E Tu Magoo??
Bet you never thought you’d see a blog post with a title like that.
I’m actually only half serious dropping a line like that, but allow me to explain.
In the last few years I’ve had a lot of fun introducing my son (who’s now 3 ½) to the joys of classic cartoons.
As you might expect, a toddler approaches cartoons from a sort of primitive perspective, in which verbal comedy generally takes a back seat to physical humor, and even then some of that is lost on him:
Miles: “Daddy, what happened?”
Me: “Um, the roadrunner just blew up the coyote with a bomb.”
Despite the communication gap, he loves Bugs Bunny, Porky Pig and Daffy Duck, which says something about the timeless quality of the Warner Brothers canon.
Here we have cartoons, some of them well over 60 years old, filled with what in 1940 were timely jokes/references, as well as a host of meaningful musical cues that although the tunes are ingrained in our collective memory, the musical puns behind them are lost on all but the senior citizens among us*.
But they’re still funny as hell.
It reminds me of watching the better Marx Brothers films, which are so heavily layered with visual and verbal gags that it’s nearly impossible to catch them all on the first viewing. This has the benefit of providing comedy nourishment through multiple sittings, but also widening the appeal of the film for audiences applying varied levels of scrutiny, i.e. little kids (with limited context) will find something to laugh at, as will seasoned adults to whom the comedic archetypes of Groucho, Harpo and Chico have become familiar.
One of my favorite cartoons when I was a regular Saturday morning cartoon viewer was the ‘Pink Panther’.
Created by the DePatie/Freleng studio (that’s ‘Friz’ Freleng, one of the cornerstones of golden era Warner Brothers animation), the Pink Panther – along with it’s companion features ‘The Ant & the Aardvark’ and ‘The Inspector’ – which started out as an Oscar-winning theatrical short, went on to a couple of brilliant, largely dialogue-free, TV seasons**.
When these were first released on DVD (a tip here, avoid the boxed set and pick up the first three individual volumes which are available for around $10 each) I picked them up, and Miles promptly fell in love with them (‘Pink Pink Panther Daddy!’). Thanks to tons of great sight gags, as well as the pronounced absence of dialogue, they work as well for a toddler as they do for a case of arrested development like me.
So why am I telling you this?
On a recent trip to the Gigantico-Enormous Warehouse Store, my lovely wife spotted the recently released DVD boxed set of the early-60’s ‘Mr. Magoo’ cartoons.
Magoo first appeared in a 1949 short, and repeatedly through the 50’s in similar shorts (one of which one an Oscar) until UPA created a TV series in 1960.
The shorts from this series were repeated liberally through the 60’s and early 70’s, as well as the slightly later and longer form ‘Famous Adventures of Mr Magoo’ cartoons in which Magoo popped up in a bunch of literary and historical contexts (i.e. as Ishmael in ‘Moby Dick’, or as Robinson Crusoe).
One of my longtime pals – who is a half decade my senior and shares my love for 60’s pop culture – and I have often discussed the humor of these Magoo cartoons, and have never failed to marvel at the broad racial caricature (that’s the kindest way I can find to put it) of Mr. Magoo’s houseboy Charlie.
Let me take a moment here to address the brilliant comic premise of Mr. Magoo.
He can’t see very well, so he finds himself on a constant state of visual malapropism (i.e. he thinks he’s somewhere he’s not, and, as expected, hilarity ensues), as well as narrowly averting physical destruction over and over again (walking off of girders etc.).
If this were the sole aspect of the UPA Magoo cartoons, all would be well.
However, someone decided that it was necessary to add all kinds of peripheral regulars into Mr. Magoo’s world, including a rich uncle Tycoon Magoo, his butler, Magoo’s Mother and two nephews (one of whom, Waldo did appear in some of the theatrical shorts). However, the only additional character that added any real comedic value was Charlie.
