with commentary by Nancy Beiman Ralph Eggleston Tim Hauser Brian McEntee Steve Moore Dave Pruiksma Jerry Rees Tom Sito
Dave Pruiksma I was a kid when these 2 great television specials were created and first came to air on the small screen, (1965 for "A Charlie Brown Christmas" and 1966 for "How The Grinch Stole Christmas"). This was in the days long before video, Tivo or any form of instant entertainment on command; a time when one actually had to wait and plan around the day on which the show of choice was scheduled to air. I still remember the excitement and anticipation, each year, in the weeks leading up to the network presentations of these beloved specials which seemed to me to serve as no less than the blazing beacon lights on the Christmas Holiday landing strip ahead.
I can remember sitting excitedly in front of the television a whole hour before "A Charlie Brown Christmas" first aired in 1965, and again when "How the Grinch Stole Christmas" aired a year later. They weren't just television shows: they were phenomena. They weren't just for kids, either. Everyone watched them.
The stories are the most outstanding thing about both specials. They are about kindness and charity for all. The Grinch steals the Whos' toys and roast beast and they do not even care. Charlie Brown's pathetic Christmas tree is far more meaningful than Snoopy's loud and tasteless doghouse decorations. Linus quotes the Bible to describe the wonder of the season, and you don't have to be Christian to appreciate the parable of rebirth, the symbols of hope and charity.
I've seen only one other special that has the same sincerity and lack of commercialism as this classic pair: "The Bestest Present" (1985), the first animated adaptation of Lynn Johnston's "For Better or for Worse" comic, is about how relationships are more important than the pursuit of new 'things'.
Both specials were prophetic in their own way, and both are great for their CHARACTERIZATIONS and their ART. While Charlie Brown is an original story, it's based on characters EVERYONE can empathize with. Grinch is based on a pre-existing story, and builds on that with terrific design and animation. Neither is particularly "stunning" in their presentation, but that's the point, isn't it? Un-Consumerism. Not "ANTI-Consumerism." Both had the forsight to comment on over-commercialism of a sacred holiday, and both did so by not shying away from the core of it's meaning. I think the sincerity of all involved comes through in the final productions. I've got "nostalgia" as much as the next person, but these two films still do it for me!
THAT SAID, My favorite holiday special just happens to NOT be animated. It's "A Christmas Memory", starring Geraldine Page, and written/narrarated by Truman Capote. It was made in 1966 for ABC, and was shot in 16mm color. Unfortunately, it seems the original negative has been lost, and the only version (sort of) available is a dupe of a dupe of a dupe of a dupe in glorious scratchy Black and White with Super Mono Sound. So incredibly acted, and so beautifully paced.
Consider the resonance between those two stories.
Charlie Brown is trying to assemble all the elements that he thinks are needed to make Christmas special.
The Grinch is trying to disassemble all the elements that he thinks are needed to make Christmas special.
Both characters feel alone in their obsession.
Both characters ultimately discover that none of these elements are actually needed at all. Without the external trappings of the holiday, Christmas is still special.
In both cases, despite meager external display, the human spirit feels, and ultimately creates, the magic of the holiday.
In both cases this transformative moment is expressed through shared singing - literal and figurative harmony.
Charlie's sadness and the Grinch's resentment are cured.
Both characters feel a clear moment of being embraced into community.
Consider the voice casts. Charles Shultz insisted on casting real children , when traditionally, children in tv cartoons were adults doing a child's voice - June Foray as Cindy Lou Who, for example. Imagine "A Charlie Brown Christmas" with adults doing the voices. It would have had a harder edge as the kids dump on Charlie Brown, and the pathos would have instead been maudlin. When Christopher Shea, as Linus, says, That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown." he speaks from the heart, its there in his voice, a genuineness that I doubt an adult could match. Likewise, when Peter Robbins, as Charlie Brown, says "I've killed it." when he puts the heavy ball on his tiny tree, its hilarious and heartbreaking at the same time - a very complex little scene, yet it seems so simple. Even with the same script, same music, same art direction and graphic blandishment (?), the special would not have worked without these children doing the voices.
The performances of Peter Robbins as Charlie Brown, Christopher Shea as Linus, and Tracy Stratford as Lucy are perfect in this deceptively simple, touching end sequence.
