Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol

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

Monday, October 13, 2014

Mr. Magoo and The Features That Never Were

Those who read this blog or who are up on their animation history will know that Mr. Magoo starred in an animated feature, the 1959 release, 1001 Arabian Nights.  But how many are aware that it was not the only vehicle considered for a Magoo feature?  As with most of film production, there are fits, starts and even different directions taken before arriving at the final destination.  So it was with Mr. Magoo and his feature career.

The UPA studio had built their reputation in animation on three things--contemporary art, contemporary situations and the use of human characters, rather than animals, to tell their stories.  It was a deliberate rejection of Walt Disney's approach to the medium but when they began to contemplate producing a feature, they unconsciously followed Disney's lead when it came to subject matter.  All of their proposed features involved non-contemporary or mythical settings and several went back to classic literature.  The first to be generate much pre-production work was based on James Thurber's 1945 children's fairy tale, The White Deer.  Although the story dealt with something that had become Disney's stock-in-trade, the fairy tale, the studio was quite excited about adapting the work of a contemporary artist like James Thurber.

But it was not to be.  It wasn't long before Columbia, UPA's distributor, let it be known that they would feel much more comfortable if the studio built a film around the highly popular character of Mr. Magoo.  Seeing the Golden Rule in play here--he who has the gold, makes the rules--UPA acquiesced and announced a feature version of Miguel Cervantes' classic novel, Don Quixote of La Mancha with Mr. Magoo in the title role.  Although development work was done on the project, Columbia had subsequently entered into an agreement with a Spanish producer to do a live-action film of the novel and sidelined the animated version.

Pitch art for Don Quixote, artist unknown.

To take its place, two other Magoo vehicles were developed, Robin Hood and 1001 Arabian Nights.  When it came time to pick between the two, studio head Stephen Bosustow chose 1001.  Jim Backus was aware of the Robin Hood project and in an interview promoting 1001, he provided a small peek behind the scenes, saying  "We used to talk and we thought Magoo would be funny in ... maybe  Don Quixote.  He would be wonderful ... because he is tilting (at) windmills and we finally, I think, hit upon the one universal character, the Aladdin theme of the Arabian Nights. So it's the first feature  and I hope not the last. We are also toying with doing Robin Hood ... (Magoo) as Robin Hood ... which would be kind of funny, I would think."   

However, the box office failure of 1001 Arabian Nights doomed the notion of any future Magoo features and so decimated the studio's finances that shortly thereafter Bosustow sold UPA to Hank Saperstein.  The concept of a Magoo/Robin Hood theatrical feature was lost in the mists of time until a few years ago when a few pieces of the pre-production art for the film first surfaced:

Although a theatrical feature was never produced, "Robin Hood" did later see life as a virtual feature length production,  covering a span of 4 episodes for The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo just five years later.  This time, though, Magoo was no longer playing the role of the title character and was recast as Friar Tuck.  Saperstein later edited the four half hours into a complete story and released it theatrically and later the same way on home video.  Which leads to an interesting conjecture--was a script written for the proposed feature and did it serve as the basis for the four part TV episode?  Saperstein was known for maximizing his return on investment so the idea of recycling an unproduced script would not be far fetched.  And innterestingly enough, "Don Quixote" was the only other Famous Adventure to last more than one episode--was this another example of salvaging material from UPA's proposed features?  With so little of either the pre- or post-Saperstein UPA archives available, we will probably never know. 

Lee Mishkin's models for the four part Robin Hood episode

To read more about UPA's foray into feature films, check out Adam Abraham's essential history of the UPA studio, When Magoo Flew.  Special thanks to the Mago0 Admirer for his assistance on this post.

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