Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Charles Addams' book compilations of cartoons from the early 1960s were my first exposure to his weird family, and perhaps my first exposure to morbid black humor. Unlike Mad magazine, a pocketbook like Monster Rally didn't place the weird goings on in any particular context. There was no reason given for the weirdness on the faces of the characters, that didn't have names. Perhaps the perfect Charles Addams cartoon was the view of a movie-going audience that showed a dozen faces of dismay or fear. In the middle was a little bald-headed ghoulish guy (the later Uncle Fester) with a fiendish, self-satisfied grin on his face. The basic Addams philosophy celebrates the fact that whatever you are or believe, there's somebody out there with an attitude or lifestyle 180° opposite of your own.
The Addams Family Volume 1 contains the first 22 episodes of the first season of this hit 1964 show, which was burned into this viewer's memory at age thirteen. The ABC network's relentless promo spots, which had done so well to launch The Outer Limits the year before and would make Batman the show to see a couple of years later, had us all watching the series premiere. I believe it was up against The Wizard of Oz on CBS, but we ducked out of Dorothy's first half hour. TV watching at age 13 was serious business.
Unlike its competition The Munsters, The Addams Family could claim a modicum of actual relevance. The early 1960s was a time that America was discovering that it wasn't completely homogenous in its basic beliefs. More married couples out in the great middle class had college degrees, and I remember my parents sometimes having younger adult guests and neighbors over that discussed politics and already saw the evening news as something to get up at arms about. To make a wide generalization, middle class people were finding out that plenty of their neighbors held very different views. The television Addams Family is a collection of ghoulish crazies that live in their own world of insulated illusion. We never actually see them doing anything illegal or particularly immoral, but their conversation constantly alludes to murder, torture and mad bombings. Their lifestyle is a gothic inversion of "The American Way" in which children are kept out of the sunshine and encouraged to brood in dank dungeons while playing with bats.
The joke is that the Addamses think they're absolutely normal. They're filthy rich and rarely venture outside their broken-down mansion, so they don't know what goes on in the world. They aren't militantly closed-minded; but merely assume that everyone else thinks just as they do. It's the perfect definition of the notion of 1950s American complacency.
Naturally, the show must walk a fine line to keep this illusion going. The weekly visitors to the house ("...When people come to see -- 'em...") and every other "normal" person they meet, never directly state that the Addamses are a bunch of freaks. They go nuts and engage in Abbott & Costello-like wordplay, but our unflappable family remains in denial. They're perfectly normal -- but the strangest people keep coming to their door. One has to be kind to such poor souls.
The comedy of The Addams Family starts with the delightful characters themselves, who coalesce as a parody of '50s TV family fare. Addams' gaunt and dour lady of the house (who may be based on Carol Borland's Mora from The Mark of the Vampire) becomes the delightful Morticia, played by Carolyn Jones, the '50s hip-chick specialist from dozens of fine pictures (The Bachelor Party, Invasion of the Body Snatchers) but who never hit the top rungs of stardom. Jones' Morticia is a cultured vamp, proud mother and avid horticulturist (of man-eating plants). She plays the grand dame and is a perfect hostess. Morticia's values are of course completely warped, but she's the moral center of the family unit.
Gomez (John Astin of West Side Story) is the pater familias maniac, a cultured Castillian loon forever waxing enthusiastic behind wild eyes. He's always ready with a fiendish smile or a Groucho-like eyebrow waggle while remembering one of his old-time abominations. Smug and self-satisfied, Gomez is eternally optimistic and convinced that things are going great. The grand hobbyist, Gomez dotes on his electric train layout and specializes in explosive wrecks.
Little Wednesday Addams is played by six year-old Lisa Loring as a fulfillment of the adage that "Wednesday's child is full of woe." Both she and her pudgy brother Pugsley (Ken Weatherwax) are inversions of wholesome TV children. Wednesday is a morbid little creep that never smiles and carries around a decapitated doll; Pugsley is a stupid-looking clod with a knack for building torture and execution devices. Confronted by a psychiatrist, he talks only of gore and killing.
The popular Uncle Fester (ex child star Jackie Coogan) is a terrible role model, a bald and toad-like ghoul who can power electric lights with his mouth. An incorrigible troublemaker, Fester gets sent to his room as often as does Pugsley, where he plays quietly with his homemade bombs. Grandmama Addams (Marie Blake) is a more reclusive, witchlike woman given less to do, while Ted Cassidy's butler Lurch lurks about the house like Frankenstein's monster. Lurch's famous baritone remark is "You rang?" When he smiles he looks like a zombie version of James Coburn.
Also fondly remembered is "The Thing", a cheerful, helpful disembodied hand. Thing pops out of cigar boxes, secret compartments and any other handy opening to light cigarettes, turn off lamps and even tap out messages in Morse Code.
