I would like, if I may, to take you on a strange journey.
There are rare occasions in history where the planets align themselves, the universe hums in perfect harmony, the angels upon high reach down and everything falls beautifully into place. All the elements come together, like mashed potato sculptors hearing the clarion call of a spaceship, and somehow, in some way, fates are sealed in a glorious confluence of absolute simpatico. This, my friends, happened in the year 1974.
Mel Brooks, known mostly as a talented television writer (among his many creations was the character Maxwell Smart), had not been able to do much at the box office. His only minor critical success had been The Producers, which featured Zero Mostel and a then unheard-of mop headed clown who had just done a bit part in Bonnie and Clyde, named Gene Wilder. The early seventies were a strange period in Wilder’s career. His surprisingly menacing turn as Willy Wonka was not a commerical success, neither was his second pairing with Zero Mostel in the screen adaptation of Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros. His only big money role came in Woody Allen’s Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex.
In 1973, Gene Wilder had been working on a treatment for a film, his first real screenwriting credit, a satire on Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein focusing on the Victor Frankenstein’s grandson, who inherits the Transylvanian castle and takes up the mantle of his infamous grandfather. He showed it to his friend, Mel Brooks, who took one look and told him he thought it was cute, but basically ignored it. A few months later, Wilder’s agent Mike Medavoy asked him if he had any projects that would be good for these two new clients he had: Marty Feldman and Peter Boyle. Wilder pitched him Young Frankenstein, which Medavoy loved, and Medavoy wanted Mel Brooks to direct. Brooks had just lost an actor to illness on his latest movie and desperately needed Gene Wilder to step in and take over the role. Wilder agreed if Brooks would work on “his movie” afterwards. Since he’d been suffering box office flops left and right, he begrudgingly accepted. And that, is how Gene Wilder became “The Waco Kid” in Blazing Saddles and how Mel Brooks got signed on to Young Frankenstein.
Brooks and Wilder spent the next few weeks hammering out the draft, and attempting to sell it to studios. Columbia had initial rights but decided they would spend no more than $2 million dollars on the budget. Brooks couldn’t get the budget under $2.3 million. Also Columbia didn’t want the movie to be shot in black and white because they thought it wouldn’t sell in Europe. The production team moved to 20th Century Fox, who took the entire project part and parcel, grainy black and white film and all.
The plot, at its core, is beautifully simple: Fredrick Frankenstein, a doctor at a prestigious medical university, is trying to escape from the shadow of his grandfather Victor, who famously tried to bring the dead back to life. When he inherits his grandfather’s castle in Transylvania, the young Dr. Frankenstein reads his grandfather’s journals and decides he could replicate the experiment and bring a monster to life with the help of his lab assistants — the voluptuous Inga, the hump-luptuous Igor, and the sinister Frau Blucher (whinny!). The experiments are a success and the creature is re-animated, only to escape to the countryside where he kidnaps the Doctor’s fiancée. However, in this version, the monster is rescued by Frankenstein, who uses his science to ensure that everyone lives happily ever after.
Young Frankenstein is not a parody of the Frankenstein story, but a comedic homage in the style of the Theatre of the Absurd. Every scene from the original 1930’s picture is represented in the true spirit of the film, but it is crafted for satire and humor while still staying absolutely honest to the love story at the root of the tale. It’s not about playing God by creating life but by loving the life you create. While most of Mel Brooks’ later movies would devolve into multiple gimmick parodies, Young Frankenstein remains unique in that it focuses only on one specific story of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster.
As each member of the cast was woven into the picture, the movie truly fleshed out and breathed with new life. The female roles weren’t as well written as the rest of the script, but the actresses who eventually took the roles were able to infuse the parts with legendary performances. Brooks and Wilder wanted Madeline Kahn to play Inga, but she instead chose to play Elizabeth, the doctor’s hilariously chaste fiancée. It could have been a throw-away role, but her presence as the arrogant and affection-shunning bride-of -Frankenstein to be adds a marvelous element for the other actors to work off of. Teri Garr came in with her over-the-top Churman accent and turned the Ulla character from The Producers into a much richer part. Garr comes from the School of Goldie Hawn: a ditzy blonde with incredible comic timing who gets forgotten because of her looks and bubbly persona. Watch Mr. Mom again and you’ll know what I’m talking about. Cloris Leachman stepped in as Frau Blucher (whinny!) with her eternal scowl, manic violin playing, and proud Teutonic posturing and made her into a simultaneously frightening and touching character.
Even in the smaller roles, Brooks and Wilder were able to capture some brilliant performances. Kenneth Mars plays Inspector Kemp with his streudel-thick accent that even the villagers can’t understand (vootshteps! vootshteps!) and a wooden arm that gets far more laughs than any fake appendage rightfully should. My favorite cameo comes from a favor done by Gene Wilder for a fellow actor friend who asked if he could have a small part in the movie. He was just looking to be a second officer or hide in the background during crowd scenes. Instead, Brooks offered him the part of the blind man who hilariously abuses the monster when he enters his home. This scene perfectly encapsulates the nature of what makes Young Frankenstein such a brilliant picture. It’s almost beat for beat from the original Frankenstein movie except every nice gesture on the part of the blind man is turned into a schlemiel moment: he spills hot soup in the monster’s lap, his toast smashes the creature’s mug of ale, and then instead of lighting his cigar, he sets the monster’s thumb on fire. Every instance is played for comic timing, including the improvised final line as the monster rampages out of the home, “I was going to make espresso!” But that’s what you expect from Gene Hackman.
