Friday, October 31, 2014

This is Halloween: It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!

 Angry, bruised clouds smeared across a sky filled with strange stars look down upon a bombed-out wasteland. A dog scrambles from one pile of rubble to another in the wreckage looking for a haven, while elsewhere, children flee from dark spirits pursuing them across a nightmare-scape. The world is empty of adults; the children are left to fend for themselves, forcing them to take on adult roles and grapple with concepts beyond their years. On paper, it seems yet another dystopic tale; in execution, it's one of the most beloved, gentlest Halloween tales ever produced.

There's at least a small bit of irony that one of the truly iconic Halloween stories, at least here in the US, is also one of the least terrifying.
Peanuts goes meta: Lucy pores through a TV Guide issue with a familiar figure on the cover.
Following up on the success of the previous December(of 1965)'s A Charlie Brown ChristmasIt's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, first aired in October 1966, drawn from a running series of Halloween-themed strips from the daily Peanuts comics. Starting in 1959, Charles Schulz began using a gag that was rather slight in premise, but which made him laugh: a kid who has mistaken Halloween for Christmas, and waits to be rewarded for his faith in the titular Santa Claus analog. Linus' letter to the Great Pumpkin encapsulates the entire concept, including an interesting notion about faith:

This is a different Linus than who appeared in A Charlie Brown Christmas. In that earlier story, Linus is a steady, faithful friend to Charlie Brown, level-headed and spiritually enlightened. As was often true in the daily comics, in the Christmas special Linus was one of the few Peanuts characters who did not ridicule or insult Charlie Brown. There, he accompanied Charlie Brown on his quest for a tree, and even defended the choice later when all the others had scorned it. Here, though, is a Linus who seems slightly befuddled and more quick to lash out, even at Charlie Brown.

Plus, he also catches serious air as he enjoys Charlie Brown's and Snoopy's leaf-raking handiwork...

...which provokes a rare show of fury by Charlie.

This is a fittingly odd cartoon all around. Many of the familiar faces act slightly out-of-character here, in keeping with the holiday that has so much to do with changing faces.

"A person should always choose a costume which is in direct contrast to her own personality." - Charles Schulz is having fun here with one of his strongest characters.
The narrative is almost leisurely, going off on tangents, yet somehow tying the threads back together. It is more a mood piece than a plot-driven story.

The moodiest and strangest sequence is Snoopy's World War I "flying ace" fantasy. Here he performs a pre-flight check on his "Sopwith Camel"...

...before going up and at 'em to engage von Richtofen's Flying Circus...
...almost immediately having to dodge furious flak barrages...
...and subsequently taunting and laughing at his opponents' lack of success...
...which is only a brief respite before he's raked by gunfire in a harrowing dogfight with the infamous Red Baron.
He is shot down...
...and miraculously survives a crash-landing...
...yet still has enough fighting spirit to curse his airborne opponent.
He scrambles across the French countryside...
...braving abandoned trenches in search of cover...
...until he chances upon a battered farmhouse that offers some shelter.
Clambering into a lighted window...
...he  slides down a curtain during the height of the Peanuts' Halloween party...
...before gazing impishly at the viewer.

The show evokes a mood that is decidedly different than its newspaper counterpart. In that regard, the "Big Three" of Peanuts holiday specials - A Charlie Brown Christmas, It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, and A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving - distinguish themselves as separate entities from, and, in some ways, transcend the comic strips. Distilling concepts and ideas from years' worth of daily strips and melding them into one (semi)coherent narrative, lends the specials a kind of gravitas that the strips alone could rarely match.

And let's not forget Sally Brown's brilliant disillusioned rant after missing out on "tricks and treats" because she chose to believe in Linus' assertions: "What a fool I was! I could have had candy, apples, and gum! And cookies and money and all sorts of things! But NO. I had to listen to you. You blockhead. What a fool I was." I really dig the structure of this monologue.
It seems strange, even to me, to use a word like "gravitas" for Peanuts cartoons, but it is appropriate. These specials deal with profound truths, even if they bury them in silliness and non sequiturs. Here, it is about faith in the face of adversity. Linus sticks to his beliefs even as he misses "tricks or treats," and is roundly laughed at, including, and uncharacteristically, by Charlie Brown.

Of course, Charlie Brown receives a good dose of instant karmic justice for this.
Even when his hopes are finally and conclusively dashed, Linus sees it not as the nonexistence of the Great Pumpkin, but rather as an indication that his faith has not been strong enough, that he chose the wrong pumpkin patch in which to await the arrival of the phantom gift-giver. It's a surprisingly complex concept for a kids' cartoon special.

Of course, even the most devout may make a Freudian slip that expresses an inner doubt.
I also wanted to mention another sequence that is unexpected in its tenderness, in which we see a character wearing yet another unaccustomed face.

Lucy awakens as the clock strikes 4AM.

She finds her brother's room empty.

Geared up against the early November chill, she finds Linus shivering in the pumpkin patch. This is one of the few instances I can recall of her face showing concern.
She leads the not-quite-conscious Linus home...
...where she lovingly readies him for bed...
...and tucks him in.
Her task over, the customary scowl returns.

It's a sweet, quiet moment for a character not known for being either sweet or quiet.

For me and many others I know, It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is an indispensable part of the Halloween tradition. There is no real hint of the supernatural, no real scares, yet somehow the spirit of the Halloween season is captured. It's a nice contrast to the increasingly hyperviolent and mega-gory takes on the season and holiday seen in TV, movies, and prefabricated "haunted houses."

Happy Halloween!


  1. Happy Halloween!

    This is a great write-up of an as-you-say indispensable holiday tradition. Few things catapult me back in time to how the holiday felt when I was the age of the characters than "Great Pumpkin." It ain't Halloween until I hear the Silver Shamrock theme song (and of course the Halloween theme) and see an advertisement for "Great Pumpkin." Long may this tradition hold sway over our fickle fellow citizens.

    Excellent screencapping, as well. I resisted the urge to change my facebook cover photo to that Snoopy-French-countryside pic. Well-chosen all around.

    That bit with Lucy rescuing her brother always gets me.

  2. Great post Jeff! Best analysis of the show I've ever read. I too am impressed with your screen captures.

  3. Awesome review of a truly iconic show! Nicely done!

    I've also noticed how Linus, Charlie Brown, and Lucy have scenes where they act out of character, especially the display of caring by Lucy toward Linus at the end. See, she's really a softy underneath that mouthy, rude exterior!

    I also love the moment where WW1 flying ace Snoopy rises out of the pumpkin patch causing Linus to faint. The sound that accompanies Snoopy's rise is pretty haunting and spooky, especially given the pumpkin patch locale.

    Happy Halloween! :-)

    1. Thanks for the comment! It's most appreciated. It even allowed me to catch a typo that I'd missed for a year - referring to Lucy as Sally! Yikes! She's precisely the character not to antagonize.