It’s December 15 which means it’s time for another retro throwback and I bet you’re surprised to see the green guy here. Since I dubbed Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! as the best ever Christmas special not just once, but twice, you may have expected it to appear on this year’s edition in the coveted Christmas position. Well, it already received that honor back in 2015 and, to be honest, the actual Christmas Day post is usually one of the least read because people are quite busy that day. I figured we should leave that spot open for another deserving entry and give the Grinch his due on the road to Christmas 2021!
Now, in case you’re confused, there is only one Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! that we need to acknowledge. That live-action movie with Jim Carrey? Nah, don’t like it. The CGi Benedict Cumberbatch vehicle from a couple of years ago? Technically, it’s titled The Grinch so I guess people shouldn’t confuse it with today’s topic, but it’s understandable if they do. That film is better than the live-action one, though it’s hardly what I consider truly memorable or even essential Christmas viewing. The 1966 animated special directed and produced by Chuck Jones is the only Christmas special I need in my life featuring the Grinch. I think it even far surpasses the beauty that is the source material, though I do consider that essential Christmas reading at this time of year. The animated version though just brings the character to life in a way that print and still images cannot. The famed Seuss himself did criticize the animated version a bit by pointing out to Jones that he took his character and just made it look like himself, but I don’t care! If he looks like Jones, it’s probably because the famed animator had to look at himself in a mirror to try to get that infamous smile drawn correctly and it turned out so well that I think he’s more than deserving of injecting a little bit of his own likeness into the character.
The animation for this special is terrific, especially for television. It likely had a bigger budget than what people were used to seeing and definitely a larger one than the latter day Looney Tunes shorts Jones had worked on. There’s a fluidity to Grinch’s movements few rivaled at the time and the little personality quirks and gags are so well designed. Beyond the simple looks of the special is the music. What is the Grinch these days without “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,”? The two are inseparable and the other musical bits are nearly as memorable. To top it off, you have the incomparable Boris Karloff as narrator who adds just a touch of a growl to his voice when performing as the title character. It’s just magic for the eyes and ears and the simple story of a Christmas grump trying to ruin everyone’s holiday makes the Grinch both loathsome and relatable.
Obviously, I love this cartoon and could talk about it for hours, but we should probably get on with the viewing before I get on too much of a roll. The special begins with the now familiar Cat in the Hat logo which fades into falling snow. Soft singing comes in as we’re introduced to the song “Welcome Christmas” as sung by the people of Who-ville. Albert Hague wrote the now memorable music featured in this special with lyrics by Dr. Seuss himself (it’s pretty obvious where he contributed). Eugene Poddany oversaw the score which is arguably as good as the actual songs with lyrics. There’s basically no soft spot in the production for this one.
We are introduced to the Whos as they chop down a massive tree to bring to their little town square. As it’s erected, the song shifts abruptly from the serene “Welcome Christmas” to the much livelier “Trim Up the Tree.” The massive tree is splashed and decorated with garish objects that have wacky, Seussian, names attached to them. The Whos move on to other parts of town as they hang wreaths outside and decorate the interior of their homes and through the lyrics of the song we learn that Christmas is tomorrow! These Whos are old fashioned in that they trim the tree and put up all of the Christmas décor on Christmas Eve, which is such a waste. It’s also during this song we get our first look at little Cindy-Lou Who who will play a larger role in the story later, but who Chuck Jones wanted to play an even larger role initially. He wanted her to be the granddaughter of the Grinch, but the idea was either cut for time or nixed by Seuss. If you ever thought Cindy-Lou looked an awful lot like the Grinch, well now you know why.
As the song fades out the camera shifts to the snowy mountains and begins its climb. Our narrator, Boris Karloff, enters the picture to tell us that the people of Who-ville really like Christmas, if that wasn’t already obvious, but one guy does not: the Grinch! We’re introduced to this grumpy, green, fur-covered being as he leans against the entrance of his cave which he calls a home. His cave is located 10,000 feet above Who-ville in the side of Mt. Crumpet. When we meet Grinch he seems fairly nonchalant as he chews something with a toothpick hanging out of his mouth. As we regard this curious creature, Karloff tries to figure out just why he dislikes Christmas and hypothesizes it could be his shoes, or maybe his head, before settling on the size of his heart. A little X-Ray window is positioned over Grinch’s torso to demonstrate that his heart is two sizes too small.
The narrator dismisses the exercise as perfunctory for it matters not why Grinch hates Christmas, he just does! Grinch then walks over to the ledge as his dog, Max, comes trotting out and the two look down over Who-ville. It’s clear that Max is the opposite of the Grinch for everything about his disposition is cheerful and happy. Then Grinch speaks for the first time and Karloff uses a slight growl when reciting his lines. The Grinch informs his dog, or maybe himself, that Christmas is coming and he just can’t take it any more.
