Whenever there's a new release of a Charles Schulz Charlie Brown cartoon on DVD, I'm always newly surprised at how many of these shorts he, Lee Mendelson and Bill Melendez produced over the years. Having grown up with the strip and the TV specials in the 1970s, there seemed to be a core three or four titles that aired repeatedly on network TV that I paid attention to, and that was it. The major holidays were covered by the Peanuts gang - Christmas, Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Easter - but I don't really remember too many other specials sticking in my head. Warner Bros. has just released Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown in a brand spanking new remastered edition, along with two bonus shorts, It's Your First Kiss, Charlie Brown, and You're In Love, Charlie Brown -- all of which I don't have the faintest recollection seeing prior to this DVD.
I wonder where Peanuts stands today with younger kids. Those classic holiday shorts still show up on television every year, so I would imagine most kids know Charlie and Lucy and Linus from those airings, but are they the force they used to be when I was growing up? Back when I was a kid (cue the grumpy old man music, kids, as you tune me out), the Peanuts specials were really something to look forward to on TV - and you had one shot a year at catching them (I can't even begin to imagine what I would have done with cable networks devoted solely to my needs back then - I probably never would have left the house). And more importantly, kids read the newspaper comics every day. We poured over them, after the old man was done with the sports section, and Peanuts was probably the top favorite for kids my age. Do kids do that anymore? And if they do, do they read the old Peanuts classics that are rerun today (my own kids can't be bothered with black and white newspaper comics)?
Now, more than ever after his death, Schulz's seminal strip - often cited as the first comic to deal first and foremost with people's emotions - is the subject of critical and historical reappraisal and reevaluation from pop culture writers and comic historians. While I suspect most casual viewers won't care in the slightest to view the Peanuts gang in such a serious manner, it is remarkable, after watching the engaging Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown, how unusual the best of these shorts were, in comparison to most standard animated TV kiddie fare at the time. The first short offered on this DVD, Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown, is not Scooby-Doo or The Pink Panther - and I love those cartoons. There's real, true depth of emotion explored in Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown, a nagging, persistent contemplation of the human spirit - with a decidedly adult, and perhaps negative - viewpoint that lies beneath the surface of this deceptively simple "kiddie cartoon."
If you've seen it before, you know Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown concerns the long-standing running gag in Schulz' strip that had Charlie Brown not only pining for the Little Red-Haired Girl, but also lamenting the fact that he never received a Valentine in the mail. The animated short takes this basic story element, and expands it to show all of the Peanuts gang suffering from one sort or another of romantic longing (that largely remains unfulfilled). Charlie Brown suffers the worst humiliation; he doesn't receive one single Valentine at school. Linus longs to give his teacher, Miss Othmar, a box of chocolates, but Linus sees her running out of the school to meet her boyfriend (Linus, betrayed, goes to an isolated bridge where he angrily throws the chocolates one by one off the bridge, as he curses love). Lucy, ever blind to Schroeder's indifference to her entreaties of love, goes so far as to smash his toy piano in frustration (Schroeder, cold and unmoved by her passionate anger, calmly goes to the closet and gets another from a stack). Even Sally is disappointed in love, when she discovers that Linus bought his big box of chocolates for his teacher, and not her.
For a seemingly light-hearted Charlie Brown TV special, Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown is really a rather remarkable downer - and totally in keeping with Schulz' conflicted-at-best world view. Snoopy pops up to lighten the mood, but there's no getting around the fact that Charlie Brown truly suffers here, from the humiliation of waiting and waiting by his mailbox for a Valentine, to his crushing embarrassment at not getting a Valentine in school (how pathetic is it when he asks Linus if maybe there was a mistake). He doesn't even get a break with his candy heart: it reads, "Forget it, kid." Even the finale, where Schroeder, uncharacteristically emotional, berates the others for pitying Charlie Brown by bringing him erased Valentines (with his name penciled in) the next day, Charlie Brown stops him and says, "I'll take it!" glad to get any crumb of affection he can, even if it's pity. That melancholy atmosphere evidently hit home when the show was first premiered back in 1975; kids all over America sent in Valentines to Charlie Brown, telling him how sorry they felt for him. You have to hand it to Schulz for coming up with a TV Valentine special for kids, that winds up making them feel sad.
The other two offerings on Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown, It's Your First Kiss, Charlie Brown and You're In Love, Charlie Brown, aren't quite as strong or memorable aesthetic experiences as the title short is, perhaps because Charlie Brown gets a modicum of sympathy in those films. In You're In Love, Charlie Brown, released in 1967 (I know IMDB states the release date as 1977, but the film's final credit clearly states 1967), Charlie, as always, longs for the Little Red Haired Girl, but at the final fade-out, he receives a note from her, saying she likes him. In It's Your First Kiss, Charlie Brown, released in 1977, Charlie Brown is terrified at the prospect of accompanying the Little Red Haired Girl (who's shown here) to the Homecoming Dance. Charlie Brown of course loses the big football game (even though, unfairly as always, it's really Lucy's fault for pulling the ball away from him at the field goal kick), but he's a big success with the Little Red Haired Girl at the dance. Even though we don't get to see it (it's portrayed as Charlie Brown dreaming, floating through the sky), Linus confirms he hit it big with everyone - which we all know is very un-Charlie Brown-like.
The full screen, 1.33:1 video transfer for the first short, Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown, is spectacular. The image has been cleaned up, and the colors correctly balanced. This is in contrast to the other two features, where colors shift (sometimes good ol' Chuck is purplish red) and fade.
The Dolby Digital English Mono sound mix accurately recreates the original broadcast presentations. There's a Spanish mono track, as well, along with English subtitles and close-captions.
There's a terrific new documentary, Unlucky in Love: An Requited Love Story, featuring Lee Mendelson, Phil Cousineau, Jean and Craig Schulz, and others, discussing Charles Schultz, the animated specials, and Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown in particular. Informative and glossily produced. It runs 14:36.
Not pulling any punches, Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown successfully translates Charles Schulz' conflicted feelings about love and romance within the standard Peanuts TV special framework. It took guts to put something out there that might make little kids sad - as well as giving the adults watching pause for thought. The restoration work on Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown is beautiful. The other two titles included, It's Your First Kiss, Charlie Brown and You're in Love, Charlie Brown, may not be equals of the first, but they're still entertaining. I highly recommend Be My Valentine, Charlie Brown.
Paul Mavis is an internationally published film and television historian, a member of the Online Film Critics Society, and the author of The Espionage Filmography.