A Charlie Brown Christmas – (1965)
Director: Bill Melendez
Starring: Peter Robbins, Tracy Stratford, Christopher Shea
Screenplay by: Charles Schulz
Time to end 2009 with a bit of controversy: I think Charles Schulz’ Peanuts is a better comic than Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes. Don’t get me wrong, both are excellent, iconic strips that defined sense of the human condition through the eyes of surprisingly cognizant children. Calvin, however, seemed more aggressive in dealing with the hardships and realities of the world, able to cope via his imaginary stuffed animal, made-up sports, and exaggerated snowmen. Peanuts had no such outlet. Life sucked, and the children dealt with it.
I think Watterson’s reputation is hinged partially on his isolation and his unwillingness to allow his characters to be marketed or “sold out”. Admirable, certainly, but I believe that if something stands the test of time, no amount of toys, dolls, TV programs, shot glasses, and pillowcases will in no way diminish the impact of the icon (see: the early Simpsons). Besides, it’s not exactly easy to market Peanuts. Other than Snoopy (and maybe Woodstock), you’re not really making dolls of the Peanuts cast. Items derived from the comic are manifested through representing idyllic scenes; calendars, snow globes and posters. You’re not giving a child a stuffed version of a bald, wishy-washy child. (They do make them, I doubt they sell too well.)
More pro-Peanuts later in the piece.
NOSTALGIC LENS: Somehow, Peanuts had always appealed to me, whether it was this special, You’re a Good Man, Snoopy Comes Home, or the weekly strips in my local newspaper. While I wasn’t too much into the educational/religious aspects, I did adore watching Chuck try so hard to just enjoy life, but to have crap happen at every turn. Surprisingly, he still is adamantly perseverant, and perhaps that what made him so appealing to me.
DOES IT HOLD UP: I always imagine the theme of Peanuts to be a rigid determination to stand up against the constant pressures of realities that falls upon even the most innocent members of society. Simply put: “Life fucking sucks, even for children – but fuck it.”
The comics exemplify this the most. The cartoons seem oddly askew to the newspaper strip, however; it’s like comparing Richard Pryor’s stand-up to his film roles. Sure, you can see the similarities, but the material is just an odd shade of the original content. The cartoons tend to be comic series designed in animated form, and for the movies and specials, they still maintain the four-panel style in delivery (bit, bit, bit, PUNCHLINE), but, somehow, have a innate beauty to them, a real sense of melancholy and splendor that pervades the awkward timing and continuity of the actual program.
A Charlie Brown Christmas, the first animated Peanuts show released, showcases all this; its positives (vaguely dark and esoteric humor, intriguing direction by Melendez, a beautiful score by Vince Guaraldi) and its negatives (terrible segues, incomprehensible elements to the story, weak voice work from children) combine to create a child-like sense of whimsy and innocent foray into the true meaning of Christmas.
Charlie Brown reminds me of a young Holden Caulfield. A lost soul trying to find the real meaning of the holiday among the falsities, “phonies,” and commercialization, Brown wakes up depressed for no reason as the kids around him seem more in-tuned into the Christmas spirit. He’s looking for the true meaning, but, why bother? He didn’t get any Christmas cards from anyone. His dog got a free pile of bones. He was chosen to direct the Christmas play, but he sucks at it. What is it all for, Brown wonders?
Linus, the show’s educational mouthpiece, tells us:
Even in 1965, this was ballsy. CBS executives were horrified, seeing such a blatant speech delivered in a Christmas special. Melendez tried to talk Schulz out of it, who apparently convinced him by saying “If we don’t do it, who will?” Melendez and executive producer Lee Mendelson were convinced this would be a flop. But, like a Christmas miracle, it was a hit, the speech becoming the most memorable part of the show. While today the ultra-religious element doesn’t hold up, what with the Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, and other holidays celebrated at this time, the feel of the spirit, espoused in that speech, seems to resonate more than the speech itself.
I think Charlie Brown’s story around the tree is much more resonate and significant to the special’s appeal. When told to get a tree for the play, instead of a fake, metal, colored pine, Charlie Browns grabs a dying real one, a clear reflection of himself and inner troubles concerning the holiday. Of course, he’s un-mercilessly ridiculed for it, but, due to Linus’s speech, he feels that at the very least, he could save it; i.e., save “real Christmas”.
The Peanuts children may embrace the season’s commercialism, but they also have the heart and mindset to understand the season’s abstract meanings of togetherness and spirit. Schulz’s point is that Christmas’s can be both about gifts, products, and advertising (this was originally sponsored by Coca-Cola, after all), and still maintain the importance and impact of the season’s meaning. You can have your cake and eat it too.
This is why I love Schulz. You can be a sellout and still purport beauty and meaning.
IN A NUTSHELL: A Charlie Brown Christmas is as endearing as I remember it. I adore how the show’s essence takes precedent over its flaws; it’s almost like an art film where its nonsensical elements are secondary to the feeling the special exudes. Also, on the DVD, the It’s Christmastime Again, Charlie Brown special was on it. While it wasn’t nearly as rich as the 1965 show, it still was a lot of fun, with an excellently played gag with Sally and a screwed up line.
I will take the month of January off from the CHILDHOOD REVISITED feature, as I will be going on vacation and focusing on a few other writing projects. I will update with current status of how that goes. I will return to this in February, with Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory!