How the Grinch Was Made: Revisiting the Classic TV Special on Its 50th Anniversary

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You’re a mean one, Mr. Grinch. Photo: The Cat in the Hat Productions

December 18, 2016, marks the 50th anniversary of the first airing of How the Grinch Stole Christmas on CBS, a 24-minute Christmas special that, all these years later, continues to air during the holidays. To commemorate, on this week’s episode of the Vulture TV Podcast, we talked about the classic TV special and the hallmarks of TV animation from that era: most famously, A Charlie Brown Christmas and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. We’re joined by an expert in the field, and particularly, the work of Chuck Jones, who animated the movie version of Dr. Seuss’s The Grinch: Kevin Sandler, associate professor at Arizona State University and author of Reading the Rabbit: Explorations in Warner Brothers Animation.

Listen to our conversation on How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and read an edited transcript below. Plus, don’t miss our discussion of the best Christmas TV to watch, with film critic Alonso Duralde, at the top of the show.

Gazelle Emami: Can you start by just telling us a little bit about the hallmarks of animation at this time. Is there anything particularly distinctive that sticks out to you?
What’s distinctive is that you have Chuck Jones, who was an extremely famous director at Warner Brother who had gotten laid off by Warner Bros. four years earlier because there no longer was a market for seven-minute cartoons to play in front of movies. So a lot of those animators and directors moved to television. You now went from fully animated cartoons, in which you have lots of movement and character idiosyncrasies that cost maybe $35,000 to $40,000 for a six-minute cartoon, to, let’s, say $20,000 for a half hour. The cost of making a cartoon plummeted by almost 70 percent, and you had to now have animators find shortcuts in order to create movement. Chuck was one of those artists who, for the most part, refused to move to television.

Matt Zoller Seitz: So, they had to essentially do more with less, as the saying goes?
Yeah, you had to find a way to create the illusion of movement in animation while having much less money to do it. You would have to do a cartoon, maybe, in three to four weeks when you almost six to nine months prior to that to be making a cartoon that lasted a third as long. So you would find ways of doing it. Just having a talking head, backgrounds repeating themselves, like the Flintstones driving by the same house over and over again, similar character design among all the characters

Jen Chaney: Can you speak to what Chuck Jones’s relationship was with Dr. Suess, because I believe they had worked together before the Grinch in some capacity, like on animated shorts maybe during the World Was II era? Is that right?
That is correct. He had met Dr. Seuss, who was in charge of the first animation unit for animation documentaries during World War II, and so together with Seuss, they wrote a series of cartoons known as the Private Snafu cartoons. They were training films for the soldiers that showed this kind of bumbling, idiotic type of private, and showed what you should not do as a soldier. So they had that relationship in the early- to mid-40s, but Dr. Seuss had been screwed by a lot of other animation companies after that. Not given due credit, not given a lot of money for loaning out his stories. But the relationship he had beforehand with Chuck and the drawings that Chuck Jones had shown Dr. Seuss gave him faith in order to be able to translate the Grinch to the small screen.

GE: What was their collaboration like, in terms of figuring out how to translate it from the book to the screen? In the book I believe the Grinch was in black and white, for example, and he’s in green in the TV special.
Chuck was an auteur, he wanted complete control over the work. So once he got the go ahead, pretty much he was given somewhat carte blanche to re-create the Grinch book in animated form. Chuck always said, “I’m not trying to add things to it. I’m trying to just extend the original idea out.” He wanted to preserve everything about the Grinch, but in a way he had to make some change, particularly since the book is about 12 minutes and he had to do 24 minutes of animation. So a lot of what Chuck had done, not only with certainly adding the color, adding the animation, was trying to flesh out, how do these characters move, how do they speak, from Cindy Lou Who to the Grinch. He fleshed out, pretty much, the character of Max.

MZS: That’s a great relationship between the two of them. I was also going to say there are also some action scenes in there. The whole montage where he’s stealing all of the presents and loading them into the back of his sleigh, and then there’s this whole segment, it’s like suddenly becomes a Werner Herzog film where they’re going to the top of Mt. Crumpit to dump all the presents.
It’s a wonderful action scene that came from Chuck and something he had been accustomed to doing at Warner Bros. when he was there. But such things wouldn’t have been possible if he didn’t have the money to do a variety of scenes and action that could be fully animated to capture those events. He also took some shortcuts, so on some of those actions scenes that you see, or even big scenes involving a lot of characters, there is lots of looping that’s happening. When you see the toys he’s stealing from the homes, and you see the bags flying out of the chimneys, it’s the same shot, again and again. But for the most part, he’s able to accomplish that with a budget to be able to meet the demand of a lot of action.

GE: How much did the Grinch cost? You mentioned this was during a time when a lot of animation wasn’t getting a big budget.
The reports are that it cost $300,000. Pretty much ten times more than any other half hour at the time, though the Flintstones was the most expensive because they had to pay a lot for writers and the voice actors. Flintstones cost $65,000 for a half hour. Charlie Brown cost $76,000 for its half hour, a year earlier. So $300,000 was a lot, and reported at the time the most expensive half hour or maybe animated show that CBS had done in a long time. But they got that money because they had sponsors. Charlie Brown was sponsored by Coca-Cola and How the Grinch Stole Christmas was sponsored by, strangely, some company I’ve never heard of but it was the Foundation of Corporate Banks, Foundation of Service Banks. something like that …

MZS: Sounds like the umbrella organization for the bad guy in a post-apocalyptic action film.

