10 December 2008

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

d. Bill Melendez / USA / 25 mins.

This holiday season is the first airing of the Americana masterwork A Charlie Brown Christmas since the death of its animator and director, Bill Melendez, who passed away in September at age 91. Melendez was the only animator trusted by Charles Schulz, the creator of the Peanuts comic strip, and he worked in collaboration with Schulz on bringing Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy, Snoopy, and all the rest to life starting from 1959 through the cartoonist's death in 2000.

Aimed primarily at children (at least that's what it'd have you except), the story is deceptively straightforward. Charlie Brown, in a holiday malaise, confides in his friend Linus that he doesn't understand the cheerfulness of the season. After he finds himself appointed the director of the school Christmas pageant – and selects a weak, barren and natural tree instead of a neon-pink industrial-strength aluminum decoration – his cynicism at the commercialization of the holiday spills over the edge. Christmas seems without a point until Linus volunteers to explain the meaning of the holiday with a verbatim quotation from the Gospel of Luke to show "what Christmas is all about."

Reportedly Melendez thought Linus's reading of the New Testament was too strong. America was still in the middle of the Warren Court's broadly sweeping proclamations of equal rights and liberalism (which was absolutely correct, in my opinion), and school-sponsored prayer and Bible study had just been found unconstitutional in the three years before A Charlie Brown Christmas aired. Schulz's famous response to Melendez's concern was: "Bill, if we don't do it, then who will?" And it's difficult not to be swayed by Schulz's gentle logic. A Charlie Brown Christmas, as its title suggests, is an unabashed Christmas special; there isn't anything all-inclusive about the holidays here, and to a degree there's a fair amount of joy in that. The special doesn't try to be anything other than a clear and honest explanation of Christmas, referring to the source material requisitely and unblinkingly. Yet, the religion aspect doesn't drown anything out; if anything, it evens the playing field. Schulz wasn't looking for any converts to a particular creed, only converts to a particular attitude: commercialization changes things, often in the direction that we lose sight of the intended meaning. (The idea can be extended to almost any federal holiday in the United States, whether religious in origin or not.)

With the knowledge of Melendez's death upfront on my mind, I watched A Charlie Brown Christmas with an abiding respect for how something so technically simple and straightforward can become something so extraordinary. The sapling Christmas tree Charlie Brown selects is like a metaphor for the special painted into itself; the show is unadorned and on-point with its astute pillory of the commercialization of the holidays, and let's not forget this is perhaps the most definitive statement on that fact. (Although to be fair, the special has an ironically checkered relationship to commercialization, including brief sections that have since been removed that prominently featured the logo of its corporate sponsor, Coca-Cola.)

Melendez's career was devoted to animation, from his initial hiring into Walt Disney's team in 1938, where he contributed to Pinocchio, Fantasia, Bambi, and Dumbo. After he parted ways with Disney over a union dispute, he joined Leon Schlesinger's animation team at Warner Bros., where he produced Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies. A Charlie Brown Christmas was the first full-length Peanuts special and Melendez's first animated film as a director (it spawned dozens of other Peanuts programs). Schulz wrote the script with his characteristic austerity and optimism, and the program won an Emmy Award and the George Foster Peabody Award.

The score, composed and jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi and performed by his trio, is almost as famous as the special itself and should be appreciated separate from the animation. The soundtrack album is a mainstay at my house around the holidays, and it's one of the only holiday albums I can bear to hear repeated. (Tracks include renditions of "O Tannenbaum," "What Child Is This?" and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing." Guaraldi's composition "Linus and Lucy," which would become known widely as the theme song to the Peanuts animated specials, is one of the only non-holiday related songs on the album.) Having not seen A Charlie Brown Christmas for many years, I was struck on a recent viewing at how cropped and short the score is within the half-hour running length. It seems to shuffle from incomplete song to incomplete song like an iPod fresh from the bathtub.

Given its immense cultural status and tremendous success, it almost goes without saying that CBS network executives believed in 1965 it was going to be a flop. (These sorts of great things are always "doomed to fail.") I don't think anyone at CBS programming would have predicted we'd still be watching a simple half-hour special more than forty years after its initial airing. I enjoy A Charlie Brown Christmas now as an adult more than I ever did as a child; the awe is still there, the silly humor of Snoopy and the advanced sophistication of holiday burnout and the gentle reminder that it should instead be a time for peace. It's enough to make you believe there's something powerful at play here, something at least more powerful than mere nostalgia.


FilmDr 10 December, 2008  

Have you seen David Michaelis' biography of Schulz? I found it to be surprisingly readable, and he covers the history of the Christmas special well. Schulz fascinates me in part because he was such a sell-out and such an exceptional artist simultaneously, an unusual combination.

T.S. 10 December, 2008  

I have seen it (in fact, it was on sale this past weekend at Barnes & Noble), but I haven't read it. I remember reading a review of it in the Times when it came out. If I weren't so immersed in novellas and a Lincoln biography this holiday, I might pick it up. I agree with you, he is such a fascinating guy, somewhere on the newspaper comic spectrum between complete sell-out (Jim Davis) and art-for-art (Bill Watterson). I'll have to check it out.

MovieMan0283 10 December, 2008  

Just seeing this picture atop your blog made me feel happy. I want to watch this melancholy little animated fable again, hopefully I can squeeze it in as my last post before I take a Christmas break in a few weeks. (I am currently reading Charles Schulz' recent biography, which corresponds passages in his life with carefully-selected Peanuts cartoons). Ah, I see this topic already came up in the comments section - well, I'll leave it in anyway.

Thanks too for shining the spot on Melendez. I had no idea of the Charlie Brown cartoon's connection to Disney and Warners, which would be a fascinating avenue to explore (I'd be especially interested in more on that labor dispute with Disney).

And God, one of the best scores in cinema/television history. Absolutely.

Farzan 11 December, 2008  

Oh Charlie Brown, man I loved that show when I was little. I should really try watching it now and see if my love for that series is still their. Good post

Sam Juliano,  19 December, 2008  

A great, great score indeed! And I admire Movie Man's ability to read that Schultz bio, must be fascinating stuff. And such a lovely, poetic piece of writing examining the craftsmanship that went into this holiday classic. I showed this to my kids, and they loved it too. Yes, Mr. Melendez has earned center stage. Iconic stuff.

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