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Monday, November 25, 2013

Snoopy vs. the Lawn Chair, 40 Years Later


Snoopy’s Nemesis
Image Source: “Peanuts: 1970’s Collection, Vol. 1” http://www.amazon.com
If Disney animator Norman Ferguson mastered the dog Pluto in his troubles involving a piece of flypaper in the 1930’s, then animator Bill Melendez also mastered the dog Snoopy and his troubles with an anthropomorphic lawn chair in the 1970’s. It was 40 years ago, on November 20 of 1973 that A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving aired on CBS. And audiences were given their first viewing of one of the best sequences of animation in Peanuts history.
Photo Source: http://www.nytimes.com
Bill Melendez
 Bill Melendez, who had begun his career at Disney’s in the late 1930’s, had become the master animator and director behind bringing the Peanuts of Charles Schulz to the medium. He was also, in a way, the heart and soul of Snoopy. Melendez provided the “voice” of the dog in every episode of the series, the only voice actor to appear in every one. In the comic strip of Schulz, Snoopy spoke in a sort of inner monologue, being one of the series’ more intellectual characters. In the animated series, the dog took on a more muted approach, only emoting little squeaks and yelps, all of which were provided by Melendez, whose primary role was as Director and Supervising Animator. “I was going to bring in an actor and let him run with it. Be we didn’t have time,” Melendez remembered. “So they used my noises and everybody liked them-even Sparky [Schulz]. It was just a caricatured bark, speeded up so it sounded completely different.”  
Norman Ferguson
 “Norman Ferguson was one of my favorite human beings,” Melendez would remember. “He used to draw like you couldn’t believe. He gave us lectures all the time in action-analysis class and animation classes.” “Fergy,” as he was known, was one of the stalwart animators at the Disney Studio in the 1930’s. He, along with others like Bill Tytla and Fred Moore, were the key role models for younger animators like Melendez. Fergy himself was known best as the master behind Pluto. And Melendez would take skills learned from Fergy and others like him and apply them to an equally, if not more famous dog.
        
Image Source: “Peanuts: 1970’s Collection, Vol. 1” http://www.amazon.com
As Snoopy and Woodstock offer to help Charlie Brown prepare for Thanksgiving dinner, Snoopy heads to the garage and brings out a rather complex looking lawn chair of wood and red and white striped canvas. He struggles to set it up properly and kicks it aside in frustration. The chair then takes on a life of its own, and ensues to literally fight back with Snoopy. Suffice it to say much comedy ensues. It’s a beautiful mix of fast paced action with slower paced beats spread out in between with the foes opposing each other in warrior like stances. With each beat, the fight grows more violent.
 


Image Sources: “Peanuts: 1970’s Collection, Vol. 1” http://www.amazon.com

Like the famous flypaper sequence that Norman Ferguson animated in Playful Pluto (1935), the action progresses smoothly between action and reaction. Both dogs think they have the upper hand but are repeatedly foiled in their attempts to be rid of their respective nuisances. Throughout the Peanuts series, Snoopy and Woodstock, being the pantomime characters, provided a return to the more traditional comedy of animation, that of visually driven gags. Pixar animator Doug Sweetland comments, “I was surprised by how much of the specials is dedicated to silent comedy with Snoopy and Woodstock. It seems the intention is to allow some breathing room and just enjoy a performance. The trouble Snoopy has with the folding chair in the Thanksgiving special is very much like Chaplin. You could be watching any silent comedian have a problem with any ordinary object.”


We must remember that at this point Melendez was more the supervisor than the sole animator. But this kind of imaginative sequence only comes from having a veteran like Melendez at the top. As the Peanuts series commenced, and Melendez worked to translate the comic strip characters to animation, he brought in other artists to assist. One such animator was Bill Littlejohn.
Bill Littlejohn

      Littlejohn was then, and still is today, regarded as a legend in animation. He had worked on Tom and Jerry at MGM, but also was instrumental in the unionizing of animation artists in Hollywood. Littlejohn was the founding President of the Screen Cartoonists Guild. Along with Herb Sorrell and Art Babbit, he was a key leader of the Disney Studio strike in 1941. Melendez, then working at Disney, was a member of the Guild and most certainly knew of Littlejohn. Melendez would end up leaving Disney’s as a result of the strike.

Photo Source: http://www.kcet.org
The Disney Strike, 1941

On the Peanuts specials, Littlejohn specialized in the animation of Snoopy under Melendez’s direction. He first animated Snoopy’s dancing on Schroeder’s piano in A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965) and later Snoopy’s battles with Red Baron in It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown (1967). His experience as a pilot in the Second World War became particularly handy for that sequence. “Snoopy was a dream; he was my favorite,” remembered Littlejohn. “He’s crazy! There’s no dialogue, just pantomime. He can do anything.”
“Littlejohn was famous for just taking off and doing whatever he felt like,” commented production designer Evert Brown. “The storyboards weren’t really that detailed. Littlejohn was famous for not really planning his animation out, but just letting it happen. He could see it in his mind and draw it.” Melendez called Littlejohn “the best animator that I’ve worked with, the most creative and productive.”
Storyboards were done for the sequence of Snoopy’s fight with the lawn chair however, hinting at some of the key poses that Littlejohn would push further in the actual animation:



Image Sources: “The Art and Making of Peanuts Animation” http://www.amazon.com
In the early days of the specials, the artists and animators received their screen credit under the title “Graphic Blandishment.” Animator Phil Roman, who was graduated to a co-directing role on the Thanksgiving special, made a change to that. In the years after Thanksgiving, artists would receive credit for their specific roles.
Image Source: http://www.fanpop.com
 The action of Snoopy and the chair takes place to composer Vince Guaraldi’s song, “Little Birdie,” one of the few songs in the series in which Guaraldi actually sung.
 
Photo Source: http://www.last.fm
Later in the special, as the children arrive at the table, Franklin finds himself assigned to the antagonizing chair, and proceeds to slump down into it. Not tall enough, his head barely pokes above the table. The chair it seems, manages one last victim.
 
Image Sources: “Peanuts: 1970’s Collection, Vol. 1” http://www.amazon.com



         Every year for the past 40 years, television audiences have been delighted to the antics of Snoopy and the lawn chair in A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving, as well as all the other wondrous gags and mishaps of the Peanuts ensemble. Let’s hope they’ll continue to be so delighted for many more decades to come.
 




Sources
- "A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving." Peanuts Wiki. N.p., n.d. Web. Nov. 2013. <http://peanuts.wikia.com/wiki/A_Charlie_Brown_Thanksgiving>.
-"Bill Littlejohn." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 13 Nov. 2013. Web. Nov. 2013. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bill_Littlejohn>.
-Ghez, Didier. Walt's People. Talking Disney with the Artists Who Knew Him. Vol. 9. [United States]: Xlibris Corporation, 2010. Print.
-Solomon, Charles. The Art and Making of Peanuts Animation: Celebrating Fifty Years of Television Specials. San Francisco, CA: Chronicle, 2012. Print.

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