Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Merry Christmas, Bill Melendez

This is the first Christmas with A Charlie Brown Christmas but without Bill Melendez. Of course, we all know "Peanuts" creator Charles Schultz left us years ago, and his cartoon progeny continue to live on in holiday specials and classic reprints of the strips in numerous newspapers, but you may be less familiar with Melendez, who painted quite a career in animation.

Bill Melendez directed the seminal holiday classic on a wing and more than just a proverbial prayer, in six months, with a nervous CBS network and Coca-Cola company breathing down his neck. When A Charlie Brown Christmas first aired on the 9th of December, 1965, Christmas specials were supposed to be filled with singing, dancing, big production values, and the main characters schlepping the sponsor's product in between the schmaltz. Producer Lee Mendelson, along with Melendez, and Charles Schultz, were having none of that. In fact, they dared to let Linus quote The Bible.

Ironically enough, Melendez and Schultz first met when Bill was called upon to create animated commercials featuring the Peanuts gang extolling the virtues of the 1962 Ford Falcon. (If somehow, Linus and Lucy selling cars seems inappropriate, let me remind you that to this day Snoopy still appears in commercials for the decidedly unchildlike Met Life insurance company.) From there, Melendez struck up the that rarest of gems: a friendship with Schultz that reached the echelon of always calling Schultz "Sparky." Actually, that should come as no surprise, for anyone who met Melendez met a man who was far too jovial for the manner in which his chosen profession had treated him.

J.C. Melendez, as you'll see his name in credits for classic Warner Brothers cartoons, was born in 1916 in Hermosillo, Mexico. He grew up in Arizona and California, and started his career going straight to the top: Walt Disney Studios, where he worked on Pinocchio, Bambi, and a number of short cartoons. The artists strike of 1941 made Melendez one of those disgruntled outcasts in the eyes of Uncle Walt, so Bill made his way to Warner's where he animated Bugs and Daffy in some of the greatest cartoons ever to come out of Hollywood. As the major studios cut back on the cartoons, Melendez moved to Playhouse Pictures, where he directed commercials. And that's what led him to the Ford Falcon account. Ford wanted the Peanuts gang in their commercials. History was about to be made.

Listen to Bill in the audio commentaries he recorded for the Looney Tunes DVD's. You'll hear somebody you want to hang around with. That positive outlook must have served him well, because making the half-hour show that would become a holiday classic wasn't easy. Real children provided the voices of the Peanuts characters, and voice directing children is no small feat. Bill modeled the characters almost directly from the comic strips, which raised a myriad of problems in animation. Schultz, a fan of Picasso, designed his characters "flat" in order to read clearly on the newspaper page. Melendez had to design the Peanuts style of animation where the third dimension is cheated when a character turns. A character could only raise his hand above his head in profile. And in Sparky's cartoon world that bears no room for adults to intrude, after all these years, we still have no idea who answers the command when Linus calls for, "Lights, please."

Watching the show today, we see all the warts, of course. The TV print used for many years was carelessly hacked - edited to provide more commercial time. DVD releases have restored the missing "snowball throwing" scene. The animation glitches at times. Digital TV and DVD remastering is not kind to the "graphic blandishments" as Melendez titled animation in the credits. The child voice actors needed a few more tries to get the inflection right here and there. There's a nasty cut in the film just as the "Linus and Lucy" dancing gets into high gear, causing the music to jump like a dropped record. Vince Guaraldi's piano is a little out of tune, and some of the cues come in rough, giving the whole thing a classroom production vibe that stuck with me as a child. And it stuck with a whole lot of people who watch it every Christmas and love it... warts and all.

Christmas, and life I guess, is not about making things perfect, but rather making something you love. Bill Melendez loved creating this cartoon. And we love him for making it.

Merry Christmas, Bill.

No comments: