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Cartoon Brew TV #6: Peanuts Ephemera

(Alternate commentary-free version: This link will allow you to watch the original cartoon without audio commentary)

You’re A Madman, Charlie Brown!

This week from the Cartoon Brew TV’s “Brew Vaults”, we offer several rare animated spots featuring Charles Schulz’s beloved Peanuts characters. We’re dedicating this episode to Peanuts animation director Bill Melendez, who passed away last month. First, the rarely seen theatrical trailer for the initial feature-length Peanuts movie, A Boy Named Charlie Brown (1969). This trailer was the first 16mm film I ever bought (at a New York Comic Con in the 1970s) and it led to a lifetime of collecting cartoons on film, so it holds great nostalgia for me. I actually saw A Boy Named Charlie Brown at Radio City Music Hall (it was the big Christmas attraction that year). I still recall how odd it was to see such simplistic animation on the huge Music Hall screen–a screen which usually played host to Disney’s latest fully-animated masterpieces. In retrospect, the film is one of the best pieces of Peanuts animation, comparable to the earliest Peanuts holiday specials. Schulz, as usual, wrote the screenplay and retained a smattering of the adult-skewing wit that had all but disappeared from the Peanuts TV shows produced at this time. Poet-Composer Rod McKuen wrote the four songs in the film, and they are pretty good. The movie was a huge hit, becoming the number one film the week it was released, and ultimately spawned three sequels.

Following the movie trailer, we dive into “Animated Peanuts B.C.B.C” (Before Charlie Brown Christmas). The first time the Peanuts crew were animated was to pitch the Ford Falcon compact car in commercials created for Ford Motor Company. Ford also sponsored The Ford Show (1957-1961) starring country entertainer Tennessee Ernie Ford. Playhouse Pictures, a commercial animation studio in Hollywood made up primarily of ex-UPA employees, was commissioned by the J. Walter Thompson ad agency to create a new Ford sponsored animated opening each week for the Ford Show. In 1960-61 they decided to use the Peanuts characters in several of the actual show openings. Note that the first gag here uses Paul Frees as the voice of Charlie Brown! This is followed by a Ford car spot promoting the 1961 Falcon models. This commercial features my favorite Peanuts character, Pig-Pen. Unlike the later Charlie Brown TV specials and movies (and a bit like the old Dell Peanuts comic books), these Ford spots represent Peanuts with the least creative involvement by Schulz, who was known to write and draw almost all Peanuts material himself.

In a 1984 interview with the Museum of Broadcasting, Bill Melendez recalled his first encounters with Charles Schulz and Charlie Brown:

Well, I was doing Ford commercials at J. Walter Thompson when it was decided that Charlie Brown would be the spokesman for the Ford Falcon. I was told Charles Schulz was very shy and reticent about commercializing his strip. So I went to San Francisco and met Sparky and we hit it off. I told him what we did, and he nodded and said, “All right, we’ll try it.” He was very leery of getting involved with “Hollywood types” as he used to call us.

Of course he understands that his drawings are flat, two dimensional designs, and that, for example, the front view is very different from the side view. They are not three-dimensional characters. You can’t turn them around the way we used to turn the Walt Disney characters, who were designed to be round and three-dimensional. To animate Peanuts characters we have to be more inventive, because we tend not to be realistic. We don’t try to ape real live action as we did in animating Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse.

I imagine Sparky must have been curious about how we were going to do it, but he never gave us any kind of a hint or anything at all about what he wanted. So we showed him how we thought it should move, how we thought they should turn, how we thought they should walk and he accepted everything. From then on we hit it off pretty well.

Thanks to Michael Geisler and Stu Shostack for recording the audio track, and Randall Kaplan for his expert sound and picture editing.

  • Great stuff. Pig Pen has been in a few of the specials and was sort of the deux ex machina in the recent Valentine’s special. Pig Pen was basically a one-trick pony that Schulz couldn’t do much with but the fans wouldn’t let Pig Pen die in the way that they didn’t care all too much when a flat character like Shermy got dropped from the strip (not that Shermy doesn’t have fans).

