Monday, December 19, 2011
"The Munsters" - a film franchise review by Robert Steven Mack
When you think of The Munsters, perhaps you envision a black-and-white still of the old show with flat-headed Herman from the top up dressed in his odd usual attire, situated somewhere in the big spooky cob-webbed covered homestead: a nightmare for the health inspector and perhaps surrounded by ghoulish creatures. But, otherwise this is a rather on the ordinary side looking family talking regular talk, solving everyday munster problems.
The iconic TV show certainly left an impression in TV history. It is a show that would certainly come up in any old television festival, talk show, or otherwise; Halloween or not. It is also certain this review would most certainly not bring much without ever mentioning the show or going through the history of the whole Munster franchise and how it came about. I shall do both.
To begin, public interest in the classic horror films of the 30's had been renewed once Universal had bought all the rights and started to show the wildly popular films on TV. Films dealing with Dracula and Frankenstein were among audiences’ favorites. As a result, and to capitalize on the films’ bustling popularity, a number of television sitcoms came out satirizing and spoofing the films that captured the attention of the young and old. Among these shows were Bewitched, My Favorite Martian, and The Addams Family all premiering at around the same time. ABC had Bewitched and The Addams Family. Although distinctly different, they were definitely based around similar concepts, CBS had My Favorite Martian, and NBC knew that unless they wanted to be left behind in this gruesome rat race, they had better come up with something to soothe the public’s need in this supernatural sitcom craze. This would definitely be the beginning of an era. In reaction to ABC's The Addams Family, Leave it to Beaver creators Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher came up with new series to do just the trick. This series was The Munsters(1964-1966).
The Munsters would combine the ideals from monster movies and concepts of Frankenstein and Dracula while adding the hilarious mix of the typical 60's family show. Basically, The Munsters is about a strange family of good-natured weirdoes thinking themselves as the average, all-American family. There's Herman, a 150 year old devoted husband and father, but whose vain childish innocence causes a surplus of problems all the while trying to keep his calm role as head of the family. Lily is a charming and caring vampire and the mother of one. Grandpa is a retired vampire and an unlucky mad scientist who often reminiscences of his past glory in the old country. Well, everyone has to have a hobby! Eddie is their son, a werewolf in grade school, who mustn’t forget to keep the lid closed at night. And last, but hopefully not least we have Cousin Marylyn, the unfortunate black sheep of the family.
In truth, the concept of a family of wacky monsters goes back to the 1940's when an idea was pitched to Universal for a series of cartoons that would feature the comical monsters. It never went through. Car 54 co-stars Al Lewis and 6ft 5 Fred Gwynne, were brought in for a 16 minute test film along with Beverly Owen, Joan Marshall, and Happy Derman. They would portray respectively Herman, Grandpa, Marylyn, Phoebe (the latter to be called Lily), and little Eddie. It would be shot in color with theme music from an old Doris Day movie, The Thrill of it All. It was intended to show the network what a family of comical Munsters would look like on the tiny screen. Changes were eventually made.
Derman and Marshall as Eddie and Phoebe were replaced by a friendlier Butch Patrick and glamorous movie star Yvonne De Carlo as the loving woman of the house, now titled Lily. The producers, seeing the show’s potential recognized that color was not yet the thing for the Munsters and changed it to a more gothic looking black and white. Perhaps though, the biggest change of all is the dead-pale, somber expression of many of the characters compared to the fun comical silliness that would later emerge. While Gwynne, Lewis, and Owen would stay for the series, Beverly Owen would leave after just 13 episodes due to personal problems and would be successfully replaced in the following episode by Pat Priest.
Once the changes were made a series was commissioned. It immediately became popular with television audiences and quickly went on to become one of the most highly rated shows of the season. The fact that the show was successful was already a big enough surprise to those who had originally thought the show ill-fated and a joke, had another surprise coming. Munster Mania! This included merchandise of all kinds: clocks, board games, action figures, comic books. And when the actors weren’t busy in front of the camera or spending countless hours putting heavy make-up on, they were busy touring the country making public appearances just to satisfy the Munster-crazed America they had created.
It's no fib either that behind the superb crisp comic timing of Fred Gwynne and Al Lewis, was probably the result of a close life-long friendship that had started when they co-starred on their previous program Car 54, Where Are You?. Together, they socialized off camera and came-up with ideas for the show. And as they were all very close backstage, they would each have mixed feelings for what was about to come. For hot things, don't take long to cool down.
By the end of the first season, the still popular show's writers had trouble coming up with fresh new material to film. With public appearances still as frequent as ever the first season ended with 39 episodes filmed. With a new season ready to cook, the writers, determined to keep the show fresh, enhanced the episodes and series itself with crazier plots, wackier comedy, and even more public appearances than ever. The show's head men were determined to keep the public’s interest. Unfortunately, The Munsters now in its second season was slated directly against Batman, the next "big thing." Not even public appearances or wacky plots seemed to regain the public’s interest it had lost.
