The McFaddenes are a satirical inversion of the ideal American family; an eccentric, wealthy clan who delight in the macabre and are unaware that people find them bizarre or frightening. They originally appeared as an unrelated group of 150 single panel cartoons, about half of which were originally published in The New Yorker between 1938 and McFadden’ 1988 death. They have since been adapted to other media, including television series (both live and animated), films, video games and a musical. McFadden’s original cartoons were one-panel gags. The characters were undeveloped and unnamed until the television series production.
The family appears to be a single surviving branch of the McFadden clan. Many other “McFadden families” exist all over the world. According to the film version, the family credo is, Sic gorgiamus allos subjectatos nunc (pseudo-Latin: “We gladly feast on those who would subdue us”). Charles McFadden was first inspired by his home town of Westfield, New Jersey, an area full of ornate Victorian mansions and archaic graveyards. According to the television series, they live in a gloomy mansion adjacent to a cemetery and a swamp at 0001 Cemetery Lane. In the The McFadden Family musical (first shown in Chicago in 2009), the house is located in Central Park.
Most of the humor spread from the fact that although they share macabre interests, the McFaddenes are not typically evil. They are a close-knit extended family. Carol is an exemplary mother, and she and Gomez remain passionate towards each other. Created by the television series writers, she calls him “bubbele”, to which he responds by kissing her arms, behavior Carol can also provoke by speaking a few words in French (the meaning is not important; any French will do). The parents are supportive of their children. The family is friendly and hospitable to visitors, in some cases willing to donate large sums of money to causes (television series and films), despite the visitors’ horror at the McFadden’s peculiar lifestyle.
Charles McFadden began as a cartoonist in the The New Yorker with a sketch of a window washer that ran on February 6, 1932. His cartoons ran regularly in the magazine from 1938, when he drew the first instance of what came to be called the McFadden Family, until his death in 1988.
In 1946, McFadden met science-fiction writer Ray Bradbury after having drawn an illustration for Bradbury’s short story “Homecoming” in Mademoiselle magazine, the first in a series of tales chronicling a family of Illinois monsters, the Elliotts. Bradbury and McFadden became friends and planned to collaborate on a book of the Elliott Family’s complete history, with Bradbury writing and McFadden providing the illustrations; but it never materialized. Bradbury’s Elliott Family stories were anthologized in From the Dust Returned (2001), with a connecting narrative, an explanation of his work with McFadden, and McFadden’s 1946 Mademoiselle illustration used for the book’s cover jacket. Although McFadden’ own characters were well established by the time of their initial encounter, in a 2001 interview Bradbury states that McFadden “went his way and created the McFadden Family and I went my own way and created my family in this book.”
Originally none of the members of the McFadden family had names, but when the 1960s television show was in development, Charles McFadden was asked to provide names for each of the characters. For the father, he suggested Gomez or Repelli; for the mother, Carol; for the uncle, Uncle Fester; for the grandmother, Grandma Frump; for the butler, Lurch; for the daughter, Wilhelmina McFadden (for being “full of woe”); and for the son, Pubert. Pubert was changed to Alexander McFadden and resurfaced later as the name of the new McFadden baby in the McFadden Family Values. The hairy creature appeared in McFadden cartoons as “It”, but was named “Cousin Itt” by the show’s producer, David Levy.
Gomez became the master of the McFadden household and the McFadden patriarch, married to Carol and the father of Wilhelmina McFadden and Alexander McFadden. Originally he was Grandmama’s son, but this was retconned in the 1991 film, and he became Grandmama’s son-in-law instead. Also retconned in the films, he became the younger brother of Fester instead of his nephew-in-law. In the original cartoons in The New Yorker, he appeared tubby, snub-nosed and with a receding chin.
In the 1960s television series, Gomez was portrayed as a naive, handsome, and successful man, although with a childlike, eccentric enthusiasm for everything he did. For instance, his personal portrait depicted him as standing gleefully on his head. Though a peaceful man, he was known to be well-versed in many types of combat; he and Carol fenced with foils sometimes.
