curtain. The delightful opening shows the near-sighted Magoo arriving at the theater in calamitous fashion. He's risky to have around the stage scenery!
This is laugh-out-loud material from the days before the "LOL" initials.
Lest I think this special has faded too much from our consciousness, it was spoofed in an episode of The Simpsons.
The Dickens story gets somewhat condensed in places, but many scenes are faithful to the original (like Marley's face appearing as the door knocker - an eerie scene especially for kids).
Some lines are spoken exactly as Dickens wrote them. In fact, I learn through research that there was "little or no simplification of the language to suit the younger audience."
Many of the most endearing kids' presentations get that way because there was no condescending. Let's respect kids' insightfulness.
For the record, the full name of the lead character is "Quincy Magoo." At the start we hear Backus as Magoo singing "It's Great to be Back on Broadway" with gusto. It's captivating.
Backus made a mark in Hollywood playing characters with an upper-crust New England-like air. Postwar he got on many prime-time radio programs like with Jack Benny. I have on DVD a Jack Benny New Year's Eve TV special from 1954. I also bought that at Coborn's.
The Coborn's building today might well be haunted. It's where we used to be able to get a quart of milk at 2 a.m. if we needed it. It's gone with the wind.
Today Willie's Super Valu is our grocery store. I hope their near-monopoly doesn't make them complacent.
We loved Backus as Scrooge but in the collective consciousness of the boomers, he's Thurston Howell III with his wife "Lovie" (apologies to the coach of the Chicago Bears). "Gilligan's Island" was the epitome of the kind of vapid entertainment that Hollywood's entertainment industry gave us when three networks dominated and everything had to be watered down ("least common denominator") to appeal to the full public.
No Discovery Channel then. The original model took root with shows like "Mr. Ed" and flourished with an array of shows none of which taught us anything. But as boomers we loved it all.
"Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol" showed a cartoon could introduce us to a literary classic. We saw potential of the (TV) medium.
Nothing exudes as much warmth at holidaytime today than to view "Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol." And enjoy that "razzleberry dressing!"
- Brian Williams - morris mn Minnesota - bwilly73@yahoo.com

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