Posted by blakemp
Writer: Barbara Chain, based on A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens
Cast: Jim Backus, Morey Amsterdam, Jack Cassidy, Royal Dano, Paul Frees, Joan Gardener, John Hart, Jane Kean, Marie Matthews, Laura Olsher, Les Tremayne
Plot: Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol is credited as being the first ever animated Christmas special, beating Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer by two years. The special brought back Quincy Magoo, star of a series of theatrical shorts from the 40s and 50s, and led him into his own television series in 1964. In the framing device we learn that we’re actually watching a musical Broadway production of A Christmas Carol, one that evidently drops all references to Scrooge’s family, switches the order of Christmas Past and Christmas Present for some reason, and makes occasional references to Scrooge’s (Magoo’s) poor eyesight.
Thoughts: After three days of extremely traditional renditions of A Christmas Carol, I’m glad to be able to dip my toes into this less serious version. The opening scene, where Magoo – voiced, as always, by Jim Backus — sings about how happy he is to be returning to Broadway, sets the stage well. It’s silly, the music is catchy, and it lets you know that you’re watching a play-within-a-TV special (a conceit the Flintstones would borrow 30 years later).
Once that opening scene is done away with, though, we go into a version of the Dickens classic that is clearly adapted, but still very recognizable. There aren’t a bunch of side jokes about the theatrical production, just a few “act breaks” where we see the curtain closing. There’s no attempt to explain the translucent Marley (voiced by Royal Dano) or how such a thing would be accomplished on a live stage, to say nothing of the times when the time-travelling Scrooge appears on stage with his younger self, both of them clearly played by Magoo. The gags about Magoo’s lousy vision, a staple of most of his cartoons, are reduced to a minimum. And although much of the book is dismissed in the name of expediency, the stuff that remains is often verbatim Dickens, albeit performed by the cast of the cartoon. Backus isn’t really playing Scrooge here, he’s playing Mr. Magoo as Mr. Magoo, reading the lines of Ebenezer Scrooge, but not making a huge effort to portray a different character than he usually does in the animated series.
The decision to jump straight to Christmas Present (Les Tremayne) is baffling. Why in the world would you do the present before the past? It doesn’t particularly hurt the abbreviated version of the story, but it doesn’t help it either. The design of the character is slightly problematic as well – a red robe and long, white whiskers. No doubt most small children who watch this would confuse the character with Santa Claus. This may be deliberate, I suppose – with his compassion for Tiny Tim and the rest of the downtrodden impacted by Scrooge, Christmas Present is certainly the most Santa-like of the Spirits. Still, he’s not Santa Claus, and it doesn’t serve the special to pretend he is.
Christmas Past looks a bit better, more of the “living candle” depiction of the character that we’ve seen in some of the other renditions of the story. Of the three ghosts, Past is the one that has the most variance in his/her/its different incarnations in the media, with Dickens having a pretty vague description in the first place. That said, I find it interesting that a few versions have become common – the Candle and the Angel in particular.
This is going to sound strange, but the highlight of the special to me is actually the musical number that accompanies the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come segment. In many versions of the story, we see a gathering of people gloating over selling the deceased Scrooge’s possessions (the fact that the deceased in question is Scrooge is usually obvious to the audience, but Scrooge himself refuses to admit it yet). In this version, we get a snappy, creepy little song that feels like it should be in a Halloween special. And yes, I love that. Ghost stories, as you may know, used to be more traditionally associated with Christmas than Halloween; the reversal really only happened in the 20th century. I’m old school in this way. I love the juxtaposition of the frightening ghost story with the joy of Christmas as a way to really hammer home the lesson that Scrooge needs to learn. Dickens did it right, and the makers of this special did him right in this department.
This is a first in many ways – the first animated Christmas special, the first time we saw another fictional character “play” Scrooge, and as such it deserves a proud place in the annals of Christmas TV. And it’s a good special, don’t get me wrong. But it’s not even close to my favorite.
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Tags: 1962, A Christmas Carol, Abe Levitow, Animation, Barbara Chain, Charles Dickens, Christmas, Ebenezer Scrooge, Jack Cassidy, Jane Kean, Jim Backus, Joan Gardener, John Hart, Laura Olsher, Les Tremayne, Marie Matthews, Morey Amsterdam, Mr. Magoo, Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol, Paul Frees, Royal Dano