United Productions of America (or UPA) had been established in 1941, formed by a collection of former Disney animators who left the studio after the major Disney Cartoonist Strike of that year. Over the course of the 40’s and 50’s, UPA made a number of attempts at finding their own cartoon star, first with The Fox and the Crow, then with Dr. Seuss’s Gerald McBoing Boing, and lastly with Mr. Magoo. Each of these series did well for them (Gerald McBoing Boing earning them the Academy Award for Best Cartoon, the first time the award was won by someone outside of the big three animation studios (Disney, Warner Bros, MGM)), but as the 50’s drew to a close and television continued to boom in popularity, it became apparent that the age of theatrical shorts was gradually nearing its own end.
Their first attempt to break into television was in December of 1956, when CBS aired “The Gerald McBoing-Boing Show” in an early evening slot prior to local news programs. The program wasn’t very successful and in fact proved too expensive for the studio (while most of the show was older UPA shorts, they did attempt to make a few new ones).
This was the beginnings of UPA’s financial problems, which came to a head exactly three years later in 1959 with the release of the Mr. Magoo theatrical film “1001 Arabian Nights”, which was a complete financial flop. Columbia Pictures, who had been their distributor since 1941, immediately dropped them (in favor of distributing Hanna-Barbera’s much cheaper “Loopy de Loop” shorts), and within weeks of the film’s failure, co-founder Stephen Bosustow sold the entire studio to producer Henry G. Saperstein.
Under Saperstein, the in-house animation studio was shut down for good. But, at the same time, he looked towards television to continue the studio’s productions.
November 7, 1960 - August 28, 1961
Mr. Magoo had been introduced in the 1949 short “The Ragtime Bear”, created by screenwriter Milard Kaufman and animation director John Hubley. Initially he was created as a form of protest against the Hollywood Blacklists that were going on in the late 1940’s, Magoo was a parody of Joseph McCarthy, mean-spirited and muttering as many outrageous hate-filled ramblings as they could get away with. Unfortunately, the following year, Milard Kaufman found himself the victim of the Blacklists due to an investigation involving the screenplay he wrote for the film “Gun Crazy”, and Hubley, fearing he would be next, passed the Magoo character on to animation director Pete Burness.
Burness guided Mr. Magoo’s character closer in the direction that many would later recognize him as, a senile old man with humorously bad eyesight. The character was popular with audiences, due to part to Magoo being one of the few actual human characters in animation. Eventually, Mr. Magoo was made the unofficial mascot of the studio, and his shorts ended up as the majority of UPA’s output during the 50’s, with UPA’s only animated film “1001 Arabian Nights” releasing in 1959. UPA’s final theatrical short, “Terror Faces”, was also a Magoo short. So it was a no-brainer for Saperstein to select Mr. Magoo as the first UPA character to make the full leap to the small screen.
Mr. Magoo’s TV series, simply titled “Mister Magoo”, were more or less like his cinema adventures, but on a much smaller budget (and shorter, each running just under 5 minutes in length). Each episode, Magoo, through his senility, would get himself into various situations without ever being fully aware of what’s going on around him. These would include such scenarios as wandering onto a film set and thinking the film is real, entering an army recruitment office after misreading the door sign and thinking it’s a men’s clothing store, and entering a rock quarry thinking it’s a beach. 130 of these shorts were produced (versus the 53 shorts produced during his theatrical years).
The television Magoo ended up keeping most of the voice cast from the theatrical shorts; for example, Magoo himself is still voiced by actor Jim Backus. The cast also includes many familiar names such as June Foray, Paul Frees, Mel Blanc, and Jean Vander Pyl.
The Dick Tracy Show
1961 - 1962
While the Mr. Magoo TV series was in production, UPA was already planning its second series, which would be an animated adaptation of the Dick Tracy comic strip. The series was primarily helmed by Homer Brightman, whose credits included the Disney films Saludos Amigos and Fun & Fancy Free, as well as numerous Woody Woodpecker shorts.
The Dick Tracy Show is peculiar in that the show isn’t really about Dick Tracy, it’s about the people who work with him. In each episode, Tracy (voiced by character actor Evertt Sloane) gets a call about a crime in progress, and sends one of his assistants to investigate and capture the criminals. His assistants were much more cartoonish, such as Hemlock Holmes (a talking bulldog with a cockney accent) and Heap O’Calorie (a comicallly overweight cop). At the end of the episode, Tracy would show up on the scene and congratulate the assistant who took the case.
This series also featured a lot of the iconic villains from the comics, but with the addition of voices gave each an impression of a famous actor. For example, Pruneface (played by Benny Rubin) was given a Boris Karloff-esque voice, while Flattop (voiced by Mel Blanc) sounded like Peter Lorre.
It should be mentioned that these two shows were both rather politically incorrect, even for the time. A new character for the Mister Magoo TV series was “Cholly” (as in “Charlie”), Magoo’s assistant who played the straight man to Magoo’s insanity. Charlie was the embodiment of the typical Chinese stereotype, with squinting eyes, buck-teeth, broken english, and stereotypical dress. This stereotype had been prevalent especially during the 30’s and 40’s in the years around World War II, but had gradually disappeared in animation during the intervening years.
