Pop quiz: Who fits this description?
“Wreaking havoc upon others.”
The correct answer: Mr. Magoo, the much-loved old-school cartoon character (in the words of animators Bill Hurtz, Peter Burness, and authors Marty Gitlin and Joe Wos, respectively). After a long hiatus, on Wednesday night Magoo made a surprise return to pop culture, his name bouncing around cable news and trending on Twitter — all thanks to White House intrigue.
As The Washington Post reported, President Trump’s relationship with Attorney General Jeff Sessions has reached a new low. Trump has reportedly taken to calling Sessions “Mr. Magoo” at the White House. Coming from a president known for throwing derisive nicknames at enemies and allies, the dig could be a comment on anything from Sessions’s mental prowess to his age to physical appearance. Only Trump knows.
But there is another high-profile, tremendous, bigly important executive branch figure who may be a more apt comparison with Magoo.
The central gag of the Magoo cartoons was his stubborn refusal to acknowledge his terrible eyesight. That arrogance is what propels the character into his madcap adventures. The cartoons, however, were actually barbed social satire lobbed from Magoo’s creators, a freewheeling band of animators who broke away from Walt Disney after World War II and created shorts mixing modern art and radical politics. The original Magoo — rich, resentful of the youth, pro-business and functionally blind — was a riff on the myopic conservatism of 1950s America, a culture gripped by the anti-Communist crusade of Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy (Wis.).
“Here’s a guy that can be completely oblivious of everything in the world, not even open his eyes to look around,” Stephen Bosustow, one of Magoo’s creators, told author Adam Abraham in “When Magoo Flew: The Rise and Fall of Animation Studio UPA.” “And yet he can get what he wants.”
Mr. Magoo made his debut in a 1949 cartoon called “Ragtime Bear.” The character was voiced by Jim Backus, a television and film actor who would later star on “Gilligan’s Island.”
In the first cartoon, Magoo goes on a holiday at a mountain retreat with his nephew. Because of his stubbornness about his eyesight, Magoo does not realize that his nephew has left him and that a grizzly bear is following him around. High jinks ensue. One cartoon scholar noted that in the early films Magoo showed a “deep seated contempt for the generations that have sprouted around him.” This Magoo is brash and angry — comically unlikable.
The joke, as in other earlier Magoo films, was the gulf between what Magoo was certain he was seeing (his nephew) and what he was actually seeing (the bear).
“The result was constant peril for Magoo . . . and everyone unfortunate enough to get in his way,” Gitlin and Wos write in the book “A Celebration of Animation.” “Yet he manages to emerge unscathed in the end while wreaking havoc upon others.”
This fit with the left-leaning ethos of the artists and writers at the studio behind the cartoon, United Productions of America (UPA). The company was made up of exiles from Walt Disney Productions, artists who had organized and participated in a 1941 labor strike against the Mickey Mouse giant, according to Abraham’s book.
UPA was unique among postwar animation shops. Unlike those at Disney or Warner Bros., the artists at UPA wanted to draw human characters, not singing and dancing animals. They also mixed in new artistic references — Matisse and Modigliani, cartoonists Saul Steinberg and Robert Osborn — into the work.
And when the creators sat down to write Magoo, they were not afraid to use the character’s single-minded ophthalmological arrogance as a link to McCarthy and the fevered hunt for Communists in Hollywood and Washington.
“It was as natural to us as drinking water that we would poke fun at conservatism,” Bill Hurtz, a UPA production designer who later helped create “Rocky and Bullwinkle,” told the Wall Street Journal in 1997. “It was not ideological per se, but we thought, ‘How would a guy of this temperament react to things?’ ”
According to author Abraham, the results were that Magoo’s “intransigence and inability to see the world the way it really is allowed UPA’s artists to satirize America in the age of Eisenhower, suburban sprawl, and the bomb.”
But McCarthy’s pitchforks would eventually point at UPA.
In 1947, Walt Disney testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, naming one of UPA’s founders as a communist. Pressure came down on the studio. The original writers and animators who worked on Magoo were forced out of the company. The Magoo series was handed over to director Pete Burness; under the new regime, the character softened considerably — Magoo 2.0 was friendlier, more redeemable.
The character rocketed to popularity, eventually jumping to television. Between 1960 and 1962, UPA produced 130 Magoo cartoons. Two of the company’s short films featuring the character won Oscars.
But years later, after Magoo became a household name, Burness acknowledged that the friendlier version may have been a mistake, telling an interviewer in 1972 that Magoo’s “basic character would have been stronger if he had continued basically crotchety and even somewhat nasty at times.”
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