Young Frankenstein becomes a comic legend because of the performances of the three leads. Peter Boyle as The Monster manages to play the lurching, moaning beast with a childlike innocence. You feel bad for this bald behemoth, because he seems almost like a beloved pet or infant who lost his way. While all his glances to the camera, mugging, and tap-dancing are brilliant, I think it’s when he gives the speech at the end of the movie that gives his performance that extra twist of sweetness. It’s not his fault he’s got the brain of Abby …someone. Marty Feldman has been called the heart of this production with his spectacular turn as the hunchback Igor. With that famously cock-eyed leer, he’s pretty much responsible for every other hilarious moment in the movie. Whether it was his shifting hump, his witty retorts, or his chomping on Madeline Kahn’s fox stole, Igor is my favorite character in this or any other Mel Brooks film. Of all the numerous quotes I could spout from the movie, most of them are his.
Then there’s Gene Wilder as Fredrick FRONK-EN-STEIN. His is one of the finest performances, comedic or otherwise, ever committed to celluloid. He deftly weaves from broad comedy to ponderous silence, from straight man to guffawing maniac, without ever once making the audience feel the shift in tone. Gene Wilder is one of the few actors who could ever deliver a joke without making it seem like he was trying to be funny. There is no other actor, today or otherwise, who can capture his sense of sweet melancholy and broad mania. He can make you cry and laugh in the same stroke. Who else could balance the comedic timing and delivery of Richard Pryor? He was able to exhibit an air of menace, of fury, and of kindness. My favorite performance of his will always be as Willy Wonka because he is this lovable, huggable man who you positively knew would rip your head off your shoulders the second your parents looked away. But his Dr. Frankenstein will forever be a close second.
Aside from the astounding performances, the other thing that makes this movie such a treat to watch is that most of it was improvised. The dialogue came out of the characters and the scenes, and nobody was afraid to take chances. Marty Feldman kept surreptitiously switching the position of the hump (what hump?) on his back, unbeknownst to the cast and crew. When someone finally pointed it out, they decided to keep the bit. When the doctor and the Inspector are throwing darts and one goes wild, we hear a cat yowl off camera that was Mel Brooks trying to funny up the joke. The original cut of the movie was twice the length it is now, and Wilder and Brooks had to cut out most of the jokes that were weaker. Brooks thought the tap-dance number was ridiculous and flat. He wanted to cut the entire “Puttin on the Ritz” schtick. Wilder fought passionately for it until his face went from red to purple. Immediately, Brooks said, “It stays.” When asked why, Mel said, “Because I wanted to see how hard you’d fight for it. You believe in it. It stays.” It was Brooks and Wilder’s most commercially successful film and was nominated for an Academy Award for Screenwriting, but lost out to some bullshit sequel by some no-name goomba who wrote about Al Pacino being all gangsta and shit.
Young Frankenstein is not just one of the best comedies of all time, but it is the best movie Mel Brooks has ever made or will ever make. Its influence is even more far reaching than you can possibly think. Almost every scene has been replicated or imitated on various other programs: from Stewie making the mind-controlled Chris sing “Puttin On The Ritz” to Rip Torn and John Candy’s drunken dart contest in Summer Rental. Mindy Sterling’s entire Frau Farbissene is pretty much Cloris Leachman’s Frau Blucher, only less amusing. A children’s special inspired by the monumental success of Young Frankenstein called The Halloween That Almost Wasn’t later inspired The Nightmare Before Christmas. The scene (which also almost got cut) where Igor lurches through the train station telling Dr. Frankenstein to “walk this way” inspired a young Steven Tyler to pen the song of the same name, which became the very first rap-rock collaboration. So you can blame Mel Brooks for Crazy Town and Linkin Park.
Legend has it that the movie was so much fun to make the cast didn’t want to stop. It really reads as a labor of love on film, from the original Frankenstein set pieces, to the carefully tinted black and white film stock, to the hysterical performances of the characters. And in my humble opinion, this film still holds up every ounce of its humor, and makes me laugh just as hard today. My only hope for the future is that the planets will align themselves again, and we’ll get another comedy half as funny as this one. Not everyone can catch lightning in a bottle (or a seven and a half foot tall gorilla) twice.
Brian Prisco is a warrior-poet from the valley of North Hollywood, by way of Philadelphia. He wastes most of his life in desk jobs, biding his time until he finally becomes an actor, a writer, or cannon fodder in the inevitable zombie invasion. He can be found shaking his fist and angrily shouting at clouds on his blog, The Gospel According to Prisco.
Young Frankenstein / Brian Prisco
Film | June 26, 2008 | Comments ()