As I said before, Charlie appeared to be Mr. Magoo’s houseboy, driver and Man Friday. Charlie was pretty much there to get clobbered while Mr. Magoo sailed along blissfully unaware that he had been in danger. Unfortunately Charlie, was portrayed as a coolie out of a 19th century penny dreadful about the building of the railroads, with a queue, sandals, hideously pronounced buck teeth and to top it all off (as if this wasn’t already bad enough) an accented pidgin English affect that would have (should have) been considered offensive 50 years earlier.
Case in point (and I have to say, as broad as this dialect is, it gets worse):
Charlie: “OOOOOOH Meesah Magloo, a forring pliano!”
Magoo: ‘Oh, Charlie….”
Charlie: (crushed under piano) “Awwww Meesah Magloo….”
Magoo: (chuckling warmly) “Oh Charlie, what are you up to now?”
When I was six or seven, this was, of course, hilarious. Cartoons (especially older ones, which filled up much of my viewing time) were filled with broad racial stereotypes, including lazy Mexicans (Speedy Gonzales), a wide selection of simian-featured, thickly brogued Irish cops (any number of Warner Brothers cartoons ex. ‘Ooohh, he’s hidin’ in the stove, is he??’) and inscrutable Orientals (or all three as in the 1960’s Dick Tracy shorts).
These days, my buddy and I can only look back in disbelief at how this was ever considered acceptable.
Herein lies the rub.
Does the Charlie character being funny, make up for the fact that he’s a broadly drawn racial/racist stereotype?
In the long run, not entirely.
There are similarly egregious examples in Bugs Bunny cartoons. In one of the recent boxed sets of ‘Looney Tunes: Golden Collection’, there were a couple of shorts (‘Mississippi Hare’ in particular) in which there were shocking (I’m no shrinking violet, but in context these were shocking) instances of Bugs in blackface, bowing and scraping.
Say what you want about “the times” (the Looney Tunes collections all include a video disclaimer featuring Whoopi Goldberg explaining why these cartoons were offered in their unedited state, offensive elements intact) , and how things have changed, but this stuff was ugly and backward, and unlike a lot of the Mr. Magoo cartoons with Charlie, decidedly unfunny. They were also – fortunately – by and large an aberration in the Warner Brothers canon.
So how do you deal with stuff like this, especially with a little kid?
I’m not sure I do quite yet.
I get something of an easy out, because Miles – as was the case with Bullwinkle & Rocky – doesn’t find Mr. Magoo all that enjoyable because the basic concept that provides the humor is lost on a 3 ½ year old. He just doesn’t find it that funny, and right now (for different reasons) neither do I.
Somewhere down the line, when concepts like racial differences and the ridicule some people found/find in those differences can make any sense to a child (and I wish they didn’t have to), maybe we’ll revisit the topic. Right now, until my DVD of ‘The Inspector’ arrives (as well as the upcoming set of 1930’s Fleischer ‘Popeye’ cartoons) , I suspect we’ll keep the non-offensive WB cartoons, as well as the Pink Panther, and the Ant & the Aardvark in circulation.
*One of the many great experiences growing up with my Pop, was his explanation that many of the musical cues in Warner Brothers cartoons (courtesy of Carl Stalling) were in fact themselves jokes. Much of what kids my age thought of as incidental music, were in fact old Tin Pan Alley tunes where the titles (or unsung lyrics familiar to a 1940’s audience) were part of the on-screen joke. I still run songs by him.
**The later, mid-70’s ‘Pink Panther’ shorts show a decided drop in quality.
PS I should note that the ‘Looney Tunes Golden Collection’ box sets (four four-disc sets so far) are all worth picking up, with wonderful prints of the cartoons as well as a ton of extras. Another cheap(er) investment for the cartoon lover are the two volumes of ‘The Cartoons that Time Forgot: The Ub Iwerks Collection’. Iwerks was an original Disney animator (‘Steamboat Willie’ era) who went on to make his own shorts in the 30’s, with musical direction by a pre-Warners Carl Stalling. His ‘Flip the Frog’ shorts are very reminiscent of early Disney, and filled with great sight gags.