  • You know what, Cartoon Brew? You and your awesomeness make me SICK.

  • Angry Anim

    This is my favorite BrewTv so far. Really cool and really interesting post, Jerry!

  • In 1969, I was 16 years old, and I was a huge PEANUTS fan. Yet, I never completely warmed to “A BOY NAMED CHARLIE BROWN”; I’ll have to give it another try, perhaps when Warners really gives the entire series a grand unearthing, complete with little tidbits like these as special features. I actually liked “SNOOPY COME HOME” a little more, although I do recognize that, since Snoopy had become such a popular character by then, the series was soon becoming more kid-friendly. These spots were terrific, though, and I, too, like Pigpen as a character. I also much preferred the original group of young people who did the voices of the various characters. I felt that all were so perfectly matched with the characters, whereas, as the series got more kid-friendly, I just thought the various voices got a bit more shrill. Thanks for these memories, though. It is a fantastic testament to the talents of Bill Melendez!

  • Bob89

    You guys should try to get J.J. Villard’s Son of Satan on here. I’ve been searching for it for ages.

    But this was great post, I enjoyed it.

  • JP

    Jerry – what a treat! Thank you so much for sharing those old Ford clips! As a huge Peanuts fan, I’d thought I’d seen everything – but these were clips I’d only read about in books.

    “A Boy Named Charlie Brown” has always been my favorite Peanuts feature. It’s got a weird combination of melancholy and cheer (I guess it’s the “Charlie Browinest” of all the films.)

    The animation is more or less what you get from the TV specials… with a few exceptions. The more surreal scene where Schroeder plays the Beethoven sonata certainly departs from what you’d find on TV or in the strips.

    Also, is it me? Or does anyone else feel a bit uneasy seeing Charlie Brown’s limbs spinning wildly when he’s struck by a line drive on the pitcher’s mound? It’s almost like his arms and legs are drawn out of proportion during this sequence.

  • That is truly some fun stuff!!! And, in the same breath, YOO just brought back a grand memory for ME! The first 16 I ever bought was from you (the Popeye, “Fowl Play”)….and i, too, did not own a projector at the time!!

    Thanx for the post….and thanx for the memories!!

  • This is great stuff! The Ford opening is really special. It has great animation and reflects Schulz’s style of Peanuts in the early 60s. I don’t think you’ll ever see any other Peanuts animation like it!

    This classic stuff is the best. I am not looking forward to the Flash Charlie Brown special that Studio B is producing.

  • autisticanimator

    WOW I only got to see “The Ford Show” three times on PBS a few years back, and these intros were what kept my intrests up for them! Thanks for finding them for us!

  • Joseph P Doyle

    You know, Jerry, this really made my day. I’ve been a “Peanuts” fan almost my whole life and I really like the commentary you’ve given on the history of these classic characters. The trailer for the first one of their feature films was really cool and so were the Ford ad bumpers.

  • Saturnome

    Nice guitar playing, mr.Beck!
    These ads are more of a curiosity to me (not part of my childhood, not as worthy of a look as the Maypo commercials posted by mr.Goldberg), but it was very nice to see.

  • That was VERY cool Jerry. Did anyone notice that was Paul Frees doing the narration? I didn’t know he did those commercials, sweet!

  • Wow, the “A Boy Named Charlie Brown” trailer was your first 16mm movie you bought?

    I thought you had some random golden age cartoon from some random studio, maybe a cult live-action trailer, or some weird cult cartoon qualifying for “Cartoon Dump”.

    But I least expected “A Boy Named Charlie Brown” trailer to be your first 16mm movie.

    I wonder if you whether you were in high school or college when you bought that trailer.

  • I’m glad everyone is enjoying these episodes from the BREW VAULTS. We’ve got some exciting and rare goodies coming up.

    Gavin – Err, yes Gavin, I did notice Paul Frees doing the narration – I mentioned it on the audio commentary and in the text above.

    ParamountCartoons – As I say in the post above, I bought this trailer at a 1970s Comic Con, at which time I was still in high school (I mention this specifically in the audio commentary).

