Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Mr. Magoo, the Theatrical Collection (2014) - Jim Backus at his Finest

Mr. Magoo Jim Backus
Mr. Magoo. Oh, old hat, you say, you know all about him. Do you? What's his first name? Answer below.
Everyone is familiar with "Gilligan's Island." Though it only lasted for three years in the mid-60s, it was Sherwood Schwartz's finest hour (and he did "The Brady Bunch" as well, so that is saying something.

Mr. Magoo, the Theatrical Collection (2014) - Jim Backus at his Finest. On the island, you had Gilligan, the Skipper, the professor, Mary Ann, Ginger, and the Howells. While the Howells may seem almost an after-thought in the ensemble, in fact, the actor who played Mr. Howell was the most bankable star in the entire cast, the only one the entire world would recognize instantly.

Jim Backus played the blustery plutocrat. In the mid-60s, nobody would have recognized Jim Backus in the street - but the moment they heard him, a smile of recognition would play across their faces.

Mr. Magoo!

Mr. Magoo Jim Backus

Yes, Jim Backus played Mr. Magoo, and it was his signature role - even though nobody ever saw him play it. Those were the days when voice actors could become a ubiquitous presence in peoples' living rooms, but nobody would have recognized them on the street if they tripped over them. Alan Reed (Fred Flintstone), Mel Blanc, and Jim Backus all experienced this phenomenon.

"Mr. Magoo" was the creation of the long-forgotten United Productions of America (UPA).

UPA had been founded by disgruntled animators from Walt Disney's studio who had gone on strike in 1941. This strike, in fact:

Disney animators on strike 1941
Disney animators on strike 1941 - and the birth of UPA.
It took UPA a while to get up to speed, and it took whatever work it could find: automaker corporate films, government public service announcements, anything. Finally, having established itself, Columbia Pictures hired them to do theatrical shorts. Shorts in those days (and, to some extent, to this day, though that is rare now) played before regular feature films as a sort of warm-up act. Entire careers rose and fell on whether audiences liked the shorts, or instead got up to get some popcorn while they played. UPA is still with us, as a unit of DreamWorks Animation, but its creative life ended in the late '70s and it retains value principally for its library.

One of UPA's shorts, "Ragtime Bear” in 1949, was about an elderly, near-sighted retiree named Mr. Magoo. Audiences couldn't be sure if he was the villain or the hero, but they knew one thing: that they loved him. Always well-intentioned though somewhat gruff and impatient, Mr. Magoo became one of the most beloved characters in animation history. “When Magoo Flew,” from which the clip above was taken, later even won an Oscar.

Everybody loved Mr. Magoo. UPA had chosen Jim Backus, a minor character actor in B-movies such as "Father Was a Fullback" and "One Last Fling," to voice the main character. Backus and his avuncular delivery got better and better as time went on, and Backus built his entire career as a voice actor on the character. The "Gilligan's Island" role was just a chance for Backus, probably the biggest unknown star in Hollywood, to actually get his face in front of the cameras for a change. That role was perfect for Backus because "Gilligan's Island" was just about the most cartoonish television series ever filmed.

Backus was probably as mystified by that show's overwhelming success as everybody else, but it created an entire second career for him after Mr. Magoo ran out of steam in the early '60s. That is, Mr. Magoo ran out of steam as original theatrical material - the shorts were replayed endlessly as Saturday morning television cartoons through the 1970s.

Mr. Magoo Jim Backus
Mr. Magoo always got into trouble because of his near-sightedness.
The nicest thing about "Gilligan's Island" is that it earned Jim Backus eternal fame which he deserved for Mr. Magoo. People mourned his passing when otherwise he would have been long forgotten by then.

"Mr. Magoo: The Theatrical Collection" has been released and is a delight for fans of Mr. Magoo. It contains 53 short films and one feature-length ("1001 Arabian Nights" from 1959), in all over 400 minutes worth of material. It comes in a box set with bonus features that include audio commentaries, an interview with Leonard Maltin where he discusses the history of UPA, a documentary about the creation of the character and how the work being done by UPA was “anti-Disney”, a photo gallery and more.

Mr. Magoo's first name? Yes, he had one. Quincy. Quincy Magoo.

Disney animators on strike 1941


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