JC: And kind of funny for a show that’s anti-commercialism.
There’s that line in the cartoon in which he says, “Christmas is not about going to a store.” You would think the banks, if they were going to sponsor, perhaps would want that line changed. [Laughs.]

MZS: Do you know anything about the songs? At what point did they come in?
Dr. Seuss, Ted Geisel, wrote all the lyrics to the songs.

GE: That’s great. I read that Ted Geisel once mentioned that Chuck Jones had drawn the Grinch to kind of look like himself. Chuck Jones acknowledged that he kind of sneaks his own face into thing that draws. Is that one of his trademarks?
I think with his grumpy characters, and certainly the Grinch does look like Chuck a lot. Chuck was not known to be the friendliest animator, though he was one of the most talented ones of the studio era and the early television era. When you put his face next to the Grinch’s, its unmistakable. They both have these rounded chins and chubby cheeks, and eyelashes …

MZS: The smiles of the two are very distinctively alike. The moments where the Grinch smiles genuinely or with malice, it’s like the curtains are opening before a play. That’s how gradual it is, like wires that are drawing the sides of the mouth up to produce the smile.
Chuck’s great ability was using a subtle design to achieve character within a scene. It was quite impressive, his ability to do something like that.

JC: I wanted to ask, one of my favorite voices in this is June Foray as Cindy Lou Who. “Why are you taking our Christmas tree, why?” And once you know that she’s also the voice of Rocky from Rocky and Bullwinkle, you can’t not hear that a little bit when she does Cindy Lou Who. To what extent did Chuck Jones really want her to do it or did it just kind of fall in place through other means?
June Foray was pretty much the go-to person of any type of female or asexual character. She was the voice of Granny in the Warner Bros. cartoon, of the witch in a lot of the Warner Bros. cartoons, and a voice in other studios as well. So he got top talent and probably could pay top talent for this cartoon and he got that across the board. June Foray would pretty much do anything. The fact that she could go from that little voice to a granny voice to doing Rocky to also doing Natasha on Rocky and Bullwinkle. Her range was absolutely impressive.

GE: Chuck Jones also directed How the Grinch Stole Christmas and I’m curious, what does that mean — how does one direct an animated film?
The way one directs an animated film is pretty much that they are like any director, in charge of the variety of jobs that go into doing it. But specifically, he’s the one that does all the key drawings, the main drawings that show the characters in action, how they’re going to respond to certain situation. Traditionally, they’re the ones that design what’s known as a model sheet. So if you ever see a model sheet of Bugs Bunny in 20 different poses — how Bugs Bunny looks in profile, looks from behind, looks out front — and his response to a variety of action, so the assistants then can redraw each cell similar to what this director has envisioned for the character. He’s probably there also to monitor all the editing, monitor all the voice acting, and guide the designers for backgrounds. So he’s got his team of some key people who he’s overseeing to help him achieve his visions in all these various departments.

JC: Given the amount of money that was spent, was the expectation that this was going to be a special that they would show every year over and over again? It seems that it would’ve been hard to foresee just how enduring it was going to be.
Thirty-eight million people, it was reported, had watched How the Grinch Stole Christmas. I don’t know if people thought they were going to be a big hit, and I think a lot of people were pleasantly surprised. But by the time the Grinch came out in ‘66, Charlie Brown Christmas had been a hit a year earlier. By that time, people were like, “Wow. This isn’t really a risk. There’s an audience out here who is looking for a holiday specials and we think that if we do this right, then we can replay it over and over and over again.”

GE: Kevin, I saw that you also study censorship in film and I’m curious, does this cross over with your work in animation, and the types of things that may have been censored in TV animation at this time?
Most certainly. I’m currently working on a book on the history of Scooby-Doo. I haven’t been able to prove it, but one of the things from How the Grinch Stole Christmas that was supposedly edited out of later broadcasts was the scene in which the Grinch comes in and sees all the little Whos sleeping in bed and he has this creepy grin that might imply child abduction or something of a creepy predatory nature. That reportedly had been edited out of subsequent viewings but then put back in.

GE: Lastly, I wanted to ask — I saw there’s going to be a 2018 computer-animated film version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas starring Benedict Cumberbatch as the Grinch. Do you have any thoughts on seeing it remade again?
It’s just the way things are going in the film world and television world. How many times can one do the Grinch? I approach it with trepidation, as I would toward any property that has been recently done. But it’s Benedict Cumberbatch so… he’s got a good track record.

JC: The thing that’s strange to me about doing the Grinch like that, and also the previous one that Ron Howard did, is like you said before, this was a story that takes 12 minutes to read and so even just doing it as a 24-minute special was beefing it up a little bit. So then to make it into a feature-length movie feels like you’re really stretching it pretty thin.
It’s one thing to stretch out something in 12 minutes to another 12 minutes, it’s another thing to stretch out a 12-minute story to 100 minutes and then some, and so that would be up to, hopefully, the writer and director to come up with a really good story. But that’s hard to do. As we’ve seen in the past, things go into production without a script ready and then you get something like Fantastic Four.

How the Grinch Who Stole Christmas Was Made