by Rachel Newstead
With Oscar season just behind us (though I imagine some acceptance speeches are STILL going on) now is the perfect time to look back on the animated shorts lucky enough to earn that gold statuette in years past–or better still, one cartoon in particular:
WHEN MAGOO FLEW
Academy Award™ Winner, Best Animated Short Subject, 1954
Director: Pete Burness
Release Date: Jan. 6, 1955
In Short: Magoo goes to the “movies”–and the experience seems strangely…uh, REALISTIC to our nearsighted friend. Of course, being on an airplane wing thousands of feet up will give you that sensation….
My entire life, I’ve had a sort of roller-coaster relationship with the character of Mr. Magoo. As with Fred Flintstone and company, Magoo was a part of my earliest memories; my introduction to the cranky old nearsighted gent came in the form of the numerous G.E. ads featuring him in the ’60s. Then, to my young and easy-to-please mind, he seemed like just a silly old man doing crazy things, and that was enough–for awhile.
But what might have been amusing when I was four or five proved to be painful to watch when I was thirteen or fourteen, and saw my first actual Magoo cartoons (as opposed to commercials, or specials) courtesy of Los Angeles television. The plots were simple: Magoo, because of his nearsightedness and total obliviousness, would mistake X for Y, and mildly crazy things happened.
Problem was, all the plots were “Magoo mistakes X for Y, etc. etc.”, and Magoo seemed more of a menace than a source of humor, creating wanton destruction wherever he went. Then, as now, I failed to find destructiveness funny (whether deliberate or not), and after about the 10th or 15th such cartoon, I’d squirm and look to see what else was on.
As far as I was concerned, that was it between me and Magoo. Until, that is, I happened upon a segment of the wonderful Wonderama…
If you were fortunate enough to receive WNEW in New York–or KTTV in Los Angeles–in the seventies or before, you probably remember Wonderama. For those who weren’t so fortunate, it was a three-hour Sunday kids’ extravaganza (calling it a “kids’ show” seems too limiting) with a little bit of everything–music, games, cartoons, and most importantly of all, interviews, all presided over during the ’70s by the genial Bob McAllister. I happened one Sunday morning to tune in Wonderama just in time for an interview with the inimitable Jim Backus–voice of you-know-who.
Backus spoke about his early work in show business, and of course, his years as the voice of Magoo. He put on the fake rubber nose he always claimed he needed in order to get just the right vocal quality, did a few brief lines, then McAllister cut to a clip of a Magoo cartoon: the very one I’ll be discussing today, the Academy Award-winning When Magoo Flew.
To say it exceeded my expectations is a gross understatement–having been used to the cheap, minimalist animation of UPA in its 1960s death throes, I was unprepared for the dose of just what UPA could do in its prime.
It was, for one, fully animated, giving lie to the belief that UPA was responsible for “limited animation”. Stylized it was, but limited? Hardly. The characters moved smoothly, and in the illusion of three-dimensional space–just like characters in a Disney cartoon–yet are far more aggressively drawings than the literalistic Disney creatures. (Note the foreshortening on Magoo’s hand in the frame below right, something you’re not bound to see in the typical limited-animation cartoon).
I’d eventually learn, thanks to Leonard Maltin and Of Mice and Magic, that those cartoons I’d been unfortunate enough to see at thirteen or fourteen were done late in UPA’s existence, for television, under new management (Henry G. Saperstein) that slashed budgets to the bone. In other words, hardly “UPA” cartoons at all.
I was well on my way to learning about another, far better UPA–the UPA that released cartoons to theaters–and about another, very different Magoo.
To my surprise, I learned the Magoo I’d grown up with was a mere shadow of the character as envisioned by John Hubley for the cartoon The Ragtime Bear in 1949. Much as Hubley himself was reputed to be, this version of Magoo was loud, abrasive and above all, stubborn. He blundered frequently, not because he was unaware of his nearsightedness, but because he was simply too bullheaded to admit to it. In Ragtime Bear, he thought nothing of threatening to shoot his raccoon coat-wearing nephew Waldo for making too much noise (or rather, the bear Magoo mistook for Waldo–not that it would have made any difference).
By the time of When Magoo Flew, the character had been softened considerably, thanks largely to its director, Pete Burness–a move that would ultimately rob the character of much of his humor. The decay had not yet completely set in, however; those only familiar with the TV Magoos will find When Magoo Flew to be quite an eye-opener.
Like the later cartoons, it has Magoo mistaking one thing for another–in this case, an airplane in flight for a movie theater–but this is just part of the story. The “B” plot involves a mysterious, mustached fellow with a briefcase, and a terse, nameless cop in the Jack Webb mold. A case Magoo, however unwittingly, helps to solve. And in quite a funny way, at that.
Magoo heads off to the Rialto Theater for a night at the movies, though anyone with even a passing acquaintance with the character knows that’s the last place he’ll end up. Sure enough, with the theater right behind him, he ends up at the international airport.
Mistaking the fortune from one of those fortune-telling scales for a movie ticket, he gets behind a group of traveling musicians about to board a plane. Magoo tells the stewardess–who he believes to be a theater usherette, naturally–”Orchestra, please”. Thinking
he’s with the band, she ushers him on board and to the front row of the plane–right next to the aforementioned “Mr. Briefcase”. (So typical of the charmed life Magoo seems to lead–but more on that later).
