Thursday, December 25, 2008

Film #99: A Charlie Brown Christmas

The 99th film I'm profiling isn't a theatrical product--it was made for CBS in 1965. It has been repeated as the centerpiece of every Christmas for nearly 50 years, and must surely rank as the most watched (and treasured) examples of animation art ever produced. Thus I think it deserves its place as my favorite short film of all time.

A Charlie Brown Christmas, a 25-minute animate piece based on Charles Schulz's masterful comic strip, is completely unlike anything I've ever seen; once it's on-screen, it's utterly successful in setting a mood all its own. There are two elements, initially, that distinguish it: the music by Vince Guaraldi and his trio (which still stands as the finest Christmas soundtrack, especially with its delightful opening song "Christmas Time is Here"); and the indescribable vocal performances by the mostly amateur kids Schulz and producer/animator Bill Melendez chose to represent these characters. Incredibly, both were originally nixed by the CBS executives, who not only felt that adults should have been cast in these roles and that the eventually-million-selling score was too boppy for the mainstream, but that the whole piece would be better sullied up with a laugh track. This shows how out-of-touch these execs were, because it's the resplendent SOUND of A Charlie Brown Christmas that really grabs our hearts.

Originally sponsored by Coca-Cola (who bizarrely tried to fit in a few now-deleted product placements in its first airings), this half-hour piece follows Charlie Brown as he battles a holiday depression brought on by the commercialization of Christmas. Visiting Lucy's psychiatric stand, he's cajoled into being the director of the kids' Christmas play (the way his face lights up when Lucy suggests this is pure joy). Charlie Brown arrives on stage as Schroeder and the gang are dancing madly about. (The dances each of these eight kids are doing have become cultural touchstones; these are some terrific moves!)

As director, Charlie Brown struggles to get his cast's attention but when it's clear they're not getting anywhere near discovering the true meaning of Christmas, Charlie Brown determines the play's necessity: a big Christmas tree as the stage's centerpiece. It's here that Charlie sets out with Linus to find the perfect tree. But instead of getting a big pink artificial doo-dad at the local lot (as Lucy suggests), Charlie Brown falls in love with an anemic-looking baby tree with barely enough branches on it to hang one ornament on ("Gee, do they still make wooden Christmas trees?" Linus exclaims). It's this little tree that becomes the symbol for what Christmas is all about: a pure, unadulterated love for the most forsaken of beings.

Even after seeing it hundreds of times, I decided to pop in my old 1985 VHS copy of the special this Christmas morning. Being a lifelong fan of Charles Schulz's work, I knew I would enjoy watching A Charlie Brown Christmas again. But I was surprised at how many times I howled during the piece. Most of these laughs come from Snoopy, who's first seen in the body of the special sitting atop his doghouse, reading the paper and literally crunching bones one by one. I treasure the way he imitates on stage a sheep, a cow, a penguin, a vulture, and finally a fussbudgeting Lucy. And when he's caught dancing atop Schroeder's piano, the music abruptly stops and, as he's being stared down by Schroeder and Lucy, the beagle turns red (through his fur) and sheepishly slinks away. I'm telling you, this is comedy.

Child actor Peter Robbins played Charlie Brown all throughout the 1960s, up until the comic strip's 1969 big-screen outing A Boy Named Charlie Brown. His impassioned, strangely gravelly delivery IS the way Charlie Brown is supposed to sound, and unfortunately, when Robbins quit doing the voice, he'd so embodied the role that none of his replacements could measure up. Ditto Chris Shea (brother of actor Eric Shea, most famous for being the kid in 1972's The Poseidon Adventure). Shea's lispy personification of Linus Van Pelt has precisely the intelligence, humor and warmth this classic character deserves. I swear, when Linus takes the stage ("Lights, please!") and quotes from the King James Bible, with that poetry echoing through a quiet, cavernous gosh, I tear up every time. This surely must be the most effective use of Bible verse in pop culture:

"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, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, 'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will toward men.'"

The utter silence after this moment passes is complete sublimity. Blanket in tow, Linus approaches his depressed friend and sagely says "That's what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown." (Amazingly, the CBS execs even wanted to delete this scene, because they felt no one would sit still for a Bible lesson. But Charles Schulz stood firm: "If we don't say it, who will?")  I always loved Charles Schulz for his obvious faith, and for his firm but delicate way of transmitting it to all his comics' fans; it's the one place where no one, even unbelievers, can submit a complaint against such perfectly conveyed passion. 

I could go on and on about the merits of A Charlie Brown Christmas--about the unique animation, and the film's emotional fun. I suspect that, for the rest of my life, I will rarely let a Yuletide go by without enjoying it at least once. That there are millions upon millions who agree with me surely must be the highest praise that can be bestowed upon it. Winner of the 1966 Emmy and a prestigious Peabody Award to boot, this moving short film is a masterpiece if ever there was one.

NOTE: The amazing Happiness is a Warm Blanket, Charlie Brown, from 2011, produced and co-written by Shulz's son Craig, is a sign that things are gonna get better for this series. 

No comments: