Saturday, 17 December 2016

Grinching About the Grinch

On Christmas Eve 1965, Hedda Hopper announced in her column that How the Grinch Stole Christmas would come to television in an animated half-hour after Chuck Jones and MGM cartoon head Les Goldman talked Ted Geisel into allowing it to happen.

50 years ago tomorrow, it did.

Actually, news of the Grinch special first appeared in Variety on December 23, 1965. It was buried in a story on the MGM cartoon studio that focused, instead, on a planned feature film called The Phantom Tollbooth. Whatever your thoughts about the latter, Grinch turned out to be superior in every way to the dry Tollbooth. And it certainly fared better than Goldle Lox And The Three Yahns, one of two animated TV pilots that MGM shot. It never sold; neither did the other one about an anti-Superman character.

Like all TV specials that air annually, Grinch has graduated from a neat little animated tale to a staple of pop culture. We all know the Grinch song. The word “Grinch” has become part of the language. And it’ll remain that way so long as the cartoon can continue to turn a profit on TV; ironic, considering the altruistic message of Dr. Seuss’ story (incidentally, a Grinch LP was released simultaneously with the special).

Grinch marked the ascendancy of Chuck Jones in the realm of publicity, thanks due to winning the Oscar for The Dot and the Line. Interviews when the cartoon was being made have an air of “Oh, that guy!” when you read his name. The Grinch solidified his reputation and led to a vice-presidency at ABC, his own production company, and eventually, an elder statesmanship in the world of animation (as cynical as this sounds, the fact he lived to a ripe old age helped).

So, let’s go back 50 years and read one of the many advance stories in the press, along with a bunch of reviews. The story below was syndicated by the TV Key service of King Features.
Dr. Seuss' Grinch In Christmas Treat
By CHARLES WITBECK

Special Press Writer
Hollywood—The Grinch, a red-eyed, green-faced man who hates Christmas is the Dr. Seuss villain in a CBS color cartoon special, "How the Grinch Stole Christmas," pre-empting Lassie, Sunday night, Dec. 18 on CBS.
It's possible the old sour puss with his too-small heart will charm the adult viewers with his disgust over the noise and the commercial aspects of the holiday. The Grinch story is the first by the world's largest selling author of children books, Ted Geisel, pen name Dr. Seuss, to appear on television, and it will be followed by others if Grinch and his faithful dog, Max, don't foul up the grand opening.
Mr. Geisel doesn't expect this to happen, because he's been working hand-in-hand on the show with old friend and director Chuck Jones, the cartoon man who walked off with his third Oscar last spring for the short, "The Dot and the Line," so if viewers claim any distortions from the book they can blame the author. "The book has so many characters in the illustrations they could cause a problem in animation," admitted director Jones, while author Geisel looked on, "but I don't think we cut one scene."
• • •
EXCEPT for patches of red in the book illustrations, the Grinch story was devoid of color, so Jones and Geisel put heads together and came up with a red-eyed, green complexioned Christmas hater, and immediately thought of Boris Karloff, as the man most likely to sound like the old grump who lives atop Mount Crumpit, just north of Whoville, as he schemes to keep the holiday from coming to all the Whos in the village below.
The 79-year-old Karloff agreed to the part without hesitation. He knew he had a perfect Grinch voice.
The animated cartoon show celebrates the return after a long absence of author Geisel to the film world and story boards. Before slipping off to La Jolla, Cal., to concentrate on Suess books, Geisel thought up Gerald McBoing-Boing and had a hand in the early Ford animated commercials.
"I learned the film short and documentary business under Frank Capra (famed movie director of the '30s)," said the author. "And I met Chuck here during World War 2 when we were stationed at the Hal Roach Studios making Army SNAFU films. Chuck is a fine fellow; he's the only person I know who lets me write lyrics."
• • •
PROUD LYRIC writer Geisel has three songs on the special, all filled with typical Seuss sounding words. One effort compares to the chorus of "Adeste Fideles," and the author doubts if the kids will notice the difference between it and his lyrical foolishness. He expects grownups to nod and say, "I remember that song." The big number, the showstopper, is "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch," and Geisel, who writes to please himself, grinned with appreciation, listening to a recording of the score.
The character of Grinch came easily to the writer some years ago, as he was grumbling about Christmas and its commercial oversell.
"Every grownup hates Christmas from that aspect," said the author, so he sat down and wrote a little story, getting the grumps out of his system. Of course, Dr. Seuss doesn't fight a great tradition, and his holiday story has a happy ending.
Geisel left Hollywood for the quiet, conservative beach town of La Jolla 15 years ago with the intention of writing and fishing, and he says he still lacks the time to fish. Presently, Ted serves on the town council, arguing about the proper placing of high-rise buildings, and he has gone into the publishing business as well.
Geisel hasn't written a book in a year, but assures his public there is no cause for alarm; Seuss hasn't run dry, he's merely been engrossed in other projects like the Christmas special.
The Grinch special has become a Christmas TV tradition, and rightly so, just like A Charlie Brown Christmas. And like the Peanuts special, the Grinch debut wasn’t without its critics. Hal Humphrey of the Los Angeles Times, who had written a favourable advance story on the cartoon, complete with quotes from Chuck Jones, had this to say the day after watching the special:
‘Grinch’ Disappointing Christmas Special
As unfashionable as it is to be an old grouch so close to Christmas, I’ll have to risk it and say that the Dr. Seuss debut on CBS-TV Sunday night with his cartoon story of “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” was a disappointment. It is my opinion that the book was better than this expensive half-hour color TV adaptation proved to be. Perhaps I was expecting too much, knowing that 10 months of labor and $315,000 went into it. Mr. Grinch made a poor heavy despite Boris Karloff’s wonderfully narrated warning, “You’re a vile one, Mr. Grinch, you’ve got termites in your smile.” He seemed more diabolical to me in the Dr. Seuss book. The animation, under the supervision of Chuck Jones and Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss) was well done, as were the Albert Hague special music and Geisel’s lyrics. But put all together, the result was much too mild, and I suspect the usually action-hungry small viewers may have shared my feeling.
Newsday wasn’t impressed, either. Poor Eugene Poddany’s arrangements came in for specific criticism.
‘Grinch’ Fails To Steal Hearts
By Barbara Delatiner

