Monday, August 31, 2009

The Munsters – season 1 and 2 – review

the 'closed casket collection' dvd setDirectors: various

First Aired: 1964-66

Contains spoilers

The Munsters probably needs no introduction. When I was a kid I have to admit I much preferred the Addams Family but, as I grew older, I began to appreciate The Munsters more and now, probably, hold the two shows in the same regard. Of course there were differences, Addams were much more a gothic looking/acting family whereas the Munsters actually were monsters – based upon the Universal staples.

As I look at the characters, backgrounds and lore please note that changes were made through other incarnations of the show (those being four feature films, two with (most of) the original cast and two without, the spinoff series The Munsters Today, which ran 1988 to 1991 and a one hour animated movie called the Mini-Munsters) but I shall ignore those for this article and concentrate only on what the show gave us.

Fred Gwynne as HermanWhilst this is a vampire blog one cannot argue with the fact that the central character of the show was Herman Munster (Fred Gwynne). Herman was built by Dr Frankenstein and is 150 years old (this is quoted at several points through the series, though character ages did shift) – though he very much acts like a child, throwing many tantrums. He is exceptionally strong and generally deemed a goof. Herman believes he has a single living relative, his no-good twin brother Charlie (Fred Gwynne), but in season 2 we meet Johann (Fred Gwynne), his cousin and one of Frankenstein’s early attempts to create his creature. Herman is married to Lily (Yvonne De Carlo).

Yvonne De Carlo as LilyMost of the Munster family characters took on several monster roles in their design. Lily has ‘Bride of Frankenstein’ white streaks in her air and is a palm reader but she is also a vampire. Lily doesn’t have overt powers like her father, Count Dracula AKA Grandpa (Al Lewis), though we do, on occasion, see her levitate but we do discover quite a bit about her. She married Herman in 1865 and is, herself, 137 – though their son Eddie (Butch Patrick) claims her to be over 400 in a school composition.

Lily in Gothic poseIn the same composition he claims that she has died several times but is alive at the moment. At another point, when told something would really kill her, she drolly replies “It’s a little late for that.” In one episode we are told she if off to the “dentist to have her teeth filed”. She has plenty of brothers and sisters – though we only meet one, Lester (Irwine Charone), in show – she says that, when growing up, the mausoleum contained many of her brothers and sisters to play with. She often wears a necklace with a wolf’s head and bats wings – this is important but first…

Eddie and Phoebe from the unaired pilotFirst I need to mention the original unaired pilot – filmed in colour – which did have Al Lewis as Grandpa and Fred Gwynne as Herman, as well as Beverley Owen as Marilyn Munster. However, the first concept of the show did not have Lily as Herman’s wife but Phoebe (Joan Marshall). She was somewhat more Gothic looking and was dropped as it was felt she was too close in look to Morticia from the rival Addams Family. It was also a different actor, Happy Derman, who played Eddie who was a lot more bratty and quite like a feral wolf.

Butch Patrick as EddieEddie, or Edward Wolfgang Munster, is Herman and Lily’s son and, at first glance, would appear to be a werewolf. Indeed he has pointed ears, baby fangs and howls at the full moon. His favourite toy is Woof-Woof, a doll in the form of the wolfman, but Eddie also shares some vampiric traits – such as sleeping in a coffin. It is clear that his wolf-ness comes from his maternal side as there are werewolves in the Dracula family and I guess that is why Lily wears a pendant with wolf head and bat wings.

Pat Priest as marilynI have mentioned Marilyn and she was played by Beverley Owen for a short while and then replaced (when Owen left the show due to pregnancy) by Pat Priest. There is some confusion as Marilyn is the niece of Lily and Herman, daughter of an unnamed sister of Lily, and yet carries the surname Munster and we can only assume she has been adopted. No one in the family know why she looks as she does – a normal attractive girl – and her looks are often called plain and referred to as her handicap. The character was underdeveloped next to the other main family members and tended to serve as a cypher for Herman and Grandpa's antics.

