Film Score Friday #5: “A Charlie Brown Christmas” (1965)

Charlie Brown and Linus van Pelt muse on the meaning of Christmas.

The list of things that one might readily associate with the timeless charm of the animated specials based on Charles Schulz’s phenomenally successful Peanuts cartoon strip is plentiful: the trademark scream; the “kick the football” running gag; the gibbering voices of Snoopy and Woodstock, ably provided by long-time series director Bill Melendez; or perhaps the naturalistic delivery of the real children who voiced their main characters. For others, however, it might be the invariably tasteful yet effortlessly swinging jazz soundtracks contributed by pianist Vince Guaraldi, collections of lovingly crafted miniatures with a sprightly liveliness that makes them as infinitely enjoyable to listen to in their own right as when accompanying the adventures of Charlie Brown and friends. Indeed, Chris Barton writes in a Los Angeles Times article from 2013 of how these scores acted as a first exposure to jazz for generations of young children, and furthermore made life-long converts out of many, including Guaraldi’s later biographer Derrick Bang. Yet far from being gradually introduced, this was a core component of the series from its very inception, and especially so in the inaugural A Charlie Brown Christmas.

The ball (football, perhaps?) began rolling for these specials in 1963, when producer Lee Mendelson chose Schulz and Peanuts to be the subject of a new documentary, with the chosen title of A Boy Named Charlie Brown. As well as conducting interviews with Schulz about his creations and his working process, Mendelsohn also commissioned animated segments that brought the previously static Peanuts gang to life, assembling a team whose combined efforts would come to define the look, style and enduring appeal of the series that followed, including Melendez as animation director, and Guaraldi, whose iconic composition “Linus and Lucy” cannot now help but suggest anything else.

Although the programme never made it to the airwaves, it was enough to attract the attention of an executive at Coca Cola, who approached Mendelson to produce a Peanuts Christmas special. Mendelson duly approached Schulz, who worked up a scenario. As well as re-enlisting Melendez to supervise the animation side of the operation, both decided that Guaraldi’s music, having played such a successful part in A Boy Named Charlie Brown, should be just as integral to the new project, with Schulz setting his sights on its then unusual fusion of traditional music and jazz right from the very start. This theme continued on the soundtrack album of the same name released to coincide with the special’s transmission in December 1965, featuring new arrangements by Guaraldi of other Christmas carols including “The Little Drummer Boy” (as “My Little Drum”) and “What Child Is This?” alongside re-recorded versions of the songs featured in the film with different sidemen.

In contrast to the magical “winter wonderland” atmosphere and unfettered jollity present in other Christmas-themed media, and especially noticeable for a children’s film (although one need only look to films such as White ChristmasIt’s a Wonderful Life, or indeed to the annual tradition of the Coca Cola advert to see that this is not limited to this level of programming), the opening to A Charlie Brown Christmas is rather muted and even somewhat downbeat. While the viewer is indeed presented with the charming scene of falling snow, a frozen pond and a blanketed landscape, the colour palette is relatively pale and washed out, emphasising the skeletal trees around the water’s edge and suggesting wintry cold rather than festive warmth.

This is reflected musically in Guaraldi’s score as well. Instead of the whoosh of blizzards and snowstorms evoked by the swirling strings and woodwinds at the opening of the stop-motion Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer released the previous year, we are instead greeted with the comparatively subdued “Christmas Time is Here”, a languid waltz whose soft brush accompaniment is a similarly suitable representation of the softly falling snow and the fragility of the surrounding landscape (the timbre of the fast and high-register pizzicato in the instrumental version recorded on the soundtrack album similarly suggests the sound of wind billowing through bare branches). As the film progresses, the recurrence of this tune, in both vocalised and instrumental forms, comes to be associated with Charlie Brown’s unseasonal melancholy – something no doubt reinforced in recent years by its take-up as a similarly minded running gag on Arrested Development.

For one, it underscores moments that reinforce his sense of being bypassed by the “happiness and cheer” promised in the song’s lyrics, as he outlines first to Linus and then to Lucy, and that furthermore communicate this to the viewer. Both of these conversations, for example, book-end a sudden change in the music, as the gossamer-light “Skating”, a far faster waltz with echoes of Dave Brubeck and Bill Evans, enters while the other children catch snowflakes and throw snowballs around. This obvious musical contrast, reinforced as “Christmas Time” re-enters for his “doctor’s appointment” with Lucy, throws his sense of depression into even sharper relief, as he glumly wanders away from the enjoyment going on around him. This psychological isolation is made physical and explicit in the few seconds leading up to the show’s title card, as Snoopy, having previously brought all the children together in a spontaneous and joyful display of line-skating, immediately latches on to him, the depressive misfit, and expels him from the pond, distancing his negative influence from the group’s (and, one suspects, his own) enjoyment.

In other ways, however, it also leads the viewer, far from merely sympathising with Charlie Brown, towards aligning themselves with his perspective. Its re-entry, for example, when he writes out the extensive Christmas list dictated by his younger sister Sally reveals the way in which the very observance of Christmas seems to have changed around him as if to compound and reinforce his feelings of spiritual emptiness, something both he and the viewer observe in other characters’ behaviour as well. Additionally, the message sung by its angelic children’s chorus at the film’s opening comes across as somewhat threadbare in light of its rather banal lyrics (contributed by Mendelson and, with all due fairness, scribbled down ‘in about fifteen minutes on the back of an envelope’), full of generic imagery and seemingly paying mere lip service to what the spirit of Christmas truly means. Furthermore, however, the non-diegetic nature of the music soundtrack – the characters can’t hear it, but the audience can – means that this reserved solely for the viewer, projecting onto them the evident Weltschmerz that Charlie Brown projects onto his own world and that provides an adequate substitute in the in-film universe for the prevailing mood of Guaraldi’s composition.

