National Council on Disability Document Archive

Magoo in Wall Street Journal, Wash. Post

Posted by: Jamal Mazrui
Date Mailed: Sunday, August 3rd 1997 01:12 PM

                     The Wall Street Journal
          Copyright (c) 1997, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
                     Thursday, July 31, 1997
  The Vision Thing: Mr. Magoo Watches U.S. Cultural History And
Struggles to
As Blind Federation Protests His Return, Disney Tries To Display
His Insight
                  Blacklisted by Sen. McCarthy
                         By Lisa Bannon
            Staff Reporter of The Wall Street Journal

     HOLLYWOOD -- How did Mr. Magoo go from hero to zero?

     There was a time when the nearsighted cartoon codger with
the bulbous nose could do no wrong. The year was 1957, and Mr.
Magoo was about to win his second Academy Award. The U.S.
Treasury Department used him to sell bonds, the Navy to recruit
men and General Electric to sell light bulbs. "He is American
individualism in its purest form," proclaimed Yale professor
Milton Rosenberg in a scholarly critique.

     Today, the National Federation of the Blind is in an uproar
over his resuscitation in a Walt Disney Co. movie starring Leslie
Nielsen to be released this Christmas. Demanding that Disney pull
the plug on the production, the federation says that bringing Mr.
Magoo back implies that "it's funny to watch an ill-tempered and
incompetent blind man stumble into things and misunderstand his

     Disney executives are doing verbal somersaults to make their
Mr. Magoo politically correct. David Vogel, president of Walt
Disney Pictures, says the studio has taken pains to portray Mr.
Magoo as a "Forrest Gump"-like character who has a greater
"intuitive ability to see what's going on" than everyone else.
"You see a flower, he sees a constellation. His visual limitation
can impute poetic interpretation." In fact, Disney says its Mr.
Magoo isn't blind, but rather "visually limited."

     What a difference four decades can make.

     Mr. Magoo was conceived for adult movie audiences in 1949 by
a group of former Disney animators who defected from the studio
after a bitter strike in 1941 to form United Pictures of America.

     "We were not interested in making typical cartoons," recalls
Jules Engel, a UPA color artist who later helped found the
California Institute of the Arts in Valencia. "We looked at
contemporary art and said, 'how can we get that into our films?"'

     Mimicking real life limited artistic expression, the UPA
artists believed. Instead, they studied the abstract works of
Picasso, Matisse and Modigliani and New Yorker caricatures by
artists like Saul Steinberg and Robert Osborne. In a radical
departure from the naturalist animals that populated Disney
cartoons, UPA began drawing flat, two-dimensional human
characters with minimalist lines -- a groundbreaking style that
was later dubbed "limited animation."

     Mr. Magoo's first outing was almost by accident. Columbia
Pictures asked UPA for a series of theatrical cartoons featuring
animals, but John Hubley, UPA's creative director, "wanted to do
something innovative," recalls 80-year-old Bill Melendez, a UPA
animator who later produced the "Peanuts" TV shows. In that
year's "Ragtime Bear," Mr. Hubley appeased Columbia by including
a big brown bear. But the real focus of the film was a short,
nasty, stubborn old man with a tomato-shaped nose: Mr. Magoo.

     The character was a group effort, but was patterned after
Mr. Hubley's favorite comic, W.C. Fields, as well as the
director's mean-spirited insurance- man uncle from the Midwest.
Actor Jim Backus, who gave Mr. Magoo his voice, also had a great
influence on the character, the UPA artists say.

     With his acerbic personality, Mr. Magoo needed a comedic gag
to make him humorous, the animators felt. "They made him half
blind. Hub thought it would be funny," Mr. Melendez remembers. In
"Ragtime Bear," an irascible Mr. Magoo mistakes the bear for his
nephew Waldo, even firing a shotgun at the beast when he loses
his temper. "Get yourself a new coat!" he hollers at the bear,
tearing at his fur. "You're disgraceful!"

