Entertainment

Tuesday 23 January 2018

How The Addams Family went from newspaper cartoon to cult classic

A new musical has landed in Dublin

The 1964 TV series
The 1964 TV series
Les Dennis as Uncle Fester in the new stage show. Photo: Matt Martin
Charles Addams sketching a cartoon
Raul Julia and Anjelica Huston in the 1990s movie

A witchy housewife, a Frankenstein butler, a mad uncle who sleeps on a bed of nails? When I first came across The Addams Family on TV in the 1980s, I wasn't quite sure what to make of it. Archly camp and winningly eccentric, this strange series had run for just two seasons in the mid-1960s and recounted the adventures of an extended clan of ghouls and monsters who think they're the normal ones.

It was witty, and weird, stylish in a gothic kind of way, and I, for one, fell in love with it - but had no idea of its pedigree. Because The Addams Family was a cherished American cultural icon, which had started life as an esoteric 1940s cartoon series in the high-brow New Yorker magazine before going on to inspire a never-ending series of spin-offs. Cartoons, books, TV shows, Hollywood movies, video games - the list is endless, and the Addams industry isn't finished yet.

Next week The Addams Family Musical comes to Dublin for a limited run at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre. It is, by all accounts, a lot of fun, having gone down strong in Chicago, New York and London. In it, the Addamses must deal with the horrifying fact that their daughter, Wednesday, is dating a human, and When You're an Addams, The Moon and Me and Move Toward the Darkness are among the show's rousing ensemble numbers.

On Broadway they got Nathan Lane and Bebe Neuwirth, whereas we have Les Dennis and Samantha Womack, who played one of those miserable women on EastEnders. But who are we to quibble, because here she's playing Morticia Addams, perhaps the sexiest witch ever to have cast a spell.

Les Dennis as Uncle Fester in the new stage show. Photo: Matt Martin
Les Dennis as Uncle Fester in the new stage show. Photo: Matt Martin

Long, shapely, raven-haired and white as a sheet, Morticia was Charles Addams' most elegant and seminal creation, the unflappable queen at the heart of his imaginary empire. She throws away roses and keeps the stems, and seems disdainfully amused by everything, but is devoted to her husband, Gomez - a jolly, amorous schemer who wears smoking jackets and natty suits. "Say it in French," he begs his wife, kissing her up the arm. A doting couple who looked like something out of a 1930s horror film, they were The Addams Family's secret weapon and the masterplan of a death-obsessed man who found a novel way to satirise American values.

Born into a well-connected New Jersey family in 1903, young Charles Addams loved coffins and ghost stories, cemeteries and spooky houses, which he broke into and explored. He liked to scare people, and used to hide in his family's dumb waiter and wait for his grandmother to pass by so he could leap out and frighten her half to death.

He had a flair for art, and drew cartoons for his high-school paper. Addams had just turned 20 when he sold his first cartoon to The New Yorker, a powerhouse of new American writing that also championed the country's best illustrators. In his simple line drawing, a man stood on ice in his stockinged feet: the caption read 'I forgot my skates'.

It was not the most auspicious start, but Charles Addams' drawings had a playfully gloomy quality, were brilliantly executed and toyed with black humour long before it became fashionable. The magazine persisted with him, and in 1938 he drew the first of what would become The Addams Family series. His vision of a ghoulishly alternative American family quickly caught on.

In creating Morticia and co, Addams had no grand satirical ambitions to begin with: like a gothic Lewis Carroll, he just enjoyed subverting the logic of everyday life. Morticia herself was apparently based on his first wife, Barbara Jean Day, a frosty female, according to him, who left when he refused to adopt a child - Addams cordially detested children.

He drew her as a kind of wasted beauty straight out of Edgar Allan Poe who delighted in paradox - "Oh the thorns are lovely this year" - and seemed worryingly expert in potions and poisons. Her husband, Gomez, was more affable, and human, but was a feckless (though very wealthy) hedonist with a rather sadistic sense of humour.

