How Doctor Seuss Stole Christmas

The making of the classic Grinch holiday cartoon.

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This is an excerpt from an article featured in the November/December 2019 issue of The Saturday Evening Post. Subscribe to the magazine for more art, inspiring stories, fiction, humor, and features from our archives.

In early 1964, Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel received a note from an old friend who wanted to discuss adapting a Dr. Seuss book into an animated cartoon. It wasn’t the first time such an entreaty had been made. “Everybody wanted to make a series,” said Geisel, but he was skeptical: most television producers, he said, wanted to “bat ’em out fast and use up my whole life’s work in a year.” But this plea was different from the others. It came from someone Ted Geisel knew and respected — someone he’d worked with during World War II, and who knew exactly what he was doing. “Maybe you don’t think I can draw your character,” said the note, under which was a nearly perfect rendering of the Cat in the Hat to prove otherwise. And underneath that was the author’s crabbed signature: Chuck Jones.

Jones, then 51, had recently been let go from Warner Bros. after more than 30 years of turning out one iconic cartoon for the studio after another. Now he was in charge of MGM Animation, where he was revamping the shopworn Tom and Jerry series. Knowing Geisel as he did — and well aware of his penchant for perfection — Jones knew it was going to be a tough sell and decided to take on the task in person. “Unsurprisingly, Dr. Seuss was not eager to have more of his books made into film,” Jones said later. Jones drove from Los Angeles to Ted’s home in La Jolla, and as he came up the winding road, Ted was standing at the end of their long driveway to greet him. Jones, who hadn’t seen Geisel since 1946, thought his old friend looked “not very different. He didn’t change a lot.”

(CBS/Photofest)

Geisel’s initial strategy was simply to stonewall Jones. “He had planned that we’d talk about old times,” Jones recalled, “and then I’d go home.” But Jones was persuasive. “I told him it was time to put Dr. Seuss on television,” said Jones, who was as passionate and as meticulous about animation as Geisel was about writing children’s books. Like Geisel, Jones had put serious thought into what did and didn’t work in his craft, and had even developed a series of hard rules he expected his designers and animators to follow, like “All living creatures, fictional or not, have anatomy.” Ted could respect that kind of discipline. The more Jones talked, the more excited Ted’s wife Helen became about the project — and with both Jones and Helen now enthusiastically double-teaming him, Ted finally wore down. “I decided that if I was going to go on TV, I’d better do it before I’m 70,” he said later.

The only real question was which book Jones would adapt. “It was early enough in the year that we could get it done for Christmas,” said Jones, “so it had to be the Grinch.” Geisel was fine with that — but on the condition that he would be permitted to serve as a producer of the film alongside Jones, so he could keep a close eye on as much of the production as possible. The two shook hands and Jones left satisfied. “I climbed the mountain to meet this wonderful hermit and persuaded him to allow the Grinch off the hill,” said Jones, who then immediately went to work on the character designs and storyboards he would need to sell the show to a sponsor.

“Maybe you don’t think I can draw your character,” said the note.

It took two months to storyboard the Grinch. Geisel and Jones worked together closely, with Jones making regular trips to consult with Geisel over the Grinch’s design, and Geisel shuttling over to Jones’s offices at MGM to help develop the storyboards. For the most part, the two were in sync, picking up without missing a beat the collaborative rapport they’d developed two decades earlier. The only real disagreements had to do with the design of the Grinch. Color was the first issue to be resolved; in the book, the Grinch had been uncolored, with only his eyes a burning red. After much discussion, Geisel agreed the Grinch could be green — which, Jones later confessed, matched the color of every rental car he had driven around La Jolla that summer.

Color decisions aside, bringing any character from the page of a book to an animated cartoon required some serious thought. On the TV screen, the Grinch couldn’t just be a series of poses, as he was on the page; Geisel and Jones had to really think about how he moved and how he walked and sat and frowned. The two passed drawings back and forth for some time until Jones — exercising a rare veto authority — approved the final design. “Ted was very patient with me. He felt that my Grinch looked more like me than his Grinch,” said Jones. “Well, something had to give, so we ended up with a sort of mélange of all the Grinches.”

With the storyboards complete, Jones began the thankless task of carting his boards around town to meet with potential sponsors, displaying the storyboards on an easel as he enthusiastically acted out scenes before rooms full of skeptical candy company executives. For a while, Geisel tagged along to watch, but Jones, who “kept seeing his poor face” as they were rejected by one executive after another, finally told him to stop attending the pitch sessions. Jones remembered approaching 26 uninterested sponsors, including Nestlé and Kellogg’s, before finally finding a home for the Grinch with the Foundation for Commercial Banks. Jones could barely contain his amusement at the irony. “You have to be kidding!” Jones wrote later. “The bankers bought a story in which the Grinch says, ‘Maybe Christmas doesn’t come from a store’??!! Well, bless their banker hearts!”

Featured image: World History Archive / Alamy Stock Photo

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