Young Frankenstein artwork by Mister Gee

Young Frankenstein

Young Frankenstein artwork by Mister Gee

Director: Mel Brooks / Script: Mel Brooks & Gene WilderEditing: John C. Howard / DP: Gerald Hirschfeld / Score: John Morris

Cast: Gene Wilder / Peter Boyle / Marty Feldman / Madeline Kahn / Cloris Leachman / Teri Garr / Kenneth Mars / Richard Haydn / Gene Hackman

Year: 1974

It’s Fron-Ken-Shteen!…


Legendary comedic director Mel Brooks, was wrapping-up Blazing Saddles (1973), his parody of classic westerns, that had starred good friend – and muse – Gene Wilder, when Wilder approached him with the bones of an idea…

It seemed that Wilder had come up with the title ‘Young Frankenstein’, as a loose homage to the trio of ‘Frankenstein’ pictures made by James Whale in the 1930s for Universal and based on Mary Shelley’s original novel: Frankenstein (1931), Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and, lastly, Son of Frankenstein (1939).

Wilder saw comedic potential in imagining the adventures of the Baron’s grandson so, having sketched-out a few ideas, he then wrote a four-page version of ‘Young Frankenstein’ arriving at Transylvania Station, en-route to claiming his birthright. He passed this to his agent, Mike Medavoy, a figure destined to later become one of Hollywood’s major power-brokers. Medavoy saw potential in the project and passed it to Brooks. Legend has it, that Brooks immediately saw what might be done with it and a deal to direct and co-write with Wilder was soon made.

GlassesAfter initially offering it to Columbia, budget wrangling saw it go to a resurgent Twentieth Century Fox, led by the fearless Alan Ladd Jr., who agreed on a budget large enough to do justice to Brooks’ vision. Production in 1974 was blessed, it seems, by some fortuitous luck; for one thing, many of the original props from Universal’s films had ended-up in the garage of their original builder, Ken Strickfaden, who was happy to get them working again, creating dynamic arcing and static electrical effects.

The picture itself, shot on authentic black and white stock (rather than desaturated colour film), begins with a clever pastiche of Whale’s original classics (along with key tropes used by his contemporaries). So we get a pitch-perfect score by John Morris, as the camera pushes-in to a suitably Gothic castle on a hilltop… In the midst of an electrical storm… With added wolf-howls for mood… Oh, and it’s raining… Inside, a clock strikes midnight, but with thirteen chimes… There’s a coffin on its bier… A plaque reads ‘Baron von Frankenstein’… Hands reach in, trying to prize a tome from a skeleton’s hands, but the skeleton is reluctant to let it go…

The picture we’re about to see, might look familiar, but this last piece of business subverts our expectations and takes us into the realm of zany

Cut to: a Medical lecture hall, where one Doctor Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced Fron-ken-shteen) is demonstrating his ability to manipulate the brain’s connection to the central nervous system, to an appreciative audience of students. To underline his points, he demonstrates a callous brutality to an elderly male volunteer, who he knees in the groin, but who can’t feel pain until Dr. F removes a collar he’d earlier placed around the man’s neck. He duly keels over and is hastily removed, but not until Dr. F tells one of the porters to ‘give him another dollar’.

At the end of the lecture, he’s met by the executor of his late Grandfather’s Will. It’s a life-changing event that will see him part from his chaste, self-denying fiancé Elizabeth. She’s played here by the clever Madeline Kahn, whose improvised farewell at the train station made it to final cut; watching her refuse Wilder any form of intimacy is hilarious, as he gets palmed-off with a sensual rub of elbows. He blows Elizabeth a kiss from the train, but she ducks even this, as if to avoid contamination!

GlassesIt’s a good place to introduce Gene Wilder himself, who’s acting here, is typical of what I think of as his style. An actor capable of immense tenderness when required, as seen later-on when comforting the Monster, but even in these early scenes, he’s gurning like a vaudevillian and his unpredictable, emotionally-charged outbursts reek of over-acting, rather than of any naiveté or character imbalance. For me, Wilder remains an inconsistent screen presence; hard to predict or read.

On arriving at ‘Transylvania Station’, he meets his hunchbacked dogsbody, Igor, played by the bug-eyed Marty Feldman. Igor’s unconditional loyalty, nay love for his new master, is that of a puppy to its new owner and, I think, Igor represents the picture’s heart and soul. His motivations are pure. As are those, to a degree, of Teri Garr as Inga, the stereotypical ‘Aryan blonde’ who plays the Doctor’s actual assistant, although Inga’s role in the picture is limited to being the Doctor’s love interest and ‘sounding-board’ in Elizabeth’s absence.