It’s telling that, within years of the show airing, the episodes which prominently featured Charlie were often not even aired by the TV stations. Christian cable channel KTV, which has played Mr. Magoo in recent years, notably runs the Charlie episodes but has redubbed his voice to remove the offensive accent.
Meanwhile, the Dick Tracy Show put the stereotypes up front and center. One of Dick Tracy’s frequent assistants was Joe Jitsu, another squinty-eyed, buck-toothed, broken english speaking Asian character, with the added trait of being really good at martial arts. There was also Manuel Tijuana Guadalajar Tampico Gomez Jr. (or just “Go-Go” for short), a short Mexican character with a matching stereotypical accent who always wore a sombrero (though it can be argued that Go-Go was inspired by Speedy Gonzales, as both have super speed powers).
While these two characters created very little controversy when the show initially aired during the 1960’s, they were brought back to light during 1990 when the live-action film directed by Warren Betty was released in theaters. To commemorate and help advertise the film, the Dick Tracy Show was put back into syndication, but was met with complaints by Asian and Hispanic groups, particularly in the Los Angeles area. Some stations removed the series entirely, others aired an edited version which removed Joe Jitsu and Go-Go Gomez episodes, while a few (notably the ones owned by Disney, who was distributing the 1990 film) kept airing the series as-is.
UPA chairman Henry G. Saperstein, in his own words, responded to the complaints with the following statement: ”This whole controversy is just ridiculous, Joe Jitsu and Go Go Gomez are wonderful role models. They’re good, clean cops. They don’t take bribes and they don’t get indicted. They do their jobs and catch the bad guys. We’re not dealing with 2 Live Crew. It’s just a cartoon, for goodness’ sake.”
The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo
September 19, 1964 - April 24, 1965
Mr. Magoo and Dick Tracy, despite UPA’s attempts to use them to expand the scope of the company with high quality television productions, had in fact done the opposite. They were both very cheaply produced, in some cases even more-so than Hanna-Barbera’s output.
In December of 1962, after The Dick Tracy Show had ended, UPA took a chance and created something that hadn’t been done before: an animated Christmas TV special. (Technically there had been one prior in 1950 called “The Spirit of Christmas”, but it was done with marionettes.) Predating Rankin-Bass’s Rudolph the Rednosed Reindeer by two years, “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol” aired on December 18th, 1962 on NBC.
The plot has Magoo as an actor performing the role of Ebenezer Scrooge in a play adaptation of the classic Charles Dickens story. Despite only being an hour long, this special has been credited as one of the more faithful adaptations of the original novel, staying faithful to the language of the time, as well as being entertaining in its own right with original music composed by the Broadway team of Jule Styne and Bob Merrill. The special was very popular and became a television staple for decades to come (it’s still shown at least once per year). The premise of Magoo as an actor led right to UPA’s next series.
On September 19th, 1964, NBC introduced a new primetime animated series to their Saturday night (8:30pm) lineup: “The Famous Adventures of Mr. Magoo”. Each episode has Mr. Magoo acting in a play adaptation of a well-known story; The plays, like with Christmas Carol, are done relatively straightforward, foregoing the usual Magoo gags (not even making use of gags about his eyesight, which Christmas Carol had done), only keeping them to the framing device of Magoo backstage.
Each play was usually covered over the course of half an hour, but a few were covered in two parts. Most peculiar of all is probably the Robin Hood adaptation, which was split across four episodes (totaling out to a feature length runtime).
But, perhaps even more interesting than that is the one episode not based on a play. The eleventh episode, which broadcasted on February 6th, 1965, was a crossover with Dick Tracy titled “Dick Tracy and the Mob”. In this episode, Dick Tracy approaches Mr. Magoo and convinces him to pose as an international criminal whom he resembles in order to infiltrate a gang made up of members of Tracy’s rogue gallery. Unlike Dick Tracy’s own series, his assistants were nowhere to be seen, giving Tracy plenty of screentime to take on the villains himself.
“Famous Adventures” ran only one season of 26 episodes, ending in April of 1965. Following this, UPA went back to movies, licensing Toho kaiju films for theaters and syndication. They only made one production on their own before shutting down animation production: a 1970 Independence Day special titled “Uncle Sam Magoo”. UPA did occasionally license out their characters,such as in 1977 to DePatie-Freleng Enterprises, who produced the series “What’s New Mr. Magoo?” for CBS. Currently the UPA catalog is split between Columbia Pictures (who retained the theatrical shorts they distributed) and DreamWorks Classics (formerly Classic Media, which formed from the ashes of UPA in 2000).
Ultimately, while several studios were able to smoothly make the transition to television, UPA was not one of those, leaving behind just a few short-lived series and a Christmas classic.
Colin Garrow from Inverbervie, Scotland on August 13, 2015:
I used to love the UPA cartoons - especially Mr Magoo - but didn't know anything about the history of them. Fascinating stuff and interesting to note how incredibly politically incorrect they were. I suppose we didn't worry much about that sort of thing when we were kids. Great Hub.