Saturday, 20 December 2014

The Critic Who Didn’t Like ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas’

There were three things that I thought as I watched “A Charlie Brown Christmas” in 1965—that I had read some of the routines in the Peanuts strip in the paper, that the music was really odd for a cartoon and that I could read the lines better than some of those kids.

But that was all minor. I really liked the special. I was a big Peanuts fan at the time. I had put together scrapbooks of Peanuts comics I had cut out of one of the city papers. I even convinced my dad to let me use his reel-to-reel tape machine and put up a mike next to the TV speaker to record the Christmas special.

“A Charlie Brown Christmas” won a Peabody, launched seemingly endless hours of Peanuts on TV, and was beloved by everyone.

Okay, not everyone.

I’ve gone back through a bunch of newspapers to see, after its debut 49 years ago, what the critics thought. And the TV columnist for the Associated Press, who had panned a Danny Thomas special in her previous column, wasn’t charmed by the animated Charlie Brown.

Cartoon Cuties Lose Some Of Charm on TV
By CYNTHIA LOWRY
AP TV-Radio Writer

NEW YORK (AP) — Worried Charlie Brown, aggressive Schroeder, insecure Linus — all the inhabitants of the delightful, satiric comic strip by cartoonist Charles Schulz were participants in a Christmas special on CBS Thursday night.
And by some reverse magic, the moment the little pen-line characters were animated and moved off the printed page, and acquired voices, they lost most of their special, piquant charm.
Thus “A Charlie Brown Christmas” became an explicit demonstration of the sad truth that some good things are better left alone—particularly in cases when about half their charm is in the eye of the beholder and in his imagination, too.
Charlie Brown was an infinitely sadder, appealing and sympathetic little character when his admirers were able to fill out his personality with some of their own doubts and fears. Lucy’s destructive manner and bossy ways were much more deadly when the readers were able to identify her with humans of their acquaintance.


With that, the writer turned her attention to weekend pro football games on the tube for the rest of the column.

However, United Press International’s counterpart had a different opinion, though much of his column looks like it comes from transcribing the plot from a CBS news release.

‘Charlie Brown Christmas’ Gets Good Point Across
By RICK Du Brow
HOLLYWOOD (UPI) — The comic strip known as “Peanuts” staked out a claim to a major television future Thursday night on CBS-TV with a half-hour animated special about the commercialization of Christmas.
The program, “A Charlie Brown Christmas”—named after one of the chief characters in the strip—was referred to by CBS-TV as “The first of a planned series of Charlie Brown holiday specials,” and the idea of similar encores is thoroughly welcome.
In brief, Thursday night's offering tried, with humor and gentle world-weariness, to recall the real meaning of Christmas. The executive producer was Lee Mendelson, who was responsible for the network documentary “A Man Named Mays,” about Willie Mays, and the director of animation was Bill Melendez, with the production being made in cooperation with United Feature Syndicate.
The plot, so to speak, of Thursday night's half-hour is indicated as follows: “Everywhere Charlie Brown goes the shadow of commercialism and greed obscures what he knows exists somewhere, if only he can find it: The real Christmas.
Plot Thickens
“In desperation Charlie visits Lucy, the little girl ‘psychiatrist,’ who prescribes ‘involvement’ in the holiday activities and appoints him director of the neighborhood Christmas play. Thrilled by the idea of being leader of the pageant, Charlie soon finds only added disillusionment as his little friends concern themselves with pleas to Santa Claus, money-making schemes and rock ‘n’ roll carols.”
Well, you get the idea. And Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, Snoopy the dog, Schroeder and the others were on hand to flesh it out And Charles Schulz, creator of “Peanuts,” did the writing, which was a very smart move.
At one point, Lucy tells “Beethoven wasn't so great. Have you ever seen his picture on bubble gum cards?” At another point, asked what she really wants for Christmas, Lucy answers: “Real estate.” And another time she notes that it's well known that Christmas is commercial, and that it is run by a big Eastern syndicate.
Needless to say, Charlie Brown finally gets his message across. But, as might be expected, that crazy-silly-wonderful dog Snoopy was the scene-stealer every time he appeared — playing the guitar, mocking Lucy or dancing like a swinger. His doghouse, by the way, was wildly decorated with all those ugly lights and blinking designs that human beings also have been known to use on their homes at Christmas time.


