The Very First TV Christmas Special Remembered
The hoopla this year which has surrounded Charlie Brown's 50th anniversary on television continues. Deservedly so: the program was a big splash for the cartoon character. The show itself remains timeless through it's message even if the complaints about commercialization (the so-called "War On Christmas" makes that debate sound quaint) and Vince Guaraldi's swinging jazz score places the special firmly within the 1960s universe.
Contrary to popular rhetoric, A Charlie Brown Christmas wasn't the first animated Christmas special. That honor belongs to 1962's A Magoo Christmas Carol from the innovative UPA studios and Jim Backus, talented voice of nearsighted cartoon star Quincy Magoo, by then a major part of pop culture for over a decade.
For those you don't remember, UPA pioneered so-called limited animation, requiring fewer drawings but kicking up the modernist art sensibility to sky high heights. The artists at UPA has specific rules they would not break: they animated people as opposed to talking animals, and their designs were expressionistic and stylized as opposed to a highly detailed and realistic. After all, if you're in a cartoon world why should you play by the rules of live-action realism when you can take the freedom of the pen to create a universe all euro your own. (If you'd like to see an incredible Visual experience, track down Turner Classic Movies' Jolly Frolics Collection on DVD, which includes Magoo's debut.) By the time 1962 rolled around, however, UPA was largely in the Mr. Magoo business exclusively. This is not to say there's no art in Magoo, especially when creating the first Christmas special with composers Jule Styne and Robert Merrill that rivals a Broadway show. It's nowhere near as beloved as Charlie Brown. It's humor is more slapstick and the songs can drag, lovely though they can be. Still, it's better than most of the stuff out there.
NBC premiered the show in 1962 and brought it back for its 50th anniversary in 2012. Unfortunately, it is not scheduled to run this year so you have to options if you want to see this gem: buy the Blu-ray, which looks unbelievable on your 1080 P screen, or downloaded digitally which looks pretty good. (Link to youtube requires fee.)