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Scrooge U : Part VI -- Magoo's a musical miser

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Scrooge U : Part VI -- Magoo's a musical miser

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Remember how I talked yesterday about how the CBS "Shower of Stars" version of "Scrooge" should have worked? What with a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright handling the adaptation of Dickens' classic holiday tale, a two-time Academy Award-winner performing the title role and a deep pocketed sponsor underwriting the entire production. All the right ingredients seemed to be in place. But -- in the end -- what went out over the airwaves was almost unwatchable.

Here's one final (hopefully) interesting factoid about that 1954 version of "A Christmas Carol." Did you know that this Desilu production was actually filmed and then broadcast in color?

"Why'd they do that?," you ask. Well, evidently the CBS executive who greenlit this production was so certain that he was creating an instant holiday classic, he wanted this show to be in color. So that it could then be rebroadcast for years yet to come.

Sadly, given what a disaster that particular adaptation of Dickens' holiday tale turned out to be, all that remains today is a copy of a grainy black & white kinescope of the West Coast rebroadcast of that show. Given all the money that was spent on this program, it might have been nice to see what it would have looked like in color.

But -- then again -- maybe not.

Anyway ... Let's move on now from an early TV production of "A Christmas Carol" that should have worked to a 1962 adaptation of Dickens' classic that never should have worked. I mean, the very idea of nearsighted Quincy Magoo as Ebenezer Magoo. What kind of lamebrained idea is that?

Copyright 2004 Sony Wonder

But -- see -- that's where you'd be wrong. Because this surprisingly faithful adaptation of A Christmas Carol" is a complete delight. It's filled with tuneful songs and hits all of the right emotional beats. For my money, it's one of the most entertaining versions of Dickens' classic holiday story that's on the market today.

Mind you, the initial conceit of this animated TV special has Mr. Magoo appearing on Broadway in a brand-new stage version of "A Christmas Carol." So -- for the first few minutes of the show, anyway -- we see Quincy driving his puddle jumper into the city, as Jim Backus (Who does a really wonderful job as Magoo's voice in this special) brays about how it is great to be "Back on Broadway."

Of course, following in the grand tradition of all of those Academy Award-winning "Mr. Magoo" shorts, Quincy's actually driving the wrong way in traffic as he heads for the theater.

Copyright 2004 Sony Wonder

But once Magoo finally gets into costume and the play officially get underway, the character's near-sighted shtick (for the most part) gets dropped. And we then settle in for a surprisingly faithful adaptation of "A Christmas Carol." With the lines that Magoo & Co. are saying often being lifted directly from Dickens' original text.

But what really makes this holiday special ... Well ... special is Jules Styne & Bob Merrill's score. Now most folks probably know these two from their work on "Funny Girl." In fact, legend has it that Jules & Bob originally wrote "People" (You know? Barbra Steisand's signature song? The big break-out tune from that hit musical's score?) for the animated version of "A Christmas Carol." It was supposed to have been the tune that Belle, Scrooge's fiancée, sings to the younger version of the miser before she breaks their engagement.

Anywho, Styne & Merrill supposedly played "People" for the producers of this new animated version of "A Christmas Carol." And while everyone admitted that it was a very nice song, it didn't quite match the emotion that this holiday special's creators were trying to elicit at that moment in the show. So Jules & Bob then tossed that tune in their truck. Where it sat 'til Styne & Merrill were struggling to come up with a ballad for this new musical that they're writing about Fanny Brice ...

And the rest of that story, you know.

Anyway ... Getting back to this animated version of "A Christmas Carol" ... Styne & Merrill's score is loaded with gems like "Ringle, Ringle" (I.E. The song that Scrooge & Bob Crachit sing in counterpoint. Where the greedy old miser croons about how "... coins -- when they mingle -- make such a lovely sound" while his clerk, who's freezing in the next room, sings about how it's " ... cold, it's cold, it's frightfully cold").

Copyright 2004 Sony Wonder

As tuneful as Jules & Bob's songs may be, it's important to point out that this show's score never gets in the way of  the telling of Dickens' classic holiday tale. This version of "A Christmas Carol" still manages to hit all the right emotional beats. We still get to see Scrooge startled to find Jacob Marley's face in place of his door knocker. (I included this particular image as part of today's story because ... Well, often in life do you get to see Mr. Magoo with his eyes open?)

Copyright 2004 Sony Wonder

If anything, the songs that have been incorporated into this version of "A Christmas Carol" actually deepen the emotions of the story. I mean, how can you not feel for Scrooge as he attempts to comfort the younger version of himself as the child (who's been left at school over the holidays by his family) sings "(I'm) All Alone in the World"?

Copyright 2004 Sony Wonder

The Crachit family also gets a memorable tune to perform in this holiday special. Though they may not have much by way of worldly goods, Bob (Voiced by the late great Jack Cassidy) reminds his brood that they have "The Lord's Bright Blessing." And that -- as long as they have each other -- it doesn't really matter if there's no "razzleberry dressing" on the table.

FYI for all you animation fans out there: Does Tiny Tim look familiar? He should. That's Gerald McBoing Boing, UPA (I.E. The ground-breaking studio that actually animated this holiday special)'s other big star. He -- just like Mr. Magoo -- appeared in an Academy Award-winning series of shorts for that animation studio back in the 1950s.

