The Addams Family

This has been a busy month for me, but despite that, I made some time to see this year’s animated adaptation of The Addams Family. I first got to know about Charles Addams’s famous family during my college years. The 1964-66 series with John Astin and Carolyn Jones ran in reruns at a time I could catch it during a break between classes. I soon learned that the library at New Mexico Tech had a couple of the collections of original Charles Addams cartoons from The New Yorker Magazine. I loved the originals so much, I photocopied a handful and put them up as posters in my dorm room.

Like most cartoons from The New Yorker, the cartoons Addams drew were single panels. Not all of them featured his famous family, but they were frequent subjects starting back in the 1930s. A favorite cartoon I remember saving included carolers at the door of the Addams mansion while the family stood on the rooftop, gleefully ready to dump a cauldron of boiling oil. Another depicted the family’s mother looking out at a snowy winter scene and saying to her family, “Suddenly, I have a dreadful urge to be merry.” A third depicted the children in animal carriers, brought home in the hands of a deliveryman and the mother calling out, “It’s the children, darling, back from camp.”

I deliberately didn’t use the names of the characters in the descriptions, because cartoonist Charles Addams didn’t give them names until the 1964 series was in development. The series added many elements people now consider staples of the family. In particular the dad’s, Gomez’s, wild attraction for the mom, Morticia, especially when she spoke French. Ted Cassidy gave voice to the cartoon’s mute butler, Lurch, with his mournful and deep, “You rang,” when answering the door. Jackie Coogan brought a frenetic energy to weird Uncle Fester, who could make bulbs light up by putting them in his mouth.

I was delighted when the 1991 film came out. Barry Sonnenfeld’s film recalled several of the jokes from the original Addams cartoons, and included some callbacks to the TV series. Raul Julia and Anjelica Huston were wonderful successors to John Astin and Carolyn Jones. They brought their own interpretations to the roles, but kept the sex appeal. The real delight was Christina Ricci bringing young Wednesday Addams to Gothic life. One of my favorite scenes in the movie does a great job of capturing Charles Addams’s macabre sense of humor. A Girl Scout asks Wednesday and her brother, Pugsley, whether the lemonade they’re selling is made from real lemons. She then tries to sell them cookies and they ask her if they’re made from real Girl Scouts. Of course, what I really appreciated about this movie is that reprints and new collections of Charles Addams’s cartoons were made available and I built up my personal collection of books as much as possible in that era.

Now we come to the 2019 movie. What I loved about this movie was that the character designs do a lovely job of hearkening back to Addams’s original cartoons. I liked the origin story for the family presented at the beginning of the movie and I really liked the fact that the son of the Addams family, Pugsley, finally had a chance to be featured without sacrificing a good story arc for his sister, Wednesday. That said, the movie feels a little tame for my taste, closer kin to “safe” Halloween kids fare such as the Hotel Transylvania franchise than a true successor to the wickedly wonderful world Charles Addams created. Keep in mind, I’ve never had a problem showing my kids the original comics, the 1960s series, or the 1990s movies. The gags are all built in the anticipation of the horror that happened out of view or the horror about to happen. Today, when anime has gone more mainstream, when we have series like The Simpsons and Family Guy, and Adult Swim on Cartoon Network exists, I’m baffled that Hollywood still feels compelled to make cartoons as safe and tame as possible, doing absolutely nothing that could be deemed risque or daring. Yes, Pugsley does play with explosives, but they always feel like cartoon explosives where no one really gets hurt. As a result, this Addams Family comes off as just a little weird, without the piquant hints of danger or sexiness their other incarnations have.

I’m glad I saw the movie and I don’t have any problem recommending it for a home video night. That said, if you really want to get to know the Addams Family, get to your favorite library or bookstore and seek out the original Charles Addams cartoons. Those are family albums well worth perusing.

Dracula: A Toy Theatre

Bram Stoker, the author of Dracula, worked as the manager of London’s Lyceum Theatre for some 27 years. By the accounts I read, Stoker fell in love with the theatre during his childhood days when he would watch pantomime performances in Dublin. Because of his close association with the theater, it’s perhaps no surprise that Dracula adapts well to stage. In fact, famous film Draculas, Bela Lugosi and Frank Langella, both performed the role on stage before they performed the role on film.

Langella’s debut as Dracula came in a 1977 adaptation that used sets designed by illustrator Edward Gorey. In fact, Gorey designed his sets for a 1973 revival that began its run on Nantucket, the same island where I had my first full-time astronomy job. Gorey’s designs would be used in performances starring not only Langella, but such notable actors as Raul Julia, Jeremy Brett, and Terence Stamp each taking a turn as the famous count. As a fan of both Dracula and Edward Gorey, I was curious about whether Gorey’s designs had been preserved in photographs. It turns out, Pomegranate Press went above and beyond preserving the set designs and actually created a whole miniature toy theatre. I was delighted to learn that the toy theatre was still in print and promptly ordered one.

