Sic Gorgiamus Allos Subjectatos Nunc
(We Gladly Feast on Those Who Would Subdue Us)
Charles Addams was known for his dark, eccentric cartoons, drawn with a sinister sense of humor. He was a household name in the pages and on the covers of the widely read New Yorker Magazine, introducing macabre humor to the American public. His drawings illuminated the darker side of the ordinary and mundane. His most famous creation is the “Addams Family”, the horror family that inspired a TV show and numerous movies.
The Addams world reflected the development and shifting of society from the early 20th century to the 1980s. A visual historic timeline will run parallel to the depictions of the cartoons and Charles’ life. His story too is linked with the history of The New Yorker Magazine – pivotal in the intellectual and literary life of New York City.
This documentary will adress the question
Who was charles addams and where did he come from?
He grew up in Westfield, NJ.
The same spooky commuter town I grew up in.
Charles Addams liked to perpetuate dark and creepy rumors about himself. Rumors that he slept in a coffin, put eyeballs in his martinis, collected instruments of torture and received chopped off fingers from fans in the mail. He thought of himself as homely Uncle Fester in the Addams Family.
But this thrice-married man had a notorious black book, dated Joan Fontaine, Jackie Onassis, Greta Garbo. A cast off paramour plotted to murder him. He depicted his friend Boris Karloff as Lurch, a cartoon character in the Addams Family.
Once Alfred Hitchcock arrived unannounced at Addams’ door to see how he really lived.
His cartoon colleagues at the New Yorker were some of the greatest humorist of the 20th century.
I hope to interview John Waters, Guillermo del Toro, Tim Burton, Art Spiegelman, Angelica Huston and others influenced by Addams.
Admirers have mined his work throughout the decades. His relevance is still in evidence today as a new animated feature The Addams Family will be released in the fall, starring Bette Midler, Charlize Theron, and Oscar Isaac.
Mastermind of Goth Humor
“Are people ever disappointed when they meet you?” asked a reporter.
“I suppose they are, aren’t you?” Charles Addams deadpanned.
What was Charles Addams really like? That was the most often asked question to his friends, and colleagues. (The question came from bank clerks, bellhops, gas station attendants; from Cary Grant, Alfred Hitchcock and many others.) In this documentary we will investigate this question and follow how his skillfully rendered cartoons developed and wove through his experiences, times and his unique perspective of seeing the sinister behind the ordinary.
The cartoons and cartoonists in The New Yorker enjoyed their heyday from the 30s thru the 70s. Charles Addams was a big part of it. His cartoons reflected the development and shifting of society in the mid 20th century. A visual historic timeline will run along side the depiction and discussion of the cartoons and Charles’ life. His story is linked with the history of The New Yorker magazine – pivotal in the intellectual and literary life and with New York City itself.
Having perfected his bold “Chas Addams” signature in thick black ink, Charles Addams worked at The New Yorker from the 1930s through to the 1980s. His esteemed colleagues included Peter Arno, William Steig, Saul Steinberg, Wolcott Gibbs and James Thurber. They collaborated with each other, sharing jokes and gags. This collective of men were some of the greatest humorists of the 20th century.
Charles Addams’ mother said he learned to laugh at two months old and never stopped.
Addams was born and raised in Westfield NJ. Although referred to as “Colonial Westfield” (founded 1720), most of the homes are Victorians on large lots, a suburb, lying in the shadow of the nearby monolithic NYC. Westfield was and still is a conservative, upscale commuter town. It prided itself on good principles, good schools and good roads. Addams said, “ I was always aware of the sinister family situations behind those Victorian facades.”
Charles’ boyhood dentist committed suicide in the swamp near Surprise Lake. A lake at the edge of the vast Fairview Cemetery in Westfield, a place, where children skate in the winter, shivering and spooked by the surrounding cemetery. His earliest childhood memory is of an old man being run over by a car. He liked to spend time in the 18th century Presbyterian cemetery (one weathered 18th century tombstone reads ‘I told you I was sick.’) near downtown Westfield. There was a ‘local bad boy’ who dressed as a woman and stole a car. The boy spent time on a chain gang in Georgia, where he was ultimately stuffed in a barrel and suffocated. The story inspired the now classic film, I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang, starring Paul Muni and nominated for an Oscar in 1932.
