-->
Reviews

The John Frankenheimer Collection

The Manchurian Candidate

The rather complex ideological issues and unique sense of aesthetics that Frankenheimer infused in his films can be fully appreciated in this collection.


The John Frankenheimer Collection

Director: John Frankenheimer
Cast: Burt Lancaster, Dina Merrill, Frank Sinatra, Laurence Harvey, Janet Leigh, Paul Scofield, Michael Simon, Jean Reno, Jonathan Price
Distributor: MGM Video
MPAA rating: N/A
Subtitle: The Manchurian Candidate / The Train / The Young Savages / Ronin
First date: 1961
US DVD Release Date: 2008-01-22

In his prime, acclaimed director John Frankenheimer (1930-2002) was rightfully acknowledged as the “Master of the Political Thriller”. Such a title was completely justified on the grounds that most of his films have strong ideological subtexts that explore the ambiguity of the perceived political identity of the protagonists. In addition, Frankenheimer’s movies present an incisive criticism to a variety of social and political issues.

The rather complex ideological issues and unique sense of aesthetics that Frankenheimer infused in his films can be fully appreciated in the four movies that make The John Frankenheimer Collection. Courtesy of MGM Home Entertainment, this outstanding DVD set offers pristine presentations of what arguably would be Frankenheimer’s best flicks: The Young Savages (1961), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), The Train (1964), and Ronin (1998).

Quite disappointing for the Frankenheimer fan is the fact that the last three films have just been repacked from their previous DVD incarnations without any extra content. To top it off, The Young Savages is only available on this set. Following what appears to be a nefarious DVD industry practice nowadays, the serious collector is forced to buy the entire set just to get one flick. And then, even though The Manchurian Candidate, The Train, and Ronin present truly insightful audio commentaries by Frankenheimer himself and other interesting extra features, The Young Savages has been released in a bare bones edition, where not even the theatrical trailer is to be found.

This is a real shame, as even though The Young Savages may not be as popular as other Frankenheimer’s films, it remains an outstanding piece of filmmaking. Just consider, as The Young Savages begins, a gang of four Italian American teenagers commandingly walk the streets of an impoverished section of upper Manhattan. And then, without any apparent motivation, they viciously stab and murder a blind Puerto Rican kid. New York prosecutor Hank Bell (Burt Lancaster) is assigned to the case. Undergoing strong pressure from his boss, the governor, and public opinion, Hank is expected to obtain a death sentence for the four young murderers.

In spite of The Young Savages being Frankenheimer’s second film, it already shows the distinctive visual and narrative structure that characterized most of his subsequent movies. Most of the visual style of this film, for instance, takes from the years of experience that Frankenheimer had working on TV. That is, The Young Savages has a documentary look that enhances the realism and bleakness of this brutal story of street violence and poverty. To this end, Frankenheimer and cinematographer Lionel Lindon constantly used deep focus shots taken on location in upper Manhattan.

Further enhancing the realism and documentary feel of The Young Savages is its literary source. Indeed, this film is based on Evan Hunter’s novel from 1959, A Matter of Conviction, which allegedly was inspired by actual events. The decision to change the title of the movie probably was driven by economics. Certainly The Young Savages brings to mind the many teenager exploitation flicks that were highly popular during the 1950s and 1960s. Manipulative and sensationalistic, these lurid and sexy films often reflected adolescent fantasies and quickly became a symbol for the youth culture of the era. In particular, The Young Savages feels rather close to Paul Stanley’s Cry Tough (1959), which depicts a grim story of gang rivalry in Spanish Harlem.

The Young Savages

However, in spite of its title and obvious iconography, The Young Savages is really far from being an exploitative teenager flick. As a matter of fact, this film firmly reflects the title of its source novel. That is, the central point of The Young Savages is not so much the life of the teenagers implicated in the murder, but about how Hank has to thoroughly question the foundations of his moral beliefs. In doing so, Hank has to confront the law institution that he represents, a well as public opinion.

Such an act of introspection is brought forward as Hank investigates the murder. He quickly finds that the accused, the policemen, and the witnesses blatantly lie or hide vital information in order to selfishly serve their own aspirations, desires, wishes, and political agendas. One way or another, all the characters are ultimately in conflict with the rules and conventions of society. Making a good fit to the original title of its source novel, Frankenheimer shows in The Young Savages how beliefs and principles are completely relative, even though society imposes absolute and unambiguous moral values and civil codes.

