The original movie poster for Charlotte’s Web declared: “That humble radiant terrific book is now a humble radiant terrific movie!”
Fans still echo this sentiment of the film fifty years later, which is why it continues to be remembered and remains impactful. Coming to audiences from one of the most popular and prolific animation studios of the time, with music from two of film’s best-loved songwriters, Charlotte’s Web continues to be a powerful parable that has connected with so many.
Charlotte’s Web was a popular book by legendary children’s author E.B. White, first published in 1952. It was in 1967 that the book surfaced among film producers, and several different animation directors, such as John and Faith Hubley and Gene Deitch, showed interest in translating it for the screen.
In 1971, the film came to the Hanna-Barbera Studio and would be directed by two veterans of animation and the studio, Iwao Takamoto and Charles A. Nichols. Charlotte’s Web would be the third theatrical feature from Hanna-Barbera, the titans of TV animation, and the first film not to feature one of their famous television stars (Hey There, It’s Yogi Bear and The Man Called Flintstone were the other two).
“Hanna-Barbera had to get personal permission from E.B. White (and his wife) to produce Charlotte’s Web,” says colleague Greg Ehrbar, who has been researching the studio for decades and has also written for its characters. “In his book, Barbera describes a convoluted journey he took to get to the White farm in Maine. He was warmly received, and the Whites were impressed with the art and story material he presented. Hanna-Barbera was given their blessing.”
Charlotte’s Web tells the tale of Wilbur the pig, who is saved from the fate of the slaughterhouse by Charlotte, the spider who lives above the pen. Charlotte can weave sayings into her web like “Some Pig,” which amazes the nearby residents, turning Wilbur into a local celebrity.
The film boasts an impressive voice cast that includes comedian Henry Gibson (of TV’s hit Laugh-In) as Wilbur, Debbie Reynolds as the soothing voice of Charlotte, the cackling genius of Paul Lynde as Templeton the rat, Agnes Moorehead as the Goose, child actress Pamelyn Ferdin (who played Lucy in several Peanuts specials) as Fern, the young girl who adopts Wilbur, and cowboy actor Rex Allen as the narrator.
Also in the cast were Hanna-Barbera voice veterans Don Messick as Jeffrey the gosling, John Stephenson as Fern’s father, and Bob Holt as Homer Zuckerman, Fern’s Uncle.
Unlike Hanna-Barbera’s TV series, Charlotte’s Web, even with its talking animals, was grounded with more drama and emotion than the studio had ever produced before, which stems from the story and the character animation, as well. There’s a rich connection between Wilbur and Charlotte that serves as the heart of the film.
Helping to bring such scenes to life was the songwriting team of siblings Robert and Richard Sherman, most famous for their legendary award-winning music produced for Walt Disney on such films as Mary Poppins and The Jungle Book.
Additionally, Irwin Kostal, another Disney mainstay, provided the score.
Reportedly, author E.B. White opposed the use of the Disney style music in the film, but the songs and the score are now remembered as one of the many poignant layers in Charlotte’s Web.
“True, the Sherman Brothers and Irwin Kostal were Disney alumni,” says Greg. “However, few animated features had songs more personal to the composers than Charlotte’s Web. Certainly, E.B. White could not have known the internal emotions that generated the music and lyrics that ended up in the film. Hanna-Barbera welcomed and included them in a manner they had not experienced for a long time after Walt.”
Among the songs for the film was the lovely, lilting ballad “Charlotte’s Web,” the enthusiastic parade march, “Zuckerman’s Famous Pig,” and Templeton’s big number, “A Veritable Smorgasbord,” where the rat sings about the joys of digging through the trash and eating the scraps at the fair, after its closed.
The song is perfect for Lynde, as it fully utilizes his ability to verbalize any word humorously and makes Templeton an audience favorite.
Charlotte’s Web opened at Radio City Music Hall on February 22, 1973, followed by a general release on March 1, 1973. It was praised by many critics, such as Charles Champlin of The Los Angeles Times, who wrote: “No one, I think, could ask for a more respectful treatment of a classic…The grownups will miss some of the artful appeal the book has but can settle gladly enough for a cheerful and enthusiastic piece of children’s fare.”
Thanks to not only a successful theatrical run, but also airings on television throughout the 70s and 80s, as well as a release on VHS in 1979, multiple generations had easy access to Charlotte’s Web, and it developed quite the following and became a beloved favorite.
In 1994, the film ranked as one of the top-selling tapes of the year. A direct-to-video sequel was produced in 2003, and a live-action version in 2006.
But it’s Hanna-Barbera’s 1973 version of Charlotte’s Web that still enchants so many fifty years later.
“There is something very real in Charlotte’s Web,” notes Greg. “It says (and sings) about life and death, generosity and selfishness, fame and obscurity, strength of character, loyalty, and friendship.”