One of the most famous Peanuts comic strips finds crabby fussbudget Lucy ruining her kid brother Linus’s first viewing of Citizen Kane by telling him, “Rosebud was his sled.” Linus’s response: “Auughh!” American Masters’ new biography of Charles Schulz, the creator of the seminal comic strip, may inspire similar reactions among fans. Titled Good Ol’ Charles Schulz, the program doesn’t completely “explain” its subject, just as Kane director Orson Welles didn’t entirely explain his protagonist by revealing, in a climatic shot of belongings being tossed into an incinerator, that Rosebud was the name of Charles Foster Kane’s boyhood plaything. But it does illuminate the cartoonist’s psyche in ways that may make it impossible to revisit the adventures of good old Charlie Brown without flashing back to this documentary.
Taking its cue from Schulz’s much-professed love of Kane, a film he saw 40 times—and even building its title graphic around Kane’s snow globe, over which a Schulz-drawn replica is then superimposed—the program treats the cartoonist’s life as a biographical mystery. Its central question: Did Schulz, known to friends as “Sparky,” have a Rosebud—a key item or event that explained much, if not all, of what he would eventually become? The answer is an emphatic yes: the death of Schulz’s beloved mother, Dena, of cancer, in February 1943, around the time that the cartoonist was drafted into the Army. Her passing, we’re told, hardened his already stoic German-Norwegian temperament and made him reluctant to open up to anyone, for any reason.
Written and directed by David Van Taylor, the documentary takes its time identifying Dena Schulz’s death as the artist’s formative trauma, mentioning it early, then circling back to it after charting the cartoonist’s rise to pop-culture prominence. Some juicy details were already well-known: For instance, Schulz’s doomed love for Donna Wold, who turned down his marriage proposal in the ’40s, inspired the Little Red-Haired Girl, Charlie Brown’s unrequiting objet d’amour. Van Taylor’s major contribution to Schulziana is a treasure trove of archival material, including family photographs and home movie footage (including 16mm snippets of Schulz teaching at a Minnesota art school). Also notable are the interviews with Schulz’s friends, colleagues, protégés and relatives (Wold, the now-elderly Little Red-Haired Girl, recounts her brief relationship with Schulz and concludes, with chilling understatement, “Sparky was a very lonely person”).
It was never hard to deduce that Peanuts was the work of a melancholy, insecure soul. Schulz’s protagonist was a depressive, moralistic little roundheaded kid (loosely modeled on Charles Brown, an art-school colleague of Schulz’s) who was mocked by his peers, failed at pretty much everything, and lamented his inability to control his fate or understand himself and the world. Good Ol’ Charles Schulz makes the art-life connection explicit. We learn, for example, that the era in which Snoopy and his fantasy life took over the strip (from the late ’60s through the ’70s) coincided with a period when Schulz was overwhelmed by the success of his creation and the ensuing flood of Peanuts merchandise, and all but withdrew from his first wife, Joyce, and their kids. The film also suggests that the interplay among Charlie Brown, Lucy and piano prodigy Schroeder was Schulz’s coded way of analyzing his relationship with Joyce, an extroverted, socially ambitious woman whom he would divorce in 1972. Lucy’s callous abuse of Charlie Brown was Schulz casting himself as a kind of schlub martyr; the more self-critical flip side was depicted in Lucy’s unreturned love for Schroeder, a brilliant space-case who had no use for anyone who wasn’t obsessed with music.
How much of the artist’s emotional constriction can be explained by the loss of his mom? About as much as the life of Charles Foster Kane can be explained by the fact he was taken away from his own mother as a boy. To its credit, Good Ol’ Charles Schulz respects the enigma of its subject, much as Welles waved away Kane’s big reveal as “dollar-book Freud.” Nevertheless, the mix of empathy and dirt-digging sheds light on the cartoonist in ways that the Kane-obsessed Schulz might have appreciated, provided he could get over the shock of seeing his dirty laundry aired on PBS. It is, to quote the reporter in Kane, “a piece in a jigsaw puzzle”—an account of innocence gone up in smoke.