The Adorably Morbid Children of the Classics

As many stuck-at-home audiences have been over the past year of pure, all-encompassing Hell, I’ve recently found myself seeking out cinematic comfort food in the form of Classic Movies, the kind of Old Hollywood fare best enjoyed under a blanket with a hot toddy & a bar of chocolate. That impulse overwhelmed my viewing habits around this past Christmas especially, when the annual stress of the holiday and the burnout from Best of 2020 catchups had me seeking shelter in the feel-good Movie Magic of the Studio Era. I wasn’t watching these films with any specific critical purpose in mind, but I did notice a glaring, unexpected common thread between them that delighted me, if not only because it was a subversive contrast to the warm-blanket nostalgia feeling I was looking for. I started to detect an archetype of 1930s & 40s media that I hadn’t really considered being a hallmark of the era before: the adorably morbid child. I’m not referencing the vicious little monsters of later cinema like the pint-sized villains of The Bad Seed, The Children’s Hour, or Village of the Damned. It’s an earlier, sweeter archetype of the cutie-pie tyke who happens to be obsessed with death, decay, and general amoral debauchery despite their cheery appearance. In an era where studio-sanctioned art was cranked out to seek wide commercial appeal, creators had thoughtfully included proto-goth youngsters in their casts of characters for the real Weirdos in the audience — something I still greatly appreciated from the warmth of my couch & blanket nearly a century later.

By far the purest, most adorably vicious specimen of this archetype is Tootie from the 1944 movie musical Meet Me in St Louis. Based on its reputation as The One Where Judy Garland Sings “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas”, I didn’t expect much in the way of subversion out of this Old Hollywood Movie Musical. Maybe that’s why I absolutely fell in love with Tootie The Pint-Sized Sociopath, whose interjections of feral bloodlust into this otherwise cheery Studio picture got huge, consistent laughs out of me. It’s like Louise Belcher was cast as one of the March sisters in a musical production of Little Women, a delightful element of pure, out-of-nowhere chaos. Child actor Margaret O’Brien even earned second-bill for the role beneath Garland on the posters, despite being more of an occasional source of comic relief than a main-cast participant. While her older sisters & parents navigate romances, courtships, and harsh financial decisions of the adult world, Tootie lives out a mostly carefree childhood in turn-of-the-century Missouri where she staves off boredom by focusing on the more ghoulish aspects of life. Tootie frequently interrupts the plot to interject about all her dolls she’s buried in the cemetery, the minor acts of domestic terrorism she’s committed against the city’s streetcar tracks, or how “The iceman saw a drunkard get shot yesterday; the blood squirted out three feet!” Each time she pipes up in sugary sweet squeaks you know you’re about to hear about the gnarliest shit that’s ever happened in St. Louis, which is a hilarious contrast to the warmer, more nostalgic comforts of Judy Garland singing Christmas carols.

I might’ve assumed Tootie was a total cinematic anomaly had I not also revisited one of my personal favorite Christmas classics this year, 1934’s Hays Code defiant comedy-noir The Thin Man. Usually when praising The Thin Man, it’s unavoidable to focus on the playful, often violent sexual innuendo shared between married, martini-swilling detectives Nick & Nora Charles. On this rewatch, though, I found myself drawn to the morbid fixations of the teenage side character Gilbert, the son of the murder victim Nick & Nora are hired to avenge. Gilbert is much older than Tootie, and so his adorable morbidity as a teenage boy is a lot less striking at first glance. What’s hilarious about its effect on the film, however, is how freaked out the other characters are by his obsession with death & sexual perversion. Police are squicked when he gleefully asks, of his own father’s corpse, “Could I come down and see the body? I’ve never seen a dead body.” It doesn’t help at all when he plainly explains, “Well, I’ve been studying psychopathic criminology and I have a theory. Perhaps this was the work of a sadist or a paranoiac. If I saw it I might be able to tell.” Unlike Tootie’s family in Meet Me in St. Louis, Gilbert’s mother & sister aren’t at all amused by his faux-Freudian obsession with sex & death, best typified by his sister’s repulsed reaction to his confession that, “Now, I know I have a mother fixation, but it’s slight. It hasn’t yet reached the point of where I …” The censorship of the era would not have allowed that train of thought to go much further, but it’s almost worse that the audience’s imagination is allowed to fill in the blank. Gilbert is not nearly as funny nor as alarming as Tootie, if not only because death & perverse sexual urges don’t seem as wildly out of place coming from a teenage boy in a drunken noir as they do coming from a 7-year-old girl in a cheery movie musical. Still, he’s a hilarious intrusion on the plot & tone of the work, especially since every other character is so thoroughly freaked out by his enthusiasm for ghoulish subjects.

