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Reviews » DVD Video Reviews » The Munsters - America's First Family of Fright
The Munsters - America's First Family of Fright
Image // Unrated // October 10, 2006
List Price: $24.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]
Review by Ian Jane | posted October 20, 2006 | E-mail the Author
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The Movie:

What's this? A two disc set of odds and ends relating to The Munsters? Yep, pretty much! The America's First Family Of Fright collection compiles four decent documentaries, each of which takes a look at a lesser known aspect of Munsterdom and throws on a few more obscure bits and pieces as well. Here's what to look for…

The Munsters - America's First Family Of Fright: The title piece in this set is a forty-five minute long history of the show that shows how Universal Studios nurtured it and passed it over to CBS where it became the show we all know and love today. It's interesting to learn that the show was initially going to be a cartoon until the suits decided that live action was the way to go. Casting is covered in quite a bit of detail here, and a lot of analysis centers in on what made the series work and how it has enjoyed popularity decades since new episodes stopped being made.

CBS Studio executive Mike Dann shows up here to give his take on the genesis and ongoing appeal of the show as does series' director Norman Abbot. These two never appeared in front of the camera but they did have a fairly strong influence on the series even if it was from behind the scenes so it's interesting to see what they have to say about the show's history and its success. Don Glut (recently the subject of his own documentary, I Was A Teenage Movie Maker and his pal Bob Burns both show up to lend some critical and fan based insight into what made the series tick but it's the cast interviews that make this as good as it is…

Most of the cast members are here (excluding Herman himself, Fred Gwynne, as he had passed away by the time that this documentary was made), interviewed on camera, and they give their take on the time that they spent on the series. All seem quite gracious for the opportunity to stroll down memory lane a bit and talk about their work, and they talk quite kindly about one another and about the late Gwynne as well. Three different woman played Marilyn Munster throughout the relatively brief life of the show and each of these girls shows up here alongside Yvonne De Carlo, Butch Patrick, and crazy Al Lewis. We learn why Beverly Owens left the show so early on in its run and how Fred Gwynne and Al Lewis played off of one another so well both in front of the cameras and in real life.

The documentary covers not only the television series but also the movies that were made after it had stopped airing, including Munster, Go Come! and the Gwynne-less Here Come The Munsters in which Edward Hermann plays the part of Herman (it's just not the same, though he gets points for trying).

Fred Gwynne – More Than A Munster: The second documentary is more of a biographical piece (which makes sense since it was original broadcast as an episode of A&E's Biography series as were the pieces on De Carlo and Lewis) rather than a retrospective one as the first documentary was, and obviously it takes a look at the life and times of the late Fred Gwynne.

We learn about his upbringing and how he first became famous for his work on the long running Car 54… Where Are You? before becoming immortalized as Herman Munster but in addition to this we also learn a bit about his personal life and what he was interested in doing when the camera's weren't rolling. Fred turns out to have been a bit of a renaissance man in that he was heavily into painting and he was actually a Harvard graduate.

Although cancer took him in 1993, before he passed on he also wrote more than a few children's books which won him some critical acclaim. Acting wise, he was always going to be remembered for his work as Herman, for better or worse, but outside the field of acting he was able to try his hand, quite successfully, at a few different things. This is a great way to get to know the man behind the green face paint and to garner a greater appreciation for his abilities both on and off the screen.

Yvonne De Carlo – Gilded Lily: Up next is another biographical piece that focuses in on the life of the woman who brought Lily Munster to life. This piece starts off by giving us some background information on the actress as she grew up in Vancouver, Canada and eventually found herself working as a chorus line dancer. From there, her star found itself on the rise and soon enough she won the part of Lily Munster.

In addition to playing Lily, however, she was also well known for her star-making performance in Cecil B. De Mille's epic The Ten Commandments where she acted opposite Charlton Heston as Sephora, the wife of his Moses. She had a pretty successful big screen career after that and acted opposite Burt Lancaster, Clark Gable and plenty of other 'name' leading men. When the film roles stopped coming in, it was then that she turned to television and that the chance to play Lily presented itself.

