I grew up in one of those families that didn’t celebrate Halloween. For the most part I didn’t even know what that day of the year fully was until I started kindergarten and even then much of my exposure came from two sources. We were still a few years away from Tim Burton’s a Nightmare Before Christmas, and at that time, my only real exposure to the day came in the form of two sources. One was the trick-or-treating scene in the movie ET. The second was from one particular holiday special: It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. All things considering, in a world with an endless glut of bad slasher movies, perhaps that is one of the better sources for a young child to experience.
We may complain nowadays about the Hollywood franchise machine cranking out sequels and spin-offs and remakes, but there was always a sense that if something was successful enough it just might warrant a follow-up. 1965’s A Charlie Brown Christmas was no exception, as it’s critical and commercial acclaim lead to them developing more specials. Great Pumpkin was not the second Charlie Brown special, that distinction goes to Charlie Brown’s All-Stars, a baseball themed short that aired the summer of ’66.
However, despite being the third special, it is safe to say that the Great Pumpkin is perhaps the second most well known Charlie Brown special, after A Charlie Brown Christmas. With a bigger budget and more time, Great Pumpkin is much tighter then it’s Yuletide predecessor, and ahs neater details, but it still ahs the same genuine heart. Between Linus’s persistent beliefs in the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown cutting too many holes in his ghost costume, Snoopy’s battle with the Red Baron, and of course, Charlie’s exasperated lament while trick or treating of “I got a rock”, there is no shortage of now iconic moments in this short.
The story opens shortly before Halloween with Linus and Lucy going to find the perfect pumpkin to carve a Jack O’ Lantern. Taking it back home, Lucy plunges a huge carving knife into the pumpkin forcing her little brother to wail, “Oh, you didn’t tell me you were going to kill it!” which, in and of itself is still rarity for a kids show to even say the “K” word today as it was back then. After a creepy and kooky opening credit sequence of the Peanuts gang trick- or treating and being chased bay assortment of ghouls and goblins we move into our main story.
Linus is writing to the Great Pumpkin once again and his actions incur the scorn of his friends, his sister, and even Snoopy who laughs at him. The only one who bothers to listen is Sally, whose unrequited love for Linus propels her to listen to what he says. Meanwhile, Charlie Brown is overjoyed as he has for the first time in his life he has been invited to a Halloween party.
Later, while the rest of the gang goes trick or treating Linus is adamant that he will wait in the pumpkin patch for the Great Pumpkin to arrive. Sally is hesitant, but her love wins over and she agrees to stay with him. That night during the Halloween party Linus is startled by a strange noise. He faints only for Sally to see that it was not pumpkin at all, but actually Snoopy. She berates him, and leaves with the rest of their friends only for Linus to urge them to stay, saying he will put a good word in with the Great Pumpkin “if” he comes, Linus realizes that his slip up will cause the Great Pumpkin to pass him by . Linus spends his whole night in the pumpkin patch and no Great Pumpkin arrives. In the end both Charlie and Linus have a disappointing Halloween, with Charlie getting a bag of rocks and the Pumpkin never showing up for Linus. Charlie consoles Linus saying that he’s done some stupid things too. Irate Linus adamantly declares that next year it will be different.
One thing that is really stunning is the sky during the nighttime scenes of this special. The hand painted water-color backgrounds help give it an appropriate eerie feeling without making it scary. In fact there’s been many a Halloween night when I’ve gone out to walk my dog and I haven’t felt like the sky didn’t look a little bit like what we see behind Charlie, Linus and the gang.
Vince Guaraldi continued to prove his skill as a composer in this special, introducing several new themes, including the Great Pumpkin Waltz. The tone of the music isn’t so much creepy haunted house, as much like “fall”, with the crunching of leaves, and the chill in the wind, in the same way that his leitmotifs for A Charlie Brown Christmas make one feel like they are walking through snow. Any brass is toned by a straight mute, while the flute gives off the hint of a crisp fall wind, while brushes touch the cymbals of the set.