When I was fifteen, Westfield was again the scene of a notorious, bloody crime in 1971. Behind the walls of a towering Victorian, John List, an elder in the Lutheran Church, killed his entire family – 3 children, a wife and his own mother. John List used to mow his lawn wearing a business suit. (The film, The Stepfather (1987), was based on his story.) Addams claimed that the ideas for his early darker cartoons came while he walked the streets of Westfield.
Charles Addams was a mischief-maker and had a very happy childhood, but as an adult, dark rumors swirled around him. The most repeated was that when Addams would redraw a certain cartoon, it was a signal to his New Yorker editors to haul him away to the lunatic asylum. The cartoons that supposedly set him off were either his famous “the skier” – showing single tracks around either side of a tree or the ghoul in the maternity ward. The Ghoul says to a nurse, holding a baby, “Don’t bother to wrap it, I’ll eat it now” (The ghoul cartoon and caption were never penned by Addams.) People said Addams slept in a coffin and drank martinis with eyeballs in them.
Charles did have a fondness for cemeteries and funerals. He collected human bones; his coffee table was a medieval embalming table. His front door on 25 West 54th decorated with a crossbow, a black #13 and a bat knocker. He led a colorful life at a very special time of art, culture and literature in New York City.
Despite being known as a master of the macabre, Addams was genteel, witty and endlessly charming – with sophisticated tastes, a man-about-town, a bon vivant.
He loved fast cars, seductive women and black humor. He often ate out with Boris Karloff. (Karloff wrote the introduction to his first published collection, Drawn and Quartered). He was a companion of the reclusive Greta Garbo and threw parties attended by Dorothy Parker, John O’Hara, Burgess Meredith and Lauren Bacall. Once Hitchcock appeared at his front door, “I’ve just come to see you in your natural bailiwick.”
He romanced Joan Fontaine, Veronica Lake and Jackie Kennedy among others. He’d pencil their names down in a small black notebook. On one occasion a spooked lover asked him about a noise in the middle of the night. Addams said “ It’s just the little people scraping to get out.”
Charles Addams’ three wives resembled Morticia with a touch of Gloria Swanson. Addams disdained marriage and drew many cartoons reflecting these feelings – husbands committing suicide, wives killing husbands, husbands killing wives. Time Magazine announced his divorce from his second wife this way: ‘Divorced, Charles Samuel Addams, 44, necrographic cartoonist for The New Yorker; by slinky, lanky-haired lawyer Barbara Barb, 36, live ringer for Addams’ lady lurker, after two years of marriage, no children; after Lawyer Barb established ‘residence’ in a 45 minute divorce-mill hearing in Athens, Ala.’ (Ultimately, she swindled Addams and his heirs out of more than 75% of any Addams family profits.)
Addams liked animals and taunted children.
His cartoons are dark and delightful. More than just humorous, his ideas were irreverent, Dadaist almost, and the quality of his drawings were art. His cartoons had the signature unsentimental New Yorker view, but there was a particular sweetness to his murderous characters, misfits and their actions. It is ‘normal’ human nature that we are fascinated by the ghoulish, like the works of Hitchcock and Poe, or not able to resist the impulse to look at a dead body. Addams exposes man’s deepest fears, and has fun with them.
As a young man, he’d ride on top of the double-decker buses down 5th Ave, looking up at the ornate, covered water towers high above on the mid-town rooftops. Hundreds of Charles Addams’ cartoons depict well-recognized buildings in New York. In these environments, he placed businessmen of the 50s and 60s, experiencing strange events on the familiar streets of New York. Matching these same cartoons with the buildings that still exist will be visually very interesting. Addams was very precise concerning the architecture in his drawings.
