Saturday, June 14, 2014

The Mr. Magoo Show (1960)

Mr. Magoo and its one-joke premise was already fairly long in the tooth when it made the transition to television for the 1960-61 season. Magoo had first appeared as a secondary character in a 1949 theatrical cartoon titled The Ragtime Bear produced by the United Productions of America (UPA) animation studio. But the myopic Magoo, based in part on animation director John Hubley's uncle, proved so popular that Columbia Pictures, the distributor for UPA, called for more Magoo, and the studio churned out over 50 theatrical shorts over the next decade, winning two Oscars in the process for When Magoo Flew (1955) and Magoo's Puddle Jumper (1956). But the studios over-reached when they expanded Magoo to a feature-length film with 1001 Arabian Nights in 1959, which was a commercial flop that, combined with other poor management decisions at UPA, nearly ruined the studio. 

In stepped Hank Saperstein, who first set up a licensing deal to feature the Magoo character in commercials and ads for G.E. light bulbs and then bought UPA outright. As documented by Darrell Van Citters in his liner notes for the Shout! Factory box set of TV Magoo, Saperstein felt that television was the future and Magoo his best asset; thus, the creation of The Mr. Magoo Show. Originally the show was going to be sold to a network and sponsored by Kellogg's cereals, but that deal fell through and instead it was released as a syndicated series sold to some 150 stations across the nation. As such, each station could choose when to air the program and exactly when it did air is today something of a mystery. Neither nor the Shout! Factory box set ascribe air dates to any of the episodes. The web site lists the first episode as airing on November 7, 1960 with subsequent episodes airing weekly thereafter, but an examination of TV Guide magazines from the era does not support this schedule. Other than being mentioned in the Fall Preview issue dated September 24 as a possible hit (alongside Deputy Dawg and The Dick Tracy Show), it shows up every day at 6:30 in the Southern California edition of TV Guide but only on Mondays at 6:00 in the Cleveland edition. Since the listings do not indicate which episode is being aired, it is unclear whether the daily showings were repeats of the same episode or five different episodes. In any case, for the purposes of this blog, we will assume that the first 14 episodes aired in 1960 and the last 12 in 1961.

Like Rocky and His Friends, each episode contained multiple short pieces interspersed with even briefer and repeated introductory bumpers. For Magoo these bumpers were all different until the fifth episode when they began to be repeated. At least two of the bumpers contain a mailman character who never appears in any of the full-length cartoons. As to the repetitiveness of the Magoo premise in which his nearsightedness gets him into numerous predicaments that never cause him any harm but result in disaster for just about everyone else, Van Citters concedes that "The premise had become something of a cliché by this time..." and that "the studio recognized the limitations and added peripheral characters to flesh out some of the stories". These other characters included Magoo's dim-witted nephew Waldo, who had appeared along with him in the theatrical shorts but now featured him with his slick-talking friend Presley. 

Also featured in their own shorts were Magoo's pets Hamlet the hamster, Caesar the dog, and Cicero the cat. In a couple of the early episodes Magoo mistakenly calls his cat Bowser. In "Day at the Beach" from the first episode he takes Bowser the cat to the beach, thinking he is taking his dog. In "Shotgun Magoo" from the fifth episode, we actually see Bowser the bulldog, but Magoo puts the dog leash on his cat, calling him Bowser, and takes him duck hunting. This is the only time we see the dog Bowser. In all the other episodes in which a dog is featured, it is the hound-like Caesar, who has a distinctive southern drawl and is constantly at war with Hamlet the hamster, as is Cicero the cat. All of these pet-themed shorts are basically pale imitations of the Looney Tunes Sylvester and Tweety narratives. In this case the plot involves Magoo going out somewhere and Hamlet being determined to raid the icebox while Cicero either tries to catch and eat him or Caesar tries to stop him because he knows that Magoo will blame him for the missing food.

The Waldo and Presley shorts typically involve Presley talking Waldo into doing something stupid that will benefit Presley, such as in "Rassle Hassle" from the eleventh episode in which Presley talks Waldo into going into the ring with a wrestler named Moose in order to win $100. In "Saddle Battle" from episode 9, Presley makes a side deal with a rodeo promoter after his star James Harness walks off the job, leaving Waldo to ride a bucking bronco and an angry bull. In "Skinned Divers" from the first episode, Presley has Waldo go diving for Davy Jones' locker after they find what they believe is Jones' diary buried on the beach. In his diving attempts Waldo runs into a hammerhead shark and an octopus but eventually does find and retrieve the locker, only to have Magoo pop out from it exclaiming about the outlandishness of these secret society initiations. Normally, however, Magoo only appears at the beginning of the Waldo shorts, talking to him on the phone about his latest adventures.