The movie settles into its groove, once Dr. F. meets Frau Blücher (Cloris Leachman, in a largely improvised performance). She’s the castle’s housekeeper and butt of a recurring gag, that has horses whinnying every time her name’s mentioned. The exchange in which she offers the Doctor ‘varm milk’ and ends with ‘Ovaltine’? was improvised on the spot and it’s to Wilder’s credit as an actor, that he was able to react to Leachman’s riff. When it works, it really works…

Soon in possession of the Baron’s own diary of experiments, modestly entitled ‘How I Did It’, Dr. F now decides to finish what his Grandfather started and reanimate a corpse of his own. This allows another pastiche’d scene (from Whale’s Bride) as the Doctor and Igor go grave-robbing, followed by a trip to the local ‘Brain Depository’ by Igor. He’s charged with retrieving a particular specimen, but ends-up bringing back one marked ‘Abnormal’. It’s all inspired to varying degrees by Whale’s original work, but Brooks and Wilder retool the scenes to fit their intended tone with real affection for the source.

So, Dr. F gets the lab buzzing. We see the kite flying above the castle’s tower, to direct the power of lightning so as to reanimate the corpse and its abnormal brain, but Brooks again subverts our expectations, by having the experiment apparently fail: a realisation that dawns slowly on Dr. F and has him beating on the Monster’s barrelled-chest. Inga: “Stop, Doctor! You’ll kill him!”

GlassesOnly later, whilst at dinner, do we hear the Monster’s first groans. Overcome with pride, Dr. F frees the beast, who’s then spooked when Igor lights a match (referencing a torch-wielding mob previously experienced by the corpse?). The Monster ends-up throttling the Doctor, who tries in-vain to get his hapless sidekicks to administer a sedative through a protracted game of charades. Eventually, it’s Blücher who sets him free for good: turns out, she had been the late Baron’s lover and now wants his legacy to live free…

Except, we have the first sight of a torch & pitchfork-carrying mob to contend with, whipped-up by Kenneth Mars as Inspector Kemp, a crazed one-armed policeman, who plays it all as if channelling Peter Sellers from Doctor Strangelove. It’s an affected performance, detracting from the subtleties employed elsewhere.

Oh, and special mention to the unbilled Gene Hackman as the Blind Hermit, who gives soup, wine and a cigar to the Monster, with unexpected inaccuracy: “Wait, where are you going? I was gonna make espresso!”

The film’s comedic climax has Dr. F a few months-on, having taught the Monster a few rudimentary motive & speech skills; to this point, he’d been played by Peter Boyle as a grunting, endearingly-childlike mute. Frankenstein presents his achievements to a theatre full of Transylvania’s great and good, in a routine that culminates in a few verses of ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz’, with the Doctor and Monster, both dressed in top-hats and tails. Having not seen the film before, I was struck at the audacity of both Wilder & Brooks, to include this section and it reminded me instantly, of two scenes in other Brooks’ movies: the opening number of ‘Springtime for Hitler’ in The Producers (1967)  and of the show-stopping Xenomorph in Spaceballs (1987). For all that, I reckon it’s the best section in an otherwise uneven movie, especially when the Monster sings the chorus…

As expected the placid crowd becomes (another) mob that hurl cabbages at the Monster who, in-turn, runs amok and is duly incarcerated in the town’s Jail. This Third Act fall apart a little from that point, especially once Elizabeth returns, upsetting the dynamic that’d developed in her absence. It’s not terrible; just dull.

Which just goes to show, that comedy is an impossible genre to review, given the very subjective nature of comedy itself. What’s hilarious for one person might be incomprehensible to another. It all hinges on one’s own cultural reference points and how they shape, mould and inform one’s sense of humour…

I think you know this already!

GlassesFor many fans, Young Frankenstein is an unmatched highpoint in Brooks’ career, combining his natural Jewish-American spiel (along with Wilder’s, it must be said), with what was fast-becoming his trademark brand of comedy: the ‘take-off’ movie. Its lines are endlessly quotable and performances from a tight-knit cast, are delivered with impassioned reverence for the material, in a productive atmosphere fostered by Brooks and Wilder.

In addition, thanks to a generous production evoking tone & nuance specific to the era that inspired it, the film can be viewed as an irreverent step-child of the canon; testament to the sheer craft deployed by Brooks and his team. You don’t have to be a fan of the original films, or of horror in-general, in order to appreciate what Brooks & Wilder have achieved here.

And yet – for this reviewer – there are funnier films out there…

In the Seventies, Brooks had no equal when it came to this irreverent style, so his work stands-out to a generation, for whom he became a cultural touchstone. Fast-forward ten years and we have the likes of Spinal Tap, Airplane and more; movies from a later generation of film-makers who’d picked-up the baton. They, in-turn, would be followed by others, such as Ben Stiller and Judd Apatow, producing work of equal merit and – it has to be said – as many clunkers as Brooks at his worst.

Lest we not forget, Dear Reader, that for every Young Frankenstein, there’s usually some Men in Tights!

Every generation inspires the next: that’s just how it’s supposed to work and while I found much to like here, there just wasn’t enough control in either its editing or timing to really get under my skin. Young Frankenstein is a superb parody of a beloved series.

It has a number of inspired sequences but they’re not enough to smooth-over the cracks…

A riot is an ugly thing. Und, I think it’s about time we had one!


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