Likewise, how could The Grinch be anyone but Boris Karloff? Really. Here's a man who made a career out of portraying a monster on screen, yet the man himself was gentle by nature. This is most evident when you hear the contrast between his lines as Narrator and his lines as The Grinch. His voice performances give the show an emotional depth that otherwise would not have been as strong. His performance is a big reason why "The Grinch Who Stole Christmas" is a classic.
Boris Karloff 's tour de force as Grinch and as Narrator.
I don't believe I ever heard a more genuine performance from Boris Karloff than when he spoke the final lines of narration: "Christmas day will always be, just as long as we have we. Welcome Christmas while we stand heart-to-heart and hand-in-hand."
The whole story and tone of "A Charlie Brown Christmas" always felt a bit Beat to me. Beatnik Culture was still pretty hip then. The all jazz track and the underlying message of rejecting the crass materialism of Christmas is a very Beat sentiment. When Lucy says that she heard "We all know this Whole Christmas Thing is a racket. I heard it's controlled by a big syndicate back East.." is pretty heady stuff for a holiday kids special. Remember it was the age of Ginsburg, Kerouac and coffee house and folk rebellion, the Hippies, Vietnam and LSD were still a few years away in the public's mind. But in Linus' climactic solo reading from the Gospel, Schulz's childlike idealism to recapture the spirit of Christmas wins out in the end.
I think Bill Melendez tried very hard to get Schulz' unique cartooning style into the film. Bill said Sparky ( Schulz) didn't like all of the Snoopy mime stuff like his dancing around. He would have preferred talking heads all through the film. But Bill knew it had to be more active, and Bill Littlejohn's scene of Snoopy dancing while Shroeder and Lucy stare him down, remains one of my favorite scenes. Likewise the famous cycle of all the kids dancing. You can watch it for hours, and never be bored. Melendez himself animated the opening cycle of all the kids iceskating. He did it on a downshot, all on one level, straight ahead.
One other note was the music. Producer Lee Mendelson had heard this jazz trio in the SF Bay Area named the Vince Guaraldi Trio. He hired them to do the music, although Guaraldi had never done any work on a film before. He asked Melendez, " How many yards of music do you want?" I think it is the best music ever produced for an animated film. Charles Schulz said he had nothing to do with hiring Guaraldi, but now he ( Schulz) can not make any public appearance without his entrance being preceded by a rendition of Guaraldi's melodies for Charlie Brown. Guaraldi died of heart failure in 1976 at age 47.
But the purity of his music ensured the films would never date, or feel period. They have a timeless, yet hip feel.
Nancy Beiman The music for "A Charlie Brown Christmas" was revolutionary in its day; its cool and quirky jazz perfectly catches the laid back spirit of the comic strip. Charles Schulz can be thanked for this; he flatly refused to let the network put in the usual cartoon music and sound effects, and this gives the early Peanuts specials a unique quality. The Grinch's marvelous songs and wonderful background music contribute to the storytelling as much as the fantastic animation.
While there are striking similarities in the story themes, the production design for these two shows bear no semblance to each other. That two radically different looking shows could be part of the same era and stand the test of time is really worth noting in today's studio climate of homogenization. You CAN tell an emotional story with flat characters who never move in a Z axis (Charlie Brown). You CAN tell an emotion story in a whimsical world (Grinch). The rules we've been tied to, either by studios, or industry peers, or animation "experts", are proven to be erroneous.
The very first thing that hits me about both of these Christmas Specials is how well their makers translated the design of the original works into animation. Bill Melendez and his team were spot-on. They didn't try to reinvent Shultz's work, but they added movement and life to it without losing anything. Sounds easy, but it's not. They also didn't add lots of three-point perspective or break that panel comics format Shultz established, and kept the look from getting too busy, two things that would have ruined it. The movement, staging, and color all looked as if the Sunday Peanuts strip had simply come to life.
Chuck Jones and Ben Washam were as successful with Grinch, although more liberties were taken with the original character designs, story, and color, mainly to accommodate the animation style and screen length. None of it was done at the expense of the original, in my opinion, and that makes a big difference. Maurice Noble brought full color to the work without losing the feel of the book, which had a very limited pallet. Expanding the story, adding songs, and fleshing out characters was done in tune with the book, and Chuck Jones's animation style, although obviously his and not Suess's, was aptly interpretive of Suess's original intent.