Charles Addams sketching a cartoon
Charles Addams sketching a cartoon

The rest of the Addamses popped up in successful, single-plate cartoons: their young children, Wednesday and Pugsley; the bald, mad, explosives-obsessed Uncle Fester; Lurch, the towering, Karloff-like butler; a disembodied hand called Thing. He used them to comment wryly on the perfect family life every American was supposed to enjoy, and surrounded them with the classic trappings of classic American gothic literature.

The cartoons were jaded, sardonic, sometimes very funny. In one, Morticia, Gomez and Lurch stand on the roof of their tottering mansion preparing to pour boiling oil down on Christmas guests. In another, Wednesday and Pugsley throw logs onto an already roaring fire while Morticia comments, "The little dears - they still believe in Santa Claus." Elsewhere, Morticia chides her grandmother, who's preparing soup, saying, "You forgot the eye of newt." The drawings had what one New York Times critic called a "breathtaking malice".

Thanks, in part perhaps, to the fact that they appeared in The New Yorker, The Addams Family cartoons had a certain cachet. The Nobel prize-winning writer Saul Bellow built an entire chapter of his novel More Die of Heartbreak around an Addams Family cartoon. Alfred Hitchcock was another high-profile fan, and the two became close friends. He gives the illustrator a respectful nod in North by Northwest, when Cary Grant eyes a roomful of rogues and comments, "That's a picture only Charles Addams could draw."

With friends like these, a spin-off was inevitable, and it came in the early 1960s when ABC bought the rights for a TV series. The Addams Family starred Carolyn Jones as Morticia, John Astin as the irrepressible Gomez and 6ft 9in actor, Ted Cassidy, as Lurch. It had canned laughter and was slickly done, fleshing out Charles Addams' characters while somehow making them more cuddly, less nihilistic and terrifying than in the cartoons.

It was a hit, but Addams didn't quite get to enjoy the proceeds, thanks to the skilful machinations of his second wife, Barbara Barb, a practising lawyer who persuaded him to sign away those TV rights and much else besides, and also convinced him to take out a $100,000 insurance policy. The pair were divorced after Addams' lawyer tactfully pointed out that a similar scheme had ended in murder in the Hollywood movie Double Indemnity.

Addams' creations were perhaps always destined to drift beyond his control and into the public domain. That TV show lasted just two seasons but greatly influential a young generation of film-makers and writers. The Addamses showed up in Scooby Doo in the early '70s, got their own animated TV series shortly afterwards, a new live-action TV show in the early 1990s. Then Paramount poured the then exorbitant sum of $30 million into an Addams Family movie. It was competent, but well cast: Raul Julia brought Latin panache to his wonderful portrayal of Gomez; Christopher Lloyd was perfect as Uncle Fester, and Anjelica Huston enjoyed herself hugely as Morticia. She was a longtime fan, but said she'd always expected the role to go to Cher.

A 1993 sequel, Addams Family Values, was more substantial, and Huston was nominated for a Golden Globe, but plans for a third film were scrapped after Raul Julia's unexpected death in 1994.

A knock-off, straight-to-video film was made in 1998, a last insult for Mr Addams, who died suddenly shortly after its release. He'd revelled in the Addams Family persona, wearing a suit of armour in publicity photos and careering around New Yorker staff parties on a tricycle, but was apparently a quiet, charming person in real life, and not at all ghoulish.

Tim Burton might have made the definitive Addams Family adaptation if he'd been allowed to shoot his stop-motion animation closely based on Charles Addams' drawings, but the project was cancelled in 2013. By then the musical was already under way, ensuring that Morticia, Lurch and Gomez would live on in the public imagination for a little while yet.

This won't be the last we hear of them, because like an insidious, seeping goo, the Addams brand has wormed its way into our shared consciousness so thoroughly that it may be impossible to dislodge.

When the Trumps descended en masse on the Vatican in May for a glad-handing photo-op with Pope Francis, media wags reckoned the ensuing image of Donald, Melania, Ivanka and a thoroughly miserable-looking pontiff resembled nothing so much as an Addams Family reunion.

The Addams Family runs at the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre from August 15-26; bordgaisenergytheatre.ie

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