A Grinchy Moment

Another instance of genius from Chuck Jones & Co.

Or, How One Frame Sticks With You Into Adulthood

One shot in the animated special Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas! still terrifies me, and this is it:

Rights to the owners, as usual.

Yep, this one. Not that shot of the Grinch staring down from his cave with a sour frown of his ilk, not the malicious, blossoming smile of the Wonderful, Awful Idea, not even the Grinch seemingly leering at a bed of sleeping Who children (to affect Seuss’s typographic styling). This shot.

And I marvel at it with each viewing. Perfection.


In transmuting Seuss’s text and the original 28 red, pink, and black ink illustrations to the small screen, director Chuck Jones and his team recreated most of the author’s tableaux. The chimney shot, however, has no direct equivalent in the book. There, the protagonist’s entry into the house of J. P. Who is a two-page spread is staged as an otherwise cozy Christmas scene.

A well-decorated living room with all the Yuletide trappings while children sleep in an adjoining chamber is disrupted by the Grinch snaking his way in from the flue to swipe the little Who stockings. For the special, Jones split Seuss’s illustration into two shots: first the fireplace with eyes, and then an angular shot of the Grinch employing a patented cartoon magnet to pry the stocking nails out of the mantlepiece. (Only in an animated universe would such nonsensical techniques be employed for such a task while being the only sensible way such a task could be done in said universe.)

But again, why should the aforementioned tableau be so unsettling but so appreciable at the same time? And why does it exemplify yet again why this special is one of the masterpieces of its kind?

Easy explanations abound: disembodied eyes disquiet; it’s like the monster under the bed; the darkness lets the imagination work. I could wax further in this general vein.

Getting more precise, however, yields more excellent discoveries.

Notably, this moment is the only time in the special that the Grinch’s eyes are shown on their own without the rest of his figures in view. Jones regularly used this device for unsettling moments in his Warner Bros. shorts. The best example can be found in the bloodshot green sclera of the homicidal rodents of the Dry Gulch Hotel in Claws for Alarm.

For a character otherwise visible like the Grinch, the “eyes only” choice is doubly important. Apart from the scowling mouth and jigsaw dentures, the Grinch’s eyes are his primary conveyors of menace. Given the restrained number of vocalizations the character gets (not to be confused with the narrator’s interjections), the eye’s capacity for expression accomplishes much. Jones also uses them for expert shifts in storytelling. Over a flashforward fade, for example, the Grinch’s right pupil becomes the doorknob to the Who children’s playroom, while Cindy-Lou Who’s strawberry is morphed into the left pupil to end the flash-forward.

Attentive viewers have long noted how the Grinch’s oculi go from red and jaundiced to baby blue (twice, in fact) in the finale as a sign of his revelation and reclamation. In the chimney sequence, however, they emerge as beacons of malice ready to strike from the shadows.

Here, as in almost every frame of the special, the contributions of Maurice Noble’s layouts and production design are everything we need and everything that demands special notice and admiration. In the shift from Seuss’s illustrations to a full-color world, Noble imbued the Whos with a mid-century whimsy in the ribbon poofs, the “MERRY CHRiSTMAS” banner, and the Who stockings. Doom is coming, however, for these proudly tranquil embodiments of Yuletide domesticity, as the audience is hapless to halt the Grinch’s impending ransack and sabotage.

Yet we all cheer him on.

The strength of the animated Grinch is his capacity to charm the audience into complicity with his activities. We are narrative captives along for the sleigh ride with this winking, leering, sinful sot. Cajoling the audience’s camaraderie is a unique attribute that most of Jones’s animated protagonist possess. They are always aware of the fourth wall and the audience. Indeed, the Grinch could easily speak or even sing Bugs Bunny’s immortal query at the end of Duck Amuck: “Ain’t I a stinker?” Stink, stank, stunk, no arguments here.

But the strength of the character is that his ironic self-awareness—something that explains the Grinch’s relatability and popularity—never needs to be acknowledged. The Grinch exudes it in every single frame with no explication necessary. Here is another reason why, for whatever success they have claimed, the more elaborate adaptations of the Grinch ultimately diminish the character by giving the audience too much explanation. The action and the image give all. Lurking in the brickwork here, the villain flashes yet another challenge, and Stockholm Syndromed into collusion, we surrender. We eventually get our say via the voice of the Unnamed Singer (whom every year becomes clearer as Max), who regales with “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” an invective that even Cicero would have to admire for its rhetorical panache. Oddly enough, the Grinch’s eyes never occasion any mention in the song. But even then, the Grinch could seemingly care less about whatever musical harangue is thrown at him. Perfectly impervious.

Related, and to close, the narration of Boris Karloff at this point deserves distinctive praise in these shots. The baseline stillness of his reading of the text “Then he stuck his head out of the fireplace flue” ascends to seemingly angelic admiration with “Where the little Who stockings.” But a brief pause slides the tone back into something mocking with the line’s end: “hung all in a row.” Echt Grinch.

Three Movements for Herrmann

“They’ve got music for melancholiacs, and music for dipsomaniacs, and music for nymphomaniacs… I wonder what would happen if somebody mixed up their files?”—Midge, VERTIGO


My first semester at the University of Texas at Austin was a fun, wild, and all-consuming ride that, unfortunately, did not leave much time for the blog. To atone for my neglect, I wanted to provide a brief offering to finish out 2021 (another may follow), inspired by recent experiences with films scored by composer Bernard Herrmann.

