Directed By: Abe Levitow
Starring: Jim Backus, Morey Amsterdam, Jack Cassidy
Trivia: Broadway composers Richard Rodgers and Frank Loesser were approached to write the songs. Each was interested, but too busy
Before Rudolph, before Charlie Brown, there was Mr. Magoo. Broadcast in 1962, Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol was the very first animated holiday special ever produced for the small screen, earning it a place in television history and introducing a generation of kids to Dickens’ ageless tale.
A stage version of A Christmas Carol is set to debut on Broadway, and the star of the show, Quincy Magoo (voiced by Jim Backus), nearly misses the opening curtain, arriving at the theater only minutes before he’s to take the stage. Magoo plays Ebenezer Scrooge, the greedy killjoy who abhors Christmas and everything associated with the Holiday. After begrudgingly agreeing to give his assistant Bob Cratchit (Jack Cassidy) Christmas day off, Scrooge heads home, content to spend Christmas Eve away from the rest of the world. Only he won’t be alone; the ghost of Jacob Marley (Royal Dano), Scrooge’s business partner who died seven years ago that very night, returns from the grave to deliver a message to his former colleague: change your miserly ways before it’s too late. To this end, Scrooge is to be visited by three spirits: Christmas Present (Les Tremayne), Christmas Past (Jan Gardner), and Christmas Yet to Come. Together, this trio of ghosts teach Ebenezer Scrooge about the true meaning of Christmas while, at the same time, showing him what might happen if he fails to repent.
I used to watch Mr. Magoo on TV when I was a kid, but my first experience with the character was by way of a 5-minute Super 8 film of a Magoo cartoon (silent, unfortunately) that my father would play for us every now and again. A lovable but somewhat dense old-timer, Magoo’s near-blindness would land him in many hilarious situations; in fact, his failing eyesight is directly responsible for his being late to the theater at the start of Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol (he drives the wrong way down a one-way street). Jim Backus (known to millions as Thurston Howell on the ‘60s television program Gilligan’s Island) was always entertaining as Magoo, and in Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol he does a fine job as the miserable Scrooge, giving the film first a villain to despise, then a sad character we can’t help but feel sorry for. Maury Amsterdam, a fixture on The Dick Van Dyke Show in the ‘60s, also lends his voice to the production; and the idea of presenting it all as a stage play was an ingenious one. In the end, though, it’s Backus (and Magoo) who makes Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol such a heartwarming animated movie.
Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol does take a few liberties with Dickens’ short story (for some reason, the Ghost of Christmas Present turns up before the Ghost of Christmas Past), and many of the songs (with the exception of the opening number "It’s Great to be Back on Broadway") are far too melancholy for a children’s Holiday program. Despite these minor hiccups, however, Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol remains a funny, sometimes touching take on a classic tale, one that’s guaranteed to please kids and parents alike.