Monday, March 15, 2010

DVD Review: PEANUTS 1970's COLLECTION, VOLUME 1 (Warner Home Video)

The first half of the 1970s found the Lee Mendelson-Bill Melendez PEANUTS TV specials growing ever more polished in presentation, yet losing a bit of their "special-ness" due to the increasing volume of product. Between 1971 and 1974, the years covered by this set, half-a-dozen specials were released, and the second PEANUTS feature film, Snoopy Come Home, was produced. To say that the quality of the TV product suffered as a result of the effort devoted to the movie isn't too much of an exaggeration. Play it Again, Charlie Brown (1971) and There's No Time for Love, Charlie Brown (1973), with their whisker-thin plots and over-reliance on transcripted strip gags, are easily worse than any of the specials of the 60s. Even the modestly successful You're Not Elected, Charlie Brown (1972) was a bit of a "cheater" in that it lifted the scenario of Linus running for student body president straight from a 1964 strip sequence (albeit with a couple of neat additions, such as a comically inept attempt at an "Ask the Candidate" phone-in radio show, tacked on to make half-hour "weight"). All of these shows contain funny bits, but there's far too much aimless drifting, especially in Play it Again and No Time for Love.

With the award-winning A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving (1973), the team rediscovered the winning formula. Along with A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) and It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown (1966), the Thanksgiving show has proven to have the hardiest "shelf life" of any PEANUTS special. True, the scene in which Linus recites William Brewster's prayer seems like too conscious an attempt to rekindle the spirit of Linus' Nativity Story recital from the Christmas special, but the "junk-food feast" that Charlie, Snoopy, et al. whip up for Peppermint Patty and guests is a simply priceless idea with the not-inconsiderable added virtue of being completely original. Phil Roman assumes the directorial duties from Melendez with this special, but the transition is smooth and seamless. It's the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown (1974) isn't quite as memorable as Thanksgiving -- Charles Schulz was undoubtedly treading very softly to avoid the more intensely religious aspects of the holiday in this case, leaving us with strict egg-and-bunny secularism -- but it sticks to the same path of originality (aside from the basic notion of the Easter Beagle, which Charles Schulz had used as an one-off gag). How many among us, while coloring Easter eggs, have ever been tempted to "prepare" them as the unwitting Marcie does here in so many delightful ways. Between these successful shows, we get the "sleeper" of this collection, It's a Mystery, Charlie Brown (1974). This special quietly vanished from view after one or two repeats, which seems a shame. No one seems to have made note of the fact that Schulz created a "persona" for Snoopy here (that of a Sherlock Holmes detective, who's on the trail of Woodstock's supposedly purloined nest) that Snoopy had never used in any comic strip. That alone should net the show some extra points. The "mock trial" and "bandit Peppermint Patty" business are very funny. The only real problems here are the voices: Sally's is irritatingly whiny -- though, given that Sally spends her time either complaining about school assignments or bitching that her science project has been stolen, one could legitimately say that this was what was intended all along -- while the girl (?) voicing Peppermint Patty appears to have had her tonsils swabbed with steel wool before speaking her lines.

The Warners DVD release is fairly bare-bones, aside from a short documentary on the creation of Woodstock. Despite the relative lack of ancillary matter and the weakness of several of the shows, this is the last release featuring a full slate of material produced during what some die-hards would regard as the era of "canonical" PEANUTS specials -- an epoch usually defined as ending with the death of Vince Guaraldi and/or the controversial decision to show the Little Red-Haired Girl in It's Your First Kiss, Charlie Brown (1977) -- and, as such, would have to be regarded as an essential purchase for PEANUTS fans. Even those who avow that "the only good PEANUTS specials were released in the 60s before they went all slick and 'commercial'" will want to own these in order to enjoy the ever-imaginative musical musings of Guaraldi, who's moved beyond the drums-keyboard-and-bass basics of the 60s while still remaining faithful to the series' established style.

No comments: