2019: New Year Books
An Introduction to The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo
Ah, a night at the Theatre! Or the next best thing, a night with some classic television.
I begin this introduction to “Mr. Magoo” with a brief but detailed history of the media broadcasts in America of adapted literary works.
Radio and television “play” adaptations of classic literary works were common in the great “broadcast” era of the 20th century. It is certainly not easy conjuring up a steady stream of original escapist entertainment for any era. The Suits at the network broadcast offices readily saw there was a vast wealth of great stories, exotic locales and captivating characters, already filling the shelves of the lending libraries of the day. And the stories were all free of copyright entanglements!
During the Golden Age of Radio, playhouses provided for the public market-tested, quality programs. These shows were typically sponsored by the biggest names in product advertising: Campbell Soup, General Mills, Kraft Foods, Palmolive, and Maxwell House Coffee, to name just a few from the pre-conglomerate epoch.
These radio playhouses created their own casts of stock-players to enact fabulously entertaining works of theatre. The productions introduced their audiences to what might have been their first taste of the classical works and memorable characters of classic writers such as Shakespeare, Dickens, Dumas, Kipling, and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle — not to mention the many collections of medieval tales handed down through the millennia.
The introduction of a film star to the production helped to draw more listeners and provide multi-media interest to the already impressively solid casts. In the 1950s, American television networks continued this radio-programming. Through this formula, viewers were introduced to many talented screen actors who were reaching toward new thespian horizons during the final years of the crumbling studio systems.
This format would evolve, on hit-tv programs, into the introduction of the “Guest Star” appearance or Continuing Guest Role. The Stars of the Future were thereby test-marketed by the networks who possessed corrals of new, young talent. Even then, making a demographic mistake could prove quite costly to broadcasters.
The playhouse format was certainly a wonderful use of the new broadcast medium of television. But this formula presented one monumental challenge to the producers: how to condense the magical narration, dialogue and story arcs created by the Great Writers into finite, structured time slots — complete with commercial breaks to pay for the show!
In this broadcast tradition, The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo presents the viewer with a marvelous collection of stories and extraordinary characters. All episodes star the renowned actor: J. Quincy Magoo.
Mr. Magoo is one of the most popular cartoon characters of all time. He was ranked #29 on the Best Loved List of the television magazine, TV Guide. The character was famously voiced for decades by the multi-talented Mr. Jim Backus. It is unfortunate that many people today only remember Jim Backus as Thurston Howell III from the 1960s hit show, Gilligan’s Island. Mr. Backus began to voice Mr. Magoo in theatrical cartoons, or “shorts”, starting in 1949, right up until the end of the 1950s. Together, Backus & Magoo enjoyed phenomenal commercial success: two Academy Awards and a long-running gig in advertising for GE (General Electric) light bulbs, as well as for many utility companies in America.
The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo first aired on NBC in the fall of 1964; it ran through the spring of 1965. This run-time coincided with the appearance of Mr. Backus on Gilligan’s Island, a hit show that aired on the rival network CBS. Unlike the earlier popular award-winning Mr. Magoo theatrical cartoons, The Famous Adventures featured Mr. Magoo as a serious lead actor in screenplays of some of the most famous of literary tales.
The inspiration for The Famous Adventures was the 1962 television special, Mr. Magoo's Christmas Carol, which aired on NBC. This show was highly successful as a serious version of the classic book written by Charles Dickens. Magoo played the lead role of Ebenezer Scrooge.
The Famous Adventures aired on American television in early prime time, 6:30 p.m., on Sunday. Each role performed by Magoo was rendered with the utmost reverence. There is no comedic treatment of the nearsightedness of Mr. Magoo. The introduction to each program did, however, handle the “vision problem” in an amusing manner.
The stage is thereby set for J. Quincy Magoo to make his entrance into the world of drama, such as the television world has never seen!