Favorite Films: A Charlie Brown Christmas

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“Christmastime is here… happiness and cheer…
Fun for all that children call their favorite time of year…”

Debuting in 1950 as “Lil Folks”, and subsequently dubbed Peanuts by the syndicate (a name its creator was never happy with), Charles Schulz’s comic featuring “Good ol’” Charlie Brown was an unparalleled success on the newspaper page. The strip lasted 50 years, until Schulz’s retirement and death (the night before the final strip ran), and until its original run ended was one of the most popular. Even several years after it went into reruns, it was considered noteworthy for a newspaper to drop the strip. There’s something eminently relatable about the group of kids — and Charlie Brown in particular. He constantly fails, and it’s often his own fault, but he keeps trying anyway.

The animated specials have been as popular in their own right as the comic strip, and it’s likely as many people recognize the characters from television as from the newspaper. So perhaps it’s appropriate that the first of those specials, A Charlie Brown Christmas had a very “Charlie Brown” genesis.

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“Of all the Charlie Browns in the world, you’re the Charlie Browniest.”

It started in April of 1965, when Lee Mendelsohn received a call from the Coca-Cola company, who were looking to sponsor a Christmas special. They asked if he had anything on tap, and he said he did, expecting he’d have a few weeks to work something out. They asked to see a script by Monday. Quickly, Mendelsohn called Charles Schulz on the phone to see if he would be willing to expand his characters into the animated arena, and if he could help write a script. By this time, Peanuts had been going for 15 years and was wildly popular. The characters would be a natural fit for a Christmas special. Schulz agreed, and the two began working on a script; Bill Melendez, with whom Schulz had worked previously for a few commercials for the Ford Falcon, was brought on as director. The team had to start work immediately; producing a Christmas special in only a few months was unheard of at the time, and the animators had to essentially start from scratch. They needed to figure out how the characters’ heads translated to animation — particularly Charlie Brown’s curlicue forelock, which isn’t consistent depending on the angle it’s viewed at — and how the characters walk. Schulz’s drawings were designed for the newspaper, not for animation, and didn’t always translate easily — but Melendez was determined to remain faithful to the look of the characters.

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“It’s too early. I never eat December snowflakes. I always wait until January.”

CBS was the television studio that would be airing the special. From the beginning, there were conflicts with the executives at CBS. One relatively minor conflict was over the use of a laugh track. CBS executives strongly wanted there to be one; Schulz just as strongly wanted there to not be one. He felt people should be allowed to enjoy it at their own pace and in their own way without being told when to laugh. CBS relented, but made a version with the laugh track just in case Schulz changed his mind; to this day, this version has never been released. Schulz’s belief that people didn’t need the laugh track was proven correct by the public.

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“You’ve been dumb before, Charlie Brown, but this time, you really did it.”

Another argument came from the choice of voice actors for the special. CBS wanted professional adult voice actors. Mendelsohn, Melendez, and Schulz instead opted to go with actual children. Bill Melendez explicitly said he hated the idea of using adults for voicing children. Of the children used in the special, only the actors for Charlie Brown, Linus, and Lucy had acted in any capacity before. The rest were all completely untrained. In the case of some of the younger actors, such as the voice of Sally, they couldn’t even read yet and had to be fed their lines one a time — or half a line at a time, leading to the choppy delivery that has become a tradition in the specials. Several of the kids would go on to voice the characters in subsequent specials as well.

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“All I want is what I have coming to me. All I want is my fair share.”

One character’s voice caused some internal discussion among the creators of the special. Specifically, they had to figure out how to handle Snoopy. In the comic strip, Snoopy had his own thoughts, easily visible to the reader yet unheard by the other characters. The question was how to approach this within animation. They considered giving him his own voice and dialogue, but worried it wouldn’t feel natural to have him speaking yet unheard by the others. They considered having his thoughts show up in text, but decided it would be too difficult for younger viewers. In the end, they decided that Snoopy could be just as funny in pantomime, and that he could be expressive enough to let the viewers know what he’s thinking without ever saying it out loud. Of course, he still needed to have a voice for the occasional bark or growl or other beagley noise. Bill Melendez supplied some as placeholders, only to find Lee Mendelsohn thought they were perfect as they were. Melendez would voice Snoopy in every special until his death in 2008.

