Watch the First Animations of Peanuts: Commercials for the Ford Motor Company (1959–1961)

Bill Wat­ter­son, cre­ator of arguably the last great com­ic strip, Calvin and Hobbes, wrote the fol­low­ing about per­haps the great­est com­ic strip ever. “Peanuts pret­ty much defines the mod­ern com­ic strip, so even now it’s hard to see it with fresh eyes. The clean, min­i­mal­ist draw­ings, the sar­cas­tic humor, the unflinch­ing emo­tion­al hon­esty….” Charles Schulz, the artis­tic force behind Peanuts, fun­neled a life­time of lone­li­ness and emo­tion­al pain into these spare lit­tle draw­ings, cre­at­ing a strip that was bleak­ly fun­ny, philo­soph­i­cal and real. Char­ac­ters like the social­ly inept Char­lie Brown or the bossy though odd­ly trag­ic Lucy con­nect­ed with audi­ences in a way that few ever did.

The one way that Wat­ter­son and Schulz dif­fered, and dif­fered great­ly, was in the area of mer­chan­dis­ing. While Wat­ter­son famous­ly refused to license any of his char­ac­ters (those praying/peeing Calvin car decals, it might sur­prise you to learn, are not offi­cial­ly sanc­tioned), Schulz licensed his cre­ations far and wide. For those who grew up in the ‘70s, a Snoopy plush toy was sim­ply de rigueur. The Peanuts char­ac­ters hawked Dol­ly Madi­son snack cakes, MetLife insur­ance, and Wendy’s kids meals. And those spon­sor­ship deals paid spec­tac­u­lar­ly well. By the time that Schulz died in Feb­ru­ary 2000 — the night before the final Peanuts strip was to go to print — he had report­ed­ly earned over the course of his life $1.1 bil­lion dol­lars.

The first instance of Char­lie, Snoopy and the gang being cor­po­rate spokeschar­ac­ters hap­pened to be also the first time they were ani­mat­ed. The Ford Motor Com­pa­ny licensed them in 1959 to do TV com­mer­cials along with intros to the Ten­nessee Ernie Ford Show. You can watch them above. Prob­a­bly the most strik­ing thing about the com­mer­cials is that the adults are intel­li­gi­ble, not the incom­pre­hen­si­ble mut­ed trum­pet bleats of the Peanuts movies.

The spots proved to be such a suc­cess that Schulz and ani­ma­tor Bill Melén­dez were soon pro­duc­ing half-hour long TV spe­cials, includ­ing the Emmy-win­ning A Char­lie Brown Christ­mas in 1965. In a 1984 inter­view, Melén­dez talked about work­ing with Schulz, who went by the nick­name of “Sparky,” for those first Ford spots.

Well, I was doing Ford com­mer­cials at J. Wal­ter Thomp­son when it was decid­ed that Char­lie Brown would be the spokesman for the Ford Fal­con. I was told Charles Schulz was very shy and ret­i­cent about com­mer­cial­iz­ing his strip. So I went to San Fran­cis­co and met Sparky and we hit it off. I told him what we did, and he nod­ded and said, “All right, we’ll try it.” He was very leery of get­ting involved with “Hol­ly­wood types” as he used to call us.

Of course he under­stands that his draw­ings are flat, two-dimen­sion­al designs, and that, for exam­ple, the front view is very dif­fer­ent from the side view. They are not three-dimen­sion­al char­ac­ters. You can’t turn them around the way we used to turn the Walt Dis­ney char­ac­ters, who were designed to be round and three-dimen­sion­al. To ani­mate Peanuts char­ac­ters we have to be more inven­tive, because we tend not to be real­is­tic. We don’t try to ape real live action as we did in ani­mat­ing Don­ald Duck and Mick­ey Mouse.

I imag­ine Sparky must have been curi­ous about how we were going to do it, but he nev­er gave us any kind of a hint or any­thing at all about what he want­ed. So we showed him how we thought it should move, how we thought they should turn, how we thought they should walk and he accept­ed every­thing. From then on we hit it off pret­ty well.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Ger­tie the Dinosaur: The Moth­er of all Car­toon Char­ac­ters

Vis­it the World of Lit­tle Nemo Artist Win­sor McCay: Three Clas­sic Ani­ma­tions and a Google Doo­dle

How Walt Dis­ney Car­toons are Made

Jonathan Crow is a Los Ange­les-based writer and film­mak­er whose work has appeared in Yahoo!, The Hol­ly­wood Reporter, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. You can fol­low him at @jonccrow.

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  • calciferboheme says:

    One inter­est­ing thing is that Wat­ter­son has often admired the way that Schulz bal­anced art and com­merce, feel­ing that no one else has ever done it as well. And I’m inclined to agree. He made them spokesman fair­ly ear­ly on. Yet with the com­mer­cials, TV spe­cials, movies, mer­chan­dise, etc. the strip always kept a high qual­i­ty. Heck, even with­out all the rest, I doubt many could have made a con­sis­tent­ly good strip for as long as he did.

  • JRC says:

    this video has been set to pri­vate since it was put up.
    Today is Sun. Dec. 28th.

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