Jeff Smith noon, March 8
Grate cinema: Munster, Go Home!
My first screening of Munster, Go Home! came -- as it did to many Mockingbird Heights maniacs my age -- on the top half of a double bill with the Don Knotts dud The Ghost and Mr. Chicken. MGH had not performed as well as expected and the worried brass at Universal immediately reissued it with Mr. Chicken as part of a TV-themed combo.
This would be the one and only chance audiences had to see America's first family of fright in color and on a big screen. Dye-transfer Technicolor, no less! I couldn't descend the El platform steps and turn the corner fast enough to get to the decrepit Howard Theatre.
This was not the first time Herman, Lily, and the gang were committed to color stock. Neither Universal nor CBS would cough up the extra $10,000 per episode needed for color, so the show was subsequently filmed in black and white. In 1964, Universal presented CBS with a 16 minute color demo reel in response to what they saw as the nation's growing monster mania.
A decade earlier, the studio had sold its film library to television and their classic creatures from the 1930s saw a resurgence in popularity. Suddenly, monsters became fun and television smelled potential sitcom material. Ray Walston's Uncle Martin was the first out-of-this-world jester to hit the airwaves and My Favorite Martian became a surprise hit of the 1963 season.
The fall '64 roster saw no less than four supernatural sitcoms! Bewitched led the way, followed by The Addams Family, The Munsters. and the all but forgotten My Living Doll which starred Julie Newmar as a sexy robot bouncing off a hopelessly sexist Bob Cummings.
The Munsters promo that Universal put together for the CBS execs was shot on existing sets and used discarded music from a Doris Day picture as its theme. Fred Gwynne, Al Lewis and Beverly Owen all made the cut, but the CBS honchos insisted on recasting the role of Herman's wife, Phoebe, played by Joan Marshall. They felt Ms. Marshall bore too close a resemblance to Carolyn Jones' Morticia Addams and the actress was replaced by on-the-skids movie star Yvonne DeCarlo.
Both Gwynne and Lewis' insecurity began to show. Would a seasoned movie star pack a lot of ego or, even worse, outshine the boys? Ms. DeCarlo was perfect in the role of Lily Munster and both actors later admitted they were wrong in their initial assumptions.
Gone, too, was Happy Derman, a perfectly monstrous little tyke whose one-note interpretation of Eddie Munster didn't bode well with the suits. Popular child actor Billy Mumy was the studio’s original choice, but his parents wouldn't agree to the extensive makeup it would take for their son to become a little wolfboy.
Happy Derman's sole shot at Munsterdom is preserved on the two DVD set The Munsters: America's First Family of Fright, a must for all collections. Walking stooped over, baring his fangs, and speaking in snarls, Happy looked like a little Larry Talbot after the third transformation dissolve.
Butch Patrick, the boy who would be Eddie, remembered his predecessor: "Happy Derman wasn't very happy. He was the meanest little kid I'd ever seen." He is a thoroughly off-putting little creature and, with all due respect to Butch, one I would have gladly spent two seasons watching.
Conceptually speaking, The Munsters is little more than The Donna Reed Show -- a typical ‘60’s sitcom about a wholesome suburban family -- played in greenface. If it’s funny when you’re 6, chances are it will be funny when you’re 106. Damn, if The Munsters doesn't continue to make me laugh to this day, due in large part to the comic chemistry between Gwynne and Lewis. They had previously worked together on the NBC sitcom Car 54, Where Are You? and the pairing of a 700-year-old Yiddish vampire and his green, seven-foot goyish son-in-law redefined genius.
In the pilot, deadpan Herman lumbered along like a walking corpse. The series originally opened with a sad-eyed, innocuous Frankenstein's monster emerging from behind the stairwell. Not until Lily plants a kiss on his cheek does Herman turn into the giddy lug we all know and love. Imagine that pre-kiss characterization spread out for an entire episode. Instead of making him a declawed monster, producers Joe Connelly and Bob Mosher wisely turned Herman into a jejune goon, a childlike behemoth frightened by his own shadow.
My second sojourn to Munster, Go Home! was held in the unlikeliest of screening facilities: the basement of my Hebrew School, Congregation Ezras Israel. It was the annual Magen David Adom food drive and for the price of one canned good students got to see a scratchy, 16mm dye transfer print projected in the same space Rabbi Jordani dovened mincha.