Grandpa goes for a biteFor me the star of the show – even if Herman was the central character – was Grandpa, who was skilfully played by Al Lewis. Grandpa is a mad scientist but is also Count Dracula – first name Sam. He is most definitely a vampire and tries to bite Lily’s wrist in the opening credits of season 1 (in the pilot he went for Phoebe’s throat). Indeed early on he tried to bite several wrists as he kissed a lady's hand, but this trait vanished later in the shows' run. He often mentions blood and blood banks.

the Drag-U-La licenseThe stories of his past are never quite kept straight but despite various ages being given through the show we know he was born in 1367. When he builds a drag racer – the Drag-U-La – he puts his original Transylvanian Licence plate on the car which tells us this. Sometimes he gives his age as younger but often he claims he knew historical figures such as Nero or Richard the Lionheart who lived prior to this date. His thoughts often go back to the good old days in 'the old country' and at one point, when he phones Transylvania, from his conversation with the Werewolf Junction telephone operator it becomes clear he is somewhat of a celebrity over there.

Irwine Charone as LesterWe know he has been married many times – in one episode he tells us 167 times and though all his wives are dead he still keeps in touch with them. Some of these marriages have led to children. We know of Lily and meet Lester, a werewolf, we also know of Marilyn’s mother. Lily mentions the numerous brothers and sisters in the mausoleum. During the series Grandpa looks for a bride through a dating Agency and is duped into a wife he never had.

Grandpa in wolf formHe is a mad scientist but also somewhat of an alchemist though his potions have varying degrees of success. He once uses a pill to turn into a bat but can actually turn into a bat and a wolf naturally. He likes to sleep hanging upside down but also has a slab in the mansion on which he sleeps. He claims to have met Svengali and learnt some hypnotic tricks from the man (he bought them off Svengali when the man was down and out). Al Adamson would have Dracula and Svengali meet years later in the awful Doctor Dracula.

Richard Hale as Uncle GilmanOf other characters we meet there is Uncle Gilman (Richard Hale), who is the Creature from the Black Lagoon. I thought at one point that Grandpa’s chequers rival was the invisible man but it became apparent it was a spirit that the family could see but we couldn’t. We meet Herman’s boss from the funeral parlour he works in, Mr Gateman of Gateman, Goodbury and Graves. Gateman was played by John Carradine who would appear with Yvonne de Carlo again in the weirdly bad Nocturna. It has to be said that the mansion itself, 1313 Mockingbird Lane, was as much a character as any played by a human, with its cobwebs, dust and coffin phone booth.

Spot under the stairsI should also mention the pets. A cat with the roar of a lion, an under the stairs dwelling dragon named Spot who likes to chase cars and eat their hubcaps, Elma the pet snake (mentioned but not seen), the Raven in the Clock called Charlie (Mel Blanc and Bob Hastings) and a couple of alligators that Eddie has in his room. Grandpa has Igor – a bat and a fine example of Crap Bat Syndrome, utterly false and yet wonderfully charming.

Herman, Igor and GrandpaThe show ran for just two seasons – it has been suggested that batman being in colour did for its ratings. It was an almost standard family sitcom with a ghoulish twist (that owed quite a bit to Poe as well as to Universal, I would say), which lifted it above the television norm, and yet, to a degree, as good as it is, the show did become a tad repetitive towards the end. That might have more to do with me watching every episode over a week for this review, however. Whilst such a complaint might be serious, in this case I think it wasn’t too important – watched weekly, as intended, that repetitiveness would be subsumed by the fact that each episode contained much that was genuinely funny. This owed a great deal to the marvellous performances by the principles – and whilst I have a soft spot for Lewis, all of them deserve praise.

Grandpa lying down on the jobMost of the humour came from a gentler place than modern TV, a more innocent age we could say, and yet occasionally it would cut to the bone through its own farce exposing a society where divisions based on class, money and perceptions of normality were (and still are I’d guess) prevalent. I could have gone on ad nauseum about the show and I am sure I have missed out things readers would have expected.

8 out of 10 for a classic TV show. The imdb page is here.

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