Friday Feature: “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol”
This special holiday-themed Friday Feature originally appeared in December 2010, but we’ve rescued it from The Second Disc Archives to share it with you! It is dedicated to the memory of Leslie Nielsen, who could count Mr. Magoo as just one of many of his indelible film creations, as well as to the gone-but-not-forgotten Jim Backus, Morey Amsterdam, Jack Cassidy and Paul Frees.
Before Rudolph, Frosty and Charlie Brown ruled the television airwaves each December, there was the nearsighted Mr. Quincy Magoo. A product of the UPA animation studio (pioneers of “limited animation” in answer to the more realistic Walt Disney style) under the guidance of maverick director John Hubley, the irrepressible, irritable and perpetually mumbling Magoo made his debut in 1949. By 1962, big screen animated shorts were well on the way to becoming a thing of the past, and those remaining at UPA turned their attention to television. Little did producer Henry G. Saperstein know that he would be making history when Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol premiered on December 18, 1962 as the first-ever animated holiday special produced especially for television. We celebrate its long-overdue soundtrack release (albeit only in digital form) in today’s Friday Feature.
Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol had a stellar pedigree, adapted by Barbara Chain from Charles Dickens, directed by Abe Levitow (a key collaborator of Chuck Jones at the Warner Bros. studio) and starring an A-list of performers. Jim Backus, as always, voiced Magoo (still before he would create Thurston Howell III on Gilligan’s Island) while other voices were provided by Morey Amsterdam of The Dick Van Dyke Show fame, voice artist extraordinaire Paul Frees (whose characterizations for Disneyland attractions are still heard around the world today) and Broadway’s Jack Cassidy, surely the best-ever actor at portraying vain, egocentric gentlemen yet totally believable as the voice of the sympathetic Bob Cratchit. If you’re not familiar with the work of David, Patrick and Shaun’s father, just listen to “My Fortune is My Face” from Jule Styne’s musical Fade-Out, Fade-In, not to mention any of his other definitive original cast performances, or catch a rerun on any number of television shows in which he guest-starred, including Bewitched and The Mary Tyler Moore Show.
Yet what many remember most about Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol is its delightful original score, written by two Broadway veterans. Jule Styne had only three years prior composed his most enduring work in the form of his score with Stephen Sondheim for 1959’s Gypsy. Since then, he had written two more musicals with the team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green, 1960’s Do Re Mi and 1961’s Subways Are for Sleeping (which yielded its own Christmas favorite, “Be a Santa”). Joining Styne to contribute lyrics was Bob Merrill, the hit songwriter of “Mambo Italiano” and “How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?” Merrill had an idiosyncratic sensibility far-removed from those novelty songs which he brought to Broadway via three musicals including New Girl in Town (1957), Take Me Along (1959) and Carnival (1961). The team would, of course, go on to give Barbra Streisand her signature song in “People” from their score to to the legendary Funny Girl in 1964. Hit the jump and you’ll find yourself way back in 1962!
Perhaps in tribute to its authors’ backgrounds on the Great White Way, Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol opens with Magoo leading a company of actors in a theatre as Ebenezer Scrooge. UPA’s other leading character, Gerald McBoing-Boing, even makes an appearance “onstage” in a rare speaking role as Tiny Tim. (For those unfamiliar with this wonderful Dr. Seuss character, Gerald’s only dialogue usually consists solely of “Boing Boing!”) By the show’s end, Magoo has had one of his usual “accidents” onstage, but the telling of A Christmas Carol remains largely faithful and succeeds on the strength of the “casting” of the crotchety Magoo as Scrooge.
Styne and Merrill’s score features one wonderful song after another sure to warm even the most Magoo-like hearts. After Magoo’s opening “It’s Great to Be Back on Broadway,” we’re introduced to Scrooge’s theme, “Ringle, Ringle” in which he sings zestfully of the sound of “coins as they mingle.” Styne and Merrill bring their theatrical know-how to these songs; in “The Lord’s Bright Blessing,” Gerald McBoing-Boing as Tiny Tim, voiced by the female Joan Gardner, sings of what he desires most at Christmas but Bob Cratchit instead chooses to recognize what his family already has. The score continues in a poignant, adult vein – UPA’s films frequently offered as much for adults as for children – as Scrooge explores his “alternate realities.” The emotional “Alone in the World” is performed by a young Magoo, sung by Marie Matthews, as Scrooge revisits his past, while “Winter Was Warm” is a reflection by Scrooge’s paramour (Jane Kean) after he spurns her for material wealth. It’s still a surprise that this beautiful song didn’t ascend to the pantheon of holiday standards. Paul Frees has his musical moment and takes a couple of roles in the darkly delightful “We’re Despicable,” morbidly sung by a laundress, charwoman and undertaker as they receive the news of Scrooge’s passing in the future. In the best stage fashion, the musical themes are woven through the 53-minute special, and there are reprises of “Ringle, Ringle,” “Alone in the World” and “The Lord’s Bright Blessing.” Cassidy leads the upbeat finale of the latter with his rich, burnished tones. The only thing missing is a brassy Jule Styne overture; nobody wrote them better! One was recorded, however…more on that soon.
This distinguished musical score, in addition to its inspired casting, has allowed Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol to remain in viewers’ memories for years after its original and subsequent television airings. It has had a number of home video releases since the days of VHS, and is currently available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Classic Media. There’s also a lavish coffee-table book dedicated to the special, Darrell Van Citters’ Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol: The Making of the First Animated Christmas Special (Oxberry Press, 2009).
Still, its soundtrack has remained conspicuously unavailable, until now. “The Lord’s Bright Blessing” appeared on Nick at Nite’s A Classic Cartoon Christmas, Too (Sony/Nick at Nite 63448, 1997) and “Winter Was Warm” has been recorded most notably by Jodi Benson on the Bruce Kimmel-produced A Hollywood Christmas (Varese Sarabande 5621) and by Victoria Clark on Jule Styne in Hollywood (PS Classics 9638). This year’s digital-only release courtesy of Classic Media marks the first time a soundtrack recording has been released, and I’m pleased to report that there is no intrusive dialogue, seeming to indicate that the score has been taken from its original elements. It’s presented in its original mono. The 10-track album is available at both Amazon.com and iTunes, and clocks in at around 22 minutes’ length, making up in quality what it lacks in quantity. (The Classic Media Blu-Ray offers additional audio content in the way of an Overture (originally intended for an unreleased soundtrack LP) heard on the From Pencil to Paint: Production Montage Slide Show, as well as a demo performed by Styne and Merrill of “Ringle Ringle.”)
Oh, Magoo, you’ve done it again – you’ve got me humming these wonderful, seasonal Styne/Merrill tunes as sung by the immortal Jim Backus, the velvet-voiced Jack Cassidy and the versatile Paul Frees. Pass the razzleberry dressing, please!
Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol: Original Television Soundtrack Recording (Classic Media, 2010, digital-only, no cat. no.)
- Great to Be Back on Broadway – Jim Backus
- Great to Be Back on Broadway (Reprise) – Jim Backus
- Ringle, Ringle – Jim Backus
- The Lord’s Bright Blessing – Jack Cassidy
- Alone in the World – Marie Matthews
- Winter Was Warm – Jane Kean
- We’re Despicable – Paul Frees
- Alone in the World (Reprise) – Marie Matthews
- Ringle, Ringle (Reprise) – Jim Backus
- The Lord’s Bright Blessing (Reprise) – Jack Cassidy