Magoo, thinking he’s talking to another theater patron, engages in some annoying idle chatter before our cop enters–which Magoo thinks is all part of the 3-D movie effect (“Oh, this realism! I feel he might reach out and grab me!”)
Thinking Magoo might be on to him after he remarks the “movie” cop must be after “some bank teller with a briefcase of stolen liberty bonds”, our suspicious fellow retreats quickly–but leaves the briefcase behind.
The rest of the cartoon concerns Magoo’s efforts to return the “misplaced” briefcase to the man, eventually climbing outside onto the plane’s wing (he thinks the emergency exit is an elevator to the lobby) to look for him. There’s a few mildly amusing gags, first involving some poor unfortunate woman who faints when she sees Magoo outside her
window, as well as a similar scene with the equally shocked pilot and co-pilot. Possibly the funniest, however, involves his unknowingly manipulating the rudder so the plane goes around in circles.
So unaware of his surroundings he doesn’t even realize he’s right in front of the plane’s propellers, he merely complains about the “blasted air conditioning.”
Meanwhile, the stranger tells the skeptical cop he’d neither seen nor heard of any briefcase–just as Magoo finds him and returns it.
Magoo, thinking he’s just seen the film of his life, remarks to the stewardess that his only complaint was “no cartoon”. He then engages in a strange bit of what I think is referred to as “meta-commentary” by asking if they ever show any cartoons about “that nearsighted fellow” as he goes murmuring and blundering his way home.
Dare I say it? Oh, Magoo, you’ve done it again…
In comparing the “old” Magoo with the “new”, Michael Barrier had this to say:
The early Magoo was very adept at molding the world into whatever he wanted it to be at the moment; the later Magoo was often pitiable instead. (Hollywood Cartoons, p. 536)
Though he would certainly become “pitiable” in the TV shorts (which seemed to try to answer the question, “how many times, and in how many ways, can we get Magoo to accidentally destroy something?”), it’s probably overreaching a bit to apply the same word to the Magoo of the later theatricals. If the early Magoo molded the world to fit his reality, the later one often had reality mold itself to him as well.
In When Magoo Flew, he wanders into an airport he believes to be a movie theater, then just happens to get behind a group of musicians boarding a plane. Before he even gets to the top of the gangway, he’s taken for a member of the band, simply because the stewardess misunderstood him every bit as much as he misinterpreted his surroundings. Even more amazingly, he just happens to stumble into a little bit of intrigue with “Mr. Suitcase” and the cop, which he conveniently interprets to be all a part of the “show.”
Later, he inadvertently causes the plane to turn around and head home, preventing him from being stranded God knows where. And on and on it goes: an impossible number of coincidences had to occur for him to continue believing in his version of reality. As far as he knew, he had a wonderful time at the “movie theater”, and nothing out of the ordinary had ever happened–even though he’d come within a hair’s breadth of being killed on several occasions. Hardly pitiable, I’d say.
Barrier accuses director Pete Burness of being “selective” with Magoo’s handicap, pointing to the fact he can see certain things, such as the “FASTEN SEAT BELTS” sign, yet is completely unaware later on that he’s outside the plane (p. 536). It’s important to remember, however, that as we’ve already seen, the world around him has pretty much conspired up to now to confirm his delusions. That, combined with a bit of his old stubbornness, would make it plausible that he could end up teetering on the wing of an airplane and still think he’s in a theater lobby. Not to mention funny.
Some familiar names grace the credits, such as musical director Hoyt Curtin (who’d go on to greater fame writing scores for Hanna-Barbera) and Warner’s alumnus Tedd Pierce. Curtin’s score for this cartoon is almost unrecognizable as his, but in a good way. It’s vastly different from his work at H-B, which makes me wish he’d been allowed to flex his musical “muscles” more during the years he’d worked for Bill and Joe.
As to Pierce’s contributions, I can’t say, though the poster gag referred to at
right looks as though it might have been his (sign gags abounded in cartoons like Bugs Bunny Rides Again, which Pierce worked on–remember GUNSHOT SALOON–COME IN AND GET A SLUG?). I also wonder about this wonderful little exchange between the cop and the stewardess, done in true Dragnet style:
COP: I’m a cop…
STEWARDESS: A cop??
COP: Yes, ma’am…
STEWARDESS: What do you want?
COP: A man…
STEWARDESS: Me, too….
This cartoon, like Magoo’s night out, was a pleasant outing. But is it worthy of the Oscar? Not quite.
Despite the little flashes of genius in the dialogue and the funny subplot, this feels too much like a standard Magoo cartoon of the day. It takes no artistic chances, as did Gerald McBoing Boing or Tell-Tale Heart, which is odd coming from a studio built on taking artistic chances.
My heart aches for the old grouch John Hubley created, and wish some of the earlier cartoons–like Fuddy Duddy Buddy (perhaps the only cartoon in which Magoo actually acknowledges his inabilty to see) could have been given the honor instead.
But as it is, at least the five-year-old in me is happy. That “silly old man” isn’t all bad.
(Typos corrected, additional passage referring to Gerald Mc Boing Boing added, 3/10/10)