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Sunday, April 27, 2014

DVD Review: Mr. Magoo: The Theatrical Collection 1949-1959

Mr. Magoo: The Theatrical Collection 1949-1959 is a four-disc set that includes the fifty-three theatrical shorts released between 1949 and 1959, as well as the full-length animated feature, 1001 Arabian Nights, from 1959. There are also lots of bonus features, including audio commentaries on several of the films.

I was familiar with Mr. Magoo from the television series, which I loved when I was growing up. The character of Mr. Magoo was quite a bit different at the beginning of his career, and it’s wonderful to watch the way he developed and changed over the course of these fifty-three short films. In the first short, The Ragtime Bear, Mr. Magoo was more ornery. When his nephew Waldo plays the banjo, Mr. Magoo reprimands him: “Waldo, stop that guitar. Can’t stand noise!” The bear then plays the banjo, and Mr. Magoo grabs it from him, telling him to get a new coat (his nephew wears a fur coat). There’s a wonderful moment when Mr. Magoo falls off a landing, and it seems like the bear is going to catch him, but catches the banjo instead, allowing Magoo to fall. The bear is a fan of bluegrass and puts up with a lot for his love of music. (This episode has an audio commentary by John Canemaker, in which he talks about UPA, the film’s director, the style of the characters and so on. There is a lot of great information packed into a short span of time.)

Mr. Magoo is cantankerous throughout many of the early shorts, and slowly becomes more loveable as the series goes on. I actually really love the early shorts with the more ornery character. And of course, his nearsightedness always plays an important part in the troubles he encounters.

Trouble Indemnity is one of my favorites of the early films. An insurance salesman bothers Mr. Magoo (after Mr. Magoo first dismisses a man on his television screen and then a coat on a rack). The insurance company is The Fly By Night Insurance Company, a nice touch of honesty. Magoo ushers the man out of his home, though actually into his closet, where the man finds Magoo’s college gear, and dons it, making another attempt at selling him insurance. One thing I love about all of these films is the stuff that Magoo mutters under his breath. In this one, there is a bit where he laughs about eighty thousand people dying in bathtubs. This film also features that classic bit where Magoo gets on a girder instead of the elevator. The insurance company men then see Magoo out on the beam and realize he’s a huge insurance risk and so they need to protect him, leading to all sorts of silliness.

In many of these shorts, Mr. Magoo inadvertently foils the plans of criminals. In Bungled Bungalow, Magoo’s house is stolen and he manages to get it back without ever knowing it was gone in the first place (that short has the perfect final line, by the way). It’s not just criminals who are brought down, but also anyone who is perceived as less-than-honest, such as the insurance people in Trouble Indemnity, and used car salesmen in Sloppy Jalopy (another of my favorites).

Magoo always gets himself into terrifying situations, but he is oblivious to the danger. And somehow his being in frightening scenarios without being afraid helps us take our own fears less seriously. He also exhibits a bizarre sort of optimism that is delightful. One manifestation of this that I absolutely love is that when he comes across a sign, he reads whatever he needs the sign to say rather than what it actually says (and in fact only looks at signs when he needs information). It’s a great running gag throughout the series. And while that optimism puts him into dangerous situations, it never actually harms him. Things turn out all right for Mr. Magoo. And I think that is certainly part of the appeal of this character.

Of course, part of the appeal of these films is the humor. There is a delightful scene in Hotsey Footsy where Magoo dances with a wrestler, mistaking him for his friend’s wife. The German girl that Waldo tries to pick up in Magoo Goes Skiing makes that short so enjoyable – her reactions and expressions are hilarious. And Kangaroo Courting features a great running gag in which a kangaroo has been trained to punch someone whenever it hears a bell, which leads to several funny moments. In Magoo’s Canine Mutiny, a criminal’s fur coat makes Magoo mistake him for a puppy, and he puts him on a leash and takes him home. He also hits him with a rolled up newspaper, which is great. Magoo’s Masquerade opens with Magoo in a devil costume saying, “Merry Christmas.” Wonderful.

