Bill Melendez’s 1969 animated film A Boy Named Charlie Brown is among the titles that immediately come to mind when I think of movies that left a significant impact on me.

I discovered the Charles M. Schulz comic strip Peanuts as a teenager, previously knowing it only by reputation: as the antecedent of holiday cartoons like A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) and It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966). I’d enjoyed those shows but had only seen them a handful of times, perhaps because I wasn’t old enough to fully appreciate the precocious nature of their characters (I was too young to understand what Lucy van Pelt meant in telling Charlie Brown that Christmas is “run by a big eastern syndicate” or grasp the humor in such a statement being enunciated by children less than ten years of age). In fact, my most personal connection to Peanuts back then was a trip to Schulz’s birthplace—Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA—in the winter of 2000. Although I was there to visit relatives, what remains most vivid in my memory is the dozens of Charlie Brown statues peppered throughout the city in Schulz’s honor. (The cartoonist had died earlier that year.)

Nine years pass; I’m now months away from graduating high school. Opening the newspaper one morning, I come upon the following four-panel gag in the funny pages: Lucy and her younger brother Linus stand at a window, watching a torrential downpour; Linus remarks that he’s glad to be indoors; Lucy proclaims “only a real blockhead” would go out on a day like this; cut to Charlie Brown standing on his pitcher’s mound. “Where is everybody?” he asks. [1] Instantly captivated, I began hunting down anything and everything Peanuts-related that my adolescent self could afford; and when I learned about four feature-length movies released between the years 1969-1980, I became determined to see them. [2]

A Boy Named Charlie Brown was the first of the four, made when the animated television specials were still a relatively new phenomenon. According to Charles Solomon’s book The Art and Making of Peanuts Animation: Celebrating Fifty Years of Television Specials, Schulz, director Melendez, and producer Lee Mendelson first discussed the idea of a feature-length movie in 1965 but didn’t get far due to doubt amongst themselves that they could pull off such an undertaking—and because no distributors were interested in the project. [3] By 1967, however, the media climate had changed, and audiences were hungrily devouring Peanuts merchandise in every form. Television ratings for the half-hour specials were excellent; the musical You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown was a recent success on Broadway; publishing house Holt, Rinehart & Winston had sold more than eight million dollars of Peanuts books; and the success of jazz musician/composer Vince Guaraldi’s Peanuts-themed albums further demonstrated the impact Charlie Brown had had on mainstream consumers. [4] With the timing perfect for Schulz’s characters to migrate to the big screen, producer Mendelson landed a contract with CBS’s newly formed motion picture company, Cinema Center Films; and on December 5, 1969, after nearly two years of production, A Boy Named Charlie Brown premiered at New York’s Radio City Music Hall.

Despite playing on a single screen for most of December, the first Peanuts movie earned $60,000 on its first Saturday and $290,000 during its second week. [5] Occupying the number one spot in box office charts until the stateside release of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, Charlie Brown drew favorable reviews epitomized by the New York Times’s Vincent Canby: “[I]t’s difficult—perhaps impossible—to be anything except benign towards a G-rated, animated movie that manages to include references to St. Stephen, Thomas Eakins, Harpers Ferry, baseball, contemporary morality (as it relates to Charlie Brown’s use of his “bean ball”), conservation and kite flying.” [6]

Four decades after its initial release, the film gave me, a burgeoning Peanuts fan, exactly what I wanted. As indicated in Canby’s description, it’d successfully preserved what made the comic special to begin with; it was also a triumph cinematically, packed with stunning visuals and supplemented by an outstanding musical score. But the film had also given me something I hadn’t quite expected. After watching Charlie Brown’s silver screen debut, I was convinced I’d seen one of the great American movies about a subject rarely portrayed so honestly and inspiringly in a motion picture. A subject perfectly summarized in this statement from Pixar animator Jeff Pidgeon: “A Boy Named Charlie Brown is about how to confront failure, and how you can work really hard […] and still keep going if you lose.” [7]

A recurring theme in the comic strip was Charlie Brown’s ill-fated attempts at proving himself: his inability to win a baseball game, to fly a kite, to kick the football from under Lucy’s hand (before she pulls it away and sends him sailing through the air). Such scenes appeared in the television specials and they appear once again in A Boy Named Charlie Brown but are this time used to accentuate a character-driven narrative. In the picture’s opening sequences, Charlie Brown watches his kite fall repeatedly to the ground, until his anthropomorphic beagle Snoopy manages to keep it airborne while sleeping! Once again, his baseball team is mercilessly defeated in a game. Once again, he unwisely visits Lucy’s “psychiatry booth,” subjected to a slideshow demonstrating his faults, furthermore baited into her football prank again; and there’s a bonus: she had a camera set up, meaning he gets to see his latest failure on instant replay! As we follow these familiar pratfalls, in voiceover Charlie Brown talks about how “nothing ever seems to go right” for him and how he’s become so discouraged he “can hardly stand it.” And then, his quest for accomplishment, propelled by these early scenes, takes him on a new journey, where he’ll either become a hero or make a bigger fool of himself than ever.

