Longing for a quiet Christmas escape, without Black Fridays, or even Chartreuse Wednesdays, without discounts that aren’t really discounts, a freedom from the holiday’s jostling crowds—in short, something closer to the real meaning of giving and receiving?—
What about a Christmas movie? Well, not a movie—a twenty-six-minute cartoon made for TV, to be exact. And it’s a half century old. The star is not a swooning crooner in a snowscape or a luscious lady in a red-spangled Christmassy dress, but a never-seen narrator, an actor who, in his long past, became the epitome of horror films, a genre far removed from Christmas, though The Nightmare Before Christmas(1993) seems to combine the snowy holiday and Halloween with only slightly disquieting results.
No, not the Tim Burton film now—that for later consideration, perhaps. The star here is Boris Karloff, who died three years after his appearance in Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas. It premiered on CBS television, December 18, 1966.
Dr. Seuss, real name Theodor Seuss Geisel, was initially concerned that Karloff’s scary background would frighten the kids at whom the show was aimed. The kids weren’t scared. Nor is the story of the Grinch and the people of Who-ville strictly for kids. There’s a little child in all of us, or so it’s said. Let’s hope so! For those, child or not, who venture into the “Toyland” of Victor Herbert’s Babes in Toyland, the lyrics contain a sad warning, that once a visitor leaves “mystical merry toyland,” “(They) can never return again!”
Besides being an ideal pair for seasonal viewing, the Seuss cartoon and the Alastair Sim version (1951) of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol share dual messages. The true meaning of giving and receiving is there, sure, but also the possibility for a personal conversion, no matter how imperfect the individual, and, in the case of the Dickens, accomplished with only a muted religious coating.
In his little novella, Dickens had at least one other message, the egalitarian concern for the less fortunate, the needy, the poor, as he expressed so eloquently through the ghost of Jacob Marley: “Business! Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance and benevolence were all my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!” The author was, of course, crusading against the deplorable living and working conditions in the Victorian England of his time.
Karloff’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas begins as all the happy Whos down in Who-ville form a circle around a giant decorated tree, their hands linked:
Every Who down in Who-ville, the tall and the small,
Would stand close together, with Christmas bells ringing.
They’d stand hand-in-hand. And the Whos would start singing!
But up in his cave, the green, red-eyed Grinch is in a quite different disposition. The singing is bad enough, but, come Christmas morning, the girls and boys will rush for their toys: they’ll “dance with ting-tinglers tied on to their heels,” they’ll “bang their dardinkers,” “play noisy games like zuezitter carzay” and ride and play their “great big electro-who-cardio-flukes.” (Names concocted by Seuss for the cartoon; in the book, the listed toys have the traditionally names.) Oh, the Noise! Noise! Noise! Noise! Then the Whos will sit down to a feast, and the very thought irritates the old Grinch even more.
The Grinch hated Christmas! The whole Christmas season!
Now, please don’t ask why. No one quite knows the reason.
It could be his head wasn’t screwed on just right.
It could be, perhaps, that his shoes were too tight.
He MUST stop Christmas from coming . . . but HOW? Then the Grinch got a wonderful, awful idea! With the aid of his dog Max (a non-voiced, non-barking role, though his expressions of bewilderment and innocent non-complicity are hilarious), he loads some bags on a ramshackle sleigh and, with the dog as a stand-in reindeer, a trimmed branch for an antler, they slide down the slope to the Whos who “lay a-snooze in their town.”
Down the chimneys of the houses the Grinch slithers. He steals stockings and presents (wrapped or not), even the ice cubes, the logs for their fires and the rare Who-pudding and Who-roast-beast. Nor are the tree ornaments spared, certainly not the trees. And a “crumb that’s even too small for a mouse”—that the Grinch takes as well.
But then Cindy-Lou Who (a sympathetic, though unsentimental voice rendering by June Foray) climbs out of bed for a drink and sees the old Grinch. “Why?” she asks. “Why, why are you taking our Christmas tree? Why?”
. . . you know, that old Grinch was so smart and so slick
He thought up a lie, and he thought it up quick!
“Why, my sweet little tot,” the fake Santy Claus lied,
“There’s a light on the tree that won’t light on one side.
