Friday, October 9, 2015

This Is America, Charlie Brown:The Birth of the Constitution

Premiered October 28, 1988.
Charlie Brown:Just what's this convention all about, Linus?
Linus:Well, the way I understand it, for the past 10 years, our country has been run under the rules of something called the Articles of Confederation.  But things haven't worked out too well.
Charlie Brown:They haven't?

Dateline:Philadelphia, May 25 1787.  A delegation of various officials from all 13 states have gathered for a Constitutional Convention.

Charlie Brown watches George Washington arrive in Philadelphia.
Linus (Jeremy Miller) gets Charlie Brown (Jason Riffle) and Sally (Christina Lange) to the Pennsylvania State House to clean it up before the delegates arrive.  Linus assigns duties to all of the kids.  Peppermint Patty (Jason Mendelson) and Marcie (Keri Houlihan) are tasked with bringing water to the delegates.  Snoopy (Bill Melendez) serves as their watchdog, guarding the secret convention from the public.

Lucy's (Ami Foster) job is to mop the floors.  She's not happy about that.  Sally has to keep ink wells filled.  Chuck is the "outside man," in charge of cleaning outside and "valet parking."  Linus works as an usher and also informs the other kids about what's happening inside the convention.

Linus explains that the purpose of the convention is to create a new form of government for the states.  The Articles Of Confederation have been the law of the land since the end of the revolution, but a new direction is needed.  He tells his friends that the delegates have a myriad of views about which form of government is best.  Some of the men want a strong central government, others believe the states should have more power, some want a king to head the new nation.

Linus explains the purpose of the convention.
During the delegates' deliberation, Linus is the only kid who gets to listen in person.  The convention if filled with many intense debates.  Roger Sherman doesn't want the new House of Representatives to be elected directly by the people.  Others, such as George Mason and James Madison disagree with Sherman

Delegates engage in a debate at the Constitutional Convention.
Debate about the country's chief executive is equally spirited.  Some advocate for a strong head of state, others argue for 3 heads of state, and other delegates favor an executive who carries out the will of the legislature.  Linus tells Peppermint Patty and Marcie that the delegates seem to disagree about everything.  He worries that if the delegates can't find compromise the whole convention will be a failure.

Outside the meeting hall, Charlie Brown spends his free time creating new games.  One such activity involves hitting a ball with a stick and running to a tree before Lucy can retrieve the ball.  Lucy says it's a dumbest game she's ever heard of.

Weeks go by and turn into months and the delegates still can't reach agreements.  The deliberations drag on into mid-September.  Will they finally reach an agreement and create a new Constitution?

Plus, Charlie Brown lends his kite to Benjamin Franklin!

This Birth Of The Constitution is a good special, but it works better as entertainment than history.  For instance, the story takes place in 1787 and we see Ben Franklin conduct his kite-electricity experiment.  Franklin published his account of this experiment in 1752, not during the Constitutional Convention (recent research indicates that he might not have actually conducted the experiment himself, but that's another story).

Woodstock & Snoopy clown around in powdered wigs.
 We see lots of debates during the Constitutional Convention.  But with the exception of Franklin and George Washington, we are never told anything about the other delegates or who they are.  Sure, when one of them is identified as "Mr. Madison," it's easy to figure out that it's James Madison.

But who is "Mr. Wilson?"  How many school kids (or adults, for that matter) could tell you that he was James Wilson of Pennsylvania (who also served in the Continental Congress and was one of the first Supreme Court Justices)?  When I was a kid, this sort of thing would have bothered me.
Having said that, I believe The Birth Of The Constitution could be useful to little kids as an introduction to an important moment in the history of the United States. 

Peppermint Patty writes a letter to her grandmother.
I generally don't like to see adults present in Charlie Brown animation.  I'm not crazy about their appearances here, but I'll make some allowances for This Is America, since it's meant to be educational.

Perhaps the best history shown in The Birth Of The Constitution is Charlie Brown's daily life.  We see him and Snoopy performing tons of daily tasks, inside the house and out on the land.  Chuck complains that working is all he ever does.  I figure the creative team wanted to show how much manual labor the average kids had to do in 1787.

In spite of its historical shortcomings, this is still an entertaining special.  It's fun to see Charlie Brown and the others interact in a story set in the 18th century.  Chuck's "invention" of modern sports is fun to watch, as is the predictable result when he asks Lucy to hold a ball for him to kick.

As usual, Snoopy and Woodstock get a few moments of humor.  They even get to reenact Washington's crossing of the Delaware River.

The voice actors are all well-cast and do a solid job performing their characters.  

After Vince Guaraldi died, the Peanuts specials shifted away from piano jazz soundtrack music and the creative team hired new composers.  This Is America, Charlie Brown returned Chuck and his friends to their "jazz roots."

Pianist George Winston handles the soundtrack duties here, it includes some new tunes and some nice re-recordings of Vince Guaraldi's music.  Winston plays a nice harpsichord version of "Linus And Lucy."  He also performs piano jazz arrangements of 18th Century patriotic songs like "Yankee Doodle."

A nice musical surprise is the inclusion of "Cast Your Fate To The Wind."  For those who don't know, this was Guaraldi's breakthrough recording, released on his 1962 album Jazz Impressions Of Black Orpheus.  If you're not familiar with this tune, give it a listen here:

The Birth Of The Constitution is the first time "Cast Your Fate To Wind" appeared on a Charlie Brown special.  Winston's performance of the tune plays during a spirited debate between delegates and it works nicely in this context.

This special is available on dvd and also can be streamed on Amazon and iTunes.

After the delegates reach an agreement, Linus reads the Preamble to the other kids.
This Is America Charlie Brown:The Birth Of The Constitution is a good special with a bit of educational value and some great piano (and harpsichord) music, but it's not up there with the classics.


2 and a half Sparkys.

1 comment:

  1. I remembered this video special when I was a kid. How much American History with Peanuts I had missed?