     "He was such a cantankerous old guy, you couldn't feel sorry
for him," Mr. Melendez says. "He was a nasty old man who deserved
to be kicked around."

     No one worried much about offending blind people back then.
In fact, in 1940s animation, any comic tick was fair game, with
little thought given to minority sensitivities. An MGM cartoon of
the period featured a Mexican character who was filthy and was
followed by flies, remembers Mr. Melendez, who is Mexican. The
Screen Cartoonists' Guild objected to it as racist, he says, but
to no avail. "Are you kidding? In those days animators did things
if we thought they were funny," he says.

     In addition to the physical comedy, Mr. Magoo's
nearsightedness was conceived as a satirical metaphor for his
mental myopia by UPA, an openly liberal studio that also turned
out creative labor films for the United Auto Workers union. In a
time of post-war prosperity, and with the nation turning inward
to ferret out would-be Communists, Mr. Magoo was much like the
McCarthyites of the early ' 50s: He only saw what he wanted to
see, even if the facts were otherwise.

     "It was as natural to us as drinking water that we would
poke fun at conservativism," recalls 78-year-old Bill Hurtz, a
UPA production designer who went on to help create the "Rocky and
Bullwinkle" series. "It was not ideological per se, but we
thought, 'How would a guy of this temperament react to things."'

     As Sen. Joseph McCarthy's anti-Communist blacklist
circulated through Hollywood, Mr. Hubley and several other key
UPA artists found themselves targeted. Columbia made it clear
that those on the list should go. "I was the only one who told
them to blow it out their barracks bag," Mr. Melendez remembers.
"But a lot of them left." Mr. Hubley quit UPA, going on to earn
several Academy Awards and working on a film with "Doonesbury"
creator Garry Trudeau.

     In the process, Mr. Magoo's personality changed completely,
the first of many transformations to come. By the 

     The new Magoo was a big hit with the public. He was
self-satisfied, never admitted he couldn't see and rarely felt
sorry for himself. He was "responsible in a world that seems
insane," explained Bob Dranko, a UPA art director, in a 1959

     But there was also the first inkling that Mr. Magoo's
nearsightedness could pose sensitivity problems. In early 1957,
the writer Aldous Huxley was hired by UPA to do a Mr. Magoo
script based on Don Quixote. In addition to being unfamiliar with
the character, Mr. Huxley had poor eyesight, and the UPA artists
couldn't bear to offend him by explaining that Mr. Magoo couldn't
see, according to an account by former UPA writer Dun Roman. So
they allowed the British literary giant to deliver a script
devoid of Mr. Magoo's basic premise. It was never used.

     By the late 1950s, theatrical shorts were losing
profitability as television ate into movie attendance. In 1960,
television distributor Henry Saperstein bought the by-then-ailing
UPA. "I said 'This is 1960. The world is television,"' Mr.
Saperstein recalls today. "It was heresy at the time. But I
brought in young animators who could work faster for TV."

     The new UPA abandoned the stylized and satirical theatrical
shorts, and began churning out a gentler Mr. Magoo for children's
television. "Theaters were more for adults. I softened him in the
'60s, so he was more like a doting old- fashioned uncle," Mr.
Saperstein says. In the TV shows, Mr. Magoo stumbled through a
series of bloopers, patting the tops of fire plugs, thinking they
were children, and mistaking a kangaroo for his girlfriend.

     The Saturday-morning series became highly profitable, and
resulted in a generation of spectacle-wearing kids being called
Mr. Magoo by taunting classmates. But critics didn't like the new
lovable Magoo: "The subtext that his myopia was as much
psychological as physical was all but lost," Hal Erickson wrote
in his encyclopedia "Television Cartoon Shows." "TV's Mr. Magoo
was blind as a bat and that was the series' only joke."

     By the early '60s, the government had become concerned about
the powerful impact of television. In 1961, FCC Chairman Newton
Minow called upon the networks "to teach, to inform, to stretch,
to enlarge the capacities of our children." Mr. Magoo was one of
the first to take up the torch, marking yet another radical turn
in his character.