Furthermore, in what would become a palatable trademark of Frankenheimer’s films, The Young Savages makes evident the ambiguity of appearances and the blatant superficiality of a person’s looks. For example, Hank eventually finds out that the murdered blind Puerto Rican kid was a brutal warlord and a pimp for his younger sister. And furthermore, one of the accused teenagers did not even use his knife in the attack, but he just wanted to maintain the facade of a tough gang member.

However, in The Young Savages Frankenheimer did not want to merely arouse the viewer to feel compassion for the victims and the killer. Instead, this film shows how the complex social and economic problems that haunted America in those years -- racism, gang violence, ethnic antagonisms, delinquency, poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, and a deep class segregation -- had a costly toll across all segments of society.

The Manchurian Candidate

The theme of a killer as a victim was further explored by Frankenheimer in The Manchurian Candidate, which may well be his most popular flick. A faithful adaptation of Richard Condon’s 1959 novel, The Manchurian Candidate delves into the pernicious paranoia and xenophobia that engulfed the US during the Cold War years. In particular, this narrative examines in detail what would have happen if Senator Joseph McCarthy’s suspicion of nefarious communist spies deeply infiltrated in the American government had been a reality.

The Manchurian Candidate begins in 1952, right in the middle of the Korean War. Major Ben Marco (Frank Sinatra) and Sergeant Raymond Shaw (Lawrence Harvey) are leading a group of American soldiers to the battlefront when they are captured by the enemy and transported to an undisclosed location. Upon their return to the US, Major Marco nominates Sergeant Shaw for the Congressional Medal of Honor because of his bravery in combat, killing the enemy and saving most of his comrades. At the same time, Sergeant Shaw’s mother (Angela Lansbury) and stepfather, Senator John Iselin (James Gregory), use his status as war hero to further their political agenda to expose the communists hidden inside the US government.

It is eventually revealed, however, that the group of American soldiers was actually captured by the Chinese and the Russians, and was subject to brainwashing. Such a revelation takes place in a recurrent nightmare suffered by Major Marco. In what may well be the most intriguing showcase of a dream in a motion picture, Major Marco sees himself and his war buddies at the podium of the Garden Club Ladies, surrounded by old ladies talking about seeds and flowers. But as the camera rotates around the room, it is revealed that the US soldiers are in fact surrounded by Chinese and Russian officers and scientists.

In this nightmarish vision of Cold War America, the communists are able to infiltrate an obedient and ruthless killer, in the form of Sergeant Shaw, into the highest levels of the US government. Clearly, Senator Iselin’s illogical accusations are a blatant allegory for the witch-hunt that Senator McCarthy imposed on the country during the late 1940s and 1950s. However, in The Manchurian Candidate a sort of punch line emerges, when it is discovered that Senator Iselin is actually working for the communists.

The Manchurian Candidate proved to be a critical success upon its original theatrical release in 1962, but unfortunately it was a huge failure at the box office. Interestingly enough, this movie was not really popular until very recently, and as a matter of fact, for a long period of time it was a rather obscure film. It appears that the assassination of President John F. Kennedy in 1963 motivated Frankenheimer, Sinatra, and the other stakeholders of the film to withdraw the movie from circulation. As a consequence, this movie was nearly forgotten until 1987, when it was presented at a special screening at the New York Film Festival. With the renewed interest shown by the public, United Artists organized a second theatrical release in 1988, which went on to be a huge success.

With such a torrid background, it is perhaps ironic that today The Manchurian Candidate has become an intrinsic part of the myths, urban legends, and conspiracy theories that surround the Cold War years. Arguably, this film brought to the popular attention the possibility of brainwashing and mind control techniques which could be used to overthrow the US government. And even during the Clinton years some conspiracy theorists suggested that Monica Lewinsky was a brainwashed agent working for the Chinese with the goal of bringing shame to the US Presidency.

The complex psychological subtexts and political allegories found in The Manchurian Candidate were enhanced by Frankenheimer’s exceptional aesthetic sense. For instance, Frankenheimer frequently uses deep focus cinematography, chiaroscuro tonalities, and subjective shots, which he cleverly uses to reveal the tortuous psychological state of the protagonists. Thus, in terms of narrative and visual style, The Manchurian Candidate appears like an amalgamation of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941), Don Siegel’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), and Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).

