Though I may have just missed it, not unlikely, I hadn't seen any TV station broadcast the luminous Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol yet this season, so over the weekend, I put on my DVD of the show. (Of course it's still possible that someone will air it before the holiday. So, if you don't have your own DVD handy, keep an eye open.)
This was the first animated Christmas special, which in 2012 celebrated its 50th anniversary, and in its honor NBC re-broadcast it in primetime. The show aired for a long time, but its barebones animation eventually bumped it from the schedule. That's a shame, since it's so wonderful -- and after all it's not like A Charlie Brown Christmas or Frost the Snowman are such state-of-the-art animation. Though clearly Magoo is still on the lower end.
Last year, the CW network bought the broadcast rights and, in order to properly honor the thing, admirably aired it in a 90-minute time slot, so that the 52-minute program could run without anything being cut, and then added some filler in the extra time. (Back in 1962, when the show first aired, TV had far-fewer commercials.)
But what a show. It's actually a pretty good adaptation of the Dickens story, adapted by Barbara Chain, for all its shtick and significant trimming.
And oh, what a score. There's no question, at least in my mind, that it's the finest score to an animated TV special, not just for Christmas, but period. It's probably one of the best scores for a TV special of any kind. It was written by two Broadway composers at the top of their game, Jule Styne and Bob Merrill -- who the same year, 1962, that they did the TV special also wrote Funny Girl for Broadway. In fact, as a story goes, they were in their office working on a song, when one of the producers of Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol was passing by and heard it, and burst in so excited by how wonderful the number was. Though the song fit perfectly for the TV show, the two writers had to tell him that, unfortunately, the song was for Funny Girl. It was a piece called... "People."
How good is the score? I've told this story here before, but it bears repeating. I remember being over at my cousin's home about 10 years ago, and they're rented a video of the show to play that night for their little son. I was surprised that they'd never seen it before, but I told them they were in for a real treat, and explained how great the songs were. They said they were hopeful, because after years of watch animated TV musicals they were getting a bit burned out by bland kiddie songs.
Anyway, the video began. They quite enjoyed the first song, but I told them that it didn't really count. It was a definitely fun song, but just a bit of a set-up number to explain the framing device for the story -- that Quincy Magoo was performing in A Christmas Carol on stage, and therefore singing "It's Great to Be Back on Broadway." Eventually though the core of the story started. And all was fine and normal. And then about four minutes in the first song, "Ringle Ringle," began -- and to this day, I remember the expression on the faces of my cousin and his wife when, only about five seconds in, they turned to me with looks of "Oh, My God" astonishment. And the song had hardly even begun yet -- let along the rest of the glorious score. But those few seconds were SO much better already than most anything they'd heard in any other animated specials that they were blown away.
This is that song. Much as I love the whole number, I especially smile when they go into the counterpoint. Jim Backus provides the voice of Mr. Magoo, and Jack Cassidy is Bob Cratchit.
The songs gets a brief reprise when Scrooge wakes up on Christmas morning, and transformed by the spiritis doing it all in one night. It has altered lyrics to fit the new, open-hearted and generous Scrooge, and I have always loved one of the clever changes --
Guineas, and thruppence and tuppence and bob.
Give them away and nobody can rob
And because one song is just not enough, let's add in one more for a bit of holiday topping. Here's the big "showstopping" number, "The Lord's Bright Blessing," which is sung during the Ghost of Christmas Present sequence, and then gets repeated for the big finale with Scrooge and the Cratchit family, and is played yet again for the "curtain call." (Remember, this is supposedly a stage production...).
Again, they just don't write Broadway showstoppers like this for animated TV specials.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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