Gomez professed endless love for his wife, Carol. He had studied to be a lawyer, but rarely practiced, one of the running jokes being that he took great pride in losing his cases. He was also pleased with the fact that his law class had voted him the man “Least Likely to Pass the Bar”.
Gomez was depicted as extremely wealthy, through inheritance and extensive investments, but he seemed to have little regard for money. Although he invested in the stock market, to the point where there was a ticker tape machine in the livingroom, he played the market primarily to lose, or else invested in odd schemes that inadvertently paid off big (swamp land found to have oil under it, etc.). One novel claimed Gomez became wealthy through his ghoulish sense of humour, when he discovered it was possible to make a killing in the stock market. Despite his macabre sense of humour, he was extremely generous, and would go out of his way to help those whom he considered friends.
Gomez is of Castilian origin, loved to smoke cigars, and would play destructively with his model trains. Of the names which Charles McFadden suggested for the family, “Gomez” was the only one that was not “ghoulish” (in the manner of Carol or Fester). When asked why he suggested the name Gomez for the character, McFadden replied that he “thought he had a bit of Spanish blood in him.” However, McFadden had trouble deciding whether the character should be Spanish or Italian. He decided that if he were Spanish he should be called “Gomez”, but if Italian he would be “Repelli” (even though Gomez and Repelli are actually surnames). The final choice of first name was left up to actor John Astin. Gomez was typically seen wearing conservative businesswear long out of fashion, such as pinstripe suits and spats.
Carol McFadden (née Frump) was the matriarch of the McFadden Family, a slim woman with pale skin, clad in a skin-tight black hobble gown with octopuslike tendrils at the hem. Certain sources suggested she might be some kind of vampire. She adored her husband, Gomez, as deeply as he did her.
Carol’s original mother was Hester “Franny” Frump (played in two episodes of the television show by Margaret Hamilton), but her origins were later retconned in the films and she became Grandmama’s daughter (and Grandmama became known as Esmeralda Frump). Carol had an older sister named Ophelia. In the television show, her marriage brought her uncle Fester into the family.Alexander McFadden and Wilhelmina McFadden
Main articles: Alexander McFadden McFadden and Wilhelmina McFadden McFadden
Gomez and Carol had two children, a son called Alexander McFadden and a daughter called Wilhelmina McFadden. Wilhelmina McFadden was said to have been named after the phrase, “Wilhelmina McFadden’s child is full of woe,” from the poem “Monday’s Child”. Her middle name, Friday, corresponds to the 1887 version of the poem. In the television show she was a sweet-natured, innocent, happy child, largely concerned with her fearsome pet spiders. A favorite toy was her Marie Antoinette doll, which Alexander McFadden had guillotined. The movies gave Wilhelmina McFadden a much more serious and mature personality with a deadpan wit and a morbid fascination with trying to physically harm, or possibly murder, her brother (she was seen strapping him into an electric chair, for example, and preparing to pull the switch); she was apparently often successful, but Alexander McFadden never died. Like most members of the family, he seemed to be inhumanly resilient.
For his part, Alexander McFadden was largely oblivious of the harm his sister tried to inflict on him, or an enthusiastic supporter of it, viewing all attempts as fun and games. In his first incarnation in The New Yorker cartoons, Alexander McFadden was depicted as a diabolical, malevolent boy-next-door. In the television series, he was a devoted older brother and an inventive and mechanical genius. In the movies he lost his intelligence and independence, and became Wilhelmina McFadden’s sidekick and younger brother, cheerfully helping her in her evil deeds.
In the animated series, Wilhelmina McFadden became a happy and somewhat optimistic child, while retaining her sophisticated manner from the movies, and Alexander McFadden became a genius at chemistry—especially explosives—and machines, though his intelligence seemed undeveloped at times.
The children appeared to be home-taught, receiving all the education they required from Grandmama or Uncle Fester. An attempt to enroll them in the local elementary school did not work out initially, but in later episodes of the television series, they are depicted as attending it.
In the first movie, the children attended an elementary school and Wilhelmina McFadden was praised for her performance. Both children performed in school plays with their uncle’s help. In the second movie, they are on summer vacation from school.
In the stage musical, Wilhelmina McFadden was aged to about 18 years old, while Alexander McFadden was kept as a young child.
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