Within a week of the special, CBS announced it would broadcast two more Peanuts half-hours sponsored by Coca-Cola, one about baseball and the other possibly about the Great Pumpkin.

Incidentally, “A Charlie Brown Christmas” wasn’t Charles Schulz’s first go-around with the holiday season. In the December 1963 edition of Good Housekeeping, there was an “exclusive bonus book” called “Charlie Brown Christmas Stocking.” And Variety announced on October 27, 1963 that World Publishing would be out with a book called “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” conveniently available for purchase after the charming TV special aired. After all, what’s Christmas without making a buck?

9 comments:

  1. The drawing of Charlie Brown with the sad Christmas tree wasn't even drawn by Schulz. It was taken from the first book that was drawn by cartoonist Dale Hale (page 37).

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    1. I never would have guessed. Bravo, Dale. Perfect drawing. (I guess that explains the lack of Schulz' signature).

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  2. 1965 was almost 50 years ago, not almost 40.
    Otherwise, great post.

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  3. Some TV critics are like that. Robert Strauss, who wrote for the ASBURY PARK PRESS from 1988 through '96, wrote a cynical, scathing review of the 1956 "I LOVE LUCY CHRISTMAS SPECIAL" when it was initially rebroadcast on CBS in December 1989. The majority of TV critics at the time LOVED the special, with some praising CBS for "rediscovering" it. NOT STRAUSS. He seemed more interested in demonstrating his creative writing abilities than concentrating on the TV show he was supposed to be focusing on {and he did that often}. Here's a sample from that review:

    “'The I Love Lucy Christmas Special' is only crassly sentimental, silly and poorly done. No doubt Lucille Ball whined to Desi Arnaz, 'I need a slow week. Let’s do an easy Christmas thing and you pick out some stuff we did a few years back.'
    'Wheech wonz do wee do?', wheezed Desi in mock Spanglish.
    'I don’t care. How about trying the least humorous ones and see if we can get laughs this time around?', giggled Lucy maniacally.
    Since 'The I Love Lucy Christmas Special' is one of the first prime-time Christmas retrospectives, it may be a classic lab case for why such things should be trashed forever......"

    Strauss later taught "Non-Fiction Creative Writing" at the University of Pennsylvania.

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  4. Fantagraphics Books reprinted the "Charlie Brown's Christmas Stocking" supplement two years ago as a cute "pocket-size" book.

    Amusing how the cast drawing from the first ad was somewhat outdated by the time of the special. Note the late '50s /early '60s drawing style and the toddler version of Sally.

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    1. Aha! I just noticed Frieda's cat, Faron, peeking out behind Charlie Brown (very hard to see). That would place this artwork squarely from 1961, since the character never appeared after that year.

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  5. That critic was hardly the only person who disliked the special. It's well-documented that CBS execs at the first screening thought it was terrible and figured it would be only a one-off special, never dreaming that America would fall in love with it.

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  6. 12/21/14
    RobGems.ca Wrote:
    Boo on those TV critics like Lowrey and Strauss; Here it is over 58 years later after the Lucy Christmas special and 49 years later after the Charlie Brown Christmas special and their both considered iconic TV specials. I guess you can't please everybody. The TV executive brass at CBS were not initially impressed with Charlie Brown either, but, they have been proven wrong too. The special wouldn't have been the same without Vince Guaraldi's music (one of their negative traits about the special.)

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  7. The "Christmas special" was intended to be shown ONCE- Lucy said it was a Christmas gift "for those who wanted to see the baby shows again"- meaning that since the series was not generally repeated at that time, most of the "special" consisted of highlights from the "baby episodes". And it was NEVER included on network and syndicated repeats. It was "rediscovered" by CBS in 1989.....and because they were hungry for better ratings at the time, they decided to show it for the first time in 33 years.

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