Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol

A blog dedicated to the making of the first animated Christmas special, Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo

Many of the readers of this blog grew up not only with Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol but also with the prime time series that it spawned, The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo.  For many, it was their first exposure to the classic literature that was the basis for the show.  The series, although memorable, unfortunately did not achieve any where near the ratings success of the Christmas special.

However, its production was rather remarkable.  From NBC’s greenlight in January to the show’s debut in September, the staff was quickly enlarged, multiple writers were attached to the series and much of the animation was farmed out to freelancers all over Los Angeles.  In less than nine months, UPA pumped out 26 half hours of hand drawn animation from a standing stop, which is still almost incomprehensible, even in this era of computer assisted production.  Above, is a poor quality photocopy from a trade magazine of the time, showing Hank Saperstein and some of the animation crew on the show.  You'll notice that it looks a bit crowded there.  There's only one room in any office that's long and narrow like that and that's a hallway, which gives you an idea of the intensity of production.  No one who worked at UPA recalls a hallway like that so it's possible this was a crew at a satellite facility.  (Below, the original model sheet for the debut episode, William Tell, probably drawn by Bob Dranko.)

Despite that massive increase of manpower, shortcuts were necessary that would allow the crew to meet that deadline.  One of those shortcuts was to avoid animating action within the episodes, relying instead on dialogue to move the story along or in the case of the Moby Dick episode, the use of still art to tell what the budget and schedule couldn't afford.  The unfortunate side effect was that the show became very talky making the show less interesting for younger viewers; doing the classics in cartoon form probably made it less likely that adults would watch, both of which might explain why it was not renewed.  However, it was suitable family viewing and probably its greatest strength was in introducing classic literature to children.  (Below, one of the pieces of still art by layout man Don Morgan for the climax of Moby Dick.)

Abe Levitow was the series' supervising director, underneath him were directors such as Christmas Carol sequence director, Gerard Baldwin,  former Looney Tunes director, Bob McKimson and former MGM animator Ray Patterson, who were responsible for individual shows and who would work directly with the animators. 

The writers had interesting pedigrees as well.  Below is a breakdown of the writing crew, all freelancers, with the shows they wrote.  I’ve highlighted each name with a link to their IMDB page.  If you click through, you’ll see that these writers worked on many of the classic sitcoms and dramas of the era.  You’ll also notice Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol scribe, Barbara Chain, in there.

Walter Black-Robin Hood, 1-4, Count of Monte Cristo, Captain Kidd
True Boardman-Don Quixote, Pts 1 & 2, Moby Dick, Cyrano de Bergerac, Sherlock Holmes
Barbara Chain-William Tell, Snow White, Pts 1 & 2, Noah’s Ark, Rip Van Winkle, A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Joanna Lee-Three Musketeers, Pts 1 & 2
Sloan Nibley-King Arthur, Frankenstein, Gunga Din, Dick Tracy

As I pointed out in the book, while the episodes are often slow moving, the visuals are worth a second look.  Although the studio had to turn out an entire series in a short amount of time, it gave the design staff the opportunity to experiment without management or network  interference.  The show contains some appealing character designs and well designed layouts complemented by interesting painting styles. (Below, models by Lee Mishkin.)

Unfortunately, the only episode from The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo to be released on DVD is the feature length Robin Hood series which, because it was stitched together from four separate episodes, is missing scenes from its original broadcasts.  (Right, background by Bob Inman from Robin Hood.)  Lack of demand for Magoo product has made Classic Media gun shy when it comes to releasing the entire series.  Perhaps with enough interest, they can be persuaded to go back into the vaults.  You can contact them here.


Tom Ruegger said...

"The Famous Adventures of Mister Magoo" was defeated in the ratings (and subsequently canceled) by another show featuring Jim Backus...a little something called "Gilligan's Island."

Brubaker said...

Hulu recently added "Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol" on their site. Here's something interesting: right after the special is a little bonus, a "Famous Adventures" episode with Rip Van Winkle! Check it out!

Joe R. Frinzi said...

I was one of those kids who really enjoyed the "Famous Adventures/Magoo" series. I saw most of them and was especially enamored with the "Moby Dick" episode (probably because I was a big fan of the 1956 Gregory Peck/Richard Basehart film adaptation. It wasn't until I read the book some years later that I discovered that the Magoo version is actually more accurate to the book!

Darrell said...

The Rip Van Winkle print is much better quality than the bootlegs currently on the market.

Craig Gustafson said...

I can't remember where I read it, but supposedly Jim Backus was furious at NBC for scheduling "Famous Adventures" opposite "Gilligan's Island", forcing him to compete with himself.

The irony is that a show featuring a cartoon character playing serious roles was killed by a show with live actors behaving like cartoon characters.