I was in need of a laugh, and as I was putting away my DVDs (finally the movers arrived) and as I shelved Young Frankenstein I remembered I wanted to watch it soon for its 40th anniversary. I’m about a month ahead, sue me.
Young Frankenstein is in my top ten, maybe top five, of comedies all time, and is certainly Mel Brooks’ best film (I find Blazing Saddles to be over-rated). He did have a hell of year in 1974, as both films were released in that calendar year. I suspect, though, that Gene Wilder had a lot to do with it. It was his idea, and the story goes that he agreed to appear in Blazing Saddles if Brooks would direct–and not act in–Young Frankenstein.
It is, of course, an affectionate send-up of the Universal Frankenstein pictures of the ’30s and ’40s. They crib bits of all five movies featuring the monster (at one point a villager says “this has happened five times before”) and is filmed with that luminous black and white that was common in old movies. The laboratory equipment used in the original Frankenstein was sitting in the garage of a man named Kenneth Strickfaden, who loaned it to Brooks for his use.
So what makes Young Frankenstein so good? It has a few different levels of comedy, but the most basic can be traced to the kind of slapstick made popular by comedians like Laurel and Hardy and Abbott and Costello. As I watched it again (for perhaps the tenth time) I noted how many times we get the slow burn (like the look Peter Boyle, as the monster, gives when blind hermit Gene Hackman smashes his cup during a toast). There is some vaudeville, mostly from Marty Feldman as Igor (pronounced “eye-gor”), such as when he goes a Groucho voice when Wilder asks him to take the bags “You take the blonde, and I’ll take the one with the turban.”
But overall there is a joyous sense of silliness through the whole thing, anchored in the performance by Wilder, who is unabashedly hammy. I can think of him now, on the platform during the electrical storm, his longish hair whipped by the breeze, wearing ridiculous goggles, shouting, “Life! Give my creature life!” as if we were one of the Booth brothers. The movie, for all its gifts, would be nowhere without his canny performance, which I think is one of the best comic performances ever put on celluloid.
But more silliness–this film actually gets away with dick jokes, “He must have a tremendous schwanzstugger” (not sure of the spelling) and the way Madeline Kahn says, “Oh my god!” when the monsters drops his trousers (it so wistful watching Kahn, who was taken from us much too soon–she’s one of the great comediennes who ever lived). And really, “Wow, what knockers!” while Wilder is holding Teri Garr, her breasts in his face? I might have written that line and thought it was too juvenile, but smarter heads prevailed.
Young Frankenstein is full of set pieces and performances that are too numerous to catalog, but some of my favorites: the sad little Liam Dunn wheeled in as a medical school volunteer; when Wilder and Feldman are digging up a grave, and Feldman says, “Could be worse, could be raining,” and a deluge immediately starts; “Abby Normal;” “Sed-a-give;” the entire Boyle/Hackman scene, which stands on its own as one of the greatest few minutes of comedy ever; Kenneth Mars using a German accent so thick even the villagers can’t understand him; “Put the candle back!” The most famous scene is probably the “Puttin’ on the Ritz” number, which is another few minutes of comic legend.
Even after so many viewings Young Frankenstein does not fail to amuse me. Wilder, though he may originated the idea, did need Brooks as a director, as the films Wilder would subsequently direct never approached the greatness of this film (I did get a great kick out of The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother) when I was teen but I doubt it would hold up. Young Frankenstein was, and remains, comic alchemy.