Posted by David Kalat on December 15, 2012
This is a season of traditions: those comforting rituals that we reiterate on an annual basis because no matter how small some of them may be (like the making of home-baked ginger snaps), they have become imbued with powerful memories of home and loved ones, such that these little ceremonies carry a weight of meaning far in excess of their actual ability to signify.
There used to be a coterie of movies that belonged to these same holiday traditions—certain films like The Wizard of Oz or It’s a Wonderful Life that were consistently and regularly replayed on commercial television on certain holidays. You could almost set your watch to them.
Since its original broadcast in 1965, A Charlie Brown Christmas has been one of the most enduring and beloved holiday mainstays—and its history has a curious Mobius strip like effect. When you watch A Charlie Brown Christmas this year—in whatever media you do (broadcast, on-demand, iTunes download, DVD, Blu-Ray, hallucinatory memory)—you are participating in a metatextual reconfiguration of its core themes! Betcha didn’t even know that!
As you know, because you’ve probably got his holiday gem memorized like I do, A Charlie Brown Christmas is in part a rumination on the deleterious commercialization of the holiday. Lucy leads the pro-commercialization brigade, with her hopes for the gaudiest aluminum tree possible, while Charlie helplessly bemoans what he sees as a cultural train barreling unstoppably towards a destination he doesn’t want. Ultimately, Linus breaks the tension by forcibly reorienting everyone’s attention back on the religious meaning of the holiday.
Before we even get started with the legacy of this television special, it is already mired in ironies from its own pre-history. For one thing, the network executives at CBS were displeased with Linus’ extended Bible recitation, and tried to have it removed. Charles Schultz held his ground and insisted the scene stay.
It’s easy to laugh at the cluelessness of the CBS executives. The list of things CBS thought were terrible about the special is an almost perfect match to the list of things people have loved about it for nearly 50 years: the jazz score by Vince Guaraldi, the lack of a laugh track, the child actors doing the voices, and Linus’ recitation from the Gospel of Luke. When director Bill Melendez brought the finished product to CBS, they took a forlorn look at it and said they had no choice but to air it, but figured they’d never run it a second time.
Obviously the joke was on them, and stories like this should give pause to any network suit who feels too certain about their pronouncements of what’s going to be liked or not—Melendez left that meeting believing he’d destroyed the Peanuts, but really the only reason he hadn’t destroyed the Peanuts is he didn’t listen to what CBS said.
But let’s not make too much out of the absurdly wrong-headed network notes—the important detail to take from this story is that A Charlie Brown Christmas may be about the commercialization of Christmas, but it is itself a product of that commercialization.
CBS just wanted a TV special starring the popular Peanuts gang. They didn’t want any idiosyncratic ideas or social satire (even though those were the very attributes that made Peanuts popular in the first place). The TV special was sponsored by Coca-Cola, and plugs for Coke were dutifully laced into the dialogue (these Coke references have since been cut from the film and are no longer shown).
When A Charlie Brown Christmas was then watched by 50% of the TV viewing audience, it wasn’t just a vindication of Melendez’ quirky aesthetics, it was a vindication of CBS’ belief that airing a Peanuts TV special would be a good way to sell ads. For the next 40-plus years, Charlie Brown would continue to be a solid ratings-getter—its 40th anniversary broadcast in 2005 was the top-rated show in its time-slot. And over these years, additional cuts would be inflicted—not just to remove the preferential product placement of Coke but to make way for more and more ads.
That’s not to say that the show is a crass work of commercial intent. A Charlie Brown Christmas is a paragon of sincerity and intimacy. The child actors’ halting delivery, the ear-worm quality of the jazz soundtrack, the earnestness of its faith—these things connected to audiences because of their rough edges and idiosyncrasies. Allegedly the satirical jabs at aluminum trees in the show led to a marked drop-off in sales—people liked aluminum trees until the Peanuts gang lampooned them, which says a lot about the power of this cartoon to get under people’s skin.
When Charlie Brown decries the commercialization of Christmas, what he’s calling for is a focus on the emotional bonds, the memories, the togetherness of the season. A Charlie Brown Christmas celebrates and promotes those very values—and so it’s no surprise then that generations of families have found themselves gathering at Christmastime together, young and old alike, to watch the same program.
And this is the paradox—because A Charlie Brown Christmas brings so many people together happily and predictably, that very attribute is valuable to anyone who wishes to access those people. The sincerity of Charlie Brown makes it a valuable marketing tool. It is successful commercially by being anti-commercial, in a popular and populist way that brings together mass audiences.
Which brings us to the metatextual aspect I teased above. When you engage with Charlie Brown Christmas in some other media form—watching a streaming video on your iPad or indulging in a Blu-Ray in your home theater—you will encounter the film in its purest state, stripped free of all the ads. You no longer need to gather together at an hour appointed by advertisers, and your participation is no longer counted by Nielson. But does this mean you have escaped the commercialization of A Charlie Brown Christmas? Surely your very possession of one of those high-tech media devices means you were marketed to at some point, successfully, and if you enjoy Charlie Brown in such a solitary way, disconnected from the larger culture, isn’t that even more alienating? Maybe the paradox of Charlie Brown’s simultaneous commercial/anti-commercial existence is in perfect harmony, and can only be disrupted by such tampering.
And with that in mind, maybe it’s about time we put the Coca Cola ads back in and saw this thing in its Director’s Cut form!
(PS–every week when I go to illustrate these entries, I often find myself flummoxed and frustrated by some movie that I had perceived as exceptionally visually dynamic refusing to yield any iconic frame grabs, or something I thought was gripping and dramatic utterly failing to offer up any obvious clips. This week was a crazy cinch. I clicked my mouse more or less randomly through the video file and every single time I did it was a perfect frame grab, worthy of standing as a sole representative of what this show is all about. There isn’t a single bad frame in its entire 25 minute running time. Utterly fantastic.)
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