“So I’m taking it home to my workshop, my dear.
“I’ll fix it up there. Then I’ll bring it back here.”
With the sleigh weighed down, the Grinch gives Max the whip, and to the top of Mt. Crumpit they climb to dump the booty. When the Whos down in Who-ville discover their missing presents and realize Christmas isn’t coming, the Grinch hums to himself that they’ll all cry “BOO-HOO!” But when he cups his hand to his ear, the sound he hears isn’t what he expected to hear. No! The Whos down in Who-ville, both the tall and the small, are . . . they are . . . SINGING!
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!
“Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store.
“Maybe Christmas . . . perhaps . . . means a little bit more!”
What happened next is the most surprisingly thing of all. A conversion, a revelation, a transformation—all those things—come upon him, sudden like. Medically dangerous, but here appropriate—and plot necessary—the Grinch’s small heart grows larger—by three sizes. In a flash, he whizzes with his load back down to Who-ville, passes out the stolen items, including the food for the feast. What’s more, his transformed character earns him a reward as
HE HIMSELF . . . !
The Grinch carved the roast beast!
Karloff apparently read the script perfectly on the first take, but, to make the voice of the Grinch gruff and more distinct from the actor’s narration, the highs for the Grinch’s voice were electronically removed. The eyes of the Grinch, red during all his acts of malice, red denoting, supposedly, his bitter soul, become blue upon his conversion.
The deep baritone singing voice of Thurl Ravenscroft, which could pass for Howard Keel’s, is uncredited. The several stanzas of his big number, “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” are scattered throughout the cartoon. One stanza is
You’re a monster, Mr. Grinch.
Your heart’s an empty hole.
Your brain is full of spiders,
You have garlic in your soul.
Mr. Grinch, I wouldn’t touch you with
A thirty-nine-and-a-half foot pole.
The lyrics for this and other songs, which comprise “Fahoo Foraze,” “Trim Up the Tree” and “Welcome Christmas,” are by Dr. Seuss, with music by Albert Hague. The score itself is by Eugene Poddany, who scored Woody Woodpecker and Bugs Bunny cartoons, among others.
Joining in the spirit of things, and adding to Karloff’s brilliant characterization/narration, is the charming animation of Chuck Jones, famous for the Road Runner and Wile E. Coyote. Ted Geisel thought the Grinch drawings resembled more Jones’ work (and why not?) than Geisel’s own in his book, first published in 1957. The two had worked at Warner Bros. during World War II creating the Private Snafu training films.
The moral of the whimsical Grinch story, that the people of Who-ville didn’t need presents to experience the Christmas spirit—they’re perfectly happy and content without material possessions—is somewhat contradicted in the end. The Grinch returns the gifts. So, now, the Who-villians receive their presents anyway! They have it both ways! . . . Not to over-analyze, perhaps.
Karloff’s Grinch has long been a Christmas tradition on TV, along with Burl Ives’ Rudolph the Red-Rosed Reindeer, which premiered in 1964, and A Charlie Brown Christmas from 1965. One and all, these cartoons convey a less commercialized time, the ’60s, and a simpler, more heartfelt, almost naïve view of the holidays that is largely missing now. Today, it’s crowd-jostling for Black Friday sales and, in the future, who knows, maybe even Chartreuse Wednesday sales.
Whatever bad reputation the old Grinch acquired in the Seuss/Karloff cartoon, he was to become even more of a reprehensible personality, perhaps irredeemable, in 2000. Then director Ron Howard and rubber-faced actor Jim Carrey as the Grinch decided to retell the story. What could they do, they must have reasoned, to “improve” on the simplicity, sincerity and charm of the cartoon? They, and a few other culprits, concocted a distasteful, bloated, four-times-as-long live action pseudo-musical extravaganza fit for neither child nor adult. So weird, tiresome and frightening did the Grinch become that now, even during his so-called eleventh-hour reformation, the Whos, on their own, without the obligation to plot, would never have invited him to carve their roast beast.
No. Stick with Karloff, Jones, Ravenscroft and the wonderful, delightful, mad poetry of Dr. Seuss.