Friday, December 7, 2012

A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) - A Good Man!

A Charlie Brown Christmas: This Has the Best Animated Special Musical Score of All Time

DVD cover of A Charlie Brown Christmas 1965
Very sparse drawing, simple but effective.
"A Charlie Brown Christmas" (1965), directed by Bill Melendez for his production company Lee Mendelson Film Productions, is based on the cartoon characters created by illustrator . It is shown, recently twice, on one of the major TV networks every year in the run-up to the Christmas season.

A Charlie Brown Christmas 1965

In 2012, for instance, it was broadcast on ABC on November 28th and scored its highest ratings in three years. It became the highest-rated special of the year, drawing 8.9 million total viewers, which is about what a top current episodic show will draw every week.

Charlie and Linus at the wall in A Charlie Brown Christmas 1965
Ah, to be young and want to hang out by stone walls in the snow.
What is so special about Charlie Brown that keeps it coming back, year after year, a perennial rating champ? Everybody seems to love it! That is, if they like Christmas. It also becomes the subject of controversy every year by atheists who object to public productions of the show. It is very religious, with long passages from the bible quoted by the characters.

Charlie reading a list in A Charlie Brown Christmas 1965
Charlie was a big reader.
Obviously, everyone is not going to like that, but enough do to keep it coming back, year after year. It is the most religious of all the yearly animated specials, which lays bare the underlying reason why there is a holiday at all. You either like that or don't, but it is what it is.

Lucy and Shroeder at the piano in A Charlie Brown Christmas 1965
Schroeder did a lot of playing in this one!
Charlie Brown (Peter Robbins) tells Linus (Christopher Shea) that he is depressed. He thinks the true meaning of Christmas has become lost in all the gift-giving. He also is unhappy because Violet (Sally Dryer) did not send him a card.

Linus with a shepherd's crook.
He says the same things to Lucy (Tracy Stratford), and she suggests he direct a school nativity play. On his way, he sees Snoopy (Bill Melendez) decorating his doghouse in order to try and win a contest for the best Christmas lights. His sister Sally (Kathy Steinberg) then asks him to write a letter from her to Santa asking him for money.

Charlie at Lucy's help stand in A Charlie Brown Christmas 1965
The Doctor is out!
Once Charlie starts directing the play, he finds that the kids don't want to do the traditional nativity scene, but instead want to "jazz it up" with contemporary singing and dancing. He decides the play needs a tree and goes out with Linus to find one.

A Charlie Brown Christmas 1965

The only real tree that they find is small and bare, but it is real and not fake, so Charlie chooses it. The other kids, though, make fun of the scraggly tree. Even more depressed than ever, Charlie goes to Linus and asks if he even knows the true meaning of Christmas. Linus then quotes an extended verse from the Bible.

Snoopy rockin' away!
This cheers Charlie Brown up, and he takes the tree home to decorate it. The tree droops with a decoration at the top, but Linus fixes it, and then everyone helps decorate the tree.

Charlie in front of Snoopy's doghouse in A Charlie Brown Christmas 1965
Snoopy's doghouse is always a highlight.
If you are religious, this has to be the top holiday special. That is probably why it has lasted so long - well, that and the first-class animation and voice cast. Children were used for the voices, not adults as is often the case, and they indeed sound like real children. The child-like cadences reinforce the spirit of the show that this is a holiday devoted to the baby Jesus and that children need to know this, and the absence of a laugh track reinforces this underlying message.

The rehearsal in A Charlie Brown Christmas 1965
The children are going wild!
The musical soundtrack by jazz composer Vince Guaraldi is one of the show's main draws. The instrumental "Linus and Lucy" became the theme for all "Peanuts" specials after this show was broadcast, and "Christmas Time is Here" also originated with this special.

A Charlie Brown Christmas 1965

The jazz music is as distinctive as the characters themselves, with a vigorous piano which at times becomes almost staccato. While it seems like absolute perfection now, becoming iconic in its own right, the idea of using adult jazz for a children's show was revolutionary, but now the music is a key part of why the show is so timeless.

"I think it's a fine tree."
The special is very simple, without too many animation frills, probably because it did not have a very large budget. That is one reason inexperienced children voiced several of the characters. Their guileless tone, though, actually improves the special, and the sparse animation works for the same reason. The show is about ideas, so showing elaborate characters or things would be counter-productive. The essentials are all there anyway, with the characters drawn in the distinctive Shulz style and instantly recognizable in their animated personas.

Charlie and Snoopy decorate the tree in A Charlie Brown Christmas 1965
I love their hats.
Ratings for the first broadcast were spectacular, bringing in a 50 share, which is almost unheard of for a show like this. It won several awards and led to numerous other "Peanuts" specials and other programs. While "Peanuts" was popular in the comics at the time, this show was the first tv special and made the Charlie Brown and the other cultural icons. An amusing side-effect of the show was that aluminum Christmas trees, which had been very popular, disappeared from store shelves when Charlie Brown rejected them for his own tree.

The children singing in front of Snoopy's doghouse in A Charlie Brown Christmas 1965
Reminds me of the Whos in "How the Grinch Stole Christmas."
This is a top-notch production. If you are OK with the religious references, it is a must-see for families when it airs during the holiday season.

A Charlie Brown Christmas 1965


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