Grinch then goes into detail about what it is he dislikes most about Christmas and it mostly boils down to noise. Grinch, you big wimp, it’s one day a year! Just deal with the noise! Though to be fair, the Whos definitely make a lot of noise as basically every one of their Christmas toys is some crazy concoction designed to make noise. My favorite as a kid was the gardinka (spelling?), mostly because it had the word “dink” in it. Though it’s hardly the most impressive of the instrument-vehicles. Some electro-who-cardio-thing is quite a spectacle and definitely good at producing loud noises.
The Grinch doesn’t just hate the noise though, he’s also annoyed by the feast the Whos have. Why? I don’t know. They have a bunch of desserts and rare, Who, roast, beast which is a feast that the Grinch cannot stand in the least. Again, we don’t know why, maybe he’s a vegetarian?
The feast isn’t what Grinch hates the most though, nor is it the abstract noise from earlier. Oh no, what Grinch hates the most is the singing! And yeah, these Whos definitely seem to enjoy singing. It’s apparently a pretty large part of their Christmas celebration as every man, woman, and child gathers around the town tree to sing, with Christmas bells ringing! And their song of choice is “Welcome Christmas,” and we get another taste of that rather wonderful song. As Grinch recites all of this, the camera dissolves onto Max who seems to really be enjoying the memories of Christmases past.
Grinch is not enjoying these memories and he repeats “Sing! Sing! Sing!” as he shoves his face right into Max’s as if to convince him he’s wrong to reflect fondly on these memories. Grinch has had it though. He’s put up with Christmas for 53 years! Is that how old he is, or just how long he’s lived in this cave? He doesn’t elaborate, but he has decided that he now must stop Christmas from coming. There will not be a 54th! In order to do so though he’ll need a plan, and one doesn’t come to mind immediately. Then he looks at Max…
The rather meek canine had backed himself into the snow when confronted by the Grinch and found himself covered in snow. Upon popping his head out of the pile, the snow clings to his head like a hat and beard. Yes, he looks like Santa Claus and it’s Max in this state that gives Grinch an idea. Not just any idea though, a wonderful, awful, idea! The animation on the Grinch’s smile is quite possibly the highlight of the entire special, which is full of highlights. I just love how that smile climbs up the sides of the Grinch’s head and then it’s topped off by the tuft of fur on the top of his head unfurling. It’s so good, that I had to include a gif. Still images just won’t work.
The Grinch, chuckling to himself proudly, grabs his dog by the tail and drags him into the cave. He doesn’t keep any secrets as he informs the dog (and us) that he’s going to make a quick Santy Claus hat and coat. To do so, he starts cutting up some red curtains in his rather sad looking cave. What little we see of the interior seems to contain old, worn out, furniture. It looks rather dank, but also like a fitting place for such a creature to call home. His sewing machine looks nice though!
As the Grinch, and Max, get to work on a Santa outfit, we’re introduced to the baritone of Thurl Ravenscroft. I suppose Thurl is best known for his role of Tony the Tiger for many years, though kids today probably won’t know him from anything except this special. He gets the honor though of singing “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” which is now a Christmas classic. Granted, the song never mentions the holiday, but its association with this special is all the Christmas it needs. Ravencroft’s performance combined with the words of Seuss and the bombastic melody nearly steal the show here. We only get a taste of the song though, the rest will have to wait for later.
When the song drops out, we see the Grinch in his new Santa costume. It’s rather basic as it’s just a hat and coat. Apparently, Grinch is a bit like Donald Duck in that he refuses to wear pants. He also doesn’t see the beard as a necessity, but he does need a reindeer. He has none though, but he does have a dog and a pair of antlers on his wall! He takes some black thread and ties one of the antlers onto Max’s head. It looks rather uncomfortable as all of Max’s fur gets scrunched where the antler meets his skull. Worse though, is that it’s too heavy. When Grinch steps back to admire his handy-work, Max slowly collapses under the weight of the headpiece. Grinch then grabs a saw and removes some of the tines from the antler and Max slowly rocks back onto all fours, a little splash of drums can be heard as his feet return to the ground. I love the sound effects in this one, like the strings when Grinch saws the antlers. It’s all so good.
With Grinch in costume and Max turned reindeer, it’s time to stock an old sleigh with some bags. Max, behaving like a typical dog, jumps enthusiastically into the sleigh thinking he’s about to go for a ride. Oh, you’re going for a ride, Max, but it’s not going to be a fun one. The Grinch is not amused by his dog’s antics and grabs him by the fur and hooks him up to the front of the sleigh. The tiny dog looks ridiculous out in front of such a large sleigh, but the Grinch either disagrees or doesn’t care. He is coming up with this plan on the fly, after all. He cracks a whip over Max and orders him to “giddy-up” and the dog is forced to comply.
