The First (Animated TV) Noel: MR. MAGOO’S CHRISTMAS CAROL (UPA 1962)

Before Rudolph, Charlie Brown, and The Grinch, nearsighted cartoon star Mr. Magoo (voiced by Jim Backus ) headlined the first animated Christmas special, MR. MAGOO’S CHRISTMAS CAROL. First broadcast on NBC-TV in 1962, the special is presented as a Broadway musical, with Magoo as Ebeneezer Scrooge. Directed by Chuck Jones acolyte Abe Levitow , it features songs by Jule Styne and Bob Merrill (FUNNY GIRL), and a voice cast that includes Morey Amsterdam , Jack Cassidy , Royal Dano, Paul Frees (of course!) , Jane Kean, and Les Tremayne. And yes, that is Magoo’s fellow UPA cartoon stablemate Gerald McBoing-Boing as Tiny Tim! Besides 1938’s Reginald Owen version , this may very well be my favorite adaptation of Dickens’ Christmas classic! So here’s my Christmas gift to you all, MR. MAGOO’S CHRISTMAS CAROL in its entirety!:

 

   Merry Christmas from Cracked Rear Viewer!

 

Confessions of a TV Addict #3: The Marvel Super Heroes Have Arrived!

Captain America and his costumed cohorts made their television debuts way before the Marvel Cinematic Universe began dominating box offices around the world. THE MARVEL SUPER HEROES debuted in 1966, at the height of the BATMAN camp craze, with Cap, Iron Man, Thor, Hulk, and The Sub-Mariner the rotating stars of this limited animation series. And I do mean limited – Grantray-Lawrence Animation literally made copies of the comic book artwork of Jack ‘King’ Kirby, ‘Sturdy’ Steve Ditko, and other Bullpen artists, transferred them to film and basically just animated the character’s mouths and an occasional swinging fist!

The cartoons (and I use that term loosely) were syndicated to local stations, who filled holes in their time slots with the mighty Marvel heroes. Some stations ran them as stand-alone series, while others used the segments as part of local kid’s shows. Up here in New England, we watched on WNAC-TV (Channel 7 at the time), with an actor named Arthur Pierce dressed as Cap, constantly asking if anyone out there in TV Land had seen his pal Bucky!:

Eat yer heart out, Chris Evans!

Marvel’s Rogue’s Gallery of swingin’ super villains were also on hand.. after all, what good’s a superhero without a nefarious scheme to thwart? Baron Zemo, The Enchantress, The Mandarin, The Mole Man, Super-Skrull, and dastardly  Dr. Doom himself all made their way into the stories. The Avengers assembled in various iterations (Giant Man and The Wasp, Hawkeye, Quicksilver, and The Scarlet Witch all appeared), as did mutant teen team The X-Men, called the ‘Allies for Peace’ because Grantray-Lawrence didn’t own the rights to them (the more things change….)

The voice cast was strictly unknown, with two exceptions: Sandy Becker, a New York kid’s show host and voice actor (KING LEONARDO’s Mr. Wizard, GO-GO GOPHERS), who played Cap, and actor John Vernon. That’s right, ANIMAL HOUSE’s Dean Wormer himself did the voices of Iron Man, Sub-Mariner, and the Hulk’s nemesis Major Glenn Talbot. But for me, the most memorable part of the program was the individual theme songs for each hero:

Excelsior!

Turn That Frown Upside Down With ANCHORS AWEIGH (MGM 1945)

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(Post-election blues got you depressed? Cheer up, buttercup, here’s a movie musical guaranteed to lift your sagging spirits!) 

Gene Kelly  and Frank Sinatra’s first screen pairing was ANCHORS AWEIGH, a fun-filled musical with a Hollywood backdrop that’s important in film history for a number of reasons: it gave Kelly his first chance to create his own dance routines for an entire film, it’s Sinatra’s first top-billed role (he was red-hot at the time), it gives viewers a glimpse of the MGM backlot in the Fabulous 40’s, and it features the iconic live action/animation dance between Kelly and Jerry the Mouse (of TOM & JERRY fame). It’s a showcase of Hollywood movie magic, and was nominated for five Academy Awards, including Best Picture, Actor (Kelly), Color Cinematography (Charles P. Boyle), and Song (Jule Styne & Sammy Cahn’s ” I Fall in Love Too Easily”), winning for George Stoll’s Best Original Score.

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The plot’s pretty basic: Kelly and Sinatra are two sailors on four-day shore leave in Hollywood. Kelly’s a notorious wolf, ready to go out and chase “dames”, while Sinatra’s the shy type (a former assistant choirmaster from Brooklyn!). Kelly once saved Sinatra’s life, so now Frank feels Gene “owes” him, and wants to learn how to pick up girls. They come across a little boy (cute-as-a-button Dean Stockwell) who’s run away from home to join the Navy. They return the tyke to his pretty Aunt Susie (Kathryn Grayson), an extra trying to break into movies who Frank falls for. Kelly concocts a yarn about Sinatra being friends with famous conductor/pianist Jose Iturbi, and promises Aunt Susie an audition. He’s also fallen for her, though he tries to deny his feelings, and the usual musical comedy complications develop.

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What’s important about ANCHORS AWEIGH isn’t the thin plot, it’s those incredible musical numbers that help carry it from routine fluff to a higher level of art. Kelly and Sinatra perform together on “We Hate to Leave”, “I Begged Her”, and “If You Knew Susie” (a raunchy tune with funnyman Grady Sutton as Grayson’s would-be suitor). If you look closely at the dance numbers you can see Frank’s eyes watching Gene’s feet as he tries to follow his steps. The skinny-as-a-rail singer was no hoofer, and Kelly had to teach him to dance, later chiding Sinatra that he made him look “adequate”. Frank gets his chance to shine in his solo singing efforts with that incredible phrasing of his, interpreting the aforementioned “I Fall in Love Too Easily”, “Brahm’s Lullaby” (sung to Stockwell at bedtime, which also puts Kelly to sleep!), “What Makes the Sun Set”, and “The Charm of You”, all of which no doubt had the bobbysoxers swooning in the aisles.

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Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen choreographed all the dance numbers, and the success of this film led to the pair eventually co-directing such classics as SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN and AN AMERICAN IN PARIS. They’d met on Broadway when Kelly starred in PAL JOEY, and were reunited in Hollywood for his breakthrough in COVER GIRL. ANCHORS AWEIGH made them a force to be reckoned with at the movies. Gene’s athletic dancing in a number with Sharon McManus as a little beggar girl to “Las Ciapanecas” is a delight, and the fantasy “The Princess and the Bandit”, where he finally confesses his love for Grayson, is a marvelous precursor to the AMERICAN IN PARIS ballet.

But it’s for the sequence with Jerry Mouse that fans cherish most. Reportedly, Kelly and Donen approached Walt Disney with the idea of using Mickey Mouse as Kelly’s dance partner, but the cartoon giant turned them down flat. The duo then went to MGM’s own animation department, where producers William Hanna and Joseph Barbera were more than eager to take part in this joyful scene. Kelly visits little Dean Stockwell at his school, and enthralls the kids with a tale of how he once served “in the Pomeranian Navy” and brought laughter back to an animated fairy-tale land by teaching the King (Jerry) how to sing and dance. This whimsical set piece still holds up 71 years later , a true work of Hollywood art that hasn’t lost any of its charm:

Beautiful Kathryn Grayson’s operatic warbling has never been my cup of tea, but she’s more than okay as Aunt Susie, and I did enjoy her singing the Spanish-flavored “Jealousy” in a very well shot nightclub scene. Jose Iturbi’s flashing fingers on the piano uplift the standards “The Donkey Serenade” and Liszt’s “Hungarian Rhapsody” (performed by Iturbi and a battalion of young pianists at the Hollywood Bowl), and he brings humor and warmth to his small but pivotal role. A battalion of Familiar Faces is also on hand, including Pamela Britton as a waitress (from Brooklyn, of course!) with designs on Sinatra, Leon Ames , Henry Armetta, Bobby Barber, Steve Brodie, Chester Clute, Ralph Dunn, James Flavin, Billy Gilbert, Edgar Kennedy , Henry O’Neill, Milton Parsons, Rags Ragland , Renie Riano, and the entire United States Navy Band! With MGM, it was always go big or go home!

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Director George Sidney pulls out all the stops in this lavish Technicolor marvel. Sidney started in MGM’s shorts department, most notably the OUR GANG series, before being promoted to features, and quickly became one of their top musical directors. His friendship with Hanna and Barbera helped secure their services for the Jerry Mouse segment, for which we can be forever grateful! Isobel Lennart’s screenplay doesn’t get in the way of the wonderful musical numbers, and has more than enough good jokes and quips to keep the viewer interested between the dancing and singing. ANCHORS AWEIGH is one of the great 40’s musicals from MGM’s dream factory, a film to be viewed and enjoyed over and over again. As they say in show biz, “Now THAT’S entertainment!”.

Move over Keanu, it’s GAY PURR-EE (Warner Brothers 1962)

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Where else can you see Parisian pussycats dancing the Can-Can at the Mewlon Rouge but in GAY PURR-EE? This animated musical feature from UPA Studios was a bit more adult themed than it’s Disney counterparts, at least by 1962 standards. It’s the story of Mewsette, a country cat in 1890’s Provincial France who dreams of living the life of a big city kitty in Paris. One day she decides to chuck it all and hops on her mistress’s sister’s coach to head for the City of Lights. Her boyfriend, the mouse-catching Jaune-Tom, and his amusing little pal Robespierre, set out to find her and rescue her from the clutches of the scoundrel Meowrice, who together with Madame Rubens-Chatte plan to train Mewsette in the ways of the world and sell her off to a fat American cat.

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The vocal stars of GAY PURR-EE are Robert Goulet, fresh off his Broadway success in CAMELOT, and the one-and-only Judy Garland. Judy’s film career had been at a standstill since the box office failure of 1954’s A STAR IS BORN (now considered a classic), and she owed big bucks to the IRS. But her singing career was still going strong, and getting Garland to do an animated film was considered quite a coup. Judy had only one demand, though: she had the filmmakers hire Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg to write the songs, the duo responsible for the tunes in Garland’s greatest hit, THE WIZARD OF OZ, and her signature song “Over The Rainbow”.

Arlen and Harburg didn’t disappoint. The songs in GAY PURR-EE are Broadway quality, and Judy adds her own inimitable style to “Little Drops of Rain”, “Take My Hand, Paree”, and “Paris is a Lonely Town”. Goulet gets to show off his baritone on “Mewsette”, and even voice actor extraordinaire Paul Frees (Meowrice) sings two humorous tunes, “The Money Cat” and “The Horse Won’t Talk”.

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Red Buttons can be a bit annoying as comic relief cat Robespierre, but he’s there mainly for the kiddies (no, not kitties!). Hermione Gingold lends her unique voice to Madame Rubens-Chatte, and Man of 1000 Voices Mel Blanc shows up as a burly bulldog. Morey Amsterdam is the narrator, and a man on a ship shanghaied along with Jaune-Tom and Robespierre. Special shout-out to The Shadow Cats, Meowrice’s silent henchmen. Delineated all in black, with shifty yellow eyes, these bungling criminal cats add an amusing dimension to the nefarious doings of Meowrice.