The catalyst was a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo in late November at Austin Film Society. (I can only entreat those who have not yet seen Vertigo on the big screen to do so at their earliest opportunity.) The filmwas the third collaboration of the director and the composer, and for many, it will remain the most iconic. It sent me on a listening tour of other Herrmann scores, many of which are now available for commercial consumption. Herrmann believed strongly in the efficacy of film music in the concert hall and, naturally, on the record, where his elaborate orchestrations (all by his own hand) were often better rendered than on film soundtracks, especially when presented in full stereophonic sound. His scores have found a great posthumous advocate in conductor Joel McNeely, who has recorded a number of them for Varèse Sarabande with the Royal Scottish National Orchestra, Vertigo included. (I offer an honorable mention for McNeely’s album of music from episodes of The Twilight Zone scored by Herrmann.)


While the significance of the score of Vertigo is undeniable, my personal favorite of the Herrmann and Hitchcock collaborations is the score for Psycho. It is a chiaroscuro masterpiece of suspense in strings, a stark antidote to the more expansive romanticism of Vertigo. McNeely’s recording of Psycho manifests all the dread and disquiet of the film, helped by including cues and segments that did not make it into the final edit. One does hope, however, that the original orchestral tracks will be released on their own one day. There is a certain violent tactility in this performance and mix not found anywhere else. Even Herrmann’s later recording of the abbreviated Psycho “Narrative for Orchestra” for Decca comes off as languid. (He occasionally gave in to lugubrious tempi in his studio recordings, as evinced by his recording of Walton’s film music for Richard III, which barely has a living pulse.)

Two cues from Psycho always impress me. The first is “The Madhouse,” written to accompany the parlor scene between Marion Crane and Norman Bates. Most of the sequence has no underscoring, but the trigger of Marion’s question, “Wouldn’t it be better if you put her someplace…” sets both Norman and the orchestra off. The opening motive F–E-flat–D is among the most memorable gestures in the entire score. The cue uses thematic material introduced in Herrmann’s earlier SinfoniettaforString Orchestra from 1935, but it is not an issue of simple adaptation. In Psycho, Herrmann wove his material into a taut web of dissonances, using extreme leaps and registers to reflect the various emotional and psychological strands clashing in Bates’s mind. Only nineteen measures long, it concludes with an ambiguous open fifth, an uneasy hint at what is to follow.

The second cue of note, entitled “The Stairs,” underscores the sequence when doomed detective Milton Arbogast returns to the Bates Motel to question the mysterious “Mrs. Bates.” The music picks up when Arbogast enters the motel office and, after ascertaining Norman Bates is absent, makes his way up to the second floor of the Bates house where Mother is waiting. The second half of the cue (1:30 mark) is another Herrmann masterstroke, using the extremes of the string registers and harmonics to an unsettling advantage. A discordant E-flat, given three statements but reduced to one in the film’s final edit, heralds the silent opening of Mother’s bedroom door. With piercing shrieks, the motive for the murder then enters in the next cue, “The Knife.” This cue is longer in the original score, hinting at more grisly shots of Arbogast’s death.


Herrmann’s talents were well-suited to Hollywood’s fantasy epics of the 1950s, though he mostly avoided sword-and-sandal outings. One of his most spectacular scores in this category is Journey to the Center of the Earth from 20th Century Fox in 1959. The original orchestral masters for this film have survived (including several Pat Boone ballads better forgotten), giving listeners a chance to hear Herrmann’s work on its own.

More compact is the “suite” from Journey that Herrmann later arranged and recorded for Decca in 1973, released the following year as part of the album The Fantasy World of Bernard Herrmann. Barring Herrmann’s edits and elisions, the suite corresponds to the following cues from the original film: “The Mountain,” “Sunrise,” “Prelude,” “Grotto,” “Salt Slides,” “The Pool,” “Dead Groom,” “Atlantis,” “Giant Chameleon,” “The Fight,” “The Shaft,” and “Finale.” Recorded at Kingsway Hall in London with the National Philharmonic Orchestra (an ad hoc orchestra of London players), the Journey suite benefits from the full range of Decca’s vintage “Phase 4” stereo. Herrmann’s subterranean orchestration for brass and low woodwind takes on an uncommon richness, especially the serpent highlighted in the “Giant Chameleon” section, as well as the writing for harp throughout. The most masterly portion of the suite is the section “Atlantis,” scored primarily for organ and vibraphone. In the recording of the suite, Herrmann makes terrific use of stereophonic distance and reverberation, giving the impression of age and immensity. Recognizing the protagonists’ isolation along their underground gauntlet, Herrmann’s strongest work in the score of Journey comes from his grasp of the monumental but still frightening sublimity of the Earth.


Finally following Stephen Sondheim’s exhortations, I watched the film Hangover Square from 1945, another 20th Century Fox offering boasting one of Herrmann’s best early film scores. The atmospheric influence of the movie on the conception of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd as a gaslight revenge thriller is palpable, though the Edwardian trappings of Hangover Square stand in a milieu apart from both Victorian melodrama and the source novel by Patrick Hamilton. Hangover Square follows the exploits of musician George Bone, who is triggered into murderous fugue states by high-pitched tones heard at moments of extreme stress. While the film was capably handled by director John Brahm and writer Alfred Edgar (under the non de plume Barré Lyndon), it is tantalizing to ponder what Hitchcock would have made of the material, considering that he adapted Hamilton’s Rope for the screen in 1948 and made much in his own films out of psychological triggers, though sounds were rarely among them. (I welcome corrections on this point.)

Amid the film’s extensive body of diegetic music, Herrmann composed Bone’s enigmatic piano concerto, which figures extensively into the main score from the main titles through to the climax. Herrmann later arranged it for commercial recordings under the title Concerto Macabre, and it is a stand-alone track on Chandos’s 2010 release of musical excerpts recorded from the film score. Sondheim claimed to have memorized the first page of the concerto from an on-screen prop manuscript on his second viewing of the film.


My opening sentence recalls another Herrmann cue: