Know Thy History: The Addams Family
It seems like movie and TV studios are running out of ideas nowadays, doesn’t it? They’re desperately trying to find a new vein of creativity. The surprising thing is that some question inspirations end up paying off.
The most famous recent example would be the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. I mean, back when it first made light, everyone — and I mean everyone — was clucking their tongues, laughing at how creatively bankrupt Hollywood had become. “A movie based on a Disney ride?” the pop culture wags would say. “How droll! What next: a movie based on Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots? Oh, to see the day when that happens.”
But, as well all know, Pirates was a humongous success, kickstarting a three sequels, the current obsession with pirates, and a whole industry of Jack Sparrow Halloween costumes. It also sorta got it into some Hollywood producer’s minds that, “Hey, if a Disney ride could be a movie, ANYTHING is fair game! Does anyone have the rights to that Milton Bradley Battleship game? Get Liam Neeson on the phone!”
I mean, what next? What if you got really obscure. Like you tried to adapt a loosely connected series of cartoons that were featured in famously high-brow magazine The New Yorker. They’re just vignettes: the characters don’t have names, and the series doesn’t even have a title. How crazy and kooky would that be?
Well, as you guessed from the title of this “Know Thy History,” that’s exactly what happened when Charles Addams gave the world The Addams Family.
Charles Addams’ life story seems to be tinged with gallows humor here and there. As a kid, he liked hanging out at a Presbyterian Cemetery. He was once caught breaking into a creepy Victorian house, which is said to be the inspiration for the Addams Family mansion. In 1932, he got a job at True Detective magazine, where he had to edit out bloody police photos (in a primitive version of Photoshop) so they could pass the censors.
He was married three times. His first wife was the inspiration for Morticia Addams. His second wife sorta scared him a little when she had him take out a $100,000 life insurance policy. She was a practicing lawyer who ended up controlling the Addams Family TV and movie franchises. (Incidentally, I have no idea if Debbie in the Addams Family Values movie was based on her. I mean, wouldn’t that mean she was lampooning herself?) His third wife he married in the middle of a pet cemetery. I should point out that he divorce his wives and they didn’t disappear in some bizarre Robe Goldberg death trap. I should never have to point out these things, but with Charles Addams you never know.
Addams sold his first cartoon to the New Yorker in 1932. His mysterious and spook family would make their first appearance in the magazine six years later. He ended up drawing more than 1,300 cartoons and a Special Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America.
Out of those 1,300 cartoons, though, only about 50 were of the characters that we would know as The Addams Family. Still, the characters seemed near and dear to his heart. When he drew he and his wife in self-portrait, he’d draw his wife as Morticia, and himself as … Uncle Fester? Well… Baby Charles Addams does look a bit like Uncle Fester.
Charles Addam’s typical style was a blink-and-you-miss-it approach. Scenes of the Addams Family were typically domestic (and a little bit upscale). For example, you’d be treated to a sumptuous scene of a family dinner. What’s so weird about it? Oh, right. The butler is a Frankenstein zombie. And those pigs (which is a pretty weird choice for a meal, when you think about it) look a little too happy to have been roasted alive.
There’s also a famous one that was replicated in the movie. A group of Christmas carolers show up at the front door. Gomez, Morticia, and Lurch are watching them from the top balcony of their old Victorian mansion. Are they enjoying the wonderful strains of “Joy to the World”? Oh, wait, there a huge pot that Gomez and Lurch are carrying. Possibly filled with hot oil.
All in all, it’s humor that everyone can get behind… unlike the impenetrably dry reputation of New Yorker cartoons these days.
The Addams Family really hit the big time, though, in 1964 when the TV show debuted. ABC asked Charles Addams to give his characters names and flesh out their backgrounds: “Gomez and Pugsley are enthusiastic. Morticia is even in disposition, muted, witty, sometimes deadly. Grandma Frump is foolishly good-natured. Wednesday is her mother’s daughter. A closely knit family, the real head being Morticia—although each of the others is a definite character — except for Grandma, who is easily led. Many of the troubles they have as a family are due to Grandma’s fumbling, weak character. The house is a wreck, of course, but this is a house-proud family just the same and every trap door is in good repair. Money is no problem.”
Add a catchy theme song and a legend was born. (And no, your schoolyard chums are wrong. The theme does not go: “The Addams Family started/ when Uncle Fester farted.”)
The Addams Family also sparked one of the greatest rivalries in history when it debuted opposite CBS’s similarly Halloween-themed The Munsters. (Man, just when you started thinking the close debuts of Once Upon A Time and Grimm was bad.)
In the end, though, it seems that the Addams were the more enduring franchise, which I think is due in large part to Charles Addams’ genuinely macabre sense of humor. It’s a franchise that spawned two feature films in the 90’s, a Broadway musical that’s currently playing, and the best selling pinball machine of all time.
Incidentally, I remember an anecdote about the first movie regarding Morticia. The director was looking to return to her original skeletal look from the comics, but the producers flinched and decided to cast her as a gothic but beautiful woman as embodied by the elegant Anjelica Huston. I must be missing something, because all the Addams’ cartoons of Morticia that I’ve seen have her portrayed as a rather beautiful woman. I imagine even Charles Addams wouldn’t want to have to deal with the inherent problems involved in drawing your wife as an emaciated skeleton.