MR. MAGOOOriginal Medium: Theatrical cartoons
Produced by: UPA
First Appeared: 1949
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United Productions of America — UPA — was a cartoon studio formed in the mid-1940s by a bunch of
maverick young animators determined to create true art in the form of animation. After excelling in the production of a number of political and commercial productions, the studio graduated to theatrical cartoons when, in 1948, Columbia Pictures decided to fold its in-house animation studio and hire the fledgling outfit instead. The first two releases under the new contract used The Fox & The Crow, a Columbia-owned series. The third, Ragtime Bear, which hit theaters on Sept. 8, 1949, introduced the nearsighted Mr. Magoo.
Nobody really knows who created Quincy Magoo. Millard Kaufman wrote the script for that first outing. Director John Hubley certainly had a great deal of input. But when most people think of the character, the one element that stands out most strongly is the voice of actor Jim Backus (best known as millionaire Thurston Howell in the 1960s sitcom Gilligan's Island, and as his voice in animated versions, New Adventures of Gilligan and Gilligan's Planet). Backus was encouraged to ad-lib in his depiction of the crotchety old coot, and to ham it up to his heart's content. A great deal of the final product represents his off-the-cuff creativity.
Magoo's inability to distinguish between his nephew, wearing a raccoon coat, and a wild bear, combined with his pig-headed refusal to consider the possibility that his sight might be failing, made a big hit with audiences. Although Hubley hadn't originally seen the character as a series, he directed another Magoo short, Trouble Indemnity, just six months later.
Within a couple of years, Magoo was the star of half the cartoons UPA released, and by the mid-'50s, the studio was doing little else. Four Magoo shorts were nominated for Oscars, and two of them — When Magoo Flew (1954) and Mr. Magoo's Puddle Jumper (1956) — won. And Magoo was the star of UPA's first feature-length cartoon, 1001 Arabian Nights, which came out in 1958.
But the era of theatrical cartoons was drawing to a close. The studio was unable to continue releasing them to theaters beyond 1959. Its very last theatrical cartoon, Terror Faces Magoo, was a Magoo. But by that time, the character was well established in the public consciousness. The momentum was strong enough to carry him into the new medium, where animation was just then starting to thrive — television.
Unfortunately, UPA's creative drive seems to have petered out with the transition to the small screen. During the two years Magoo's TV show was in production (1960-62), the studio churned out about three times as many cartoons as they'd released during his decade-long tenure as a movie star. At the same time, they were producing Dick Tracy cartoons at the same rate. It's no wonder that both series suffered badly from mass production.
The studio did somewhat better at the end of that run, when they cast Magoo as Ebeneezer Scrooge in Magoo's Christmas Carol, an hour-long prime-time special. Taking a cue from that success, and from the character's 1958 feature, they placed him in a variety of literary roles in The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo, a half-hour series that aired in the 1964-65 season.
Magoo's third and, thus far, final foray into television came in 1977, when the DePatie-Freleng studio (best known for The Pink Panther) licensed the character for a half-hour Saturday morning series, What's New, Magoo? In this production, he was paired with a blind dog named McBarker. The show was about as funny as most of his TV appearances, and was not renewed after its initial 16-episode run.
For decades, the character remained dormant. Then came the 1990s fad of live-action depictions of cartoon characters. Disney followed up its success with George of the Jungle by casting Leslie Nielsen as Magoo in a feature released Christmas Day, 1997. It made a brief splash, but only Jim Backus (who died in 1989) has ever portrayed Magoo effectively.
The Disney film drew protest from advocates of the vision-impaired, who pointed out rather vociferously that there is nothing funny about blindness. They're right, of course — but it's not his blindness that has always made Mr. Magoo funny. It's the fact that he stubbornly refuses to admit or compensate for his disability.