I soon discovered the toy theatre is not small. Assembled, it’s about a foot tall and sits on a 16-inch hexagon. I ordered my copy of the toy theatre soon after Christmas, but only recently cleared enough shelf space to set it up, because as an Edward Gorey and Dracula fan, this is something worthy of display. It shows the three sets of this stage production including some simple furniture and standup figures of the cast. There’s also a short four-page booklet that describes the play’s acts. Of course, as with most theatrical adaptations of Dracula, it simplifies the plot and emphasizes certain elements.

Close up of Dr. Seward’s study. Count Dracula meets Lucy.

Although the toy theatre is large, it was easy to assemble. The pieces are printed on light card stock, perforated at the cuts and scored at the folds. The instructions call for tape to hold it together. That does seem to be the best choice since the floors don’t have overlapping tabs to hold them together. I used a combination of light strapping tape, magic tape and double-sided tape to hold it together. I did use glue on a couple of small seams and that worked well. I do imagine the tape will eventually dry out and the poor theatre will no longer stand up, but that’s the nature of the theatre. It doesn’t last forever.

I’m sorry to say I’ve never seen an adaptation of Dracula using Gorey’s designs. The 1979 movie starring Frank Langella went for a more realistic approach. I did see a lovely adaptation of the novel performed on stage at New Mexico State University in the early 2000s, shortly after my novel, Vampires of the Scarlet Order had been released. In fact, the producers raffled off a copy of the novel and asked me to come up on stage to present it to the winner. As someone who enjoys stagecraft, it was a delight to make a brief appearance on stage. What’s more, the play was great, too.

If you would like your own copy of Edward Gorey’s Dracula: A Toy Theatre, you can find them from the publisher at: https://www.pomegranate.com/a648.html. They’re also available from many online retailers. You can learn more about Vampires of the Scarlet Order at: http://www.davidleesummers.com/VSO.html. The ebook edition is available for only 99 cents, but I highly recommend the print edition which includes lovely black and white illustrations by Steven Gilberts. Like Edward Gorey, Gilberts’ illustrations are lovely and stir the imagination.

The Threepenny Opera

About a week ago, I introduced my youngest daughter to one of my favorite musicals: The Threepenny Opera by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill. It tells the story of Mack the Knife, a thief in Victorian London who marries Polly, daughter of Jonathan Jeremiah Peachum, who controls the city’s beggars. Peachum goes to the police for help and discovers that Mack is protected by the Chief of Police. threepenny-opera-broadway Even so, the Chief of Police has a price and agrees to hunt Mack. Mack flees into the arms of his longtime lover, a prostitute named Jenny. This really only scratches the surface of the play’s story. A lot goes on in a very compact narrative.

The play was written in 1928 in Germany as Nazis and communists were vying for control of the Weimar Republic. Brecht was a communist and adapted an English play called The Beggar’s Opera into a critique of capitalism. Whenever a character in The Threepenny Opera has a choice, they will always take the one that will bring them the most money or the most personal pleasure, regardless of what it means for those around them. Being a little vague to avoid spoilers, the ending calls up a deliberate deus ex machina that encourages the audience to realize that real life would give no happy ending for characters that behave this way. It also challenges the audience to ask that if it related to the thieves, beggars, and the prostitutes of the story, they should be careful about treating them as sub-human worthy of no sympathy. I believe the lessons of the play are as valuable and relevant today in the United States as they were in 1928 Weimar Germany.

As it turns out, members of the German Communist Party were among Brecht’s harshest critics at the time the play was released. They wanted the play to include a depiction of the proletariat uprising against the bourgeoisie. I suspect it’s precisely because the play didn’t go this direction that it remains relevant today.

The play has been translated into English multiple times with varying degrees of success. The version represented by the poster at the top of the post was translated by Wallace Shawn, famous as Vizzini in The Princess Bride and starred Alan Cumming as Mack and Cyndi Lauper as Jenny. Unfortunately, Shawn’s translation hasn’t been published, nor was there a cast recording of the show. Fortunately, plenty of other recordings exist including the Mannheim and Willet translation of the 1970s, which features Raul Julia as Mack.

As far as I know, the musical has only been made into a movie three times. mack_the_knife_poster Probably the most famous and widely available is the 1931 version. Among the high points, Kurt Weill’s wife, Lotte Lenya reprises her role as the original Jenny in this early version. Unfortunately, this version drops many songs and changes the play’s ending. I’ve never seen the 1960’s version, but haven’t been able to find a recommendation from a fan. My personal favorite is the 1989 film Mack the Knife starring Raul Julia as Mack, Richard Harris as Peachum, Julie Walters (best known as Molly Weasley in the Harry Potter films) as Mrs. Peachum, and Roger Daltry as the street singer. This version is still quite flawed. It also drops songs, is very dark and muddy looking, and has several unnecessary dance numbers. Despite all that, it seems to capture the essence of the play better than the 1931 version. Sadly, the movie was only released on VHS and no DVD version has appeared.

As it turns out, my novel The Pirates of Sufiro takes some inspiration from The Threepenny Opera. Captain Firebrandt’s portrayal as the stylish pirate captain, owes a lot to Mack the Knife, who is called Captain Macheath to his face. Also, Firebrandt’s lover Suki is named for Sukey Tawdry, one of Mack’s lovers in the play. The Pirates of Sufiro is available for free at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. My preferred edition of the ebook is available as a PDF directly from my publisher.