     "The key words were entertainment and education in those
years," says Paul Carlson, a production coordinator for the
shows. "The networks put out directives and wanted a combination
of both."

     In 1962, UPA produced the very successful "Mr. Magoo's
Christmas Carol" for NBC, with the old, insolent Mr. Magoo
returning to play Ebenezer Scrooge. The show's high ratings
inspired a prime-time NBC series called "The Famous Adventures of
Mr. Magoo" that ran from 1964 through 1965. In it, Mr. Magoo
interpreted the literary classics, playing Ishmael, Dr. Watson,
Gunga Din and all of Snow White's seven dwarfs. Since those
characters weren't blind, his sight was miraculously restored.

     "Rather than influencing the characters with his
nearsightedness, they just took it out," Mr. Carlson explains.
Without a disability and with a new educational calling, Mr.
Magoo became a huge hit with schools and churches, and the films
were included in many school social-studies programs.

     By now, Mr. Magoo's popularity was at an all-time high. TV
market researchers took to gauging the potential success of new
pilots by studying how audiences reacted to the new shows
compared with Magoo cartoons. Time Magazine's 1963 list of
"What's In" included electric toothbrushes and Mr. Magoo (TV's
Dr. Kildare and model trains were deemed "out"). The "Feminine
Mystique" had just been published, and a progressive Mr. Magoo
was used by General Electric Co. in a campaign to sell light
bulbs to women during the 1964 presidential election.
"Capitalizing upon increased women's interest in politics, we are
sponsoring Betty Bright as our candidate with Magoo as her
campaign manager," GE boasted in a 1964 press release.

     But by 1970, when the star-spangled TV special "Uncle Sam
Magoo" arrived, the old geezer looked dated. Divisive issues such
as civil rights, feminism, sex and Vietnam were arriving on
television with "All in the Family" and "The Mary Tyler Moore
Show." CBS had withdrawn "Amos 'n' Andy" after protests from
black communities in 1966, soon to replace it with more
up-to-date fare like "The Jeffersons" and "Good Times." Kids' TV
got hip to the changes with "Sesame Street" in 1969. Stalwart Mr.
Magoo, however, remained the same.

     "My attitude was if you have a message, go to Western
Union," Mr. Saperstein says of the period. Although Mr. Magoo
remained on TV in reruns, UPA in 1970 decided to stop producing
new shows and to survive off the syndication profits.

     It was also during this time, with minority groups gaining
more of a voice, that the National Federation of the Blind first
spoke up against Mr. Magoo. In a 1975 speech to members,
then-president Kenneth Jernigan used Mr. Magoo as an example of
damaging stereotyp
series and theme-park attractions.

     In 1993, Mr. Saperstein got a call from Steven Spielberg,
who optioned the rights to Mr. Magoo for a movie. But the
director never got around to making the film, and when the rights
expired, Disney's Mr. Vogel put in a bid in 1995.

     Disney's movie will feature yet another incarnation of Mr.
Magoo, this one a lovable old geezer with Gump-like spirituality,
Mr. Vogel says. "At a time when everyone is cynical and
complicated, Magoo is innocent and naive," he says.

     The plot is innocent and naive as well: After he is
mistakenly accused of stealing a jewel at a museum auction, Mr.
Magoo, through a series of misadventures such as riding an
ironing board down a ski slope, foils the true robber and saves
the day.

     Mr. Vogel says Disney is empathetic to the National
Federation of the Blind's concerns, but feels the issue may be
misplaced, considering that the 1997 Magoo derives creativity and
strength from his inner vision.

     "Magoo is not blind. We would think about it as an issue
more if he were blind," he says. "But I don't really think what
they're saying is what we're doing." Says Mr. Nielsen of the
role: "Yes, the vulnerabilities are there. But so are the
strengths, the gentleness, honesty, inventiveness and courage.
Above all, Magoo ends up as a hero."

     "Magoo," Mr. Vogel adds, "is the kind of character you can
take and design as you want."

08/02/97 -- Copyright (C) 1997 The Washington Post [Article 290253, 67 lines]

                             OP-ED:  FREE FOR ALL
                         Shortsighted About Mr. Magoo

  In her July 23 op-ed column, "Memories of Mr. Magoo," Kathi Wolfe completely
misses the point that in more than 200 films, Mr. Magoo -- despite his
nearsightedness -- is courageous, heroic and dignified and always shows that
you can win even if you have a handicap.
     Wolfe sees Magoo as a pathetic buffoon. But Magoo films have been honored
by the Motion Picture Academy, the New York Museum of Modern Art, the Kennedy
Center, the Los Angeles County Museum and many others. He's been a very
successful spokesman for GE, RCA, Timex, Blue Shield, NutraSweet, the U.S.
Treasury, the U.S. Navy, the American Cancer Society, the National Safety
Council and the American Heart Association.
     Wolfe is "blind" to the First Amendment right of free expression. She is
"blind" to the needs of a free nation to explore anything and everything.
     Not all of us are born completely perfect physically, mentally and
emotionally. If we allow self-righteous censorship, then we rob the audience
of the opportunity to experience an autistic Dustin Hoffman in "Rainman," an
emotionally disturbed, speech-impaired Geoffrey Rush in "Shine," a mentally
disturbed Jack Nicholson in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," a deaf Marlee
Matlin in "Children of a Lesser God." And what about "Mask," "Elephant Man,"
"Misery," "My Left Foot," "Snake Pit" and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame"?
     Let's resolve to resist the self-appointed do-gooders who would have us
make only white-bread movies and television shows that don't deal with
sensitive subjects. In the end, fortunately, the public will decide, as always.
  -- Henry G. Saperstein
     The writer is president of UPA Pictures, the owner and originator of "Mr.

   Kathi Wolfe's op-ed addresses the recent news that Disney Studios plans to
release a live-action Mr. Magoo movie this Christmas. Wolfe, who is visually
impaired, voices her concern that the movie will demean "people like me."
     The implication of Wolfe's article is that the people who enjoyed Mr.
Magoo cartoons did so because the shows made fun of Magoo's visual impairment.
However, this is not the case. It certainly doesn't account for my fondness
for the cartoon. (In fact, as my own eyesight fails, it is painfully apparent
that there is nothing funny about being visually impaired.) The cartoon was
popular because the adventures of Mr. Magoo are an optimistic metaphor for
     Magoo wandered through each episode narrowly escaping unknown hazards.
Although the audience knew of the dangers that awaited Magoo -- falling off a
steel girder, getting hit by a train -- he was totally oblivious to his own
vulnerability. He cheerfully went about his life without any awareness of the
perils that loomed.
      Nonetheless, Magoo always made just the right choice and thereby avoided
the impending disasters. Despite the hazards, the cartoon always ended with
him safe, saying, "Mr. Magoo, you've done it again."
     We each live our lives in a manner very similar to Magoo. We often are
oblivious to the many hazards that we manage to avoid thanks to plain dumb
luck. Indeed, we are so accustomed to being protected by dumb luck that we are
dismayed when it doesn't come through for us.
     Like Magoo, I'll bet that each of has had at least one experience in
which everything turned out fine even though our plans seemed doomed to fail:
the birthday party that turned out great even though the cake got ruined, the
last-minute, thrown-together report that got you pats on the back, etc. When
this happens to me, I smile and say to myself, "Mr. Magoo, you've done it
      I liked the Mr. Magoo cartoons because they painted such an optimistic
view of life. When I was young, I knew that the world is a pretty scary place.
It was not easy to leave the protection of my family. The message I received
from Magoo was that everything would turn out all right. Mr. Magoo made it
easier for me to venture out into the world.
     I'm sorry that some insensitive children made fun of Wolfe's visual
impairment. I am also sorry that Wolfe gives Mr. Magoo such a bad rap because
of that experience. I think we all -- including Wolfe -- could get a little
spiritual uplift from watching Mr. Magoo.
  -- Mickale Carter

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