Should I Watch..? 'Young Frankenstein'
What's the big deal?
Young Frankenstein is a black-and-white comedic horror film released in 1974 and was directed and co-written by Mel Brooks. The film is a parody of early horror films and especially the original 1931 version of Frankenstein which the film closely apes. The film stars Gene Wilder as a descendant of the original Dr Frankenstein who finds himself drawn to long-forgotten experiments to reanimate a dead body with increasing enthusiasm. The film also stars Peter Boyle, Marty Feldman, Teri Garr, Cloris Leachman, Madeline Kahn and Kenneth Mars. The film is made in black-and-white to deliberately imitate the look of those early horror films and even features the original lab equipment used in the original version. The film was positively received by critics and went on to earn $86.2 million in the US. It was selected for preservation at the US National Film Registry in 2003.
What's the big deal?
Dr Frederick Frankenstein - the grandson of the original mad scientist Victor Frankenstein - works hard to downplay his links to his more famous relative, insisting that his name is pronounced 'Fronkonsteen'. Whilst working as a neurosurgeon and lecturer, he is contacted by a lawyer representing his family who informs him that the Frankenstein estate in Transylvania has now passed down to him. Bidding farewell to his fiancee Elizabeth, Frederick travels to Europe to inspect the estate and soon makes the acquaintance of Igor who is himself descended from Victor Frankenstein's original assistant. Together with the beautiful but innocent assistant Inga, they make their way to Frankenstein's remote castle.
Greeted by housekeeper Frau Blucher, Frederick finds his dismissive attitude towards his ancestor being eroded as he discovers the secret laboratory where Victor conducted his gruesome experiments. After reading all the notes he can find, Frederick and Igor steal the body of a recently hung criminal and Igor is then tasked with stealing the preserved brain of the saintly Hans Delbrück. Only, things don't go exactly to plan...
Dr Frederick Frankenstein
Gene Wilder & Mel Brooks*
Release Date (UK)
27th March, 1975
PG (2000 re-rating)
Academy Award Nominations
Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Sound
What's to like?
In all the films I have seen by Mel Brooks, there is a maddening inconsistency where the film fluctuates between inspired genius and lazy film-making. Even Blazing Saddles, his much loved western parody, has moments when it just gets too silly to be funny although they are not as frequent as they were in the frankly dreadful Dracula: Dead And Loving It. Thankfully, he has delivered a solid gold hit with Young Frankenstein which is both a loving tribute to those iconic early horror films and a gentle riposte to them as well. Shooting in monochrome was an inspired choice, helping to make the film imitate those early shockers while set design also brings to mind (or even uses) the original scientific-looking props and excessive amounts of cobwebs. What also helps is that for the most part, the cast play the film fairly straight.
Not that they aren't riotously funny. Feldman, a man I knew of but had never seen perform before, is perfectly cast as Igor and never misses an opportunity to try and make you laugh. His mischievous sense of energy works well alongside Brooks' style of comedy and alongside Wilder's manic performance, the pair of them make an unlikely odd couple but one with devastating effectiveness. They are also supported well by the likes of Boyle (who is far funnier than I thought he might be), Garr, Kahn and a barely recognisable Gene Hackman in a rare comedy role. But the film contains what is, for me, possibly the funniest scene in any film that I can think of - the ridiculous "Puttin' On The Ritz" sequence between Wilder and Boyle never fails to make me smile and it's such a complete change from everything else that it can't help but stand out in an already very funny film.
- Unusually for a Mel Brooks film, the director does not make an appearance on screen. This is down to Wilder who only agreed to appear in the film if Brooks didn't, feeling his appearance might break the illusion of the film. Brooks does feature in the film as both the howl of a werewolf as well as a cat hit by a dart.
- Brooks later claimed that Young Frankenstein was his best film, although not his funniest. Wilder also claimed that of all the films he had ever made, this was his favourite.
- Hackman, who only learned of the film through his tennis partner Wilder, requested a role because he wanted to try a comedic role. His ad-libbed line "I was gonna make espresso!" leads to a fade-to-black because the crew found it so funny, they all burst into laughter which ruined the shot.
What's not to like?
Very minor niggles (and frankly, I'm struggling to think of these) include the scenes where the Creature wanders around aimlessly and encountering various individuals which I thought were a touch slow and the film's determination to stick to the original story as closely as possible. It's not like we're unfamiliar with the story or haven't seen the standard treatment since the release of the original version in 1931. For a comedy-horror, there are hardly any shocks to be found in the film anywhere (not that I'm complaining) and the film's comedy becomes somewhat more ribald towards the end but that's a question of taste at the end of the day.
To be honest, I'm delighted to have found Brooks' best film which manages to maintain its balance throughout and doesn't fly off the rails completely. He just about manages to keep a necessary lid on the madness to prevent Young Frankenstein becoming an amateurish production as well as making all the right decisions. It's a film that is as good a comedy as I've seen in a long time and for my money, is Brooks' best film which is no small claim.
Should I watch it?
Young Frankenstein is the Mel Brooks film I've been waiting for for so long now, a brilliantly produced and performed comedy that isn't just a parody of classic horror films but a loving tribute to them as well. Wilder delivers a performance that veers from understated genius to manic obsessive in a way only he can and is the core of a film that remains very funny indeed. It's visually interesting and helplessly lovable and for me, Brooks never got better than he did here.
Great For: fans of classic horror movies, anyone needing a good rib-tickling, anyone unfamiliar with Feldman's work
Not So Great For: thrill-seekers, anyone expecting genuine scares, black-and-white snobs
What else should I watch?
So is this Mel Brooks' best film to date? Personally, I would say that it is - Blazing Saddles gets a little too silly toward the end, Spaceballs is funny but lacking any genuine wit and the same can be said for Robin Hood: Men In Tights. I confess that I have yet to see the only other contender which is Brooks' first film, the original 1967 version of The Producers. But I don't particularly have any great desire to see it - I'm not enough of a theatrical luvvie to appreciate the film as a spoof of musicals and thanks to the theatrical adaptation as well as the 2005 film adaptation of the theatrical adaptation, it doesn't appeal to my tastes to give it a go either. Maybe one day I will but as of today, I can't think of a better Brooks film than Young Frankenstein.
Of course, the original series of horror films later known as the Universal Classic Monsters was nothing to laugh at. From the mid-1920's to the 1950's, Universal produced a string of popular and mostly profitable horror films that saved the studio from bankruptcy after the Great Depression. Arguably the two biggest films were both released in 1931 and would shape both the careers of their leading men but also horror in general - Dracula introduced Bela Lugosi to the role he would spend the rest of his life trying to escape while Frankenstein made Boris Karloff into an equally iconic figure within horror films. Other films like The Mummy, The Bride Of Frankenstein, The Wolfman and Horror Island began to saturate the market but many are still held in high regard all these years later.
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