Unfortunately, it seemed that Batman was today and The Munsters, a thing of past, was no longer welcome in the rapidly changing society. But they would make one last gamble. Prompted in 1966 by the success of the Batman feature, the producers decided to shoot and release a low budget Munster comedy in order to renew interest in the Munsters, a plan that didn't seem likely to miss.
The film would be shot in six weeks in a Technicolor presentation as that would have been a sure boost for attraction. It would be called Munster, Go Home! And would feature most of the original television cast except for 30 year old Pat Priest; instead of television's Tammy, Debbie Watson, would be brought in for the film as Pat Priest was not invited. Co-starring would be Hermione Gringold and gap-toothed Terry Thomas. The cast is said to have relished every minute of the one-and-a-half month shooting schedule as the series was canceled before the film was released.
From past experiences, I can recall revival films and attempts at series reboots that were either good but not up to the fresh quality of the original series or something on a completely different line an attempt to try something new. It rarely works. Such examples of reunions and reboots are Get Smart and Gilligan’s Island. The faults of these are that in dealing with an already established series from a different time point in an effort to recreate that series or in some cases to create something totally new that bears little resemblance to the series people have grown fond of. When undertaking such a task, you must take the concept and all its ideals to a new level while adjusting it to the time or media it plays in. Munster Go Home did just that.
Munsters, Go HOme!It starts in much of the way a film would do; more subdued than the actual television series, probably too tense the audience is up to in order to grab hold of the viewers and not let them go. Basically the storyline is that Herman inherits a mansion and a title, that of an Earl, from his late rich uncle from England. Subsequently, he moves his entire family over to the English manor to claim their fortune.
Besides Herman's hopeless seasickness, the Munster clan has bigger problems at large, such as homicidal relatives, Terry Thomas and Hermione Gringold, living with them in Munster Hall, out to get Herman and his earldom. While his relatives cook up kooky scams to do away with Herman and the members of his family, Herman is persuaded to take part in the upcoming derby to supposedly protect the family name.
The storyline was fresh and witty, the comedy was clever with a dash of the usual Munster silliness, and the characters well-developed and most certainly in the right direction. In fact, in a certain sense, I'd say Munsters, Go Home was wittier than the TV series itself. The Munsters seems just right for film, and this one does seem to be the ideal companion. From the beginning, Munster, Go Home seems to be about an otherwise average all-American family-from where Herman comes home in the beginning of the film: scaring the driver away, walking through the front door announcing he has come home from work and joins the family; reads the letter of inheritance and with his family, sets off for England by boat. That there-the beginning scene alone, is an example of the quiet brilliance of this movie. It’s basically a breezy family comedy with the added ingredient of the "spooky" part along with some light romance and mystery intrigue that is right up there with films like Doris Day's The Thrill of it All, James Stewart's Mr. Hobbs takes a vacation, and Disney's That Darn Cat and The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes. If at all those types of light comedies appeal to you, then I can guarantee success with this film.
The romance factor in the film is Marylyn, now played (in case you've forgotten) by Debbie Watson, as she falls in love with a car enthusiastic son of a wealthy English upper whose past history with the Munster family from England have not been too good.
In a sense, this film has all that a good movie needs: good comedy, a good flair or amount of romance, and a dash of adventure and intrigue along with a wacky, all sense gone array-at least for the Munster family scrapbook. A climatic finish and a tag scene that wraps the film up decently.
You may ask why replace Pat Priest with another, especially when she had been playing the role for almost two TV seasons? While Pat Priest did a good job of filling in the role for the TV series, the film would have to have a cast member who would portray the character better developed. Pat Priest was perfect, in terms of playing Marylyn, for television. Yet, arguably, she could not have done it on film. Her character’s comedy was written out for her and so there was no need to develop the character further. The film needed someone who could freshly develop the character with still the same feel. Debbie Watson had more the charisma for the job, and her character is subtly more developed. While you don't notice a huge change or difference, it just feels more natural to see her in the role. She was perfectly cast!
All in all, the movie weighed down perfectly. Fred Gwynne and Al Lewis's crisp comic timing, a little romance, Butch Patrick as the perfect Eddie, Yvonne De Carlo working so well in the movie with all her co-stars. Although there is considerably less chemistry then there was in the series between Marylyn and the actors from the TV show, probably because Watson hadn't worked as close with the others as Pat Priest had-a little mystery to layer the film. She was a perfect pick.
Unfortunately, somehow their gamble did not pay off. The film was a failure and the Munster reign had truly come to an end. And because of the known failure of the film, television shows also inspired by the success of the Batman film cancelled their own films that they were planning for release. (Nonetheless, The Flintstones did release their own film, A Man Called Flintstone (1966), but that hardly counts since it was done after its television run.) One of these was Get Smart.
The actors had gone their separate ways each struggling with their own amount of typecasting, some more than others. Fred Gwynne would try out a television series, would sing for the TV film The Littlest Angel, play various roles in films and move his talents to the stage. Butch Patrick would continue to act in films including the lead role in The Phantom Tollbooth (1970). And the others would try to get their careers on the move again...with mixed success. But as all people know, it won't take long before the Munsters return.
