Sunday, March 25, 2018

The Addams Family (book)

by Jack Sharkey

TAddams Familyhe Addams Family are, next to The Simpsons, arguably the greatest comic family franchise, and still going strong today, appearing in live TV, animated TV, movies, cartoons, and even more.*  And when the TV show went on the air, the idea came to do a tie-in novel.  The result was The Addams Family by Jack Sharkey.

Sharkey was a hack in the very best meaning of the word:  he cranked out dozens of books in all genres over the years,** and is clearly at home with the macabre comedy of Addams.

The book is often described as a novel, but it’s really just a collection of short stories. And they’re all hilarious.  Sharkey captures the weirdness of the New Yorker cartoons with a macabre sense of humor that matches Addams's own. The basic stories included an introduction to the family, the story of how they got Thing, and several others.

My favorite was “From Here to Perplexity,” when Fester was accidentally drafted into the army and had to undergo a physical. Among other things, they discover he has no fingerprints and weighs 0 pounds.  And what he looks like under his cloak . . .

There’s also “Dear Old Mold and Ghoul Days,” where Wednesday and Pugsley have to go to school, where their teacher is enamored beyond sense by a certain obscure poet.  Who Grandma Addams knew …

And “That Was the Weakness that Was,” where Gomez sets himself up to find ways to make monsters less vulnerable to sunlight or silver bullets or the like.

The book suffered the fate of all tie-ins: it was published to cash in and then vanished. It seems to have sold well enough, since there are reports online of many people who found it, picked it up, and fell in love with it.*** It should definitely appeal to readers nowadays, who can appreciate macabre humor.

*Despite their being his most famous creation, Charles Addams actually produced very few Addams family cartoons.  I can think of only a dozen or so offhand, and only some of those featured more than one character.  Pugsley (ironically one of the least used characters of the TV show) had several panels to himself (notably when he was blowing up his train set) and Fester showed up occasionally, but I’ve come across very few that showed them as a family.  (I don’t think they were conceived in that way: Addams just used a few existing characters when he did his family panels.)

**This one appears to be a work for hire: the copyright is not in his name.  I remember his name from an SF short story “Multim in Parvo,” which is really a series of short jokes.

***A second tie-in novel was written during the run of the show: The Addams Family Strikes Back! by W.F. Miksch.  It was an actual novel about the family taking on a school board, but is no more than mildly amusing and not particually Addams=like.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Russians Are Coming, The Russians Are Coming

Directed by
Norman Jewison
Written by William Rose, from a novel by Nathaniel Benchley
Starring Carl Reiner, Eva Marie Saint, Alan Arkin, Brian Keith, Jonathan Winters, Paul Ford, Theodore Bikel
IMDB Entry 

The Benchley family has a long history of having their books turned into film.. Robert Benchley is still considered one of the greatest of American humorists and both acted and made a series of short films that are still very funny today. His grandson, Peter Benchley, is known for a little book he wrote named Jaws, which was turned into a movie. And in between is Nathaniel Benchley, who wrote a cold war satire, The Off-Islanders, which was turned into the comedy The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming.

The story begins when a Soviet sub runs aground near a New England island. Not wanting an international incident on his hand, the captain (Theodore Bikel) sends his political officer Rozanov (Alan Arkin) to try to quietly find a boat to tow them into deep water. He gathers a small crew and lands on the island, running into Walt Whitaker (Carl Reiner), and being forced to reveal their identity due to a misunderstanding. Then things get crazy and the people of the town react to the threat, and the police chief (Brian Keith) tries to get a handle on it.

The movie mixes slapstick* and some nice human moments with what was a strong message that was somewhat surprising given it’s era.

This was Arkin’s first screen role, which got him an Oscar nomination. He’s excellent as a man trying to get a simple job done and is thwarted at every turn. Reiner has one of his better film parts, and Brian Keith shows the calm imperturbability that was his trademark.**

The most memorable piece of the film for me, was when the Russians meet up with a young boy. None spoke English and were given a phrase to use in case anyone was suspicious:

My brothers and I used to run around with that catchphrase whenever something went wrong.

In addition to Arkin, the film was also nominated for a best picture and two other Oscars, and won three Golden Globes. Director Norman Jewison has a long and successful film career, helming Best Picture winner In the Heat of the Night and many other films.

*The screenplay was written by William Rose, who also wrote It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad,Mad, World.  In this case, though the slapstick works. (I’m not a fan of IAMMMMW.)

**Jonathan Winters is wasted. This isn’t surprising: Jonathan Winters was always wasted.  His larger-than-life talent and improvisational genius made it hard to fit him into a scripted film.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Gregory’s Girl

Directed by
Bill Forsyth
Written by Bill Forsyth
Starring Gordon John Sinclair, Dee Hepburn, Allison Forster, Caroline Guthrie, Clare Grogan, Robert Buchanan, Graham Thompson
IMDB Entry

Bill Forsyth made his name as a director of low-key and charming comedies like Comfort and Joy and Local Hero.  He concentrated on character, not situation and his stories always had a quirky sensibility. This first became apparent with his very first feature, Gregory’s Girl.

Gregory (Gordon John Sinclair) plays on his school’s football* team in Glasgow, Scotland.  The team isn’t doing well, so the coach decides to take on Dorothy (Dee Hepburn), who turns out to be an excellent player.  She replaces Gregory on the team, but he doesn’t care – he has a tremendous crush on her.  His sister Madeleine (Allison Foster) asks him to go on a date. She agrees, but it doesn’t go the way that Gregory envisioned.

Now, in most teenage comedy of this nature, you’d expect some slapstick hijinks and sexual innuendo. But this isn’t that sort of movie. The result of the date is so filled with charm about the clumsiness of young love that you end up smiling gently as it unfolds.

Much of the cast came from the Glasgow Youth Theater and few had any acting credits before, and the come across as supremely natural. Sinclair captures the confusion and innocence of high school love** and the embarrassment of trying to figure out the rules.***

The actors never became big names and only Clare Grogan is known in the US to fans of Red Dwarf, where she played Christine Kochanski.  There was a sequel in 1999, Gregory’s Two Girls, that did poorly and was never released in the US.

But the movie is still a landmark in portraying teenagers trying to navigate the intricacies of blooming relationships.

*Soccer to Americans.

**Probably a bit dated these days with people being exposed to the Internet.

***I will say in among it all, one of my favorite moments is the subplot of two of Gregory’s friends, Andy (Robert Buchanan) and Charlie (Graham Thompson). Unable to deal with the lack of love lives, they learn that Caracas, Venezuela had a shortage of me and figure it would improve the odds.  So they decide to hitchhike there. After several hours and no rides, They realize they have mispelled “Caracas,” and one blames the other for the mistake on the sign which kept them from achieving their goal.