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“You’ve got to have discipline! You’ve got to have respect for your director!”

For the soundtrack to the special, they decided to bring in jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi. Guaraldi composed all the music for the show except for the traditional song “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”. Lee Mendelsohn added lyrics to Guaraldi’s “Christmastime is Here” for the opening sequence. Though using jazz piano for the special was another decision that CBS executives disagreed with, the song “Linus and Lucy” became associated with both the Peanuts franchise and the Christmas season as well. In the special, it plays over the scene where the kids goof around dancing instead of following Charlie Brown’s direction. Notably, although most viewers today don’t recognize some of the characters, the scene features every character currently in the strip (save for Lucy and Charlie Brown, who are trying to get the others on track). The special predates breakout characters Peppermint Patty and Marcie, and also comes before the debuts of Franklin, Woodstock, and later characters such as Rerun. Dancing in the crowd are Violet, Patty, Frieda, Shermy, Linus and Sally; Schroeder, Snoopy and Pigpen provide the music. The three characters that most viewers don’t recognize today are the kid in the orange shirt and the twin girls in purple; though they don’t have lines, they aren’t quite extras either. The boy in the orange shirt is “5″ — short for 555 95472 — a character from the comic whose gag was that his father, despairing of the impersonalization of modern society, named his whole family after numbers. The twin girls are his younger sisters, 3 and 4, even more obscure than 5 himself.

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The special reflects the popularity of the characters in the strip. 5 and his sisters don’t have any speaking lines, as they were already in the process of being phased out — Schulz didn’t feel there was quite enough humor in the characters. The focus is mostly on the Browns and the Van Pelts, always the most popular characters, with Schroeder getting a few lines in addition. Frieda, Patty, and Violet, who were gradually being phased out in favor of characters with more distinct personality quirks, had a few lines but were mostly there as Lucy’s Greek chorus. Shermy, the very first character to receive a line in the comics, has only one line in the special, illustrating how he too was gradually being phased out.

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“Every Christmas it’s the same. I always end up playing a shepherd.”

If CBS disagreed with a lot of the artistic decisions made on the special, this was nothing compared to how they felt about the special’s message. Despite being sponsored by Coca-Cola from the beginning — a lost scene from the original broadcast even has Linus colliding with a Coke billboard after Snoopy flings him and Charlie Brown on the ice rink — A Charlie Brown Christmas is aggressively anti-commercial. Charlie Brown is unhappy with all the commercialism he sees among his friends and family. He doesn’t understand Christmas any more, and feels that the meaning of it has disappeared. Lucy brings him in as the director of the play thinking he needs involvement, but her approach to Christmas is as commercial as anybody else’s. Of course, Lucy and humorous hypocrisy go hand in hand.

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“I never get what I really want… ” “What is it you want?” “Real estate!”

When Charlie Brown decides the play needs a tree to remind the others of the Christmas spirit, he’s told to go get a pink aluminum Christmas tree — a real thing in the 1960s, incidentally. Instead, he selects the one authentic, natural tree he can find in the tree lot. It’s small and spindly, and a lot like Charlie Brown himself in that it looks completely pathetic and out of place in its surroundings.

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“Gee, do they still make wooden Christmas trees?”