  • Brian D. Scott

    I saw it at Radio City Music Hall in December of 1969! I was 4 years old and it was the first movie I saw in a theater!!

  • Chris Sobieniak

    Thanks for sharing one of the first things that got you into the 16mm collecting bug. Sadly my first 16mm print wasn’t some sort of animation, rather, a bunch of educational films thrown out in a dumpster of a high school I went to during the end of my Junior year, needless to say one thing led to another and I was hooked, but I can remember the look of some people’s faces at the few reels i had snuck into class upon finding them ditched over a decade ago. Sometime before that though, I had once bought an 8mm silent film of the Apollo 11 moon landing at a record show that led to my older brother introducing me to a friend of his who was an avid collector himself who hooked me up with an issue of Big Reel and it impressed me that I was not alone in this sort of thing.

    It’s hard to explain thoughts that went through my mind then, but the thought of images running in sequence making movement was distilled into my head at the time and seeing it projected make it more the merrier. I think we all go through that period in life when things like this become important in our lives and we wouldn’t turn our backs on.

    Getting back to Peanuts, I simply enjoyed “A Boy Named Charlie Brown” from the moment I saw it over 20 years ago on cable. I enjoy some of the slight deviations and other motifs that were used in the film I hadn’t seen before in the specials of that time, as well as it’s score. I thought the DVD that came out a few years back was pretty OK despite it’s barebones appearance. I still felt they put some good effort in it’s presentation I hadn’t seen before with it’s 5.1 sound and anamorphic picture. It’s the best I’ve seen it since the days of the hissy mono VHS cassette.

    Pluses for the Ford Show opening and commercial too. I noticed another Ford Show opening up on YouTube recently featuring Lucy and Linus doing the telephone can thing as the show was beginning on the TV set. Neat to go back to the earliest animations of Schulz’s characters with Melendez doing them from the very beginning.

  • 30 miles per gallon? Oil changes every 4000 miles? I’m sold!

    That is pretty impressive to see how even someone with as much control over his characters as Charles Schulz was willing to let his characters try commercial works back then. A warmup towards using his characters for MetLife ads.

    Catching the original Boy Named Charlie Brown trailer was great too. You should contact the Schulz estate about using it for a DVD release.

  • Sara

    I realize I’m very late to the party here. I just got around to watching these and greatly enjoyed them. I would like to make one comment though. You seem to be saying that the Ford commercial looks the way it does because of a lack of Schulz’s direct influence. Animation-wise, that may be true, but in terms of the design of the characters, it’s actually more reminiscent of the style a particular period in the “Peanuts” comic, somewhere in between the “Good ol’ Charlie Brown, how I hate him” original strips and the later strips done in the style most people think of as “classic Peanuts.” At that time, Snoopy had the longer, skinnier snout he sports in the ad and the kids were a little chunkier and wider headed than their later models. It’s just another reason why it’s so interesting to see these rare clips. Thanks for sharing.

  • Tireless Megafan (1957-58)

    Excellent post! I see that the “Paul Frees voice” for Charlie Brown is actually Charlie Brown lip-synching to a recording of Paul Frees — but Charlie Brown does speak one word in his “own” voice at the beginning: “Ready!”

    From the sound of the voices in the Ford-show opening and in the Falcon commercial, I gather that they were using real children, even at this stage? (Perhaps “professionals”, like Peter Robbins later, rather than “amateurs”, like those voicing “lesser” characters.) They seem to be the same voice-types that would become well-known with the later, half-hour specials, Charlie Brown, Linus, and Pig-Pen as well. It’s interesting that we tend to hear the story of how they decided on the voice-types when creating “A Charlie Brown Christmas”, but REALLY it seems that that had already been done when they made these Ford spots! (And did this for more of the characters when they made the sequences for the 1963 documentary.)

  • Dude! That trailer should be on the A BOY NAMED CHARLIE BROWN DVD. The DVDs of this film and SNOOPY COME HOME are very lacking in extras!