This sense of having lost sight of “what Christmas is all about” continues later in the film, for example as the Beethoven-worshipping Schroeder attempts to approximate the desired sound and feel for “Jingle Bells” envisioned by Lucy. Having offered first a lyrical piano and then a gospelly Hammond organ version that seem to suggest far more of a festive mood, the final rendition he irritably bashes out, with the pointedly tinny and out-of-tune timbre of a thumb piano, is ultimately the one that satisfies Lucy’s evidently empty conception. It is when Charlie Brown leaves to seek out a suitable Christmas tree for use in the children’s school play, however, that this conflict between old and new values begins to reach some sort of resolution. Tasked by Lucy and the others with obtaining a “big, shiny aluminum tree”, opting for the glitz and spectacle of a modern substitute over the understated beauty of a real one (Walter Benjamin would have been proud), the music heard as he and Linus set out into the snow is a traditional-sounding solo piano arrangement of the carol “O Tannenbaum” (a.k.a. “O Christmas Tree”), albeit with some flashes of jazz harmonisation.

As they arrive at a sales lot populated by ostentatious but audibly hollow metallic trees, however, the tempo and style of this music changes appropriately into full-on jazz, moving from 3/4 into regular 4/4 time. While this certainly connotes something of the commercialisation of Christmas that causes Charlie Brown such consternation, it is not to bring this to the viewer’s attention in any moralistic sense. Instead, it suggests that the more modernised version of Christmas as celebrated by the other children is perhaps not as incompatible with his more purist outlook as it may first appear. Indeed, as Guaraldi himself will surely have been aware, the AABA form of “O Tannenbaum” lends itself very naturally to interpretation and performance as a jazz standard (or a pop standard, for that matter). Yet far from merely acknowledging this stylistic overlap, Guaraldi creates a composition that not only combines, but synthesises the two distinct styles into a form in which both are equally recognisable and equally convincing. (One might look for comparison to Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn’s Nutcracker Suite, which does not rearrange so much as recompose Tchaikovsky’s ballet as if were the composer himself writing for big band.)

In many senses, both the character of Guaraldi’s music and its usage in the film underlines its overall message that “the real meaning of Christmas” is ultimately dependent on the individual, and that no single interpretation is necessarily incorrect. The other children’s more materialistic viewpoint, for example, is as much a product of the consumerist society into which they have been born as anything else; Sally, for example, justifies her excessive present demands simply with, “All I want is what’s coming to me!”, a sentiment that might resonate with age groups far beyond the special’s intended audience. As much as the viewer might be prompted, both narratively and musically, to root for Charlie Brown’s refusal to “let all this commercialism ruin my Christmas” (it is supposedly A Charlie Brown Christmas, after all – albeit one ironically enabled by Coca Cola…), the role of Guaraldi’s score within the context of the film also demonstrates the futility of trying to foist his interpretation on the other children. In his attempts to stamp order on the rehearsals for the school Christmas play, for example (“We’re going to do this play,” he tells the others, “and we’re going to do it right”), he fails to assert his authority not only over his actors, who continually break out into the spontaneous dancing seen in the first school scene rather than following the proscribed Nativity scenario, but also over the soundtrack, whose conspicuously modern hard bop sound, established in this same scene with “Christmas is Coming”, stubbornly continues with further reiterations of “Linus and Lucy”.

Similarly, it is not only Charlie Brown who gains some kind of spiritual strength from Linus’s pivotal recitation of verses from the King James Bible, but also Linus himself, who, having been continually castigated through the whole film by Lucy for his (over-)reliance on his security blanket, is able, at least for the duration, to let go of it, seemingly caught in a kind of mild rapture. For many modern-day, more secular audiences, this might well smack of the strong Christian overtones that have been successively read into the series (and into the original strip, for that matter) but only go some way towards summarising Schulz’s true spiritual beliefs. The same argument could be made of the closing chorus of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”, with traditional, time-honoured and, furthermore, Christian music (and performance methods) apparently winning the day over of its more modish competitors.

Ultimately, however, the theme of the day is reconciliation, something that Guaraldi’s soundtrack again reflects and reinforces towards the end of the film. Although the children reject and ridicule both the “completely hopeless” Charlie Brown and the tiny sapling he has brought back to be their tree (something in turn bolstered by the re-entry of “Christmas Time is Here” after a good ten minutes of screentime), the music heard as he carries the tree back out into the snow, filled with renewed hope after Linus’s monologue, is a return to the 3/4 feel and calm timbre of the original “O Tannenbaum”, accompanied this time by a slow and soft jazz accompaniment. Furthermore, however, the other children, seemingly drawn to his new sense of purpose, follow him on his journey and help decorate the scrawny-looking sapling to make a Christmas tree that is worthy of the name on both his and their terms.

A Charlie Brown Christmas would prove to be the start of Guaraldi’s long association with the Peanuts franchise, which covered sixteen further short and feature-length films and was only cut short by his untimely death in 1976, aged 47. Although “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” is indeed the music that ends the film, his expert realisation and execution of Schulz’s brainwave to mix traditional carols with jazz helps bring its themes of tolerance, inclusivity and mutual compatibility to full fruition. Ironically enough, however, as Mendelson remembers, this approach, highly unorthodox for its time, was one of the factors that drew a high amount of scepticism from the CBS executives to whom the special was pitched, such that, were it not for the fortuity of the rave reviews it received afterwards, it might never have been aired again. Happily, though, not only was it the starting-off point for a series of much-loved and fondly remembered cartoons, but also a special achievement in its own right, and furthermore one in which the music of a jazz pianist and composer named Vince Guaraldi played an indelible part.

“Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown!”