In addition, with its incisive criticism and spoofing of McCarthyism and other Cold War anxieties, The Manchurian Candidate anticipated Stanley Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove (1964). Furthermore, The Manchurian Candidate features what may well be the fist karate fight shown in a major American motion picture (between Major Marco and Chunjin, a nefarious Chinese agent played with lots of gusto by Henry Silva).

Just as he did with The Young Savages, Frankenheimer portrays in The Manchurian Candidate the ambiguity and superficiality of external appearances. In this case, Sergeant Shaw is perceived by the public as a highly decorated American hero. Frankenheimer enhances this misconceived perception by constantly framing Sergeant Shaw around nationalistic and patriotic icons such as eagles, flags, and even a bust of President Abraham Lincoln. However, Sergeant Shaw also happens to be a deadly murderer working for a foreign government. In this regard, The Manchurian Candidate uses the brainwashing process to suggest how moral values and political ideas are so artificial, that they can be altered through chemical ways.

For a movie dealing with mind control issues, it should not be totally unexpected that Frankenheimer also gives The Manchurian Candidate a strong psychological subtext. Indeed, just consider how Frankenheimer presents the Freudian nightmare of the dominant, cannibalistic, and castrating parent in the form of Sergeant Shaw’s mother, who is indirectly responsible for the death of her daughter in law.

By any means, The Manchurian Candidate established the name and reputation of Frankenheimer as a competent and visionary director. And in 1963, Burt Lancaster personally requested Frankenheimer as the director of his next film. The inspiration for this flick was the book Le front de l'art: défense des collections françaises, 1939-1945 (The Art Front: Defense of the French Collections, 1939-1945), which was written in 1961 by Rose Vallard. Based on her personal experiences as the curator of the Musee du Jeu de Peume, a refined Paris gallery, Vallard narrates how she and the French Resistance protected the valuable paintings throughout the German occupation of France during World War II. The gallery collection included paintings by Renoir, Van Gogh, Manet, Picasso, Degas, Cezanne, and Matisse, but most of these masterpieces were considered as “decadent art” by Hitler and the Nazis.

Vallard’s book describes how, as the allied forces approached Paris in August of 1944, German officers placed the precious contents of the gallery on a train towards Germany. The Nazis had the intention of selling these paintings to wealthy collectors, and use the money to support the war effort. It is ironic, however, that this train and its valuable cargo was not stopped by risky sabotage actions performed by the French Resistance or by daring military operations on the part of the US Army. Instead, the departure schedule of the train was continuously delayed by the endless Nazi bureaucracy, and it only managed to go a few stations outside of Paris.

The Train

The film version of Vallard’s book, titled The Train, was originally scheduled to be directed by Arthur Penn in 1963 (this was a few years before he became famous for his celebrated Bonnie and Clyde [1967]). Penn had envisioned a historically correct, intimate character drama. Allegedly, the original script was so slow, that the train of the title did not appear until the very last act of the script.

However, Lancaster and the studio producers wanted a high octane action flick, and as a consequence, Penn was replaced by Frankenheimer. As the story goes, Lancaster wanted to avoid a classy film at any costs, as his previous effort in Luchino Visconti’s Il Gattopardo (1963) proved to be an acclaimed critical success, but a dismal failure at the box office.

Therefore, Frankenheimer’s The Train is indeed more fiction than fact. However, it is a truly outstanding action flick featuring exciting scenes involving colliding and derailed trains, as well as a complex and delightful scheme to deceive the Nazis. During shooting, Frankenheimer worked on authentic locations, infused a documentary feel to the narrative, and refused to use miniatures or other visual effects.

Thus, all the scenes of destruction in The Train were played with real people and real trains. If you think about it, this is quite a contrast to today’s standards of overwhelming computer generated magic. To face this production challenge, Frankenheimer used multiple cameras to properly capture the action of the very complicated and dangerous stunts that were performed. And at one time, a derailed train smashed three out the five cameras that were under his command.

In this movie, Lancaster plays Lebiche, a railroad manager in Paris who is also a member of the French Resistance. When he first is told that German officer von Waldheim (Paul Scofield) had plans to steal the priceless paintings, his conscience will not let him send men to sabotage the railroads. But later on, when his friend sacrifices himself in a futile attempt to delay the train, he feels compelled to intervene.