A Charlie Brown Christmas is indomitable in spirit and style, warts and all. It is something of what I would characterize as a uniquely American Folk or Fairy Tale that stands the test of time with the best of them. And, if all this wasn't enough, this is the animated special that coined the phrase, "Graphic Blandishment" to the realm of animation terminology for all eternity. Who could ask for more than that?
As for "Grinch", though this show came rather towards the late middle period of Jones' long career and quite some time after he had created and honed his, shall we say, unique "Jonesisms" of mugging the camera, stretching one's neck to remain in a scene long after one's body has plummeted off some precipice and the ubiquitous sideways glance and isolated drop of a hat, ear, tail, whisker, etc. Grinch still holds up as one of the slickest, funniest, most endearing, non denominational Christmas specials of all time.
Another thing that strikes me is that both filmmakers segued from wonderfully silly, disarming caricature to genuine emotion in the end. They were unashamed of sentiment, but kept it simple. And they kept it in character. They went for a sort of understatement really, and that kept viewers from feeling force fed. Linus' final speech on stage is direct - quiet - no frills.
Both original authors (Seuss and Schulz) really believed in the message of their stories. It wasn't just work for hire; no storytelling by template or committee. And in both cases that material was very faithfully translated to the screen. There is an authenticity of voice and concept in the final result.
At the time both these shows were made, the underlying idea that commercialism could kill the spirit of Christmas but not the spirit of humanity was not new, but not yet an overplayed hand - - it was a vital lament. In 1966, the outcome seemed as if it could still go either way. There is a genuine naivete and sincerity and hope at work. The storytellers don't have to reach or contrive circumstances to sell their point.
Just think how lousy any of these shows would be if executed with the non-stop screaming, chattering, louder-is-funnier, self-reflective one-liner approach of today. Or if the shows were filled with dewey-eyed, pastel-colored phony morals spouted only to elicit consumer emotion. In either case, I'll wager we wouldn't still be watching four decades later in perpetually large numbers.
When I heard, at the age of 8, that the special was airing on CBS, I immediately began begging my parents to drive us up to my cousin's house a mile or so away to see the show in beautiful, living, RCA COLOR. A request to which they reluctantly agreed! There I sat, enraptured by every moment of the show's first airing. The color, the animation (crude but perfectly suited to these characters) the voices, the humor, the perfect music by Vince Guaraldi, EVERYthing! I clearly remember the feeling of joy and warmth I had viewing this show for the very first time. And now, as I sit and watch the show some 43 years later, I still get the same warm thrill that I got in 1965.
Just the sound of that rhythmic percussive music as the network announcer stated, "The following is a CBS special presentation." would start my pulse racing and woe be unto any family member who dared to speak for a least one half hour after that announcement was made.
Over the years, I have theorized that what makes Grinch work is the sincerity that it exudes from every aspect of it's production:
The spotty, but occasionally inspired animation (picture the Grinch's hideous rotten teeth floating around in realistic detail behind the expertly articulated lips as he utters, "I must find some way to keep Christmas from coming").
The marvelous, fanciful settings by Maurice Noble. Mountains and archways and trees that defy gravity and physics, adding punch to their Seussian counterparts in the original book illustrations.
The inspired songs by by Albert Hague and expressive underscoring by Eugene Poddany, (who could forget Thurl Ravenscroft's throaty renditions of "Mr. Grinch"?).
And, lest we forget, the superb narration and vocal characterization of the Grinch by Boris Karloff , "too".
What I think makes them both so utterly timeless and eternally enjoyable is not any one element in their creation, but a sum total of ALL the elements, coming together at just the right time, in just the right place with just the right people involved. These specials are products of their time that ended up transcending their time to speak to the child in all of us, whatever age we may happen to be. So, now, even though I no longer have to wait for any official airing, and even though, if I miss a showing, it is sure to pop up again and again before the holiday season is through. Even though I can now own it on video and air it at my convenience, any time and as many times as I want, I will always remember the first time I saw them and the feelings that they evoked, still evoke and will forever evoke in me. Little Davie Pruiksma. His room still looks like this.