The voice cast from A Charlie Brown Christmas reprises their roles in this special, and as always they are pitch perfect. Here, Linus, who sounded so wise beyond his years at Christmas, sounds so innocent and childlike, yet is mixed with the same sincerity that only a child can possess when they enthusiastically believe in something. The lovelorn Sally cuts into him when her Halloween is a dud due to missing everything fun by waiting for the Great Pumpkin. Her sweet childlike voice carries with it all the weight of a hurt kid on the playground, but none of the bite of a mean adult. We know she will forgive Linus and pine after him, she’s just really frustrated right now.
We also see signs of a nicer side of Lucy as she, albeit recently, asks for extra treats for her brother. Then at the end, when poor Linus is shivering in the pumpkin patch half asleep, and still waiting on the early morning hours of November 1st, she sets her alarm, goes outside and brings him in to bed. As for Charlie, there is a hint of hope in his life as he is finally invited to a party, only to still get made fun of, showing that the boy has nothing short of patience that would make the biblical Job proud.
Snoopy goes on his own little side story, dressing as a World War I flying ace and going head to head in his imagination against the Red Baron. A full generation before the cute little Jack Russell Terrier Wishbone, reminded us of the joy of imagination in stories and the freedom it brings, Snoopy did the same atop his dog house going on these lavish dog fights. It’s these exploits that place him in the direct path to fool Linus into thinking the Great Pumpkin has arrived.
Much has been made about the possible religious parallels for Linus with the Great Pumpkin. Schulz admitted it was never his intent to mock religion, but rather that he always thought it would be amusing if there was a little kid who got his holidays switched around and instead of expecting Santa, expected a sentient pumpkin to deliver presents at Halloween. If anything, this special continues to lampoon some of the more commercialized aspects of holidays, including Linus asking if his friends came to sing Pumpkin carols ( as a religious festival would sing hymns, not carols), parties, and even nasty gag gifts.
This lampooning of the commercialized aspects of holidays, in particular Christmas is a thread that continues on through at least two other specials. In A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving we see Sally and Charlie lament that a store already has stuff up for Christmas ( in a special made in the mid 70s none the less, decades before Wal-Mart would open at 5 PM on Thanksgiving on Black Friday) and in The Easter Beagle we see, the gang go to a mall, only to see the Christmas stuff up in March or April. For Schulz the sacred and beautiful things of the holidays were worth celebrating, while the crass commercialized aspects were rife for humor.
At the same time, Linus and Sally are faced with something of an existentialist dilemma, on par with Estragon and Potzo in Samuel Becket’s Waiting for Godot, but in true Peanuts fashion Linus does not give in to despair. Rather, like his best friend Charlie Brown, he still persists in their innocent child like faith to hold on that things could be better next year. They continue to show that no matter how crazy it is, sometimes you still got a kick that football, or wait for the Great Pumpkin, even if common sense and experience say differently. Sometimes, all you have to do is hold on and maybe things can and will be better.
Part of the humor of the story comes from the sincerity that we see in Linus , Charlie and Snoopy. As Linus tells Sally in the pumpkin patch “Not one sign of hypocrisy. Nothing but sincerity as far as the eye can see” Linus sincerely believes in the Great Pumpkin, Snoopy sincerely believes he is a World War I flying Ace in pursuit of the Red Baron, and Charlie Brown sincerely believes he has been invited to a party and will have a fun Halloween. It is because of this sincerity that conflict arises as they are mocked and ridiculed. Yet at the same time it’s this sincerity of their beliefs that help them persist in their respective goals. Part of the appeal of Peanuts is that quest for the allusive. Whether it’s a Little Red Haired girl, a perfect tree, the Red Baron, or the Great Pumpkin our heroes will always try to strive for a goal. Sometimes they may lose, other times they may succeed, but just barely. Kind of like in life. We don’t always get what we want, and sometimes all we can do is hold on, have fat.
While the Great Pumpkin may lack the warmth and heart of A Charlie Brown Christmas, it is still a delightful, humorous, and whimsical classic, worthy of its place alongside that beloved Christmas special. In fact around this time of year, I am proud to say that it is on my short “must watch list alongside Nightmare Before Christmas, Corpse Bride, Gremlins, Ghostbusters, and Disney’s the Legend of Sleepy Hollow. Happy 50th Anniversary, Great Pumpkin. Let’s hope for 50 more years of sincerity as far as the eye can see.