That Dr. Seuss is a hero to parents of young children is a fact of early academic life. His humor and sophisticated touches makes reading and rereading the same books almost a treat, not the usual treatment. That he is a hero to kids, too, can’t be disputed either. His brand of silliness is just silly enough to tickle the most undeveloped funny bones.
With such a formidable legion of fans, CBS took its chances last night attempting to transfer one of Dr. Seuss’ contemporary classics, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas.” to the small screen. That the half-hour special even approached success is a tribute primarily to the skills of the animators. The cartoon recreation of Dr. Seuss’ zany world inhabited by preposterous creatures was accomplished with imaginative zeal. Everybody looked and moved like all good Seussians should. Unfortunately, the text about a modern Scrooge bent on destroying the holiday spirit in Whosville was more elusive. Though adapted by Dr. Seuss—Ted Geisel in mufti—and intoned by Boris Karloff with the proper amount of menacing whimsy, the gentle attack on the commercialization of Christmas failed to come off. Maybe it’s the personal touch that maes these fables so charming. Second half, they aren’t half as funny. Then, maybe the brassy songs, one replete with a few words not normally in kiddy vocabularies, dimmed enjoyment. Perhaps the embellishments needed to expand the short book into 30 minutes of TV time killed what had been originally a fragile thing. Whatever the cause, “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” was a disappointment to adults and children alike. If, as reported, more of Dr. Seuss will become fodder for the tube, let’s hope future forays will retain the delicate air.
And from Jack Gould, the man who called The Flintstones “an inked disaster,” came this opinion in the New York Times:
The old meanie Grinch and his attempt to steal Christmas from the gentle folk of Who-ville were translated to the television screen last night in an animated film supervised by Dr. Theodore Seuss Geisel, far better-known as Dr. Seuss.
The thought behind “How the Grinch Stole Christmas” is so enduring and so badly needs constant saying that is seems Scrooge-like even to hint at the slightest reservation. Particularly for television, a reminder that Christmas is something of the heart and not of the general store is to be treasured under almost any conditions.
Last night on the Columbia Broadcasting System, viewers saw how Dr. Seuss and Chuck Jones, the animator, elected to show how the Grinch was sublimely thwarted in his larceny on Christmas Eve; his dark preditations had no effect on the seasonal songs of Who-ville the next morning, and the Grinch himself was to succumb to the pleasures of giving rather than taking. The half-hour film was offered early in the evening as a service to youngsters.
It just may be that the Grinch is a creation that should be left undisturbed on the printed page, where the graceful simplicity of the language of Dr. Seuss weaves its own wonder and where the reader’s imagination can make its own contribution. At all events, this literal representation of the Grinch in animated form fell a trifle short of expectation. In the preoccupation with the hurried narration, the spell was not quite there, perhaps because there was inadequate time to savor the delights of Who-ville as counterpoint to the grumpiness of the Grinch.
The animation by Mr. Jones was very good and Boris Karloff was both the voice of the Grinch and the narrator. One irony in the presentation was not to be overlooked. The testimony that Christmas is an occasion when mundane concerns really are secondary to the joys of the spirit was not exactly reinforced by the many commercials on behalf of all-service banks.
Not all the critics were negative. Clay Gowran of the Chicago Tribune wrote: “The cartooning, as might be expected with Jones at the helm, was excellent, a lively merger of Walt Disney and Rube Goldberg. Color quality was superb. And old meany Karloff was just right as the off-camera voice for the tale about mean old Grinch, who first hated and then learned to love Yuletime.”
Roy Shields of the Toronto Star chirped: “‘How the Grinch Stole Christmas’ made a perfect cartoon special last night. It was so faithful to the artistry of Dr. Seuss that even the colors were his kind of colors.” Variety called it “a literate half-hour” adding “Animation excellently captured the spirit or [sic] Seuss’ fictional characters and had enough farcical sight gags so the kiddies geared to standard cartoon fare wouldn’t feel left out.” And Cynthia Lowry of the Associated Press opened her column with “With delicate animation of the characters and a chilling narration by Boris Karloff, ‘The Grinch Who Stole Christmas’ lost nothing and even gained something in its transition from the printed page to the television screen.”

