Saturday, 12 January 2013


'I will honour Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.' 

So says the reformed Ebenezer Scrooge at the conclusion of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.

And that intent (one we could all do well to follow) combined with the fact that we are still within the 40 days of Christmas that end at Candlemass on 2 February, are all I need by way of an excuse to post about a book published during Dickens' bi-centennial year in celebration of another landmark event: the 50th anniversary of the first broadcast of a TV programme entitled...

The cultural significance of this 55-minute film is revealed in the title of the book by the animator and director, Darrell Van Citters...

Mr Magoo's portrayal of Dickens' 'squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous old sinner' proved a ground-breaking production being the first-ever animated Christmas TV special.

Televised by NBC on 18 December 1962, it went to air a full two years before the much-loved Rankin/Bass stop-frame film, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, and three years before the perennially-repeated A Charlie Brown Christmas.

It also happens to have been the very first film version of the Carol that I ever saw and – despite having subsequently seen numerous other attempts (good bad and indifferent) at retelling the tale – this one holds a very special place in my affections.

As a young animation buff, I had seen several cartoons featuring the near-sighted Quincy Magoo (spoken for by that talented comic actor, Jim Backus) and enjoyed the blundering buffoonery resulting from his near-sighted view of the world.

I was also very excited by the economic animation style of the UPA (United Productions of America) studio: simple, dynamic lines, bold colours and an energetic 'sixties graphic sensibility (strongly influenced by British cartoonist, Ronald Searle) that was so totally different from the classic Disney-look that I habitually salivated over!

As for the source material, well, I already knew (and was passionately in love with) Dickens story, beginning – though I was unaware of it – what would prove to be a life-long obsession leading to my writing programmes about the Carol, a entire book on the subject and my own stage dramatisations.

Since I was first able to pick up Magoo's interpretation of Scrooge on video, I have watched it every year! 

As a result, can sing (not that you'd necessarily want me to) the delightful Jule Style/Bob Merrill numbers word- (if not note-) perfect!
Here's one of those songs...

Darrell Van Citters' superbly researched and written book, now in a new edition to celebrate the film's 50th anniversary, provides a detailed account of how this movie came to be made and filmed in the way that it was: the struggles to find a network, a sponsor (it was eventually Timex watches whose name fronted the transmission) and songwriters with Richard Rogers eventually backing off to make way for Styne and Merrill who were kicking their heels waiting to write Funny Girl.

Citters discusses the uniquely quirky thing about this film: the fact that it is the only Christmas Carol where the Ghost of Christmas Present precedes the Ghost of Christmas Past and explains the history behind the inspired solution for selling an audience on the idea of the affable Magoo playing the irascible Scrooge...

The answer?  

Magoo is performing in a Broadway production of A Christmas Carol. So, after a typically accident-filled journey to the theatre, Magoo steps on stage and 'acts' the role of Dickens' miser...

Rather surprisingly perhaps, Magoo manages to get through the show without mishap (at least until the curtain call) although there are occasional entertaining 'sight-gags' along the way, as when the Ghost of Christmas Past says 'You have never sen the like of me before' and Magoo responds: 'I'm not sure I see the like of you now!' prompting the Ghost to comment: You're the one who's too tight with a penny to buy a pair of spectacles!'

Darrell Van Citters' book is jam-packed with behind the scenes facts, photos and art including dozens of backgrounds, layouts, character sketches, cel set-ups and storyboard drawings (among them several sequences dropped or cut from the finished production), profiles of the creative team and the recording artists who spoke and sang their way through this musical Carol.

Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol comes in a regular trade edition as well as in a handsome slip-cased limited edition...

You can read more about the book, including details of how to order your copy here.

Cartoon characters from other studios would later assay Dickens' classic – among them Mickey Mouse & Co, Bugs Bunny and Friends, the Flintstones and the Jetsons – but none have the emotional range or fidelity to the original text as Magoo's production.

Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol was a small but ambitious project that turned out to be an enduring classic. Fifty years on, it remains – in the words of one of the film's lyrics – 'a star of shining Christmas gold'. And now so too is this wonderful book of the film of the book!


Boll Weavil said...

Still celebrating versions of Christmas Carol ! Excellent. Although not one of my particular favourites I am glad to see any version lauded. I wonder whether the last frame you show - of the trade paper, is a subtle reference to a shot in that other seasonal perennial 'White Christmas' which shows a similar trade paper with the same byline 'Wallace and Davis act boffo'

Eudora said...

Lovely song... lovely work of music, very rare in our days.

By the way, this Xmas I asked to the Maggi for my nieces some books, one of them was The Picwick Papers, I hope the girls like it...

Roger O B... said...

Look forward to hearing your rendition of these songs a la Dean Martin some time!
LUSPORT: The sex Olympics

Christopher Sobieniak said...

Glad to read your take on this classic special. Last month NBC aired it for it's 50th anniversary, but because of the way American TV is run these days, it was rip to shreads and even the final song before curtain calls was removed. Such a shame indeed. At least we have the DVD I suppose.

Brian Sibley said...

Boll – That's a fascinating thought! It was, of course, a convention in many showbiz movies. In Disney's 1946 compilation-feature, 'Make Mine Music', there's a sequence ('The Whale Who Wanted to Sing at the Met') which uses many newspaper and magazine front-pages to move on the plot.

Eudora – I do hope Mr Pickwick was made very welcome: it was the the very first Dickens book I ever read and I still love it!

Christopher – Yes, I heard it had been savagely mangled – actually dismembered! Why did they bother showing it if they were going to do that...?

Christopher Sobieniak said...

Yes, I heard it had been savagely mangled – actually dismembered! Why did they bother showing it if they were going to do that...?

We still don't know. It never makes sense at all. On the one hand, it was nice someone actually remembered they aired this 50 years ago and wanted to do something about it, on the other, it was a shame they couldn't find way to extend the time needed if they had to add in the needed ad time that has quadrupled considerably over the years. A 90 minute showing with perhaps a nice introduction about the film and it's significance, perhaps getting Darrell Van Citters to come over for it would be a better idea. Instead, they felt the hour long wrestling special that followed was more important.