A great deal of the credit for Magoo’s appeal has to go to Jim Backus, who provides the voice. From the interviews and commentaries included on these discs, it’s clear that he was allowed to improvise a lot of Magoo’s comments, and it is those mutterings of Magoo’s that make him so delightful. Plus, his readings are just so perfect. There is a moment in Magoo’s Check-Up where an advertisement on a television says, “Now then, Mr. Viewer,” and Magoo responds, “The name is Magoo.” His delivery is just so wonderful, and it’s that delivery that gets the laugh, more so than the line itself. And in Magoo Goes Overboard, Magoo says, “Only one thing to do with a drowning man – render him unconscious.” He sells that silly line by delivering it as a straight line.

In many of these shorts, Magoo exclaims, “Great balls of fire!” I don’t know why, but that makes me laugh nearly every time. Only in a few does he say, “Magoo, you’ve done it again” (a line I remember being a big part of the television series). By the way, in Meet Mother Magoo, we learn that Mr. Magoo’s first name is Quincy. That short is particularly good, because of the way she plays along with his silliness while being completely aware of it, sharing the joke with her cat.

1001 Arabian Nights

The fourth disc contains the feature-length film, 1001 Arabian Nights. The opening credits list Jim Backus as providing the voice for Uncle Abdul Azziz Magoo (so not Quincy in this one). And this time, other actors are given credits in the opening title sequence – Kathryn Grant as Princess Yasminda, Dwayne Hickman as Magoo’s nephew, Aladdin (not Waldo), Hans Conreid as The Wicked Wazier, Daws Butler as Omar the Rugmaker (Butler often provided the voice of Waldo in the shorts), and Alan Reed as the Sultan.

The idea of displacing Magoo in time and location isn’t a bad one, but he becomes a supporting character in his own film. There are entire sequences without Magoo at all. This film tells the tale of Aladdin, who by the way does not resemble Waldo. It would have been funnier with Waldo as Aladdin, though at one point Aladdin does call him “Unc,” as Waldo often does in the shorts.

The Wicked Wazir wishes to become the most powerful man in the world, and consults a spirit in a flame as to how to go about it. The spirit encourages him to marry Princess Yasminda and use Aladdin to obtain a magic lamp. (Magoo, by the way, is a lamp merchant in this version of the tale.) It is funny when the flame spirit warns Wazir about Magoo. Wazir has been stealing from the sultan’s treasury, so there are jokes about the sultan’s water being shut off, which are cute. But most of this stuff falls flat.

A lot of this film is just not funny. But there are some wonderful little moments, like when the Wazir hands some gold coins to Aladdin (“sample of my generosity”) and then immediately takes one coin back and drops it into his pouch. And I love the executioner who even says “Chop chop chop” in his sleep.

1001 Arabian Nights was directed by Jack Kinney.

Special Features

All four discs include special features. There are commentary tracks on several shorts, including The Ragtime Bear, Spellbound Hound, Bungled Bungalow, Barefaced Flatfoot, Fuddy-Duddy-Buddy, The Grizzly Golfer, Hotsey Footsy, When Magoo Flew, Magoo Express, Magoo’s Puddle Jumper, Meet Mother Magoo, Magoo’s Private War, Magoo Saves The Bank and Terror Faces Magoo. The commentaries are delivered by animation historians and by relatives of some of the key crew members. Some are better than others. The only completely useless track is the one on When Magoo Flew, for UPA animator Bob Longo simply explains what you’re seeing on screen anyway. John Canemaker provides some of the best commentary tracks, giving us lots of information.

There is also Interview With Leonard Maltin. Whom, you might ask, is he interviewing? No one. He simply talks about UPA, Magoo and the feature-length film. I can’t stand Leonard Maltin (something about him irritates the hell out of me), but he is toned down a bit here.

There is a Mr. Magoo documentary on the fourth disc, which features interviews with many animation historians, who talk about how UPA’s work was different from that of other studios. There is plenty of information, but even more enjoyable is A Princess For Magoo, which is a vintage promotional documentary about the feature-length film narrated by Jim Backus (who also makes an appearance). There are shots of Hollywood, while Jim Backus says, “Hollywood has nothing whatever to do with our story.” And then we see a bit of UPA Studios, including some of the storyboards for the film, and footage of Kathryn Grant recording her part.

The special features also include a photo gallery, with stills and sketches from the shorts as well as the feature-length film, and posters from the film.

Mr. Magoo: The Theatrical Collection 1949-1959 was released on April 22, 2014 through Shout! Factory.

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