The film will consist of locations: Westfield, New York City, Sagaponack all referred to in Addams work; interviews with people who remember stories or had encounters with Addams; footage of Addams -- on the Dick Cavett show, any available TV and radio and existing home movies; hopefully, a discussion with Tim Burton about the impact Addams had on him as a child and his continued love of Addams; interviews with a variety of cartoonists who are inspired by Addams’ work. One I’d like to talk to is Bill Plympton, an Addams disciple and amateur comic book historian – “his use of dark and visual humor is the essence of my animation.”
The illustrator, Edward Gorey, 12 years Charles Addam’s junior, macabre humor echoed Addams in sensibility. Aside from Jonathan Swift, Charles Addams was the first real populizer using death and pain for humor. This film will celebrate and give him credit for the macabre humor genre he created. His talent, ‘sick’ humor and sensibility are loved and laughed at all over the world.
Sara Driver is a filmmaker born in NYC and raised in Westfield, NJ. She grew up skating on Surprise lake. The same lake where when Charles Addams was a boy, his dentist committed suicide. As children, both she and Addams frequented the 17th century cemetery in downtown Westfield. She grew up with the legends surrounding Addams, the love of his cartoons and the people who knew him.
SARA DRIVER adapted, produced and directed the film version of Paul Bowles’ short story, YOU ARE NOT I (1982, 48 min.). It premiered in the U.S. at Joseph Papp’s Public Theatre in New York City and was featured at many international film festivals, and museums. In 2011 it was presented in the Master Works section of the New York Film Festival.
Her feature film; SLEEPWALK (1986, co-writer, producer, director, 78 min.), won the prestigious Prix Georges Sadoul (1986) given by the French Cinémathèque. SLEEPWALK also won the Special Prize at the 1986 Mannheim Film Festival, and was the opening night selection for the 25th Anniversary of the Semaine International de la Critique at Cannes (1986). SLEEPWALK was also featured at the Museum of Modern Art’s 1987 New Directors New Films Series.
In 1993 she made the award-winning feature film, WHEN PIGS FLY (co-writer, director, 94 min.), starring Marianne Faithfull and Alfred Molina. It premiered in competition at the Locarno Film Festival and was shown at Toronto, Rotterdam, as well as many other international film festivals.
She wrote and directed the short documentary, THE BOWERY - SPRING, 1994, part of “Postcards from New York,” an anthology program for French TV.
Her most recent film BOOM FOR REAL THE LATE TEENAGE YEARS OF JEAN MICHEL BASQUIAT was released in 2018 by Magnolia Pictures in the United States and is distributed throughout the world.
Rachel Dengiz is a two time Emmy Award winning producer. She began her career working for independent filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, where she worked on both COFFEE & CIGARETTES and BROKEN FLOWERS. Her recent films include the documentaries BOOM FOR REAL THE LATE TEENAGE YEARS OF JEAN MICHEL BASQUIAT, directed by Sara Driver, THE PUNK SINGER, directed by Sini Anderson, Emmy Award winning MEDORA, directed by Davy Rothbart and Andrew Cohn, the Emmy Award winning web series PARK BENCH WITH STEVE BUSCEMI, directed by and starring Steve Buscemi, the pilot CHOPPED LIVER, directed by and starring Shannon Plumb, produced with Derek Cianfrance, and the documentary television series ELVIS GOES THERE, with host Elvis Mitchell, directed by Toby Oppenheimer, produced by Zero Point Zero Productions. Rachel is the co-founder of New York based production company Bunny Lake Films.
Design/Animation Consultant Bio
Beck Underwood has been affiliated with NYC based production company Glass Eye Pix since its inception over 30 years ago, working in a variety roles as producer, writer, production designer and art director. She has designed the logos and additional promotional materials for many of their films. Underwood is also a stop motion animator whose work has appeared in film festivals and on Disney channel, Nickelodeon and PBS. She recently collaborated with Sara Driver, creating an animated sequence for the documentary, Boom For Real and the logo animation for Hell’s Kitten Productions. Beck is also a proud member of The Lower Eastside Girls Club, both as a mentor and an animation instructor.
Photos and art owned by their respective owners. Tee & Charles Addams Foundation/ Life Magazine
Not intended for commercial use by anyone living, or dead.