While I couldn’t think of another movie character from the 30s & 40s that fit the mold of a Tootie or a Gilbert, I do believe they share a sensibility with a newspaper comics icon from that same era: Wednesday Addams. While The Addams Family wouldn’t be adapted to television & silver screen until decades later, the wholesomely morbid characters originated in a single-panel newspaper comic that was substantially popular in the 1930s. Wednesday Addams isn’t as bubbly nor as sugar-addled as Tootie, but she mostly fills the same role: a subversively morbid child who’s just as adorable as she is fixated on death & mayhem. It might just be because I’m a child of the 1990s, but Christina Ricci defines the character in my mind, thanks to her dual performances in Barry Sonnenfeld’s The Addams Family (1991) & Addams Family Values (1993). While her performance (along with a career-high turn from Joan Cusack) is more deliciously over-the-top in the sequel, the often-neglected original film of the duo showcases her as occasional, adorable interjections to the plot the same way Tootie & Gilbert function in their respective films. The ’91 Addams Family movie feels spiritually in-sync with the source material’s origins as a single-panel newspaper comic, mostly entertaining as a never-ending flood of individual sight gags; it’s essentially ZAZ for goths. Wednesday mostly operates outside the main plot (which largely concerns her parents’ relationship with her prodigal uncle), occasionally interjecting as a hyper-specific type of sight gag: a young, adorable little girl with a hyperactive sense of bloodlust. Wednesday is mostly silent in the ’91 film, but the way she repeatedly murders her brother, leads a spooky familial séance, and sprays her school play audience in gallons of stage blood leads to some of the film’s most outrageously funny moments; it’s no wonder Addams Family Values gave her more to do in the spotlight, straying further from both the comic panel source material & the usual role of the adorably morbid child side-character trope.

One thing that stuck out to me when revisiting the Addams Family movie so soon after falling in love with Tootie is that it starts with a Christmas carol, and ends at Halloween. Similarly, Meet Me in St. Louis is often cited as one of the greatest Christmas movies of all time, but one of its major set-pieces involves Tootie participating in an escalating series of Halloween pranks while dressed as the ghost of a town drunk. Meanwhile, Addams Family Values includes an iconic Thanksgiving-themed stage play (despite being set at a sleepaway summer camp), and The Thin Man is set between Christmas Eve & New Year’s. It makes sense that these comfort-watch classics would be likely to be set around The Holidays, since that time of year is so prone to warmly comforting (and easily marketable) nostalgia. The uniformity of these three characters—Tootie, Gilbert, and Wednesday—across those similar settings is amusing as a codified trio, though, and I can’t help but want to seek out more adorably morbid children in classic films just like them. Surely, there must be more violence-obsessed tykes running havoc around otherwise even-keel studio pictures of the Old Hollywood era. If nothing else, I suspect the continued popularity of Wednesday Addams over the decades must have been an influence over classic movie characters I just haven’t met yet. I doubt any will be as delightfully fucked up as our beloved little Tootie, but I’ll be seeking them out anyway.

-Brandon Ledet

One thought on “The Adorably Morbid Children of the Classics

  1. Pingback: Podcast #175: A Summer Place (1959) & Holiday Melodrama | Swampflix

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