Copyright 2004 Sony Wonder

But if I had to pick my favorite moment out of this entire version of "A Christmas Carol" ... Well, leave it to Jules Styne & Bob Merrill to take what is often one of the more ghoulish episodes in Dickens' classic holiday tale (I.E. Where the undertaker, Scrooge's charwoman & laundress all arrive at Old Joe's rag & bone shop at the same time and then sell off all of the items that they've stolen from the now-dead miser) into this hugely funny production number.

But that's just what "We're Despicable" (AKA: The "La La La La La" song) is. This broadly comic number is loaded with wonderful animation and groan-inducing lyrics (EX: "We're reprehensible. We'll steal your pen & pencible").

Copyright 2004 Sony Wonder

Okay, so the Dickens purists out there may squawk about this version of "A Christmas Carol" because the film-makers opted to have the Ghost of Christmas Present appear before the Ghost of Christmas Past. Or because they cut the Scrooge's-nephew-Fred sub-plot out of the picture entirely.

But -- in the end -- that doesn't really matter. For this animated version of "A Christmas Carol" manages to capture the true heart & spirit of Dickens' tale. Which is why you're so pleased to see Scrooge (Even if he is being played by Mr. Magoo) being redeemed at the end of this holiday special.

Copyright 2004 Sony Wonder

By the way, all you baby boomers out there owe a bigger debt to this version of "A Christmas Carol" than you may realize. You see, prior to the airing of this particular program on NBC (On December 17, 1962, to be exact), no one had ever produced an animated holiday special especially for television. And given the great reviews & ratings that this show racked up ... Well, that opened the door for those much-loved holiday specials like "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" (Which premiered on NBC in 1964), "A Charlie Brown Christmas" (Which debuted on CBS in 1965) and "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" (Which bowed on that same network in 1966).

So the next time you & your family are sitting there enjoying "Santa Claus is Coming to Town" (Which first aired on ABC back in 1970), be sure & take a moment to thank Mr. Magoo. The near-sighted cartoon character who made all of these other holiday specials possible.

TOMORROW: Hollywood stakes another stab at translating "A Christmas Carol" to the big screen in a musical extravaganza that's almost too big for its own good.

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  • This is great series on "A Christmas Carol" movies.  I'm learning a lot of facts I didn't know about the various productions.  The Mr. Magoo carol is a particular favorite because it was the first version of the story I saw as a child on NBC in the sixties.  I also saw this version on a double bill with "Santa and the Three Bears" at the movie theater in the seventies.  Thanks again!

  • Surprisingly, I -wasn't- one of those whose first virgin Scrooge was the animated Magoo--I came from that rare generation who remembers the 70's Hanna-Barbera "Kenner Classic Tales" version (okay, who remembers "the Ghost Rider Marley", with the flaming skull, and was disappointed to see the "real" version later?), but think Magoo was second, back in the kiddie-matinee days...It's usually either Magoo or Albert Finney, for most people, and I was a Magoo-classics fan from early on.

  • These Dickens movie articles are really nice, Jim!  But when do we get to the Mickey Mouse Christmas Carol?  That's my favoritest favorite of them all!

  • Patience, Mr Bluebird, patience...

    What a joy. I'd forgotten all about Mr Magoo! And as a peak baby-boomer (b.1951) I certainly saw a lot of him!

    Why is it that so many of these film adaptations are musicals? It's not a story that would seem to lend itself well to that medium.

  • This is one of my very favorite holiday movies! It never seemed odd to me for Mr. Magoo to be in Scrooge's role, because this film was my introduction to Mr. Magoo. (Can you say "young'n"?) The songs in it are marvelous -- it's been at least three years since I've seen it, and the tunes still pop into my head sometimes (especially the "razzleberry dressing" one).

  • Hi, Jim. Longtime reader, first time poster.

    I just wanted to add to the chorus of voices applauding your article on the Magoo "Christmas Carol" (which I, too, first saw as a wee kid in the '60s). I've always been impressed by how good it still is compared to some of the other Dickens adaptations, live or animated.

    However, I respectfully disagree with the idea of being surprised at Magoo's casting. UPA placed ol' Quince in a number of literary adaptations in his NBC series, "The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo." Many times, it worked (such as when he played Dr. Watson or Don Quixote). Sometimes, it didn't. (Magoo as D'Artagnan? No.) But many of those cartoons made me turn to the works of Verne, Stevenson and others because they got me interested in the original stories. (And the retelling of "Frankenstein" still scares the crap out of me!)

    They're still in limited release on VHS, but I'm hoping someone gets on the stick and puts them on DVD someday. Maybe with "A Christmas Carol" in a complete set. Thanks for bringing back the memories!

  • Jim Hill continues JHM's new series with a look at yet another adaptation of "A Christmas Carol." This time around, Jim talks about "Scrooge," the over-produced movie musical from 1970

  • Not only is MR. MAGOO'S CHRISTMAS CAROL one of the best screen adaptations of the Dickens story, with one of the best musical scores, it also has a great voice cast with many Disney connections. Of course, Paul Frees is in it, but also Royal "Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln" Dano plays Marley's Ghost, Jane Kean plays Belle Fezziwig (Miss Taylor in PETE'S DRAGON), and if your a record collector with CHILLING, THRILLING SONGS OF THE HAUNTED HOUSE among your vinyl, Laura "Mrs. Cratchit" Olsher narrated that album and some other records for Disney.

    Also, this special almost singlehandedly keeps the character of Mr. Magoo before the public every year. The show is no longer some obscure relic, but a DVD you can find at most stores. It's nice to know that, in some cases, when something is outstanding, it somehow survives the cheesy remakes and trendy flashes in the pan.

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