In 1957, Theodor Seuss Geisel was on a bit of a streak. The prolific children’s author known as Dr. Seuss had followed hits like Horton Hears A Who! with two books now considered necessary volumes in any child’s library: The Cat In The Hat and How The Grinch Stole Christmas!, starring two main characters who would become his most famous.
The Cat and the Grinch, though, as the world would soon discover, were fairly different, even though both aspired to cause mayhem in the lives of those around them. The Cat appeared mischievous but well-meaning, while the Grinch was merely grumpily determined to bring all the Whos down to his own miserable level.
The success of both books meant that they were destined for TV-special status, though the Grinch, being holiday-related, had the greater momentum. How The Grinch Stole Christmas! followed a few specials that were becoming their own type of holiday blockbuster: Rankin/Bass Productions had a mega-hit with Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer in 1964, and A Charlie Brown Christmas arrived the next year. It looked like the Grinch would be the 1966 entry into the Christmas special canon. Still, Geisel was not immediately on board.
The author was possibly less-than-enthusiastic about his previous adaptations: the bizarre live-action film The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr. T in 1953 and The Gerald McBoing Boing Show in the mid-50s. Seuss had such an indicative style in both language and artwork that transferring those creations into another medium proved arduous at first.
The Grinch special, however, had a secret weapon that all but ensured the success of the project. Animation director Chuck Jones and Geisel had worked together during World War II on Warner Bros.’ Private Snafu training cartoons. By 1966, Jones was well-established as the genius behind some of the greatest cartoons ever created, featuring characters like Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, the Road Runner, and Tom and Jerry. With Jones’ involvement, Geisel eventually signed on, and his Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas! debuted 50 years ago this week, on December 18, 1966.
Compared to the special, the book seems like primitive source material: minimal color; simplistic drawings; Max the dog, ostensibly the star of the show, barely appears. In fact, the special had to add a recurring song (“You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch”) and elaborate on Who noisiness to even reach its 25 minutes. Jones fortunately made the Grinch green, while adding many of the touches he was already famous for: the deadpan look to the camera, piano plinks to indicate blinking, playing up the inherent cuteness of Max and Cindy Lou Who to contrast against the Grinch’s seediness.
Watching it again, it’s amazing how much the Grinch appears to be not much more than an actual horror story until the final five minutes, featuring an anti-Santa who breaks into houses and steals all Christmas-related items. He even shows up at the bedsides of children to take their candy canes, slithering among the presents. Jones doesn’t sugarcoat anything, not even the Grinch’s gnarly teeth or the way his face unfolds when he gets a “wonderful, awful idea.” The benign Whos seem like the furthest thing from a match for him, which is why he can easily ransack their entire town in only a few hours.
Alongside the excellence of Jones and Geisel was another ringer: Boris Karloff. The man who personified Frankenstein in film had done vocal work for years, specializing in radio horror shows like Suspense and Lights Out! His was the perfect voice to both narrate and voice the Grinch, even though Geisel balked at first, fearing that Karloff would make the Grinch too scary. The expert Karloff managed to convey undeniable disdain for the main character even as he brought his voice to life. Singing that now-classic song was Thurl Ravenscroft, the voice of Kellogg’s Tony The Tiger, even though he wasn’t credited on the original special: Geisel himself called newspapers across the country in an attempt to correct this oversight (many thought Karloff was performing the song as well). Even Rocky The Flying Squirrel showed up: That’s an uncredited June Foray voicing the few lines of Cindy Lou Who.
The special resulted in an amazing kind of alchemy, even as initial reviews were somewhat tepid; one critic cited it as “probably as good as most of the other holiday cartoons.” But the Grinch’s legacy has expanded exponentially over time. The nonsensical Who setting helps, as this cartoon will never appear dated. But the Grinch has a redemption story like no other, made even more dramatic in the special than the book, thanks to the addition of a suspense-building soundtrack and Jones’ stellar work in action animation (just picture Tom the cat or Wile E. Coyote grabbing onto that sled).
As our own Zack Handlen has pointed out, redemption stories are huge at Christmas (A Christmas Carol’s Scrooge being the most well-known example), but the Grinch’s 180-degree turnaround is spurred on not by guilt or fear, but by an actually effective “spirit of Christmas.” A Charlie Brown Christmas snuck poetically effective biblical verse into its special. The Grinch mostly stays secular, as the unity of the now material-less Whos creates an unidentified Christmas star, which has the effect of growing the Grinch’s heart three sizes and even turning his eyes a benevolent blue. The Grinch steals all material things but discovers that they don’t really matter: “Maybe Christmas didn’t come from a store / Maybe Christmas, he thought, meant a little bit more.” The Whos are so forgiving that the Grinch who wiped them out becomes the guest of honor at their holiday dinner, while Karloff reminds us all that “Christmas Day is in our grasp, as long as we have hands to clasp.”