But the most successful aspect of the whole show is the Gomez-Morticia relationship, which conjures the essence of Mad Love. Morticia and Gomez are crazy about each other. Gomez might be the giddily crazed spiritual son of Vincent Price from the Corman/Poe pictures; he worships Morticia, who is the personification of Borgia refinement. It's true love unhindered by FCC codes. Gomez is always trying to entice his missus up to the bedroom, while Morticia fends him off with coquettish reserve. We all remember Gomez kissing his way up Morticia's arm, telling her that he goes crazy when she speaks French; Morticia keeps her emotions in control and luxuriates in her husband's worship. It's the perfect relationship -- some of the glances they shoot back and forth are the sexiest in 60s TV. Every episode has some expression of matrimonial affection, and the ones with longer scenes of abandon are usually the best.
A look at the episode list shows that The Addams Family follows some of the standard Sit-com paths while finding new civilians to shock on a weekly basis. Supporting Savant's thesis of gentle subversion, the excellent pilot has the Addams household thrown into a tizzy over the disgusting content of Wednesday's schoolbook: "Grimm's Fairy Tales." Gomez and Morticia are shocked by stories like Hansel and Gretel where "two horrid children push an old lady into an oven." It's a great comment on political arbiters of community values that in actuality seek to promote their own prejudices. Cousin Itt (Felix Silla) is here, along with the episode where the family pretends that Lurch is the master of the house when his mother (Ellen Corby) comes to visit. A favorite episode is the Halloween show, with Don Rickles guest-starring as a crook. Wednesday and Pugsley dress up as perfect little children in a suit and a party dress; Uncle Fester thinks they might be too frightening for the neighbors.
An episode that highlights superior comedy work is "The Addams Family in Court." The writers keep the misunderstanding between the judge and defense attorney Gomez going for a good ten minutes straight. The Munsters over on channel two were lovable enough, but we tended to listen to that show's cool opening music and then tune out. The Addams Family seemed more alive and relevant, even at age 13.
1A The Addams Family Goes to School, Morticia and the Psychiatrist, Fester's Punctuated Romance, Gomez the Politician
1B The Addams Family Tree, Morticia Joins the Ladies League, Halloween with the Addams Family, Green Eyed Gomez
2A The New Neighbors Meet the Addams Family, Wednesday Leaves Home, The Addams Family Meets the VIPs, Morticia, the Matchmaker
2B Lurch Learns to Dance, Art and the Addams Family, The Addams Family Meets the Beatnik, The Addams Family Meets the Undercover Man
3A Mother Lurch Visits the Addams Family, Uncle Fester's Illness, The Addams Family Splurges, Cousin Itt Visits the Addams Family
3B The Addams Family In Court, Amnesia in the Addams Family
MGM's DVD of The Addams Family Volume 1 is a great presentation of this amusing show. Each double-sided disc holds only four episodes, ensuring good encoding and no playback problems. The B&W shows are not time compressed. The information on the Amazon sales website wrongly states that the set has Spanish language tracks. Only an original English track is present with French and Spanish subtitles.
One disheartening note stems from poor memory and is not the fault of MGM. The Addams Family has a laugh track built into the mix of every show. It's lighter and less strongly used on later episodes, but in the pilot the canned laughter is overwhelming ... as if the producers were afraid that the sponsor wouldn't understand the show's humor. The excellent pilot would be a classic if the deadpan lines were just allowed to breathe, but the laughter hems the show in and even competes with the dialogue for volume. As I say, this is only on the pilot; the laugh track is much more subdued later on. Still, we wish it weren't there at all, on any of the shows.
The company Light Source Imagery provides three featurettes utilizing new interviews with Astin, Lisa Loring, Ken Weatherwax (who as an adult opted to become a Grip), and Felix Silla. Carolyn Jones passed away in 1983 at only 54, and Ted Cassidy in 1979 at only 47. The shows cover the life of Charles Addams, the gestation of the show and even the composing of the music score, with guest Vic Mizzy.
The guests contribute to an audio commentary hosted by The Addams Chronicles author Stephen Cox. The package is rounded out with galleries of Addams drawings, photos and a 'Karaoke' sing-along feature for the show's main theme.
For the record, The Addams Family TV show was owned by Orion Pictures, which initiated the 1991 feature film version. Savant worked on the EPK for that picture, for a trailer company doing business with Orion when the studio finally went out of business. Orion had a number of hit pictures at that time (Dances With Wolves, The Silence of the Lambs) but they came too late to save the company. The Addams Family migrated to Paramount and finished production there.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Addams Family Volume 1 rates:
Shows: Very Good - Excellent
Supplements: Featurettes: You Rang Mr. Addams, Snap Snap, The Addams Family Portrait; Audio commentary by cast members on four episodes; drawings and photos.
Packaging: Three discs in two slim cases in card sleeve
Reviewed: October 21, 2006