The screenplay, written by Schulz, recycles part of a narrative created for a February 1966 series of strips, wherein Charlie Brown entered his school’s spelling bee. Except rather than strike out on the first round (misspelling “maze” as “M – A – Y – S,” as in baseball player Willie Mays), he wins the contest—amusingly by spelling words indicative of his own character (“failure,” “insecure”). And just when he’s finally regained self-esteem, he’s sent to a national competition in New York, with all his friends expecting (rather, demanding) he return the champion. Bill Melendez’s direction, heretofore alternately whimsical and melancholy, takes a turn for the suspenseful as Charlie Brown wades through the competition, still spelling words familiar to his own life such as  “incompetent” and, to Lucy’s bewilderment, “fussbudget.” Allowing the scene to go on without music, Melendez heightens tension until Charlie Brown’s one of only two contestants left. And then our protagonist embarrassingly misspells the word “beagle” (“B – E – A – G – E – L”).

What follows is one of the most hauntingly beautiful sequences in animation. Melendez and Schulz discard dialogue almost entirely as Charlie Brown returns to his neighborhood, with no one waiting to greet him, and somberly goes home and climbs into bed. He kicks off one of his shoes, trying to get it to land upright on the floor, but it tips over—yet another failure—and he remains under the covers until Linus arrives to check on him the next afternoon. (Turns out, the kids had a ballgame after school, and they won. This is faithful to the strip: Charlie Brown’s team typically emerged victorious whenever he didn’t play.) Recognizing and understanding his friend’s depression, Linus then utters some of the most true and honest words that anybody who’s ever struggled with self-doubt should know themselves. After describing his friend’s latest failure, he says: “But did you notice something, Charlie Brown? The world didn’t come to an end.”

“The world didn’t come to an end.”

“Most movies are about winning,” Jeff Pidgeon remarked in describing A Boy Named Charlie Brown’s message. “If your heart’s in it, you’ll win. I don’t think it’s a bad idea to introduce the concept of failure to people: You’re not going to succeed at everything you do in life.” [8] Therein lies the brilliance of this movie, and what so tremendously impacted me when I saw it for the first time: it concludes not on a note of forced triumph or of unrelenting despair—but with an inspiring depiction of moving on. Charlie Brown takes Linus’s words to heart and ventures into the world again, jumping over the hopscotch markings on the sidewalk, watching his friends play about the neighborhood, realizing he still has his whole life to prove himself. Ending in this manner, with neither total victory nor total failure for its protagonist, A Boy Named Charlie Brown is perhaps the most noble film I’ve seen on the subject of self-doubt. And as someone who utterly lacked confidence and self-esteem for much of his own childhood, seeing this picture was something of a defining moment; its lesson is one I wish I’d learned earlier.

Of course, A Boy Named Charlie Brown has much to offer aside from its poignant story. Director Melendez and his team utilize the expanded budget to recreate memorable aspects from the comic strip and the half-hour shows, with greater panache than before. Example: the disastrous baseball game toward the beginning, which is rife with spectacular wide shots, movement of the camera, and split-screens showcasing events happening simultaneously in separate parts of the ballfield. (Namely Charlie Brown’s reactions as his teammates continuously fail to catch the ball.) Another highlight is Linus staggering through a dark, shadow-laden New York City in search of his beloved “security blanket.” As indicated, much of the film is heavily pictorial and, in a few instances, allows a break in the main story for extra-narrative interludes where music and visuals take over completely.

Schulz explained in a 1971 interview that he worried a feature-length movie focused solely on the misadventures of kids would become “wearisome”; so he came up with the basic idea of four vignettes before turning over details regarding execution to Melendez’s staff. “I did not attempt in any way to interfere with the animators,” he recalled. “I simply told them […] ‘You go ahead now and use your imagination, because you’re better at this that I am, and […] just let your minds run wild.’” [9] In addition to recycling Snoopy’s fantasy battle with the Red Baron from It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, the film sets animation to John Stafford Smith’s The Star-Spangled Banner and Ludwig van Beethoven’s Sonata Pathétique, the former accompanied by flashing stripes and stars, the latter a collage of surrealistic illustrations depicting locations where Beethoven lived and worked. Snoopy gets a second interlude of his own: while skating at Rockefeller Center, he imagines himself in a hockey game (with live-action players rotoscoped behind him in the form of dashing, multi-colored silhouettes). Besides the final two sequences, which admittedly run a tad long for their own good, these vignettes function terrifically as set pieces and, despite lack of narrative importance, do not interrupt the picture’s momentum.

Snoopy scores at the Rockefeller Center.

