So many heady concepts had finally worked their way into mainstream American culture when Charles Schulz hit his stride with the Peanuts comic strip. Introspection was growing, and psychotherapy along with it. A questioning of the meaning of existence began to permeate a post WWII, post-McCarthy climate, and a simmering distrust of consumerism was also on the back burner. Comedy, as is well known, comes from pain, and there are few more striking ways to depict adult inner turmoil than through the glib, deadpan worldview of elementary school children. Schulz clearly had adults in mind when he wrote his strip, and his challenge with the cartoon TV specials was to tap into that laughable grown-up insecurity while still painting a canvas that kids would want to watch. Continued after the jump:
This new Warner DVD, featuring all six 1960’s half-hour Peanuts specials, from the premiere A Charlie Brown Christmas to It Was a Short Summer Charlie Brown, emerges as a fascinating artifact of a nation working out its angst through Charlie Brown, Linus, Lucy, Sally, Snoopy, Schroeder, Violet, Pigpen, Peppermint Patty and the rest. Though it loses its edge as it progresses, all of the segments here have something to recommend them, whether it is the deeper, more rewarding pleasures of Schulz’s subtle satire, or just a convincingly-portrayed childhood world. (Several of the short scenes showing children at play in various circumstances are infectiously joyful.) Even at its least challenging, this 2 DVD set seems like it would still captivate kids while giving their parents either a little chuckle or an overpowering sense of nostalgia, depending on how long said parents have been around.
It’s not surprising that Christmas and It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown are the standouts on the collection. After all, there is a reason these two have been rebroadcast on TV annually for over forty years. But it’s great to get a sense that they were part of a continuum, and that, probably, a new Peanuts special was something to look forward to back in the day. Given that most readers are familiar with these two granddaddies, suffice to say they still hold up, and have lost none of their ability to enchant. While Christmas is noted for its anti-commercialism message and its bucolic depiction of a pre-adolescent winter (Charlie Brown being called a blockhead not withstanding), Pumpkin is more loaded with laughs. Only Charles Schulz could come up with the concept of Linus summoning the Great Pumpkin by waiting in a pumpkin patch that he has deemed the most “sincere.” Plus, the Halloween episode features the wildly imaginative sequences of Snoopy’s fantasy: going behind enemy lines as a World War I flying ace. And Charlie Brown’s repeated phrase “I got a rock” used to describe his fate as a trick-or-treater taps right into the humor masking inner sadness that Schulz was so good at. (He is, by the way, the credited author on all six of the specials.)
The most constant punishing visited upon Good ‘Ol Charlie Brown occurs in Charlie Brown’s All Stars, in which he keeps coaching his baseball team to one embarrassing defeat after another and gets no end of flack for it from his teammates. (The sheer number of losses read aloud by team statistician Linus provides a rather big, painful guffaw.) But even though they ridicule and taunt him, Charlie is loyal: refusing to kick the women and Snoopy off the team in order to get an endorsement from a local merchant. You’re in Love Charlie Brown is a charming, protracted look at Charlie’s inability to approach the girl he has a crush on. Of all the specials, it is the most plot-driven, and it emerges as a standout because of it. It also features the memorable line, “There’s nothing like unrequited love to take all the flavor out of a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.” He’s Your Dog, Charlie Brown and It Was a Short Summer, Charlie Brown are the episodes never before released on DVD. Of the two, He’s Your Dog is the least inspiring, stretching out a thin premise (Snoopy needs obedience training and ends up getting it at Peppermint Patty’s house) but featuring Snoopy’s always-pleasurable attitude (all of this was pre-the introduction of Snoopy’s sidekick Woodstock). Short Summer is also a bit drawn out, depicting summer camp competitions between the boys and the girls, but it has a lot more knowing Schulz humor peppered throughout, such as Lucy imagining a future with her dear Beethoven-mad Schroeder in which they are impoverished and she is wringing out his laundry; Charlie Brown reciting scripture to gain strength before a meeting with the principal, and Linus declaring “I’m doomed,” as he heads off for camp, adding, “What if my mother and father move while I’m gone and don’t tell me?” And Charlie’s sister Sally, nervous about starting kindergarten, asks if she can get a “deferment.” Talk about childhood angst!
Of course, so many of the iconic treats that have become associated with the animated Peanuts are on display. There are the terrific voices: Peter Robbins as Charlie Brown and, in all but one of the episodes, Chris Shea as Linus and Sally Dryer as Lucy. Borrowing a turn from Warner Bros. cartoons, no adults ever appear visually (not even as the calves and feet that show up in the Warner product), however there is that amazing “other” voice: the muted trumpet that represents interactions with adults (“wah-wah-wah-waaaah-waaaah”). This bit of invention was stumbled upon by composer Vince Guaraldi, whose work supplies the other timeless aspect of these shows–the instantly-identifiable music.
From the recurring theme “Linus and Lucy” to “Skating” (from the Christmas show) and the “Christmastime is Here” song (lyrics by longtime series director Bill Melendez), Guaraldi’s jazz has become forever melded to Charlie Brown on TV, and adds to the class-act feel of the proceedings. Though the set is short on bonus materials (once again, the absence of a booklet, especially with a show so influenced by the history of Peanuts itself, seems a big oversight), there is a fascinating documentary about Guaraldi included. The Maestro of Menlo Park chronicles the pianist’s rise; from his breakthrough “Jazz Impressions of [the film] Black Orpheus” to his discovery by Melendez as the director heard Guaraldi’s hit “Cast Your Fate To the Wind” on a car radio, to his untimely death of a heart attack at age 47. Interviews with Guaraldi’s son and a host of fellow musicians (along with some energetic stock footage used to evoke the 60’s era) make for a fast-paced and informative doc. Some hints at Vince’s difficult moods, and the total lack of mention of his wife and family life help paint a portrait of, perhaps, a dark genius. If so, it is only appropriate that he should have fashioned such upbeat music for Charles Schulz’s hand-drawn creations: a crew of kids who remain some of the most delightful but subversively edgy comic strip characters of all time.