It’s a perfect special, getting away from materialism while only hinting at spiritualism, focusing instead on unity. Before we even get to that resonating ending, thanks to Jones, we have moments of out-and-out hilarity, again not able to be featured in the book: Max’s inept attempts to steer the sleigh down from the Grinch’s lair, for example. The special’s annual appearance on CBS soon helped to build its ultimate legacy: TV Guide named it No. 1 on its 10 Best Family Holiday Specials list in a 2004 volume.
Once such excellence has been attained, it can be hard not to want to return to that particular well, especially for a writer as prolific as Geisel, who had already penned a Cat sequel, The Cat In The Hat Comes Back, in 1958. His 1971 Cat In The Hat special was nearly as successful as the Grinch’s, leading the author to consider another sequel, 11 years after the original.
Halloween Is Grinch Night seems like a natural, but it pales considerably against the earlier special. The story involves a Grinch-like wind that invades Whoville and a young boy named Euchariah who gets lost and winds up facing the Grinch himself. As Karloff had died a few years earlier, the Grinch is voiced by Hans Conried, who played the title character in The 5,000 Fingers Of Dr. T, and, like Karloff, was a radio and vocal legend. The scenes when the Grinch shows his mettle to Euchariah are trippily scary, appropriate for the season, but the rest, not so much. The low point is the song “What Am I Doing Here?” sung by both Euchariah and Max the dog, whose interior pondering is voiced by Henry Gibson (portrayer of the Illinois Nazi leader from The Blues Brothers). Eventually the wind goes away, taking the Grinch with it, but Max stays with Euchariah. Ostensibly the story is a prequel to the Christmas incident, but if so, how does Max wind up back with the Grinch? Despite its inability to hold up to the original, Grinch Night received the Emmy for Outstanding Children’s Special.
The third and final Grinch effort, 1982’s The Grinch Grinches The Cat In The Hat, also won an Emmy (two, in fact, this time for Outstanding Animated Program and Outstanding Individual Achievement In Animation). Again, maybe it’s the lack of Jones’ artwork, but it just seems odd to see the Grinch tooling around in a car, even one that spouts green smoke. After a ridiculous traffic altercation, the Cat and the Grinch go head to head, until the Cat makes the surprising turn of entering the Grinch’s psyche—as with the psychedelic Halloween moments in the previous special, this is the best part—to discover that the Grinch’s problems start where, as Freud would say, all of ours start: with his mother. A newly psychoanalyzed Grinch is now determined to be less Grinch-like, to the relief of Max. It’s certainly watchable for Seuss fans, but again, a far cry from the onscreen debuts of the two iconic characters.
(PBS Kids eventually found an effective way to wrangle the Cat into an engaging series starting in 2010, aided by the energetic vocals of Martin Short. In The Cat In the Hat Knows A Lot About That!, the Cat and Sally and Nick from his original special, as well as the beloved Thing One, Thing Two, and the goldfish, investigate a different topic each episode, like dinosaurs or outer space.)
Understandably, both the Grinch and the Cat fared the worst in attempts to bring them into live-action movies. Mike Myers’ The Cat In The Hat has a 10-percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and Jim Carrey’s How The Grinch Stole Christmas doesn’t fare much better, especially since it comes from the usually reliable director Ron Howard. To fill the two hours, a long backstory is added: A puppet Grinch baby is shown to hate Santa almost from the start, but it’s the Whos’ cruelty that turns him against the formerly benign village, retconning the entire premise of the source material. As Nathan Rabin said in his A.V. Club review: “Given the simple, elegant, anti-materialist message of Seuss’ book, there’s cruel irony as Grinch becomes just another piece of mercenary, opportunistic Christmas product to be consumed mindlessly and forgotten instantly.”
The 2000 movie was the worst of the lot, but all of the Grinch follow-up efforts were primarily unfortunate. Granted, they had a lot to compete with. The combination of Seuss, Jones, and Karloff was so magical that it could never have been recaptured. Even if the Grinch never appeared on our screens again, that 1966 half-hour based on his source material alone was enough to make him an iconic character for the ages, instead of getting muddied by later, lesser versions. Fortunately, that’s still the version we most remember, even after 50 years.