The Rabbi wasn't in attendance that afternoon, so the projection and hosting chores went to Hyman Wolinitz. He parked a rented 16mm Bell and Howell Autoload on a folding table and positioned the speaker and three-legged screen at the front of the room. What he failed to do was check the leader. Hymie threaded up reel three and started the show.
Since it was an Autolad, no one could figure out how to unthread the projector and start from the beginning. The crowd became surly, but the dyslexic presentation continued, the problem never rectified. What was I going to do, ask for a refund on my can of Green Giant Niblets?
It was at the age of 12, and in a house of God, that the concept of strangling a projectionist first crossed my mind.
My first two exposures to MGH were such that I’m surprised I actually gave it a third chance. Perhaps it was my aversion to a certain tendency in British cinema that kept me at bay. Who wants to watch The Munsters run through a de-humorizer and given the "Carry On" treatment? I didn't realize as a child that the British supporting cast was already residing in America and the entire production was shot on the Universal backlot.
The dark, Technicolor cinematography is dazzling. With all due respect, it is impossible to imagine Benjamin Kline, a former cameraman for Edgar G. Ulmer (Detour) and The 3 Stooges (Grips, Grunts and Groans), achieving this effect by himself. Kline did shoot the My Fair Munster pilot in color, but a quick comparison indicates he must have put in a call to Universal's in-house "Prince of Darkness," Russell Metty (Written on the Wind, Touch of Evil). The lighting bears more than a passing similarity to the ace cinematographer's patented embossed Technicolor shadows.
BONUS FEATURES: Short of being invited over to Scorsese's screening room to see His 35mm dye transfer print, the closest you mortals will ever come to experiencing imbibision ecstasy can be found on The Munsters: America's First Family of Fright. All of the trailers and TV spots were transferred from original dye-transfer Technicolor prints.
With the exception of a few minor alterations, this is basically a beefed up movie-of-the-week version of the show. The title design is the same, only now the letters appear in blood red Technicolor, and gone are the walk-on picture credits. While Jack Marshall's familiar incidental music plays throughout, regrettably we never get to hear a full blown rendition of the beloved theme song, not even under the closing credits.
It took a few minutes before I was able to pinpoint another essential ingredient that the film lacked. Without the benefit of a laugh track, I had no idea how to react.
There was also the ceremonial changing of the Marilyns to contend with. Marilyn #1 was played by 25-year-old Beverly Owen. Ms. Owen was living every girl's dream. She was young, beautiful, and signed to a seven year studio contract. But she was also in love with a boy back East. When she traveled from New York to Los Angeles to film the pilot, Owen didn't think the series would take off. The lovesick, contractually bound starlet lasted 13 episodes before Fred and Al went to bat for her convincing CBS to let her go.
Beverly Owen's marriage to Jon Stone lasted 10 years. We're still talking about The Munsters to this day.
Universal hired Pat Priest to pinch hit as Marilyn #2. The 30-year-old actress was far too old to play Lily's teenage niece and got the gig mainly because she fit the costumes. Debbie Watson, who had attracted a minor teen cult for her starring roles on the series Karen and Tammy was drafted to play Marilyn #3. Marilyn was never given this much time on the show. Watson is cute, perky and closer in age to the character, but her extended love scenes with Robert Pine suck the life out of the picture faster than Grandpa could drain a virgin bride of her blood.
Being a lifelong connoisseur of fast motion, there were enough sped up reaction shots to hold my attention. Borrowing from the episode Grandpa's Call of the Wild, everybody's favorite Jewish Dracula turns into a wolf that disguises itself as Lily's fur wrap while Herman dons his butch Wild One get-up to participate in a road race.
On the American side of the supporting cast we had Cliff Norton as a drunken excuse for a running gag, Jack "Howard Sprague" Dodson appearing as an under-cranked shipmate, and John Carradine picking up a paycheck and a hot bowl of soup. The English players aren't quite as impressive: Terry-Thomas, Hermione Gingold, Richard Dawson, and insufferable Brit-for-hire Ben Wright will leave you begging for fade outs.
The shtick that worked on TV is funny on the big screen and any fan of the show must see this movie at least a couple of times. The Good Times Video pressing that I screened was of more than acceptable quality. Originally intended as a TV movie, the film was shot full frame and is presented that way on the DVD. Compared to McHale's Navy Join the Air Force, this is a masterpiece!
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