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Scrooge U: Part XIV -- How Alan Young became a lucky McDuck

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Scrooge U: Part XIV -- How Alan Young became a lucky McDuck

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You want to hear something ironic? It was an act of generosity that -- in a roundabout way -- led to Alan Young being cast as the world's most miserly duck.

Copyright 2004 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

I'm serious, folks. Back in the 1960s, this "Mr. Ed" star helped a young man who was just getting started in the entertainment industry. And that man's name was Gary Krisel

Now Krisel would eventually go on to become head of Disney's worldwide records & music publishing businesses. And -- before Gary left the Walt Disney Company in 1995 -- he would eventually rise to the position of president of television animation.

Mind you, by the mid-1970s, Krisel wasn't yet one of the Mouse House's high muckety-mucks. He was just an exec at Walt Disney Records who still felt very grateful toward Mr. Young for helping Gary get his start in the biz. Which is why Krisel asked Young to come by his office one afternoon.

Gary then showed Alan some artwork of several Disney favorites dressed as Dickens characters. Krisel explained that these illustrations had been created for an earlier Walt Disney Records project that hadn't fared all that well. Which Gary was now looking to revive.

Knowing that Young was a writer, Gary asked Alan if he'd be interested in riding herd on this revival. Which would involve creating a brand-new recording that would tell the story of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." Only with Scrooge McDuck & a host of other Disney characters playing all the parts in this holiday tale.

Now, what Krisel didn't know was that -- back in his youth -- Young had actually been a member of a Dickens society. So Alan was intimately familiar with this author's writings. More to the point, Young had spent much of his youth in Edinburgh, Scotland. Which meant that Alan could summon up an authentic sounding Scottish burr at the drop of a tam.

In short, Young was the perfect guy to assign the "Dickens-Christmas-Carol-as-performed-by-that-popular-repertory-company,-the-Walt-Disney-Players" project to. Working with veteran sitcom writer Alan Dinehart, Alan crafted a script for this LP that served the story well in addition to providing a great showcase for the Disney characters.

And -- when it came to the final product -- Young took a very hands-on approach. He not only co-produced this recording, Alan even went on to voice three of the characters that were featured on this "Dickens' Christmas Carol" storyteller album: Scrooge McDuck, Mickey Mouse and Merlin from Disney's "Sword in the Stone" (Who -- in this version of the classic holiday tale -- played the Ghost of Christmas Past).

Released in 1975, this "Dickens' Christmas Carol" storyteller album was a huge success. Over the next few years, tens of thousands of copies of this LP would sell every holiday season. And -- with each Christmas that passed -- this new version of this holiday classic would acquire more & more fans.

Copyright 1975 Walt Disney Records

And -- along the way -- one of the people who eventually became a fan of this "Dickens' Christmas Carol" storyteller album was WDFA veteran Burny Mattinson.

Copyright 2004 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Now Burny was always on the look for stories that could then be used as the basis for new animated productions at the studio. And here was a recording that had actually been produced in-house that gave the classic Disney characters great roles to play. To Mattinson's way of thinking, WDFA producing a movie version of this "Dickens' Christmas Carol" storyteller LP was a no-brainer.

So -- once Ron Miller, the then-head of Walt Disney Productions, signed off on the project -- Burny began assembling a team that would help him change this LP into an animated featurette. Recruiting some of WDFA's top young talents to come work on what was now known as "Mickey's Christmas Carol."

Copyright 2004 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Among the then-young turks who were quick to climb on board this project was master animator Glen Keane (left), who handled Willie the Giant & Goofy in this picture, and David Block (right). Block's name may not be as familar as Keane's is to all you feature animation fans out there. Which is perfectly understandable. Given that David has been concentrating his efforts on the television animation side of things at Disney for over 20 years now. But -- trust me, folks -- if you've ever watched an episode of "The Gummi Bears," "DuckTales" or "Kim Possible," you've been enjoying David Block's work.

Anyway ... Getting back to "Mickey's Christmas Carol" again ... David Block handled Scrooge McDuck on this project, while Mark Henn worked on Mickey Mouse. Of course, given that it had been nearly 30 years since Mickey last appeared on the big screen (In the 1953 animated short, "The Simple Things"), some research was in order. Which is why Henn then spent hours digging around in the studio's morgue, looking for examples of how other artists had handled the Mouse.

I've included the two photos below not just because the one on the left is a nice shot of Mark in the middle of doing some research for this film ...

Copyright 2004 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

... But also because it shows how times have changed at the Walt Disney Company. The shot on the left is Disney's morgue circa 1983. When animation drawings from as far back as "Plane Crazy" were stored in loose manila folders that were then stacked on wooden racks in the studio's dark & damp basement.