The beginning of Grinch and Max’s descent to Who-ville is quite steep, so steep that the sleigh rushes past the dog. In perhaps the special’s cutest moment, Max winds up behind the sleigh and hops onto the back as the Grinch looks under the sleigh for his dog. When he turns and sees Max just sitting on the sleigh, the only thing the dog can do is smile and wave. That won’t do for the Grinch, who is committed to arriving at Who-ville in a style similar to Santa’s so he grabs the rope and yanks Max back out and in front of the sleigh where the little dog rolls before going into a run. The two then head up an embankment that causes the sleigh to flip in the air which results in Max grabbing onto his master for dear life. When the sleigh lands in the snow again, the Grinch is forced to pull Max off of him like one would a really tight-fitting sweater. For some reason the sequence reminds me of one of Jones’ other famous creations, Wile E. Coyote, as this seems like a predicament he’d find himself in. Though it wouldn’t be a dog grabbing onto him, but some weird ACME contraption.
With Max back out in front, the sleigh completes its descent and arrives in Who-ville. The Grinch immediately puts Max to work carrying a massive ladder while he grabs a bunch of bags. He leads the dog to the first house informing him this is only stop number one. Now we get to see the Grinch’s plan in motion as he ascends the ladder to arrive at the chimney. Since he’s committed to the Santa role, he can’t just break in through a window or door, no, he must go down the chimney!
Grinch pauses at the top of the chimney to strike a pose before descending. He squishes his back against the side and basically “walks” his way down the chimney. He gets stuck briefly (Karloff claims it’s for a minute or two, but it’s more like a second) before eventually arriving in the living room of the Who house. His eyes shine from the blackness of the fireplace making him look like a rather sinister character, indeed. When he pops out, he uses a magnet to pull the tacks out of the mantle to collect the stockings. Then he slithers just like a snake, I guess to be quiet, and arrives at the tree. Old St. Nick has apparently already come and gone for the tree is covered in presents and goodies. The Grinch takes them all, stuffs them in bags, and then shoves them up the chimney where poor Max is expected to catch them and load them onto the sleigh.
The song then returns as Thurl Ravenscroft continues to tell us how much the Grinch sucks. While he does so, we get to see the Grinch sneak around the house and take stuff. And he’s going to take it all! Presents, decorations, furniture, food – you name it. It doesn’t have to be anything representing Christmas, he apparently wants the Whos to suffer! The song drops out for him to raid the fridge where he makes sure to take the rare, Who, roast, beast. It returns for him to take everything else, before dropping again when only one item remains to be claimed: the tree!
As the Grinch stuffs the tree up the chimney, one, lone, ornament falls off of it and rolls into a bedroom. We had already seen Grinch raid this bedroom earlier and steal the candy canes from the hands of the sleeping children, now one of them has awoken. Cindy-Lou Who (June Foray) picks up the ornament and heads into the den to find the Grinch shoving the tree up the chimney. Now, she’s only 2 so we can forgive her for not noticing all of the other missing items and for confusing Grinch for Santa. Upon seeing the girl though, the Grinch gets really unnerved for a moment, but Karloff assures us he’s thought up a lie and thought it up quick! The Grinch changes his facial expression indicating that this did indeed happen and begins his lie. He tells Cindy-Lou that a light on the tree has malfunctioned and he’s taking it home to his workshop to fix it. A totally plausible explanation. She buys it, and the Grinch gets her a cup of water and puts her back in bed.
With Cindy-Lou out of the way, Grinch is able to stuff the tree up the chimney without further issue. It’s at this point we’re informed of just how much he took as he left basically just wires on the wall. The narrator then tells us the one speck of food he left was a crumb that was too small for a mouse. As the wee little mouse approaches said crumb, Grinch’s hand comes back into frame to steal that too! He then goes to the other houses in Who-ville as “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” returns for a final time. It plays over the Grinch stealing more stuff, some of the images are recycled from before as we see Max getting buried under bags and Grinch slithering around some more. The last thing the Grinch steals is the giant tree in the town square which he opens like an umbrella and then folds up to carry it away.
When the song ends we learn that it’s quarter to dawn. It’s time for Grinch and Max to get out of there, but how are they going to do that? The sleigh is massive now, and it’s just little Max out in front who needs to pull it 10,000 feet up the side of a mountain! No matter, the little dog is a lot stronger than he looks as he’s forced to run when Grinch cracks his whip. The dog becomes buried in snow with only the antler showing, which is probably a good thing as he’s safe from the whip. The Grinch, being a chubby, green, guy, reclines on the pile of stuff and relaxes as his dog tugs the sleigh all the way up to the top of the mountain where Karloff informs us the Grinch intends to dump the sleigh.