50 years of TV airings have shown which of the critics was correct.

6 comments:

  1. There are rumors floating around that even Seuss himself didn't like the special, though I don't known if that is really true or not (he seemed to really enjoy Bakshi's The Butter Battle Book).

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  2. Chuck didn't please Walt Kelly with his next special, 1969's adaptation of Kelley's "Pogo", too cute, fey, etc. to be Pogo.

    Ward Kimball asked Walt Kelly how he'd managed to okay the special, which Walt denied having done:.."that SOB changed it after our last meeting."SC

    (Corrected due to spelling of "Kelly" as "Kelley" and citing Chuck when I should have "Ward"-ed..)

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    1. Oh. ironically, they both did voices for it..:)

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  3. The special does flirt around, but isn't overwhelmed, by the same type of excessive cuteness that tended to negatively impact Jones' post-Michael Maltese shorts at Warners and many of his Tom & Jerry efforts at MGM (it's also interesting that Irv Spector, who was the author of the most adult-themed cartoons on the East Coast while at Famous Studios, gets an 'additional story' credit here. Not sure if that might have helped limit any excessive cuteness, but Irv's son posted some of the story sketches to his webiste on his dad eight years ago).

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    1. It may be, JL, because the Grinch isn't a cute character and not prone to aw-gosh-shucks poses. And he pretty much dominates the cartoon. The dog is there for comic relief. The cuteness is limited to the girl and she doesn't really get a lot of screen time.

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  4. JL, I agree about Jones' excessive cuteness, which seems to start about 1957 and gets worse thereafter, with his Tom & Jerry efforts spiking off the charts. This is the one post-WB thing I can watch, and I still love it after 50 years. The cuteness works and for once, because he is constrained by someone else's story, he doesn't go crazy with it. I agree that Cindy Lou is a bit much, but really think all the dog bits work perfectly. Chuck still gets in his turned-up smiles on all of the characters, but again, they work here. I haven't missed a year of this special since it came out!

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