In The Train, Frankenheimer forces the viewer to question the relative worth of art and human lives. On one hand, the paintings not only are priceless, but they also embody nationalistic pride and other cultural values. On the other hand, human lives are equally irreplaceable and their loss is judged by strict moral and social codes. In any case, both French and Germans are willing to kill or be killed for the sake of a fancy piece of cloth.

In this regard, it is quite perplexing that Lebiche never expresses openly his political, ideological, moral, or nationalistic beliefs. Once more, Frankenheimer plays with the issue of deceiving perceptions and appearances. That is, in spite of Lebiche’s daredevil actions and heroism to stop the train, he does not appear to have firm political or ideological convictions, and it is never clear what his ultimate motivation is.

Indeed, as The Train begins, Lebiche cannot comprehend the value of art as a national symbol and he does not really care about the paintings. And then, as the story progresses, the confrontation between French and Germans actually boils down to a harrowing duel between Lebiche and von Waldheim. Furthermore, the rather ambiguous ending suggest that just as Lebiche might be fighting to defend a cherished national treasure, he could just be seeking revenge for the death of his friends at the hands of the Nazis.

Ronin

Some of these themes are revisited by Frankenheimer in Ronin. Written for the screen by David Mamet (under the pseudonym Richard Weisz) and J. D. Zeik, Ronin brings to modern times the ancient Japanese legend of the Ronin: the elite warrior class of samurai who became freelance soldiers after their masters were killed. The re-envisioning of the Ronin are former intelligence agents, who have become mercenaries after the conclusion of the Cold War brought to an end the political influence of their retainers.

Ronin aptly combines the exceptional dialogue and situations particular to Mamet’s work, with the unique visual and narrative structure that characterizes Frankenheimer’s films. This movie takes place in the south of France and tells the story of a group of mercenaries led by Sam (Robert de Niro), who is a former CIA agent. These modern-day Ronin have been hired by a pair of extremist Irish nationalists to steal a mysterious briefcase from the Russians.

Even thought it is never revealed what is inside the briefcase, we suspect is something that could become a serious threat to the world order. In this regard, Ronin criticizes the terrible accountability for armaments and personnel after the dissolution of the Soviet empire. Thus, Ronin deeply resonates with current concerns of rogue countries or extremist groups acquiring sophisticated weapons of mass destruction or the knowledge to mass produce them. Typical of Frankenheimer, he always appeared to be very familiar with the ideological and political ramifications of his films.

Featuring the histrionic talents of Jean Reno and Sean Bean, Ronin feels like a high octane roller coaster with plenty of shootings, explosions, and high-speed driving. Furthermore, this film offers what may well be the most thrilling car chase in the history of cinema. Matching and surpassing the excitement of the car chases seen in William Friendkin’s The French Connection (1971) and To Live and Die in LA (1985), this sequence in Ronin is impossible to describe and has to be seen to be appreciated for the masterwork that it is.

Similar to the way he made The Train, for Ronin Frankenheimer demanded the use of real cars and drivers, and he totally refused the idea of computer graphics and blue screens to increase the excitement of the car chases. As all the driving stunts are performed on camera, Ronin provides an unmatched visceral feeling to the action. In addition, Frankenheimer and cinematographer Robert Fraisse used a variety of techniques involving handheld cameras, steadicams, and car-mounted cameras to give a powerful visual structure to the film.

In this regard, it is worth commenting on some of the visual and narrative inspirations of Ronin. For instance, the film noir look of the European locations brings to mind Carol Reed’s The Third Man (1949). The mysterious briefcase, in which the contents are never revealed, is reminiscent of Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955) and Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction (1994). The re-envisioning of the fearsome ancient Japanese warriors into modern day France is alike to Jean-Pierre Melville Le Samourai (1967). The unapologetic portrayal of hard boiled characters and stylized violence reminds us of John Woo’s The Killer (1989) and Hard Boiled (1992). And finally, the treacherous double crosses seen in Ronin appear to have been influenced by Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962).

However, in spite of its many obvious external influences, Ronin feels refreshingly original and carries Frankenheimer’s unique signature. That is, the political identity of Sam is as ambiguous and misleading as the characters from The Young Savages, The Manchurian Candidate, and The Train. Therefore, The John Frankenheimer Collection offers the opportunity to revisit four of the highlights of such an acclaimed director, and helps us appreciate why he was considered the “Master of the Political Thriller”.

9

Charlie Brown, Snoopy, and Woodstock each did their stint as a lonely Mexican cowboy, it seems. These and other things you didn't know about A Charlie Brown Christmas.

How Would You Like to Be the Director of Our Christmas Play?

It's really a beautiful little movie and has affected my life in numerous ways. For years, especially when we were poor, we always tried to find the littlest saddest Christmas tree possible. In fact, my son Eli has a Christmas tree set up right now that is just one single branch propped up in a juice bottle. And just a couple weeks ago we were at a wedding, everyone was dancing, and me and my wife Amy and my friend Garth started dancing like the Peanuts characters do in the Christmas special.

-- Comic artist James Kochalka.

Bill Melendez answers questions with the sort of vigor that men a third his age invest thousands in herbal supplements to achieve. He punctuates his speech with belly chuckles and comic strip taglines like "Oh, boy!" and "I tell 'ya!" With the reckless abandon that Melendez tosses out words like pleasure, it's clear that 41 years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains one of his favorite topics of conversation. "It changed my life," he states simply, "being involved with this silly little project."

Melendez celebrated his 90th birthday in November. "When I think of my last 40 or 50 years, I can't believe it," he says, capping off his comment with that inevitable one-man laugh track. The curly-mustachioed animator was born José Cuauhtemoc Melendez in Hermosillo, Mexico, in 1916. "I was literally a cowboy," he says. "From there, I crossed the border and started growing up. Just recently I went back, and when I got there I realized where my home was: across the border. When I was a little kid, I would have killed myself had I known such a thing was going to happen. I'm one of you. Whether you like it or not, I'm one of you."

Melendez recalls his blind leap into the world of animation as though the story's end still managed to catch him by surprise. "I was working in a lumberyard, and one of my mates said, 'Hey, I read in the paper that some guy up on Hyperion Avenue is hiring young guys like you who can draw.' So I went to this stranger and said, 'Hey, I understand someone here is hiring young artists.' The man asked me for my samples and I said I'd show them to him tomorrow. I went home that night and made the samples. I brought them in the next day, and he asked me what art school I went to. I'd never been to an art school. He said, 'Well, you have talent,' and he hired me to work in a place called Walt Disney."

Four years later, after lending his hand to Disney canon fodder like Bambi and Fantasia, and after fighting for his new country in World War II, he spent the next decade or so hunched over the drawing board, producing animated commercials and industrials by the thousands, including a number of spots featuring syndicated comic strip characters. Among them were the Peanuts characters.

Of all the Charlie Browns in the World, You're the Charlie Browniest.

I was around 10 when it first premiered, and seeing A Charlie Brown Christmas for the first time was enough to prove even to a young child that a well-written thing is superior to most of what is out there. I'll probably be watching it again tonight or tomorrow, because I have a copy of it and a six-year-old daughter. She loves it.

-- Comic artist Gilbert Hernandez.

By 1959 Charles "Sparky" Schulz's Peanuts kids found themselves at the center of their first print advertising campaign, pushing Ford's new Falcon make of cars. As the story goes, the idea of using Schulz's characters came from a daughter of one of Ford's advertising people.

"I think Sparky was flattered when they wanted to use his characters, says Schulz's widow, Jean, who now is one of the driving forces behind the Charles Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, California. "It was a new way of extending his creativity. From the get-go Sparky always said a comic strip is a commercial venture. Newspapers put the comic strip in to sell newspapers. He would then bitterly say, 'No one considered comic strips art in the first place, so why would you get on your high horse about that?'"

When the time came for the characters to make their animated debut in a Ford commercial, Melendez was brought into the fold, and he brought along a cast of unknown child actors to voice the parts. The team reunited five years later, when Lee Mendelson, a filmmaker from San Francisco, requested two minutes worth of animation for a film he was shooting based on a Peanuts story line.

