New feature: You already know the 12 Days Of Christmas, with its drummers drumming and partridges and gold rings, but we here at The A.V. Club like to take everything one step further, for your reading pleasure. Hence, 13 Days Of Christmas, a collection of essays on a handful of beloved holiday classics and a few that have sadly fallen through the cracks. Up today, the very first animated TV Christmas special, Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol.
What do people think when they watch Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol on TV nowadays? It rarely turns up—though this year, NBC has decided to give the special its first broadcast network showing since the ’80s—and when it does, it’s been cut down from its original running time of 52 minutes, by up to 10 minutes, to better fit into modern timeslots. This is usually accomplished by taking out the opening and closing sections, which feature the only truly “Mr. Magoo” moments of the special, wherein he drives the wrong way down a one-way street and gets in an accident, then destroys the scenery onstage during a curtain call. Everything in between is a straightforward retelling of the Dickens tale—with a bunch of stuff switched around for no real reason—that just happens to star a little old man who was once a major cartoon star and Gerald McBoing-Boing. Considered outside the time in which it was produced, and removed from any context, Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol must seem exceedingly odd to the children of 2012.
Yet the special unquestionably works. There are many reasons for this, chief among them the fact that Dickens’ template is so rock-solid that it’s hard to mess up, and that the songs—written by Broadway composers Jule Styne and Bob Merrill—are so great. This is the best song score for a musical adaptation of A Christmas Carol, and there are a bunch of them. Styne and Merrill went on to write Funny Girl, and there’s a level of craftsmanship to their work that doesn’t often pop up in the songs we get in Christmas specials today. (It’s also long been rumored that “People” was originally written for this special, though Styne’s biographer disputes that claim.) Just take a listen to the lovely harmonies and melancholy lyrics in “Alone In The World,” sung by the young Scrooge, who’s eventually joined by the older version of himself.
If you ask a fan of the special just why they like it so much, it usually comes down to those songs, and justifiably so. It’s not that the rest of the special is bad, but there are certainly better Dickens adaptations out there. The script streamlines the narrative, cutting out several of the more famous parts, and it makes the choice to swap the sections with the Ghost Of Christmas Present and the Ghost Of Christmas Past. I can see what the writers were going for with that change. By swapping the two ghosts, the script allows for us to see Scrooge getting to know Tiny Tim, then go back and see what a sad little boy Scrooge was. It foregrounds why he’s so taken with Tiny Tim to a degree that doesn’t really happen in Dickens’ original, which requires readers to remember back past young Scrooge’s adventures with Fezziwig and Belle, back to that sad young boy sitting alone at his school, then connect that boy to Tiny Tim.
But it also makes the story feel divided against itself. Scrooge meets the Ghost Of Christmas Present and starts to get his act together, then has to regress for no real reason to meet the Ghost Of Christmas Past, then has to grow to an unnatural degree so the Ghost Of Christmas Yet To Come can turn this shit around. The character arc Dickens set out was so airtight it’s hard to imagine messing with it too much, yet Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol chops it up and reassembles it in a way that only works because the original story is so good and the songs patch over the character transitions. In a musical, songs are required to fill viewers in on the inner state of a character’s mind; they work overtime to do that here, and the swap feels like an odd choice for a special that otherwise shows such reverence toward the original work, even having Magoo-as-Scrooge deliver several direct quotes from Dickens.
The special’s historical significance—it was the first full-length animated TV Christmas special, predating Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer by two years—can’t be overstated, and by virtue of getting there first, Magoo planted its flag as a special worth watching, if only for curiosity’s sake. What’s interesting here is just how tentative everything is. UPA, the animation studio that produced the Magoo and Gerald McBoingBoing shorts, was interested in moving into television and out of film shorts, but it wasn’t immediately sure how. A holiday special seemed the safest bet, as many of TV’s early live-action specials were re-performed yearly when Christmas rolled around. (The foremost example of this is Amahl And The Night Visitors, which was performed well into the ’80s.) Thus, an animated special that could be hauled out every year would be a solid moneymaker. UPA was right about this, but ultimately wrong about moving into television. The studio couldn’t handle the increased workload of TV production and didn’t want to cut corners. It eventually foundered.
There wasn’t yet a template for building a holiday special using pre-existing characters. What we now consider television’s stock holiday stories hadn’t yet been invented, and there was nothing within the character of Mr. Magoo—primarily known for having bad eyesight—that immediately suggested “Christmas.” Thus, UPA chose to piggyback off of one of the most famous Christmas stories ever written, albeit oddly. When most studios do their own riffs on A Christmas Carol, they simply recast the parts with their own characters. One of the most famous examples, Mickey’s Christmas Carol, repurposes essentially every existing Disney character for its tale. But Magoo doesn’t really have any famous friends (which is why Gerald comes along for the ride), so UPA created a framing device that has Magoo performing the show on Broadway, which seems dropped in from some other story entirely and is mostly forgotten over the course of the special. For the most part, this is A Christmas Carol, weirdly Cuisinarted, with great songs, starring Mr. Magoo. If it hadn’t gotten there first, would anybody remember it today?
Probably. Styne and Merrill’s songs are terrific, and it’s hard to screw up A Christmas Carol, to mess up the idea of Christmas getting all mixed up with ghosts and regret. (Besides, everything is remembered by somebody in this day and age.) I’m never going to add Mr. Magoo to my yearly pile of specials I always watch, but it still works, no matter how hard it attempts to screw itself up. There’s a quiet beauty to the idea of a man turning his life around because he sees the goodness in others at the end of the year. And even if that man is a near-sighted cartoon curiosity from the mid-20th century, the joy’s still palpable when he turns the corner and heads toward a better future.
Tomorrow: It’s Christmastime at Pee-wee’s Playhouse.