The world of comedy lost one of its greatest talents the other day when Leslie Nielson passed away. I am certainly not the person to write a eulogy although I was somewhat disheartened by the sheer number of “Don’t call me Shirley” tweets flowing by yesterday. Yes, that performance changed his career, but he was much more than that.
In fact, one of his roles that I didn’t hear about at all was his oft-overlooked performance as Mr. Magoo. While not his best role (Lt. Frank Debin takes that cake), it did serve to remind me that Mr. Magoo is (was?) still very much in the public’s consciousness despite being over 50 years old.
Originally a side character, Mr. Magoo went on to star in his own series of shorts, created at the deeply influential UPA Studio. Despite his age, and the fact that he is not near as popular as in his hayday, Mr. Magoo is still an active character that pops up here and there to remind us of his existence.
The aforementioned film is perhaps the best indication that Mr. Magoo is still nestled in the consciousness of the American public. Granted the film was released over a decade ago, although if the character were truly dead, said film would never have seen the light of day.
Mr. Magoo is proof that you don’t necessarily need to be all over the place in order to be popular. Brief interstitial appearances that gently remind the public of your existence should be enough to maintain a certain level of popularity.
That, I believe, is the mistake that Warner Bros. et al are making whenever they haul the Looney Tunes out for another film. Yes, they need to bring in new blood to sustain demand for the characters, but a new film is almost certainly not the most effective way to do it. (I am aware of the possible contradiction with what I said above but the circumstances are slightly different, the Mr. Magoo film was certainly not an attempt to reboot the character).
Besides the character himself, the Mr. Magoo shorts were very noteworthy because they cam from the UPA studio, a somewhat ground-breaking company that hauled animation look and design into the modern age. If you happen to be interested in learning more about it (and who isn’t) I’d recommend Cartoon Modern by Amid Amidi, a passionately written tome that espouses the heavily stylized design that came to define 1950s America.
Mr. Magoo was and still is one of the most important cartoon characters ever created. He broke the mould for what made cartoon characters popular and he could certainly be seen to serve as an inspiration (however small) for Carl Fredrickson in Up.