Despite the fact that since the sixties, to most of us she's been Lily Munster, De Carlo has continued to work and has shown up in Oscar and later on an episode of Tales From The Crypt though since 1995 she seems to have retired from show business. Like the Fred Gwynne piece, this offers a pretty detailed look into Yvonne's wife and it gives us plenty of information about her work and about her personal life. She comes across as a smart, intelligent and beautiful woman much like Lily Munster herself did.

Al Lewis – Forever Grandpa: Out of all the people involved with The Munsters, Al Lewis has probably lead the most eccentric life and it's that life that this documentary focuses on more so than his work on The Munsters, though that's covered too. We learn how he got his start with a circus before moving on to work as a 'baggy pants' comedian at a local burlesque house where he started to gain some attention for his comedic abilities. Like Gwynne, he rose to fame when he too took a part on Car 54… Where Are You? and it was here that he and Gwynne got to know one another.

The success of Car 54 landed him the spot alongside Fred in The Munsters and once the show ended, Lewis' life took a more unusual approach. He bought and operated a restaurant in New York City's Greenwich Village for a while and then later actually ran for Governor of New York State. His interest in politics at one point had him affiliated with the Black Panther party and it's interesting to hear from Lewis' own mouth the truth about his early years in show business and how a lot of stories were made about him and his work that just weren't true (some of which he was completely responsible for).

Lewis is a likeable and nutty old fart and he's got a million and one great stories to tell. This documentary gives him the chance to delve into some of those tales and we're all the better for it.

The DVD

Video:

Each of the four documentaries on the first disc is presented fullframe which definitely looks to be the right aspect ratio for this material. While the video quality isn't going to blow you away, everything looks fine for the most part. There's some softness to some of the footage and some of the archival clips understandably look a little worse for wear but everything is completely watchable and most of the newly shot footage looks quite good here.

Sound:

The English language Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo tracks for the documentaries are on par with the video quality – they're not reference material but they're completely sufficient and they definitely take care of the task at hand. The dialogue is clean and clear and there aren't any problems with hiss or distortion.

Extras:

While the entire contents of the first disc in the set is made up of the four documentaries, the second disc is where the rest of the material can be found starting with three alternate versions of the original pilot episode for The Munsters. Keep in mind that each of these three versions is under ten-minutes in length but despite the brevity these are cool to see for fans of the show you get a chance to see a few different people in some very familiar roles.

Image has also dug up an opening credits sequence that was created but never used for the series pilot, with Portuguese text. Seven Wonderful Nights is a brief two-minute clip where Buddy Ebsen talks about upcoming shows on CBS (The Munsters being one of them, represented here by a brief clip), which leads to a collection of vintage television promo spots for the show that compile some snippets from the debut season.

A four-minute clip from the Canadian comedy show Wayne And Shuster features some amusing commentary from the two comedians as they examine some clips from the pilot episode while the Marineland Carnival clip is a strange one-minute where Fred Gwynne feeds dolphins in full Herman make-up to promote a special on sea life. Also included here is a Cheerio-O's commercial featuring Herman and Eddie Munster, a trailer and two TV spots for the theatrical release of Munster, Go Home!, three TV spots promoting the syndication of the series, a Universal Studios newsreel featuring a brief appearance of the Munsters house with Fred and Al Lewis, a strange cameo from Herman on It's What's Happening, Baby! and finally an interview by Lenny Clarke with a collector of The Munsters memorabilia.

Final Thoughts:

While you've probably got to be a fan of The Munsters to get much out of this set, for those who enjoy the show and get nostalgic for the characters and the series, it doesn't get much better than this. The content is genuinely interesting and there's a lot of rare material in here that makes it a pretty important collection for fans of the series. Recommended.

Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.

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