Aiding the visuals is a marvelous score. Main composer Vince Guaraldi returns with several of the beloved tracks he’d conceived for the television specials and writes much of the new instrumental music. Augmenting his jazz are a few original compositions courtesy of John Scott Trotter. “It wasn’t that we thought Vince’s jazz couldn’t carry the movie,” Mendelson recalled, “but we wanted to supplement it with some ‘big screen music.’” [10] For this film, Trotter—who’d arranged, supervised, or conducted Guaraldi’s music for the television specials since 1966—contributed a handful of elaborate tracks (e.g., Linus hallucinating on the bus to New York) in addition to a few gentle ones (the soothing piece that opens the film), not to mention the song, ‘I’ Before ‘E’, for when Charlie Brown’s memorizing the spelling rule that’s always given him trouble.

Three more songs were supplied by Rod McKuen; and in what adds a sense of unity to the soundtrack, all three are carefully adapted into instrumental pieces by Guaraldi. “Vince would call and consult me about his variations on the songs for the background score,” McKuen recalled, “and I thought that was really generous. He didn’t have to do that; he didn’t have to use them as source material at all. But he felt that elaborating on the songs was part of his job.” [11] A non-vocal rendition of McKuen’s Champion Charlie Brown makes for a playful main title theme; and his central song, named after the movie itself, is brilliantly adapted for key scenes regarding the hero’s emotional journey. The score for A Boy Named Charlie Brown earned Guaraldi, Trotter, and McKuen a collective Academy Award nomination for Best Music (Original Song), though the group ultimately lost to The Beatles documentary Let It Be.

Voice acting in Peanuts animation has historically been hit-and-miss, the average cast consisting of a few good performances alongside some less-inspiring ones (a brasher-than-necessary Lucy; a Sally clearly uncomfortable with big words; a Charlie Brown who’s a tad too bland—indeed, such a thing is possible!). But the voicework in A Boy Named Charlie Brown is just shy of impeccable, nearly every character matched to the right voice. Most impressive is thirteen-year-old Peter Robbins in (release-wise) his final outing as Charlie Brown. [12] Robbins had played the character in all of his animated appearances thus far, developing the right tone that mixed determination with an element of doubt; his narrated monologues in this film are particularly moving. Also excellent is Pamelyn Ferdin, still the quintessential Lucy van Pelt for capturing a demanding personality without being overly strident. Supporting roles (Glenn Gilger as Linus; Sally Dryer as Patty; Lynda Mendelson as Frieda; Christopher DeFaria as Pig Pen) are well-cast.

The dramatis personae of A Boy Named Charlie Brown is also appealing in that it features characters destined to become less prominent in animation thereafter (due to Schulz simultaneously finding limited use for them in the strip). It is true that characters such as Shermy, Violet, Frieda, and Patty are not as memorable as, say, Schroeder or Lucy, and that they function primarily as what Schulz called “straight men”: mere responders to their more personality-packed friends. But as someone who’s always considered the ‘60s the best chapter in Peanuts’s fifty-year run, they are essential components in how I picture the world in which Charlie Brown lives; and their presence here adds to what makes this, in my sincere opinion, the consummate representation of Peanuts on the silver screen.

As mentioned at the top, A Boy Named Charlie Brown is a film of tremendous importance to me, in part because of its connection to my favorite comic strip, in part because of its message and the degree to which I can relate. At the risk of sounding sentimental—or “wishy-washy,” to quote Lucy—I am thankful to have this movie in my life, and in fact wish I’d come across it earlier. (Those last few words spoken by Linus might’ve been of immeasurable help during that time where I longed for self-esteem.) And for that reason especially, this gem from 1969 is the animated film that means the most to me, the one dearest to my heart.

References:

  1. Schulz and Melendez recreated this specific gag in their second television special, Charlie Brown’s All Stars! (1966)
  2. When I first discovered Peanuts circa 2009, there were only four movies based on the comic strip: 1969’s A Boy Named Charlie Brown; 1972’s Snoopy Come Home; 1977’s Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown; and 1980’s Bon Voyage, Charlie Brown (and Don’t Come Back!!). 2015’s The Peanuts Movie was still some years away.
  3. Solomon, Charles. The Art and Making of Peanuts Animation: Celebrating Fifty Years of Television Specials. San Francisco: Chronicle Books LLC, pp. 28
  4. Bang, Derrick. Liner notes for A Boy Named Charlie Brown soundtrack, Kritzerland Records, 2017
  5. Ibid.
  6. Canby, Vincent. “Screen: Good Old Charlie Brown Finds a Home.” The New York Times, 5 December 1969.
  7. Solomon, pp. 28-9
  8. Ibid.
  9. Charles Schulz speaking at UCLA 5/24/1971
  10. Liner notes for A Boy Named Charlie Brown soundtrack.
  11. Ibid.
  12. According to Pamelyn Ferdin, although A Boy Named Charlie Brown was released after the half-hour television special It Was a Short Summer, Charlie Brown (1969), voice work on the movie was finished first, making It Was a Short Summer Robbins’s final performance as Charlie Brown.

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