You’re An Institution, Charlie Brown

The cultural footprint of Charles Schulz’s Peanuts is unlike anything else. For the second half of the 20th century, from 1950 to 2000, Schulz’s creation dominated the comics page, becoming the most popular comic strip of all time and exerting a huge influence on nearly all subsequent comic strips.

Peanuts’ appeal was universal: It was beloved by young and old, by the intelligentsia as well as the masses; it was the definition of mainstream, yet it was also embraced by the counterculture. It was bitterly pessimistic yet never succumbed to the despair and nihilism of, say, Dilbert or Pearls Before Swine.


Schulz’s Christian milieu was an integral part of the world of Peanuts. The strip is peppered with biblical and other religious references, yet it never comes across as preachy or sectarian. Partly this is because of the strip’s existential angst and honesty about the characters’ foibles and insecurities. Faith was taken for granted, but that didn’t mean the characters had it all together. Linus periodically quoted the Bible, but he was a basket case without his security blanket—and his strange, sad devotion to the Great Pumpkin was a parable of debilitating religious pathology.


The first Peanuts adaptation, and the best, is the celebrated 1965 holiday special A Charlie Brown Christmas, Made on a shoestring budget and dismissed as a disaster by everyone involved before it aired, A Charlie Brown Christmas, was an instant critical and popular success and went on to win an Emmy and a Peabody Award.


That first special’s dodgy origins are legendary. Schulz and producer Lee Mendelson had almost no time to throw together an outline for sponsor Coca-Cola, and barely six months to complete the project. Above all everybody but Schulz—Mendelson, Melendez, CBS, Coca-Cola—was against Linus’ big speech about the true meaning of Christmas.


For nearly a full minute the story comes to a halt as Linus quotes six key verses from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 2, concluding, “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.” Mendelson argued that this overt religiosity had no place in a popular entertainment, but Schulz refused to back down. Defying the doubters, the result is a moment of purity and sincerity powerful to believers and non-believers alike.


The success of A Charlie Brown Christmas led to many more specials as well as four feature films (not counting the new computer-animated addition)—nearly all written by Schulz himself and mostly directed and/or produced by Melendez, who provided the voices for Snoopy and Woodstock. Most of these are pretty forgettable, though even the lesser ones are generally okay, with only a few clunkers. (Among the clunkiest: 1984’s It’s Flashbeagle, Charlie Brown.)


Along with A Charlie Brown Christmas, the other great classic is It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966), which includes Snoopy’s great fantasy adventure as the World War I Flying Ace and hapless Charlie Brown’s many-eyed ghost costume and trick-or-treat bag full of rocks. Above all there is the tragic spectacle of Linus, tied in knots by his crippling doctrine of the Great Pumpkin and the power of “sincerity”—a haunting picture of the dark side of faith, from fanatical apocalypticism and name-it-and-claim-it faith healing—and poor, betrayed Sally, led astray by Linus’ blind devotion.


Of the feature films, the best is again the first, A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1969). A decent anthology of Peanuts schtick, from Charlie Brown’s kite-flying woes to Lucy’s football-pulling trick, it also features Charlie Brown’s most memorable winning streak: a number of spelling bee victories that take him to the nationals in New York City, where, of course, he loses by missing a humiliatingly ironic word.


For animation fans, A Boy Named Charlie Brown is by far the most visually interesting and formally inventive of any Peanuts adaptation, with a number of boldly abstract musical sequences—from a graphical red-white-and-blue stars-and-stripes display accompanying the pre-game rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner to a sequence with Snoopy skating in Rockefeller Center, alternately imagining himself serenely skating on a rural pond and in in a rough hockey game against silhouettes of live-action players.


The highlight is a majestic Fantasia-like sequence accompanying Schroder’s rendition of part of Beethoven’s Sonata Pathétique. The world fades away as Schroder loses himself in his master’s music; colors grow intense and painterly; musical staves and notes swirl in the background.


Schroder’s piano slowly becomes larger and grander, decked with candlesticks and manuscripts. What looks like church spires and crosses appear, followed by colonnades with gothic arches and figures in some kind of religious procession, variously bearing staves, crosses, banners, or candles.


There are gravestones, stained glass, and ocean waves; German landscapes, cityscapes and statues; glimpses of Beethoven himself at different points in his life; and finally angels and a glimpse of a mottled, deathlike face. It’s an extraordinary testament to the power of pop art to achieve something more mysterious and evocative than we expect.


I wish I could report that Snoopy Come Home (1972)—notable for its memorable lyric songwriting—was a worthy follow-up. Alas, revisiting it as an adult, I find it a disappointing collection of Peanuts’ weaknesses with few of the strengths. The scripting is slack; some early slapstick violence between Snoopy and the van Pelts (Linus and Lucy) drags on too long and too nastily, and there are tiresome stretches of Snoopy and Woodstock having very little to do en route to find Snoopy’s original owner, Lila, now in the hospital. The underlying cruelty of Peanuts, occasionally too sharp in A Boy Named Charlie Brown and elsewhere, becomes glaring here.


Although at times Peanuts tipped too far, its painful moments were essential to its message and its appeal. Peanuts told us all the hard truths our parents and teachers never did: that life gives you lemons and you can’t always make lemonade; that unrequited love is misery; that one terrible mistake can haunt you forever. But it also told us that even when the worst happens, the world doesn’t end. And even in difficult or unpromising circumstances, there are moments of grace, beauty, and goodness—moments that offer a vision of hope, if we have the faith to see it. 

Film & Television
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