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"Peanuts" 1970s Collection: Mush from the Wimp

by on October 29, 2009

I’m a child of the 1970s—excuse me a moment while go apply some of Grandpa Simpson’s Old-Timey Medicinal Lineament to my arthritic joints—and the Peanuts specials were a staple of the holidays. (Keep in mind, this was back when you only had five or six channels tops, so a special was a special.) The great triptych, of course, was the Christmas, Halloween, and Thanksgiving specials, the centerpiece of a giddy two-month holiday run of Rudolf, Frosty, and the occasional new spectacular. (In 1977 it was Rankin-Bass’s The Hobbit, which had me pee-in-my-pants excited.) Even today, the old CBS Special Presentation logo will give me the shadow of an echo of a chill of anticipation.

But even I don’t remember most of the specials on this DVD set. And you’re telling me there’s going to be a second volume of these things? I don’t remember not paying attention when there were cartoons to be watched.

Well, anyway.

As it happens, two of the aforementioned holiday treats—A Charlie Brown Christmas and It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown—were products of the previous decade and so are to found in the 1960’s Collection, as well as in a few other places. That leaves A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving and It’s the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown as the top-liners on this set. It’s a bit of a comedown, frankly.

It says something about their relative quality that, although the Peanuts Christmas and Halloween specials are intensely memorable, I had no clear memories associated with the Thanksgiving and Easter specials. After watching them I can see why. The Thanksgiving special in particular is very bland, a one-idea story stretched far past what its extended running time can support. Charlie Brown’s family is going to his grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving, but Peppermint Patty (who is at loose ends) invites herself and a few friends over to Chuck’s place for dinner. So Charlie Brown, Snoopy and their friends whip up a Thanksgiving repast of popcorn, toast, pretzels, and what looks like jellybeans. Peppermint Patty is outraged, until Marcie points out that Chuck did what he could after PP forced him into a corner. Apologies are made, and the whole gang heads of to grandmother’s house. It’s a sincere enough story, but draggy, and not nearly enough is done with what should be its heart: Charlie Brown’s crimson-faced inability to say “no” to anyone.

The Easter Beagle is much better, though that’s only by comparison. This one confidently juggles three small holiday-related plots: Snoopy and Woodstock testing out new bird houses; Marcy and Peppermint Patty trying to make Easter eggs; and Linus proselytizing about the “Easter Beagle.” The latter, of course, is shamelessly pilfered from The Great Pumpkin, and Sally even lampshades the debt by musing on how “familiar” Linus’s story sounds. But the special works because it has some very charming vignettes, including two very nice dance numbers featuring Snoopy. The most curious thing about it, though, is that it gives Easter—arguably the more important of the two main Christian holidays—a very secular treatment, in contrast to the poignantly respectful treatment the gang gave to Christmas. Still, this is a special worth watching more than once, if only for its clever weaving of Bach and Beethoven into the musical score.

The other four features on this disc are so unmemorable I can barely recall them, even after just watching them. Play It Again, Charlie Brown and There’s No Time for Love, Charlie Brown have no real discernible theme or structure, and feel like a lot of four-panel gags that have been stitched together. The latter, uncharacteristically, even gives Charlie Brown a victory of sorts when an essay he wrote on visiting a museum (a visit that went totally awry when he and his friends wound up in a supermarket instead) gets the highest grade in the class.

You’re Not Elected, Charlie Brown and It’s a Mystery, Charlie Brown are more firmly grounded. Mystery has Snoopy and Woodstock trying to track down Woodstock’s missing nest, which it turns out had been taken by Sally for science class. Mostly it features light physical comedy involving the dog and bird as they corner various suspects. It’s amusing for awhile—unless you suddenly remember Snoopy’s richly imaginative life in The Great Pumpkin, and then you’ll think his Sherlock Holmes getup is very tame and boring.

Finally, You’re Not Elected, Charlie Brown makes you wonder just how much effort went into some of these things. It’s the kind of set up that’s made for Charles Schultz’s sadsack hero: What could be more mortifying than to run for student body president (a popularity contest in all but name) and be rejected? And to lose by one vote because you made a fool of yourself in a speech and then, in a fit of conscience, voted for your opponent? That’s more or less what happens here, but it’s the anonymous “other candidate” (not Charlie Brown) who loses by one vote, and it’s Linus that he loses to. That’s right—in You’re Not Elected, Charlie Brown, the title character isn’t even on the ballot. It has some clever moments, like Lucy’s battle with a phone bank, but it’s hard to see past the missed opportunities.

The set comes with a documentary featurette, “Woodstock: Creating Snoopy’s Sidekick,” that strains mightily to find something to say about the little yellow bird. My takeaway was that the Peanuts strip began to go wrong when Woodstock was added to the cast, because, as Snoopy’s sidekick, he was a character twice removed from the original gang.

Sadly, most of these specials—especially the stitched-together Play It Again and No Time for Love—feel like things that were put together for the money, boxcars hitched to the Charlie Brown gravy train. That’s no crime, of course. But while A Charlie Brown Christmas and the other holiday-themed stories feel like evergreens purposefully made for the ages, the others on the set feel like one-offs tied to a franchise. Did anyone, even at the time, think It’s a Mystery, Charlie Brown, would play annually?

Peanuts 1970’s Collection Vol. 1 will be welcomed by completists, and they will find its contents presented with Warner Home Video’s usual professional craftsmanship. But those who pick and choose will find some of the other Peanuts collections a better value for their money.

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