"I had done a Willie Mays documentary in 1963, A Man Named Mays, which had done really well," Mendelson says. "Then I was reading a Charlie Brown baseball strip, and the idea came to me: I've just done the world's greatest baseball player; now I'll do the world's worst." It's an old joke -- the same he used to open his 2000 coffee-table retrospective, A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition -- but it's one for the ages. "Two years later Coca-Cola called, and I thought they were calling to do the documentary," Mendelson explains, "but they said, 'Have you guys ever thought about doing A Charlie Brown Christmas?' I said absolutely. And that's how I got in the animation business." His executive producer role on that film was the birth of a career now well into its fourth decade.

"So Lee called Sparky and said, 'Well, I just sold our Christmas show," explains Jean. "Sparky asked, 'What Christmas show?' and Lee said, 'The one we're going to write tomorrow." Sparky said, 'If we're going to do it, we need to have Bill.'"

Melendez was brought into direct, and as with the Ford commercial, he gave the parts of the Peanuts kids entirely to children, many of whom had never acted. Getting them to learn their roles was a trying task, given that Schulz's script had his characters regularly waxing philosophical and tossing off words like ailurophobia (a fear of felines, for the record). Melendez had to teach the young actors long portions of the script phonetically. "Sometimes they didn't understand a word," he remembers. "They'd say, 'Just tell me how you want it said.' Then they'd say it, and I'd turn to the engineer and ask if he recorded it. The kids were all startled when they got screen credit and happily startled when they started getting royalty checks."

Melendez's also tried to coach a voice actor for the part of Snoopy, whose lines were limited to a handful of non-words. "I recited Snoopy's lines for the actor, and the actor turned to the engineer and said, 'Did you record that? Just use what Bill has done. I don't want to repeat your words.' " This happy accident left Melendez playing the role of Snoopy and, later, his yellow bird companion Woodstock for the next 40 years.

For the film's soundtrack, Mendelson and Melendez embraced Schulz's love of jazz. "Driving back from Sparky's over the Golden Gate Bridge I heard a song called 'Cast Your Fate to the Wind,'" Mendelson writes in The Making of a Tradition. The song was written by Vince Guaraldi, a jazz pianist from the beatnik-dense San Francisco neighborhood of North Beach. It had won the musician a Grammy Award for best original jazz composition in 1962. Guaraldi enjoyed Schulz's script and happily accepted his invitation into the Charlie Brown Christmas fold.

This Doesn't Seem to Fit the Modern Spirit.

The one thing that has always bothered me about the Charlie Brown Christmas special is that the other kids never admit to Charlie Brown that he was right about the little tree. They ultimately accept the tree, but no one ever says, 'Well, Charlie Brown, I guess you were right all along. We were idiots.' However, it's still cool to see a mainstream children's program show that is so stridently nonsecular, which could never be done in this day and age. Linus gets some good face time with all that shepherd talk.

-- Pop culture critic Chuck Klosterman.

Beyond the inclusion of Schulz's cast of wildly popular characters, 1965's A Charlie Brown Christmas seemed a production earmarked for failure. The special's small crew was given a mere six months between the film's conception and its maiden broadcast. At his own insistence, Schulz signed up to pen the script, his first attempt at a screenplay. "He said that if he was going to get screen credit for something, he wanted to be doing something," says Melendez. "He was very proud and curious and didn't want credit where he didn't deserve it."

Despite the Ford commercials that gave birth to the collaboration, and Coca-Cola's strong sponsorship presence in the special, Schulz's script centered around a pensive Charlie Brown attempting to find the true meaning of Christmas. "The 1960s were when Christmas first began to start the day after Thanksgiving," says Mendelson. "There was an irony to this, given the commercialization of the comics. That wasn't really his doing. He said, 'If people want to buy stuff, that's up to them. I'm not in the business of making stuff and selling it. I'm in the business of making a comic strip, and if people want products, then so be it.' "

"We're all a little schizophrenic in that way," adds Jean Schulz. "You live in this world, and you despair. If you think at all, you're always wrestling with this. I think that's exactly what Sparky was expressing." The special opens with a characteristically distraught Charlie Brown, speaking to the perpetually blanket-wielding Linus on a snow-covered version of the brick wall, the bald third-grader's preferred location for vocalizing his ever-present inner despair. "I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus," he begins. "Christmas is coming, but I don't feel happy."

In case that wasn't enough to threatren the film's commercial potential, the producers added one final nail to the prime time coffin: Schulz's script called for Linus to deliver a subdued monologue at the film's climax, a word-for-word recitation of Jesus's birth, taken from the Gospel of Luke. "Bill said, 'You can't have the Bible on television!' Sparky said, 'If we don't do it, who will?' By the time that Coca-Cola and CBS saw it, they had no choice but to play it. They had nothing else to put in there."