Another character introduced as a foil for Magoo is his houseboy Charlie, who is a walking Chinese stereotype with bucked teeth, slanted eyes, and extreme mispronunciation, calling his employer "Magloo" and "bloss" instead of "boss." When the program was re-run in the 1980s, Charlie's dialogue was overdubbed to remove the culturally offensive pronunciations. Charlie eventually gets to star in his own short "Magoo's Houseboy" from episode 13 in which he comes to the aid of his nephew, whose cat refuses to come down from the top of a utility pole. Predictably the cat outwits Charlie and gets him electrocuted. Magoo appears only tangentially at the beginning and conclusion of the short.

A few episodes also feature Mother Magoo, whom Magoo treats in a patronizing manner though she is far more competent than he is. In "Mother's Little Helper" from the first episode, he goes over to her house to take her out for a ride in his Stutz Bearcat, not realizing that she is a racing champion who is putting the finishing touches on a super-powered hot rod. Magoo mistakes the hot rod for a washing machine in need of repairs and winds up driving it recklessly through town causes all sorts of catastrophes. In "Mother's Cooking" from episode 11 he thinks that he is just humoring her by eating her inferior cooking, not realizing that he has been consuming the tablecloth rather than what she prepared for him.

He has a more antagonistic relationship with his uncle Tycoon Magoo, who is always angered when Magoo wanders onto one of his properties and sends his British butler Worcestershire to run him off, though Magoo always manages to elude Worcestershire, who predictably suffers a fate similar to Wile E. Coyote in the Roadrunner cartoons. 

Besides borrowing heavily from the Looney Tunes plot archive, the show even recycles its own narratives fairly often. Magoo wanders onto military bases and winds up launching missiles or rockets in "Mis-Guided Missile" from episode 3, "Magoo's Jackpot" from episode 6, "High & Flighty" from episode 7, and "High Spy Magoo" from episode 13. Waldo and Presley tangle with a Cinderella-styled witch with a talking mirror in "Lady in Black" in episode 5, while Magoo foils a similarly outfitted tugboat matron in "Prince Charming Magoo" from episode 13. And he goes car shopping and winds up in a junkyard next door in "Magoo's Buggy" from episode 5 and then repeats the excursion but this time ends up in a TV studio in "People Are a Scream" from episode 11. There's more than one way to interpret his closing line for each episode, "Oh, Magoo, you've done it again!" Others have also noted this lack of originality: Don Markstein of the web site observes, " Unfortunately, UPA's creative drive seems to have petered out with the transition to the small screen." Markstein attributes the degradation to the sheer volume UPA had to turn out for a weekly TV series at the same time they were producing The Dick Tracy Show. But equally plausible is that there are only so many ways to show a visually impaired old man bumbling about.

It's unclear whether Rocky and His Friends had any influence on the writers at UPA, but beginning with "Marco Magoo" in episode 9 and "Choo Choo Magoo" in episode 10, the show began featuring Magoo in historical contexts, much like Peabody's Improbable History segments,  and skewering classic fairy tales, much like Fractured Fairy Tales, with "Goldilocks Magoo" in episode 14. This direction would lead to Magoo's most successful television endeavor a few years later with Mister Magoo's Christmas Carol, which in turn spawned his next television series The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo in 1964-65, wherein Magoo takes on everything from Robin Hood to King Arthur to Sherlock Holmes. But like The Mr. Magoo Show, Famous Adventures lasted only a single season, perhaps proving what is painfully evident from the earlier series--Magoo is best taken in small doses spaced very far apart.

