Five for the Record: “It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.”

A recurring feature in which I take something I enjoy but have not thought deeply about, and force myself to state five reasons why I like it.

Today’s subject: The third in the lengthy series of Peanuts TV specials, and one of the Big Three that still get shown every year. (I wrote about another one of the Big Three a few years ago, so why not this one too?) Originally aired Oct. 27, 1966.

And here’s why I like it:

1. The silence. In the writeup linked above, I gave mad points to A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving for the way it uses silence at the end. (Or, to be perfectly accurate, the way it goes without speech. Vince Guaraldi’s music is happening all the while, of course.)

Likewise, we get almost two musical minutes into Great Pumpkin before anybody says anything. And it works fine. You just, y’know, watch the damn TV, and everything you need to know explains itself — including the relationship between Linus and Lucy.

If they made this special tomorrow, I bet those two minutes would be crammed down into 30 seconds, and I bet those 30 seconds would be full of  unnecessary explanatory dialogue. (“Gee, Lucy, it’s almost Halloween! What a beautiful day!” “Quiet, Linus! We’re going to find the world’s best pumpkin.”)

2. The fussbudget’s redemption. The scene in which Lucy gets up at 4 a.m., leads her brother back indoors, and tucks him in is among the most heartwarming in the Peanuts universe — rivaling even Linus’s “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown” speech in A Charlie Brown Christmas.

In fact, it’s maybe even more touching because it comes from someone who’s usually grumpy and fussy. (She’s visibly angry about having to do this errand, but she goes out in the cold and does it anyway. Probably not for the first time.)

While my memory of Peanuts strips is not what it used to be, I can’t remember ever seeing this event happen in one of the newspaper strips. Its presence in the show defeats the perception, which can sometimes settle on a veteran Peanuts fan, that the TV specials are just stitched-together animations of the strips. (If anyone knows of a strip in which Lucy guides a groggy Linus in from the pumpkin patch, let me know; I’d love to (re-)read it.)

The sight of Linus in his sparsely decorated little boy’s room is affecting too. The surroundings suggest to us that either the Van Pelt family doesn’t have enough money to buy stuff, or that Linus is a monastic old soul who, unlike most little kids, hasn’t packed his room full of posters, banners, stuffed toys, books, baseball cards, beanbags, goldfish bowls, dirty laundry, etc.

(The sparseness of Linus’s room might not have been intended to be a telling detail. Maybe the graphic artists drew it that way just to make life simpler for themselves. I choose to read into it.)


3. Drawing on Charlie Brown’s head. This is not my favorite moment, I guess. But it represents Peak Peanuts Cruelty, which is quite a statement for a franchise built in part on kids’ inhumanity to kids. Not getting a valentine, or having people invite themselves to your house for turkey on Thanksgiving, is one thing; getting your body violated in humiliating fashion is kind of another thing entirely.

(The scene also raises a canonical wrinkle, since — as per Charles Schulz — Charlie Brown was not originally intended to be bald, but towheaded blond. I guess Schulz waved the scene through, so who am I to argue?)

4. The kids make their own costumes. I assume this was true to reality in 1966 — or, since the creative genius behind the show was a 40-something man, it may have been more based in Schulz’s childhood as the son of a barber in St. Paul, Minnesota.

Either way, there are no plastic-garbed Beatles or James Bonds or astronauts in the group (and no Green Berets either) … just witches and ghosts in (largely) home-cooked costumes. I have no idea how accurate that still was in 1966, but I find that to be an appealingly retro touch.

As a child of the late ’70s and early ’80s, I remember my own costumes being roughly evenly split between homemade getups — a water pistol and a jacket and I was James Bond — and those flammable, cheaply made boxed thingies everyone associates with that time period.

1978. I’m the phantom; he’s the spaceman.

5. An ending that breaks the mold. A Charlie Brown Christmas ends happily. A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving ends happily. Lesser-known Peanuts specials from the same time period, like He’s Your Dog, Charlie Brown and You’re In Love, Charlie Brown, end on high notes too.

But this special ends with Charlie Brown pissing off Linus, and Linus stopping just short of going upside Charlie Brown’s head as he argues for the continued existence of the Great Pumpkin.

This is good because:
(a) it shows that these specials weren’t completely formulaic, or at least not yet;
(b) Schulz and company didn’t force a happy ending as a sop to Dolly Madison Zingers and your local Coca-Cola bottlers, who probably would have liked one;
(c) it gives us a view into Linus’s psyche — the aspiring martyr, battered but unbent — and he’s an interesting enough character that he deserves that look.

(Walk, believer, walk; your work ain’t never done.)


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