THE 1962 CLASSIC PAVED THE WAY FOR A BELOVED TRADITION AND STILL INFLUENCES THE WORLD’S TOP ANIMATORS
By Christina Rees
Television’s first animated Christmas special is in our cultural blood. Whatever your background, the impact of Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol, which debuted in 1962, influences your memories and viewing habits directly or indirectly.
There are three crucial reasons to revisit this underappreciated classic. One has to do with the ground it broke – we honor the vanguard because it kicks off an era. Another follows that: Who did it influence? After all, new visions tend to resonate with other visionaries and ripple out into the culture at large for generations. And last but not least: The rediscovery of a buried treasure can unlock the true pleasure of nostalgia, and the lure of nostalgia is driving the current collector’s market like never before.
Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol sweeps all three criteria into its holiday glow. It was indeed the first animated Christmas special – something dreamed up by the underdog UPA studio – and its success launched the ongoing national obsession with annual holiday viewing. On the second note: Magoo’s modern aesthetic, sprung from UPA’s innovative “limited animation” technique, was considered an avant-garde departure from the more familiar and ubiquitous Disney look and would influence countless animators, working in every major studio, who would go on to create the movies and specials that continue to define the form to this day. And on the nostalgia front: The families who made Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol a yearly viewing tradition in the 1960s and ’70s understand it as a true memory maker – the kind that’s becoming ever more valuable as the years hurtle forward.
Dec. 9-12, 2022
“Mister Magoo was the start of everything when it comes to Christmas specials,” says Darrell Van Citters, whose Magoo Christmas collection is offered in Heritage’s December 9-12 Animation Art auction. Van Citters, an acclaimed animator (and the man behind the famous and somber drawing of Looney Tunes/Warner Bros.’ tribute to Mel Blanc known as “Speechless”), became interested in this influential classic when he realized no one else was taking custodianship of the special’s legacy; UPA’s animation studio had closed in 1970. In fact, Van Citters wrote the book on Mister Magoo’s Christmas Carol. “It preceded Charlie Brown; it preceded Rudolph and Grinch,” he says of the special. “This was when television was ‘appointment’ viewing. When it came out, I don’t know if UPA even considered that it could be broadcast every year.”
The Magoo special collection offered by Van Citters – the largest collection of original production art from this historic special ever brought to auction – encompasses what collectors of animation flock to when it comes to the history of animation art: production cels, concept art, layout drawings and thumbnail art, key master backgrounds, original art and storyboards. In other words, all the parts that created the special itself.
“Pieces have been floating around, but this is the very first time that background and foreground art is connected,” Van Citters says. “That makes this collection comprehensive and unique. It also happens to be the 60th anniversary of the special, so the timing seems right.”
This adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, with Mister Magoo voiced by Jim Backus, is presented as a Broadway-centric fable, a story within a story. It comes alive with the abstracted and streamlined shapes, muscular movement and graphic colors of midcentury America in a style called limited animation, which was grounded in Modernism and influenced the look of other animation studios’ work. The nearsighted Magoo plays the stage version of Ebenezer Scrooge; the tale bursts with good-natured energy and is punctuated with original songs. Upon its first broadcast, Walt Disney himself avidly watched and telephoned Magoo producer Lee Orgel moments after it ended and gushed: “Let me tell you something, Lee. Not only is this generation going to watch it, but your children, your children’s children and your children’s children’s children will watch this show. That’s how good it is. I couldn’t wait to call you and tell you.”
In his book, Van Citters writes: “It had a heart that Walt Disney was always looking for … [it] had more in common with Disney’s brand of entertainment than might have been recognized in the first place … it did compete in one area of Walt’s core values: sincere characters that an audience would care about. Seldom did one of Disney’s competitors enter that area, let alone succeed.”
In fact, many UPA animators had come from Disney, and the UPA style would go on to influence future Disney animators. So it makes sense that Van Citters’ collection is included in an auction called All Things Disney (Van Citters himself is a one-time Disney animator). Highlights from Van Citters’ collection include hand-inked and hand-painted production cels of Magoo centered as Scrooge; Magoo in pan production cel setups with key master pan background layout drawings; early concept art groups of main characters; and gorgeous layout drawing groups of Magoo and others. There are even production cels and drawings of razzleberry dressing! And that is just the starry tip of the Christmas tree.
CHRISTINA REES is a staff writer at Intelligent Collector.