Once the Grinch reaches the top, he cheerfully bounds from the pile of bags. He stops for a second to regard poor Max, who is just dangling in the air from his harness as the sleigh literally balances on the tip of the mountain. The Grinch then makes his way down to a perch where he’s able to assume yet another iconic pose as he places a hand to his ear. He’s hoping to hear the cries and wails of a defeated town, but he’s not prepared for what he hears instead.
The people of Who-ville all emerge from their homes as the sun rises. They gather in the center of town as if nothing has happened, clasping hands and singing “Welcome Christmas” just as joyously as they would have even with trees and such. The Grinch also failed to steal the Christmas bells which blare as the song is sung and the narrator sounds aghast at what is taking place.
We then pivot back to the Grinch, with his ice cold feet in the snow, looking as grumpy as ever. It’s at this point he tugs on Max and shoves his face into the dog’s to question how this could be happening, “It came without ribbon! It came without tags! It came with out packages, boxes, or bags!” He continues to ponder over it, before the background starts to brighten and the Grinch’s eyes turn a brilliant shade of blue. A smile comes across his face as he realizes that, “Christmas doesn’t come from a store. Maybe Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.”
Unfortunately, just as the Grinch comes to this realization the sleigh starts to move. As it inches closer to the edge, the Grinch scrambles after it. He grabs onto Max to try to pull it back towards him, but Max slides out of the harness and the two wind up going headfirst into the snow. When they pop up, they both see the sleigh begin to fall and race after it. The Grinch gets to it first and tries to pull it back. Max arrives to grab onto Grinch’s coat with his mouth, but it appears their effort will be for naught. As the sleigh slowly slides down the backside of the mountain where it will soon plunge off the edge, the Grinch and Max slide with it.
Then it happens. The Grinch’s small heart, the thing suspected of being the source of his grumpy attitude towards Christmas, begins to grow. It grows one size, then another, and then another! As it breaks free from the confines of the X-Ray window from earlier, the true meaning of Christmas is able to enter the Grinch’s heart and he finds the strength of 10 Grinches! Plus two!
With such unbelievable strength coursing through his body, the Grinch triumphantly lifts the massive sleigh over his head. The sun bursts behind him as Max clings to the end of a runner. Now, their descent can begin as Grinch and Max ride down the side of Mt. Crumpet. Max gets to ride on the sleigh this time while the Grinch announces their arrival with a blast of a trumpet he must have found amongst the gifts. They pull into the village and the Whos welcome them without an ounce of judgement. He and Max then cheerfully toss items from the sleigh as the narrator informs us that they gave everything back.
The image then dissolves as a little triumphant piece of music comes in. We see the Grinch has been invited to participate in Christmas with the Whos, not just as any old guest, but as the one to carve the roast beast! He hands a slice of beast to Cindy-Lou Who seated at his left who passes it on to the goodest boy of Christmas – Max! She pats his head as he looks at the full plate with eager eyes. The camera then pans back to show the Grinch carving and passing, carving and passing, before the camera moves beyond the wreath-lined window. As Boris Karloff recites some of the lyrics to “Welcome Christmas” the camera pans up the mountain as snow falls and the words “The End” come into focus.
And that’s it: the greatest Christmas special ever made! Every time I watch this special I go into it knowing it’s the best, and I leave it secure in my thoughts. There’s nothing about this special I do not like. Even the few animation shortcuts, like the female Who pouring a glass of orange juice that’s not even animated during the feast scene, I find charming at this point. The sounds, the sights, the emotions, it all comes together in a delightful symphony of pure, Christmas, goodness.
Because this special is so old and such a part of our culture at this point, it’s easy to forget that before it came around the Grinch didn’t even have a color. His old book was mostly black and white, with a dash of red for his eyes and Santa suit. It’s a delightful, visual, story, but adding the voice of Boris Karloff and that green fur just adds so much life to the character. I love reading my kids that book every Christmas, but it’s so odd to not have the music to go along with it. When my son was just a baby, I loved putting on the spoken word version of this special for him while I was working. He probably didn’t care about hearing it, but he did bob his head with the music and both of my kids today love this special. Maybe not as much as their father does, but not a Christmas goes by without it.
And thankfully the world loves How the Grinch Stole Christmas! so catching it on television shouldn’t be difficult this Christmas. If you missed the NBC broadcast to start the month, it will return on Christmas Eve so set your DVR if you can’t be in front of the TV to enjoy it. TBS also plays it throughout the month for those with cable, and you can purchase the special through various means if you wish. As for me, my preferred method of watching this one is on my ancient VHS from 1987 of recorded Christmas specials, even though CBS that year chopped out a piece of “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.” It’s just not the same though without the old commercials and the now washed out colors from years of use. Obviously, you shouldn’t let the season pass without watching this at least once (and I encourage you to watch it more than just once) so get to it! This is the best Christmas special ever!