The opening and closing theme for The Mr. Magoo Show was composed by Carl E. Brandt. Brandt was born in Sacramento, California and played clarinet, violin, and saxophone in the Dick Jurgens Orchestra before World War II, during which he served in the Air Force. After the war he moved to Los Angeles and found work composing and arranging for films and television. He provided music for a trio of feature films in 1955, including Seven Angry Men, and then worked on a Mr. Magoo short, Gumshoe Magoo, in 1958, which lead to more work from UPA. Besides The Mr. Magoo Show, he worked on The Dick Tracy Show and The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo, both for UPA. In 1965 he joined Earle Hagen's studio and contributed music for series such as The Andy Griffith Show, Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C., I Spy, That Girl, The Mod Squad, and Eight Is Enough. He retired in 1981 and died of a heart attack 10 years later on April 25, 1991.

The entire series has been released on DVD by Shout! Factory as part of the box set Mr. Magoo: The Television Collection 1960-1977.






The Actors

Jim Backus

James Gilmore Backus was born in Cleveland and grew up in a wealthy nearby suburb, the son of a mechanical engineer. He was reportedly expelled from a Kentucky military institute for riding a horse through the mess hall. After finishing prep school he attended the American Academy of Dramatic Art and started landing roles on radio, such as The Jack Benny Program, The Alan Young Show, and The Mel Blanc Show. He would also host his own show on the ABC radio network in 1957-58. He began doing voicework for animated films in the late 1940s as well as acting roles in live-action features, beginning with One Last Fling in 1949. He did his first Mr. Magoo short that same year with Ragtime Bear. From then on he worked steadily in radio, film, and television into the 1980s. Highlights in film included Pat and Mike, Rebel Without a Cause, and It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. He landed his first recurring television role as the husband of Joan Davis on I Married Joan, which ran from 1952-55. He played news reporter Mike O'Toole on The Jim Backus Show in 1960-61 (sometimes called Hot Off the Wire). He played his iconic character Thurston Howell III on Gilligan's Island from 1964-67 and in many reunions and films thereafter. He also played Dagwood's boss J.C. Dithers on the short-lived TV adaptation of the comic strip Blondie in 1968-69, as well as countless guest appearances on everything from The Untouchables to The Brady Bunch. He and his wife Henny co-authored four humorous books, including his memoir Backus Strikes Back. Late in life he suffered from Parkinson's disease and died from complications of pneumonia on July 3, 1989 at the age of 76.

Jerry Hausner

Also born in Cleveland, James Bernard Hausner broke into radio while in the Army during World War II and was a co-founder of the Armed Services Radio Network. He would also later serve as Deputy Program Director for Radio Free Europe for three years. He performed various roles on hundreds of radio programs, and after a couple of uncredited film appearances during the war began to get regular work in film and later television starting in the late 1940s. He provided the voice of Mr. Magoo's favorite nephew Waldo in the first Magoo short Ragtime Bear in 1949. He is perhaps best known for playing Jerry, Ricky Ricardo's agent, on I Love Lucy, starting with the unaired pilot from 1951. He also provided the baby's cry for the Ricardo's baby, Ricky, Jr. One source says that during the filming of the "Fan Magazine" episode in 1954 (his 14th and final appearance on the show) that Hausner had a disagreement with Desi Arnaz and walked off, feeling bitter toward Arnaz and Lucille Ball for the rest of his life. However, he had single guest spots on Ball's two later programs, The Lucy Show and Here's Lucy. He continued voicing Waldo in the Magoo shorts throughout the 1950s and carried over into the Magoo television programs. He also voiced several characters on the animated Dick Tracy Show in 1961.

His film appearances were few and brief, in features such as Private Hell 36, Paths of Glory, The Naked Street, and Who's Minding the Store? But he was prolific in his TV appearances, including multiple turns on The Dick Van Dyke Show, Green Acres, and Julia. He died of heart failure at age 83 on April 1, 1993.

Mel Blanc

Blanc provided the voice for Magoo's uncle Tycoon Magoo and his butler Worcestershire. See the biography section of the 1960 post for The Flintstones.

Bea Benaderet

Benaderet provided the voice for Mother Magoo in at least five episodes. See the biography section of the 1960 post for The Flintstones.

June Foray

Foray provided the voice for Mother Magoo in at least two episodes. See the biography section of the 1960 post for Rocky and His Friends.

Paul Frees

Frees provided the voice for a variety of characters. See the biography section of the 1960 post for Rocky and His Friends.

Frank Nelson

Nelson provided the voice for a variety of characters. See the biography section of the 1960 post for The Jack Benny Program.

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