[Note: All quotes and commentary that appear in this article were culled from exclusive interviews the author conducted with those individuals mentioned.]
It's been almost 60 years since How The Grinch Stole Christmas made its television debut on CBS on December 18, 1966. But the holiday classic is no less beloved.
With a script by Irv Spectre and Bob Ogle, The Grinch was based on the 1957 book by Dr. Seuss, a.k.a. Theodore Seuss Geisel, who passed away in 1991. Seuss had also subsequently penned lyrics to show’s tunes by Eugene Poddany and Albert Hague, primarily a Broadway-based composer who, after 1980 and until his death in 2001, was also a busy film and TV actor.
Fellow thespian Boris Karloff, a master of horror, vocalized the grumpy Grinch lead and doubled as Narrator. June Foray, best known as the voice of Rocky the Squirrel from TV’s Rocky & Bullwinkle cartoon (and still with us at 99 years old), spoke tiny words as little Cindy Lou Who from the depravedly-designed small town of Whoville.
Dale McKennon delivered sounds for Max, the sleigh-dog that literally helps carry out the Grinch’s evil plan to destroy the Whos’ Christmas; while Thurl Ravencroft sang the show’s theme, “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” and also performed in the chorus for two other songs on the show.
However, the core creative force behind the animated scenes of The Grinch was none other than the Academy Award-winning Chuck Jones, who died on February 22, 2002.
As one of the directors of Warner Bros.’ animated division, the innovative Jones had for years brought to living color the adventures of Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Road Runner, and Wile E. Coyote, among countless other characters from the studio’s famed Looney Toons vault.
Jones exited Warner Bros. in 1963 and began animating for Metro Golden Mayer, where he illustrated the popular Tom and Jerry shorts, and features like The Dot and the Line (1965), based on Norton Juster’s short book. Jones won an Oscar for Dot, and the following two films, both produced by Eddie Selzer, and released in 1949.
Much for So Little won in the Short-Subject Documentary division, and For Scenti-mental Reasons, a Pepe le Pew cartoon, finished first in the Short-Subject Animated Film category.
Seventeen years later, Jones captured the hearts of TV viewers the world over by animating The Grinch which has managed to cut out a unique niche of its own.
Craig Kausen is the President of Chuck Jones Companies, the Chairman of the Board for the Chuck Jones Center of Creativity nonprofit organization (based in Costa Mesa, California), and grandson to Jones. He explained the events leading up to his heralded grandfather’s guiding grasp on The Grinch:
“Chuck was the most voracious reader that I’ve ever known. He read everything from the time he was three years old. All kinds of literature found its way into his work, whether directly, as with The Grinch, or through the influence of a parody of some sort.
“Wile E. Coyote was developed in his mind when he was just seven while reading Roughing It by Mark Twain. So, it’s no surprise that Chuck continuously sought out great stories to bring to light in his mind and then on film.”
Once at MGM, Jones reunited with four men who Kausen described as “the great animators from the WB days” and whom Jones defined as “actors with pencils”: Ken Harris, Lloyd Vaughn, Dick Thompson, and Ben Washam, who co-directed The Grinch.
“When one of Chuck’s team stepped up and took a bigger leadership role he would credit them with co-directing,” Kausen said.
“But Ben was really an animator because that is really what he did throughout his entire career. He definitely animated on The Grinch even though he was credited as co-director. In fact, he was one of the longest-running animators on Chuck’s team. He even animated on Chuck’s first film, The Night Watchman, which was released in 1938.”
Film and television archivist Robert S. Ray offered his take on what makes The Grinch stand separate from other classic TV animated Christmas specials:
“First and foremost there is the unique artistry of Chuck Jones. He brought his inimitable design to Dr. Seuss’ original illustrations, creating something done exclusively in his own style, while fully capturing the feel of Dr. Seuss, and separating The Grinch from other beloved Christmas specials of the era.
“Frosty is typical TV-style limited animation, but more than serviceable for its condensed budget. Charlie Brown has an approach and appeal all its own, accented with religious overtones that can’t be compared to other mainstream specials beyond The Little Drummer Boy [NBC, 1968], which was drawn specifically from a biblical story.”
Rudolph and Drummer Boy, along with other Christmas favorites like Santa Claus is Coming To Town (ABC, 1969), and The Year Without A Santa Claus (ABC, 1974), were from the Arthur Rankin, Jr./Jules Bass wheelhouse, mostly known for their stop-motion style of animation (save for their Frosty franchise), and each filled with what Ray calls “a truckload of hummable tunes” and “more akin to a children’s musical.”
Craig Kausen concluded, Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Who Stole Christmas “encapsulates the essence of Christmas, which at its core, has to do with the deeper bond between people. It’s about the humanity that finally broke through the callous heart of the Grinch, how he learned to utilize the strength of ‘ten-Grinches plus two’ to change who he was for the betterment of himself and his place in Whoville, in the world and beyond.”