Of course, the gang laughs him off the stage when he comes back with it. Frustrated, Charlie Brown yells out asking if anybody can tell him what Christmas is really all about. Linus, ever the most philosophical character in the strip, comes to his rescue with a sermon from the Gospel of Luke, a portion of the nativity scene detailing the shepherds being told of Christ’s arrival. CBS executives were extremely skeptical of including religious messages in an animated children’s TV special; even Lee Mendelsohn and Bill Melendez were a little unsure of it. It wasn’t something that had been done before. But Schulz won over his producer and director with the simple argument “If we don’t do it, who will?”

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“And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them…”

By the time the special was ready to air, the situation was looking fairly dark. The executives at CBS hated it. They were unhappy over the lack of a laugh track. They hated the voice acting. They hated the music. Most particularly, they hated the story, the anti-commercial message, and the religious message. But they had already scheduled it and put out press releases — the special was finished too late for them to change their mind. They decided to go ahead and air it, but expected to do so only the one time and then forget it. They explicitly told Mendelsohn they would not be ordering any more specials. Mendelsohn and Melendez were less than happy as well. Despite their best efforts, the animation was rushed and not up to the standards they had hoped to meet. And the special, while keeping true to Schulz’s and their vision, was very different from specials that had come before. They were as concerned as CBS that the public might not accept it. They were worried that they had “ruined Peanuts“, or at least the chances of there ever being another televised Peanuts special.

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“I’ve killed it.”

Their concerns, and those of CBS, proved to be unfounded in the largest possible way. On December 9, 1965, A Charlie Brown Christmas brought in a 49% share — a runaway success. CBS recanted on their decision not to order more specials, asking Mendelsohn for more just a week after the show’s debut. To date, there have been a total of 45 animated Peanuts specials, three more of which have been Christmas specials. There have also been four theatrical features (with a fifth reported in development), a TV miniseries, and a two-season television series. Critics loved A Charlie Brown Christmas, praising its message and stating the technical deficiencies only added to its charm. The special won a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Children’s Program — and a Peabody Award as well. It has gone on to be one of the most beloved Christmas specials of all time. Since its debut, it has always aired at least once each year on network television; only Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, which debuted the year before, has a longer continuous run. Towards the end of their run of it, CBS sometimes trimmed the special to make room for more commercials (the irony apparently lost on them); when ABC acquired the rights in 2000, they decided to instead pair it with another Peanuts special and expand it to an hour so as not to cut anything out. (The second special varies, but is usually Charlie Brown’s Christmas Tales.)

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“I never thought it was such a bad little tree. It’s not bad at all, really. Maybe it just needs a little love.”

A Charlie Brown Christmas manages the nearly-impossible feat of being both subversive and sincere at the same time. It zig-zags between being funny and heartwarming without missing a beat. It presents a wholesome message with sharp sarcasm and manages to not be obnoxious about either. It’s one of the most popular Christmas specials of all time, the most popular Peanuts special of all time, and in my opinion the best of either. It’s one of my favorite films.

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“Merry Christmas!”

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14 thoughts on “Favorite Films: A Charlie Brown Christmas

  1. Great post. I hadn’t heard a lot of this history before. Doesn’t change my personal opinion of the special, or Peanuts in general, which is actually pretty low. But even if I don’t enjoy it, you’ve got to respect what it has achieved, and the status it has earned.

  2. Dude. Awesome work. Great great job here, excellent read.

    I didnt know any of that (well, I mean, obviously I’ve seen the Special). This was super informative, very well researched and wirtten. A nice little treat here on Christmas eve.

    Merry Christmas man… hope Santa is good to you!

  3. Pingback: Christmas Cinema 2012 Roundup | Morgan on Media

  4. Awesome writeup, Morgan! Watching this Charlie Brown special was a tradition for me for many years, but I had no idea about its history. Really interesting stuff. Couldn’t imagine this with a laugh track — glad that never saw the light of day.

    Hope you had an excellent Christmas, man.

  5. Great write up Morgan, I had no idea about all that background history.

    Anyone who likes the special should check out the excellent iPad app. Its very faithful to the show and highly interactive my four year-old loves it.

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