The photo of the right shows Disney's ARL (I.E. Animation Research Library). Where these same drawings are now carefully catalogued under climate controlled conditions. Where the archivists who work there all wear white gloves to insure that they won't ever damage this highly valuable material.

Interesting to see how things can change in 25 years, isn't it?

Anywho ... Back to "Mickey's Christmas Carol" again ... One of the other reasons that Mark Henn was digging through files in the morgue was to check out earlier featurettes that had put Mickey in a starring role. Given that "Mickey and the Beanstalk" had only been 29 minutes long, it was felt that this portion of "Fun and Fancy Free" might provide a good template for "Mickey's Christmas Carol." Give this next generation of Disney animators some sense of how best to structure a story that was less than feature-length.

Copyright 2004 Disney Enterprises,Inc.

Ironically enough, it was while "Mickey and the Beanstalk" was in production back in 1946 that Walt finally decided that he could no longer handle recording all of Mickey's dialogue. Which is why -- starting with that featurette -- Disney turned most of his Mouse-voicing responsibilties over to longtime studio soundman, Jimmy MacDonald.

35 years later, as production on "Mickey's Christmas Carol" was just getting underway, Jimmy felt that it was once again time to pass that mouse-shaped baton. Which is why MacDonald suggested that his assistant, Wayne Allwine, take over as the Mouse's official spokesperson. And Wayne has been speaking for Mickey ever since.

Copyright 2004 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Speaking of voices ... You want to hear something bizarre? Alan Young almost didn't get the chance to provide Scrooge McDuck's voice in "Mickey's Christmas Carol." Why For? Because -- as production was gearing up on this animated featurette -- people at the studio were reportedly reluctant to give this old sitcom star a call. They supposedly thought that Young wouldn't want this job.

Mind you, Alan only finds out that Disney is getting ready to produce an animated version of his "Dickens' Christmas Carol" storyteller LP when a friend asks for Young's help in preparing for an upcoming audition. You see, this actor pal of Alan's knew that Young could do a killer Scottish accent. And this performer was hoping that Alan could give him a few tips about how to do a good Scottish accent before he went in for this audition at Disney.

So this friend drops by Young's house with the pages that he's been given for this upcoming Disney audition. And as Alan reviews this material, he realizes that these pages are an excerpt of the script that he & Alan Dinehart had written for that "Dickens' Christmas Carol" storyteller LP some eight years earlier.

So Young then calls an executive over at Disney Studios and asks if they're now making a movie version of that recording that he wrote & co-produced. This suit says "Yes." So Alan then says "Well, can I please come in and audition for the role of Scrooge?" And the exec says "Sure."

So Young goes over to the Burbank lot and absolutely nails his audition for Scrooge McDuck. Which isn't all that surprising. Given the terrific job that he'd done with this very same character some eight years earlier. So Alan is then offered the part ... And he's been voicing Scrooge McDuck ever since.

As to why Alan wasn't originally asked to audition for this role in "Mickey's Christmas Carol" ... The stories that I've heard suggest some folks at WDFA thought that Young might consider it beneath him to be asked to voice a cartoon character. Particularly on a project that he'd originally helped create. So -- rather than possibly offend Alan -- they opted not to call him in.

When he finally heard Disney's lame excuse for not getting in touch with him about the Scrooge McDuck auditions, Young allegedly replied: "Hey, I worked in television for five years with a talking horse. At this point in my career, nothing's beneath me."

Copyright 2004 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

As for the movie itself, "Mickey's Christmas Carol" isn't actually an adaptation of Dickens' classic tale. It's more of a burlesque of this holiday favorite. With Scrooge McDuck basically wisequacking his way through the first half of the film.

Copyright 2004 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Fans of this featurette might be intrigued to learn that the roles of Ghost of Christmas Present & Christmas Future were played by different Disney characters on the "Dickens' Christmas Carol" storyteller LP. As I mentioned earlier, it was Merlin the Magician -- rather than Jiminy Cricket -- who showed Ebenezer the errors of his past on that recording. And as for the Ghost of Christmas Future ... Would you believe the Witch / Old Peddler Woman from "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," rather than Black Pete?

Copyright 2004 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Of course, one of the main reasons that animation fans love this film is the large number of classic Disney characters who make quick cameo appearances in "Mickey's Christmas Carol." Hell, this animated featurette sometimes seems like a "Mr. Toad" reunion special. Given that Toad turns up in the role of Fezziwig, while McBadger can briefly be seen dancing at the holiday party. Meanwhile Ratty & Mole make an appearance as the two gentlemen who try & solicit a charitable contribution from Scrooge, ...