What the roomful of executives saw upon the first screening was a shock -- a slow and quiet semireligious, jazz-filled 25 minutes, voiced by a cast of inexperienced children, and, perhaps most unforgivably, without a laugh track. "They said, 'We'll play it once and that will be all. Good try,' " remembers Mendelson. "Bill and I thought we had ruined Charlie Brown forever when it was done. We kind of agreed with the network. One of the animators stood up in the back of the room -- he had had a couple of drinks -- and he said, 'It's going to run for a hundred years,' and then fell down. We all thought he was crazy, but he was more right than we were."

I Never Thought It Was Such a Bad Little Tree

That show is probably the closest I've ever come to having any interest in religion. That part where Linus quotes from the bible is extremely touching and very deftly handled. I was raised in a nonreligious household, and that was a moment that actually had some religious significance to it just because Schulz expressed it so well.

-- Comic artist Seth.

Upon its airing, the special received a 50 share. The network immediately ordered four more films from the team. "We watch it every year to make sure that it actually happened. We thought it would be on one time and be gone," Mendelson says. "The message is simple. Schulz wanted to do a show on the true meaning of Christmas. Any good writer like Schulz deals in truisms and things that are timeless. There are themes about unrequited love and bullies. They work as well now as they did in the 1960s, and they'll probably work for another 50 or 100 years as well."

"I think it touches something in the viewer. We didn't do it on purpose, but there's something ethnic about it," Melendez adds. Schulz expressed his own surprise that the film found its way into the canon of holiday classics. "He would say things like, 'I never thought it would be around 25 years later,'" Jean remembers. "One of the reasons that Christmas is so great is that back in 1965 there were no VCRs or DVDs, so you saw that show once, and you had to wait a whole year to see it again. And when it came on, it still held up. It was still charming."

Forty-one years after its premiere, A Charlie Brown Christmas remains a towering if unassuming presence in holiday TV. It's an oasis of sincerity, managing never to be drowned out by its overzealous neighbors' rush to cross-promote themselves. It's a quiet testament to what children's programming could be: introspective, unpretentious and, above all, respectful of the intelligence of its target audience. "Children's programs were held in low regard by everybody -- including me," says Melendez. "But I realized that it wasn't just for kids. I was dealing with adults. They were giving me suggestions and criticism."

For a film with an anticommercial message, A Charlie Brown Christmas produced its own market bonanza. But it still suggests the spirit of its writer, who sensed the real magic of Christmas was not in the spectacle of lights, commerce and big aluminum Christmas trees, but in those fleeting moments of silence, which seem to become rarer with each passing day. "They weren't afraid to have quiet," Jean says. "Most of the time when the kids are walking, it's very quiet. We came out of a new animated movie one day, and Sparky said, 'I missed the quiet places.'"

Over the years, the Schulz-Mendelson-Melendez team created more than 75 half-hour television specials and four feature films, and five Peanuts films have been made since Schulz's death, in 2000, at the age of 77. Outside of the films, Peanuts continues to be an incredibly lucrative license for its owners, United Features Syndicate. "If Sparky had the volume of stuff crossing through the office that we have today, it would have driven him nuts," laughs Jean. "He probably would have walked through the office and said, 'We're cutting all of the licensing off. I don't want to do it anymore.'"

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less
Music

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Keep reading... Show less

It's ironic that by injecting a shot of cynicism into this glorified soap opera, Johnson provides the most satisfying explanation yet for the significance of The Force.

Despite J.J. Abrams successfully resuscitating the Star Wars franchise with 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens, many fans were still left yearning for something new. It was comforting to see old familiar faces from a galaxy far, far away, but casual fans were unlikely to tolerate another greatest hits collection from a franchise already plagued by compositional overlap (to put it kindly).

Keep reading... Show less
7

Yeah Yeah Yeahs played a few US shows to support the expanded reissue of their debut Fever to Tell.

Although they played a gig last year for an after-party for a Mick Rock doc, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs hadn't played a proper NYC show in four years before their Kings Theatre gig on November 7th, 2017. It was the last of only a handful of gigs, and the only one on the East coast.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image