In 1973, the Munsters were back on television. The first reincarnation was an animated telefilm titled the MiniMunsters that aired on October 27, 1973 as a part of the ABC Saturday Morning Superstar Movie. Al Lewis would voice Grandpa, but the rest of the cast would be different. The Munsters disappeared again as the original cast would continue on with their lives trying to keep up with the rapidly changing world.
Then, in 1981, Fred Gwynne (56), Al Lewis (58), and Yvonne De Carlo (59) would be brought together for the last time in an attempt to launch a new series about the Munsters with another telefilm, The Munster's Revenge. The roles of Eddie and Marylyn were played by K. C. Marshal and Jo McDonald, respectively.
The actors are older now, and after getting used to the original Eddie and Marylyn players, it doesn't feel quite right to have other actors fill their shoes. In addition to the following factors I just listed, you have trouble, in the beginning, getting relaxed in the reincarnated humor in this different time period. However, with a decent moving plot, a fast and funny storyline, and some terrific supporting players including Sid Caesar in one of the most hilarious displays of comedic timing and genius I have ever seen, you soon get used to the actors, old or new. As the story progresses, you get so soaked into the move of the film that you don't really notice or mind the new players, which eventually you get used to, or the setting. In the end, it all becomes quite enjoyable as you'll indeed be rooting for the Munsters.
The Plot: While visiting a wax museum in town, the Munsters come across wax likenesses of their own selves. After they leave, it is revealed that the wax Munster recreations of Herman and Grandpa, along with a long line of other creatures, are actually robots of a crime ring (headed by Sid Caesar) and are using the likeness to steal and terrorize -eventually rob a museum of priceless Egyptian jewels. The real Herman and Grandpa are framed for terrorizing and theft and such, and are put in jail only to escape and have Marylyn, the police chief, and his reluctant but willing son on the case. Herman and Grandpa set out to clear their names and stop the theft leading them into all sorts of trouble.
Sid Caesar’s portrayal of a crazed German scientist is in short, hilarious and will most certainly amuse and have you laughing endlessly out loud. Lily and Eddie are given more supporting roles, as it might have been in the series and are basically there for the back and forth scenes. Marylyn, on the other hand, is given a much bigger role than ever before as she, too, is on the case. Perhaps the producers wanted to make her of more importance in the TV series they planned. Fred Gwynne and Al Lewis, unlike Munster, Go Home! When Gwynne and De Carlo were billed atop the credits, are indeed billed first followed by the rest under the "co-starring" category. There is also a new character, a cousin of some sort – please forgive me for forgetting the name-who dreams of his fabled opera career, a new character for the Munster clan perhaps whose overdone Halloween appearance doesn't make him as likeable as the other characters. Yet, you will inevitably get well used to him and eventually accept him into the story. Also, the focus on the Munster house wasn't as great, which may also have deprived the film from the original series' glory. Indeed, the film is an interesting look at how the proposed television series would have been.
We may never know how that would have turned out as the telefilm version of The Wizard of Oz aired directly opposite The Munster's Revenge garnering a much greater audience. I cannot say for sure if the public would have accepted this as a TV program. I think they might have and it would have definitely been a treat for Munster fans as a great addition to the TV selection that the new generation could choose from. I imagine it would last for a good few seasons and maybe even more if it became that popular. Overall, the film, while lacking the old Munster flame, is a good enjoyable addition to the Munsters series.
A good idea can be used over and over again. A new Munsters television program, The Munster's Today, aired in syndication from 1988 to 1991 with an entirely new cast centering on the Munsters who have recently been awoken from a deep long sleep to find themselves in the late 1980's. Edward Herman played Herman in the made for the TV film Here Comes the Munsters (1995), in which Yvonne De Carlo, Al Lewis, Pat Priest, and Butch Patrick appeared together in a scene one last time as a bickering family being waited on by the new Herman in a restaurant scene. Sadly, Fred Gwynne died in '93 of cancer while having just regained his status as a first rate actor and author of children's picture books. His last film was My Cousin Vinny (1992).
The last showdown of the wacky Munster clan to date was The Munster's Scary Little Christmas (1996) - made-for-television film in which Grandpa (accidentally) captures Santa together with a few of his elves. Lily sets out to win the neighborhood Christmas decoration contest, and Marylyn invites a few friends over for a nice, old-fashioned Christmas. I cannot tell you anything about these films as I have not yet seen them, though intend to within the near future.
I remember watching the show as re-runs when I was younger. Somehow it stuck with me eventually leading me to buy the DVD sets. Incidentally, I found a good collection featuring the two films-Munster, Go Home! & The Munster's Revenge-on Amazon (Barnes & Noble might have it too). If you're going for the simple stuff, I recommend getting the individual seasons (which by the way has some great documentaries as well as the original test film) in addition to the two film franchise collection I just mentioned. If you don't want to waste time, a Complete Series Collection has the documentaries on Lewis, Gwynne, De Carlo, and on the show as well as the test film along with MGH and MR! It just costs a little more.
Copyright 2011 by Robert Steven Mack (all rights reserved)