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The movie is done in limited-animation style, colored in a gorgeous pastel palette. One scene that stands out is in the film’s middle, with Meowrice writing to American groom-to-be Mr. Henry Phtt about Mewsette’s progress. A series of portraits of the feline fatale are shown in the styles of painters Cezanne, Gauguin, Monet, Picasso, Renoir, Rousseau, and Toulouse-Lautrec, among others. The visuals here are outstanding, and the colors pop with vibrancy.

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Director Abe Levitow got his start working under Warner’s cartoon king Chuck Jones, and their styles are very similar. Jones himself wrote the screenplay with his wife Dorothy, and when Warner found out afterwards, they promptly fired him for breeching his exclusive contract with the studio. Chuck bounced back quicker than Wile E. Coyote, moving to MGM to take over their TOM AND JERRY shorts, with the TV classic HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS soon on the horizon.

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GAY PURR-EE is fun for film fans, an interesting experiment in animation that’s not quite a classic, but still very watchable today. The visuals are lovely to look at, the vocal talents delightful, and we get to hear Judy sing some wonderful Arlen and Harburg songs one more time. I’d give it two paws up!

I Wish I Were A Fish: Don Knotts in THE INCREDIBLE MR. LIMPET (Warner Brothers 1964)

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Don Knotts’ popularity as Deputy Barney Fife on TV’s THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW led to his first starring feature role in THE INCREDIBLE MR. LIMPET. Knotts plays milquetoast Henry Limpet, a hen-pecked hubby and military 4-F who longs to be a fish and magically gets his wish. This Disneyesque fantasy-comedy benefits greatly from Knotts’ vocal talents and the animation of “Looney Tunes” vet Robert McKimson. In fact, the whole film would’ve been better off as a complete cartoon, because the live-action segments directed by Arthur Lubin distract from the aquatic antics of Limpet as an animated fish.

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Lubin was a former Universal contract director noted for five Abbott & Costello films (including their first, BUCK PRIVATES), the Francis the Talking Mule series, and TV’s MR. ED. You’d expect lots of slapstick with a resume like that, but no such luck. Instead, Knotts is put through some domestic paces with shrewish wife Carole Cook and obnoxious best bud Jack Weston. No wonder he was happier as a fish!

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THE INCREDIBLE MR. LIMPET comes to life when the animation takes over. Robert McKimson was a stalwart of the Warner Bros. cartoon factory, creating among others Foghorn Leghorn, The Tasmanian Devil, Speedy Gonzalez, and Hippity Hopper (the boxing kangaroo). The fish Limpet meets a new friend, Crusty the hermit crab (voiced by the ubiquitous Paul Frees) and a lady fish named Ladyfish (Elizabeth MacRae, no stranger to Mayberry herself. She was Gomer’s girlfriend LouAnn Poovie on GOMER PYLE USMC). Limpet develops a sonic roar dubbed “thrum”, and uses it to help the U.S. Navy combat Nazi subs. Soon Limpet is given a Lieutenant’s commission, much to the chagrin of Captain Harlock (Andrew Duggan) and Admiral Spewter (Larry Keating).

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The live action/animation scenes are well done, and there are some forgettable songs thrown in by Sammy Fain and Harold Adamson. On the whole it’s an enjoyable if inconsequential film for kiddies and family viewing. Don Knotts went on to do a series of 60’s family comedies, like THE GHOST & MR. CHICKEN, THE RELUCTANT ASTRONAUT, and THE SHAKIEST GUN IN THE WEST. He eventually went to Disney for films such as THE APPLE DUMPLING GANG and HERBIE GOES TO MONTE CARLO. Returning to TV as wanna-be playboy Ralph Furley in the 70’s “jiggle” sitcom THREE’S COMPANY,  Knotts is best known to modern audiences as the cable repairman in PLEASANTVILLE. But his movie career never did take off the way he wanted it. Don Knotts will always be Barney Fife to his fans from now til eternity, and that’s not such a bad way to be remembered. THE INCREDIBLE MR. LIMPET will bring a few smiles to you though , and is worth a look for the animation artistry of Robert McKimson.