Copyright 2004 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

... Cyril turns up as nephew Fred (Who's played by Donald Duck)'s horse while the weasels from that film play the gravediggers who are getting ready to bury Ebenezer.

Copyright 2004 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

Speaking of the graveyard sequence ... It's at this exact moment in "Mickey's Christmas Carol" that this WDFA featurette goes from being just a burlesque of Dickens' classic story to becoming a movie that genuinely touches you. And it's all on the back of Mark Henn's masterful animation of Mickey tenderly placing that crutch on Tiny Tim's grave. Not a single word is spoken. But as Mickey starts to tear up ... Your heart automatically goes out to this character.

Copyright 2004 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

And -- from that point forward -- you're hooked. You're now emotionally invested in this picture. Which is why you can't help but smile when the now-reformed Scrooge arrives at the Crachit household with a bagload of toys & holiday treats.

Copyright 2004 Disney Enterprises, Inc.

So alright. So "Mickey's Christmas Carol" may not be the most faithful adaptation of Dickens' beloved tale. It may not even be the best animated version of this holiday favorite (Sorry, Disneyana fans. But I still think that Mr. Magoo has Mickey beat. That cartoon "Christmas Carol" does a far better job of telling Dickens' story. More to the point, that holiday special never substitutes genuine emotion for quick laughs). But -- that said -- there's still a lot to like about this 1983 featurette.

If anything, Alan Young's story about he came to land his Scrooge McDuck gig should provide a very valuable lesson. Especially to those of you who work in the entertainment industry.

And that lesson is ... Never hesitate to give anyone who's just getting started a leg up. For today's go-fer could be tomorrow's CEO. Someone who could then possibly give you a leg up in your career.

And speaking of tomorrow ... Tomorrow, we take a look at how Academy-Award winner George C. Scott plays Ebenezer Scrooge. He's one manly miser.

Your thoughts?

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  • I guess it goes without saying that this is my favorite version or the story, mainly because of all of the fond memories of the annual television airings (where it was usually paired with a few shorts, like Pluto's Christmas Tree).

    Thanks to DVD, I can now watch it whenever I want.

    Thanks for the insights (especially with all of the material about the LP), Jim!

  • Ah, one of my favorites, but by no means the Muppet Christmas Carol!  Nice job, Jim.

  • This is one of my favorites, too, if only for the fond memories of watching it as a child. I think my parents must of taped a showing of it on TV--I remember watching it TONS. This is the movie that actually made me aware of the 'Christmas Carol' story at a young age.

    I need to track it down on DVD and watch it again.

  • The annual television airings served as the basis for our old holiday VHS in my household. They're ingrained into my memory. First "The Art of Skiing," followed by "Donald's Snow Fight," and finally "Pluto's Christmas Tree," before heading into the feature.

    Good work on the article. It's nice to get the backstory of it after all these years.

  • For those of you too young to remember, This cartoon's release date was held up for a year because of an animators' strike. Publicity materials had already gone out to shopping centers all over the country, in the form of large sculpted figures of Mickey, Mickey and (if I recall correctly) Scrooge McDuck recreating a scene from the(supposedly) soon to be released film. I remember walking through the main court of my local mall and hearing a little girl screaming "Mickey Mouse! Mickey Mouse!" like she had just seen the most wonderful thing in the world, which, in fact, she had.

  • My only complaint about this cartoon? While the title was" Mickey's Christmas Carol", The cartoon itself felt more like "Scrooge McDuck's Christmas Carol". I wish they could have come up with more for poor Mickey to do in a film that was promoted as his comeback film. I realise they had a preexisting storyline, but they were already playing fast and loose with the original text, there's no reason why they couldn't have found it in their hearts to write a few more scenes for Mickey and his family. The MGM version did it (expanded Crachit's story to give a little more screen time to his family life) so it's not as though there was no precedent for adapting the classics to accommodate the cast.

  • A couple of questions:

    First, why were Christmas Past and Future changed for the animated version?

    Second, I recognize those behind the scenes photos. They're from the "making of" documentary I have on my VHS copy of MCC. Out of curiousity, is that feature on the DVD?

  • I do believe it is on the Walt Disney Treasures- Mickey Mouse in Living Color: Volume II disc.  I'm not sure if it's on the Holiday Classics disc, though.

  • I was specifically asking about the "Making of MCC" feature that follows on the VHS

  • Jim Hill takes a look at this new paperback from Gemstone Publishing, an affordable & informative paperback that offers highlights of the past seven decades worth of internationally published Disney comics

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