Great Achievements in Holiday Melancholia: It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown! (1966)
It’s a little late to be writing about It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, but, like A Nightmare Before Christmas, the film that uprooted the Great Pumpkin from its place as Halloween TV event de rigueur, Charlie Brown & Co. are better after the holiday they’re meant to celebrate, once the hype has gone down and the world settles back into its routine. As much as Great Pumpkin is about the madness of candy-high children, its true focus is the agony and ecstasy of anticipation.
Forget about Charlie Brown for a minute. It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown is all about Linus. Linus and his security blanket. Linus and his undying faith that there is a Great Pumpkin and that his pumpkin patch is the most sincere, the most worthy of the Great Pumpkin’s attention. There’s something bittersweet about Linus’ belief in the Great Pumpkin. He only comes from the pumpkin patch that is the most sincere. Presumably, he only gives presents to the good boys and girls in the area immediately surrounding said sincere pumpkin patch. The rules Linus drafts for his holiday deity are decidedly low-key, rigid in their lack of true wonder. In the letter he writes to the Great Pumpkin, the only thing he asks is that the Great Pumpkin not tell him he’s a phoney if he indeed is one. The other children make fun of him because they believe in Santa Claus, a gift-giver with better publicity, but his disappointment on November 1st is a slightly magnified, slightly more existential problem than the one they’ll face on December 26th: Not only does Linus get nothing on Halloween (as opposed to maybe not getting everything on a Christmas list), but every year Linus waits in his pumpkin patch, staring down the reality that his sentient pumpkin doesn’t just fail him every year, but might not exist.
Linus-as-everyman is overshadowed tremendously by Charlie Brown, and it’s not hard to understand why. Here, as he does in every TV special and once or twice every fall in perpetuity, he tries to kick Lucy’s football, having been presented a signed (but not notarized) document promising that it will stay put. The confidence in Charlie Brown’s approach is heartrending–”This year, I’m really going to kick that football!” might just be one of the most hopeless sentences the English language can muster. It seems like Charlie Brown only gets one chance every year to kick that football, and that he’s never going to find out if he’s any good. That scene seems to have been added outside It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown‘s larger plot, a greatest hit added to please a fanbase always ready to laugh at poor Charlie Brown, but he fares no better on Halloween. He is invited to a party by mistake. He can’t make a proper ghost costume. He gets nothing but rocks when he goes out for trick or treating. We laugh at Charlie Brown, but only because we so deeply identify with him.
But, compared to Linus, Charlie Brown is the king of the world. He ruins Sally’s Halloween, stays out in the pumpkin patch all night long, and is eventually dragged inside by his put-upon sister. Linus isn’t the Peanuts’ magnet for sympathy, but here, his connection to the viewer is deeper than most cartoon/comic strip characters ever achieve. Standing on the bridge with Charlie Brown, he vows that the Great Pumpkin is real, that he’ll come around next year, that we’ll all see what he’s talking about. Linus is the bum year, the bad holiday, the lost bet, the believer of absent gods. Charlie Brown may be us at work, at school, in public, but Linus is who we are at home, in private, doors shut and windows shuttered. We continue to believe in the ridiculous, and there is always, always next year.
For It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown to work as holiday TV, it needs to have sweetness at its core, and that sweetness is Linus’ unending faith, naive and unshakable. The Peanuts, popular as they were (are?) with children, were never really a commentary for or about them, but about adults, seen here dropping rocks into Charlie Brown’s bag, and adult lives. The Peanuts lead their lives largely without the influence of anybody older than them, and, precocious as any of their actions or beliefs are, they largely mirror our own. Life tells us to stop believing in the impossible. Life pulls the football away when we go to kick it. Life gives us rocks. We continue to go trick or treating. We keep waiting in the pumpkin patch. We hope ours is the most sincere.
Paul Arrand Rodgers
Paul Arrand Rodgers has this blog, and that's about it.