Old Friends

56 Years Ago, One Halloween Special Dared To Be Brilliantly Melancholy

It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, isn’t just good. It’s transgressive perfection.

Charlie browns great pumpkin patch
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Ostensibly, Peanuts is a funny comic strip about a charismatic, anthropomorphic dog and his sad owner for children and a powerful exploration of faith, belief, depression, yearning, and the intense and unavoidable pain of being human for adults that also has the benefit of being hilarious and relatable. And if that sounds like a surprising amount of intellectual gymnastics for a thing about Snoopy, then the legendary 1966 Halloween special It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown took things to an entirely different level. The Great Pumpkin, represents the apex of Charles Schultz’s revered American institution as well as its purest and most profound meditation on the bifurcated nature of belief, how it can fill a true believer with passionate conviction and a sense of purpose but also break your heart again and again and again.

It’s a contradiction that shouldn't work, and the fact that it does proves that It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is not only a bit transgressive in its introspection, but also the most brilliantly melancholy kids’ holiday special of all time.

The true believer whose heart gets broken again is blanket-loving Linus, who is so invested in the idea that every Halloween a mythical creature known as The Great Pumpkin visits the most sincere pumpkin patch in the land and doles out goodies to deserving girls and boys that he’s willing to forego Trick or Treating and court public humiliation. Linus doesn’t care if people laugh at him. He doesn’t mind looking like a fool. He has the unshakeable zeal of a fanatic. Believing in the Great Pumpkin defines Linus. It sets him apart from the normies of the world, with their dreary mainstream Santa Claus and indefensible lack of faith and imagination.

It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is more metaphorically rich now than ever before. Linus is, in his own way, a conspiracy theorist who eschews the mainstream cults of Santa Claus and Trick or Treating in favor of a belief system that makes him a laughingstock but also, pointedly, isn’t that different from believing in Santa Claus. In our own real world, QAnon cultists' belief in “Q” is only slightly more plausible than The Great Pumpkin. Linus’ belief is the innocent yearning of a pure-hearted child but it could easily be corrupted to sinister ends. Linus is consequently at once wonderfully specific and a surrogate for anyone who does not let reality or constant disappointment get in the way of their beliefs about how the world secretly works.

As Charlie Brown says of the distinction between the popular and accepted Santa Claus and the unpopular and shunned Great Pumpkin, “They’re obviously separated by denominational differences!”

That’s one of the great, surprising things about It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown!” It doesn’t just feature words too sophisticated for children. It contains words too sophisticated for adults as well.

Is Linus pure of heart or insane?

Apple

In It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, Linus seeks to curry favor with the Great Pumpkin with the purity of his belief while Charlie Brown and his friends go Trick or Treating and then to a party and Snoopy wages aerial warfare in his mind atop his trusty doghouse. But first the special explores hope and disappointment from a different angle through Lucy Van Pelt once again offering to help poor Charlie Brown practice by holding the football for him to kick. Charlie Brown knows damn well that Lucy will pull the ball away at the very last moment and he will go end up on his back in pain, humiliated once again.

Charlie Brown knows that Lucy is not to be trusted. He knows how this story ends and initially refuses to go along until she presents him with a signed document vowing not to yank the football away. Hope springs eternal and infernal. Charlie Brown fools himself into thinking that it really will be different this time, only to once again land inevitably on the ground in pain, with only himself to blame.

In triumph, Lucy smugly observes, “Peculiar thing about this document: it was never notarized.”

It’s safe to assume that only a tiny fraction of It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown’s demographic of Snoopy-loving children had any idea what being notarized even entailed but Schultz was never afraid to talk up to his audience and to assume that they were just as smart, sad, weird and casually philosophical as he was.

That’s the beauty of Peanuts. The children and animals in it are incredibly precocious. Lucy Van Pelt practiced psychotherapy without a license while Snoopy divided his time between trying to write a novel and cosplaying as a World War I fighter pilot.

In the most dazzlingly specific touch, the songs that Schroeder plays on the piano that moves Snoopy to dance and then weep are genuine songs from World War I like "Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit-Bag” and “Roses of Picardy”, something destined to allude even savvy adult viewers.

It’s hard to overstate the role Vince Guaraldi's lonely piano and snazzy jazz score plays in establishing an appropriately melancholy, bittersweet tone. Guaraldi’s Peanuts music, specifically “Christmastime is Here” popped up on the soundtrack to The Royal Tenenbaums. That makes sense since it fits Wes Anderson’s oeuvre as well as it does Peanuts. Anderson could easily begin each shoot by playing Guaraldi's scores for It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, and A Charlie Brown Christmas and explaining that that was the tone and the mood they would be going for.

Considering how beloved the score to It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is, particularly “Linus and Lucy” it’s crazy to think that its soundtrack was never released until 2018 and then in a version that included sound effects. 2022 saw the release of a proper soundtrack using the original master tapes. Hearing these iconic ditties all over again induces a Pavlovian response at once happy and sad in that inevitable Peanuts way.

Wonderfully, Snoopy does not utter a word in It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown yet he goes through a rollercoaster of emotions all the same. Director Bill Melendez, who also voices Snoopy. had one of the most impressive resumes in animation. He began his career as an animator at Disney on films like Pinocchio, Fantasia, and Dumbo before moving to Warner Brothers and working on a slew of classic Merrie Melodies and Looney Tunes cartoons before establishing himself as a director with a series of acclaimed Peanuts specials. Melendez’s work on Peanuts is not as kinetic or lush as his work with Disney and Warner Brothers. There’s not a great deal of movement here. It’s not like Disney, where the entire frame feels alive. Yet Melendez got as much comedy, drama, and pathos from one character moving across an otherwise still image as lesser directors did from frames overflowing with frenetic movement. There’s a painterly beauty and depth to Melendez’s work here, an autumnal quality that reaches an apex in the kaleidoscopic wonder of Snoopy’s pretend air war with the Red Baron.

Snoopy is brilliant in Great Pumpkin. And also, silent.

Apple

Despite the central roles Linus and Snoopy play here it’s called It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown for a reason. While the titular loser has a secondary role in the proceedings this is nevertheless a wonderful showcase for everyone’s favorite pint-sized Depressive. He’s a wonderful foil for Linus and Lucy but makes his most indelible impression as a Trick or Treater with a homemade ghost costume with WAY too many eye holes who is given a rock at every home while everyone else gets candy.

In a world full of treats, Charlie Brown is doomed to receive an endless series of tricks from an uncaring universe. In that respect, Linus is his brother in hope and consequently his brother in perpetual disappointment as well. Charlie Brown foolishly holds out hope that things might go his way. He allows himself the dangerous fantasy that Lucy will finally let him kick the ball, that he’ll get invited to the cool Halloween party thrown by his crush, that he’ll get candy instead of rocks, and finally that he’ll be able to get through to Linus and disabuse him of his belief in the Great Pumpkin.

All of these hopes are cruelly dashed but his suffering cannot compare to that of Linus, because is a zealot, an extremist, a cultist, an acolyte, and ultimately a lunatic.

In contrast to Charlie Brown, Linus only wants one thing out of Halloween: for his secular God the Great Pumpkin to appear in a worthy, appropriately sincere pumpkin patch and reward Linus and other followers for their faith and redeem their years of suffering for their peculiar religion.

Linus has an innately one-sided relationship with the Great Pumpkin because only one of them actually exists. He writes to him the same way less imaginative, crazy kids write Santa Claus. He doesn’t just want to believe in the Great Pumpkin. He needs to believe.

He even concludes one of his missives to the Great Pumpkin, “P.S-If you really are a fake, don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.”

It’s an incredibly telling, revelatory moment. For Linus, faith is its own reward. It makes him different, special. As foolish and ultimately sad as Linus’ belief in the Great Pumpkin may be, I can’t help but envy the purity and ferocity of his conviction and the way it makes his Halloween different than everyone else’s. Instead of indulging in the holiday’s spooky hedonism, Linus transforms Halloween into a religious experience, with the pumpkin patch as his cathedral of sadness and doomed hope.

When the Great Pumpkin inevitably disappoints Linus he does not lose faith in the Great Pumpkin. Instead, he assumes that HE is the reason that The Great Pumpkin did not show. When he tells his friends that if the Great Pumpkin shows he’ll put in a good word for them he’s mortified by his lack of faith and corrects himself to say that WHEN the Great Pumpkin shows he’ll put in a good word.

Linus is horrified by his richly justified lack of belief. After all, The Great Pumpkin not only rewards but angrily demands sincerity and unquestioning belief. He’s an angry God more than willing to punish even the most minor infraction. Linus is so committed that he spends the night shivering in a pumpkin patch, cold, wet and miserable. It’s his older sister Lucy that brings him home and puts him to bed in a sequence that is deeply, powerfully tender despite Lucy being perhaps the least tender character in Peanuts other than Peppermint Patty.

It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown isn’t just the kind of beloved perennial families watch together every year; it’s a perfect piece of art that should be experienced anew every Halloween because it’s that deep and that rich and that dense with exquisite details.

Unlike the never-appearing titular Great Pumpkin, Charles Schultz and Bill Melendez’s magnum opus never disappoints.

It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown Streaming

From October 28 to October 31, Apple TV will let you stream It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, for free, even if you don’t have Apple TV+. After that, you gotta pay. Details here.