Young Frankenstein (1974) dir. Mel Brooks
Starring: Gene Wilder, Peter Boyle, Teri Garr, Madeleine Khan, Marty Feldman
By Alan Bacchus
While some may argue “Blazing Saddles”, or “The Producers” Mel Brooks, himself, considers this the favourite of his films. I don’t disagree. This passion project began during Brooks’ “Get Smart” days in the 60’s. Co-scripted by his great collaborator Gene Wilder, it’s a pitch perfect homage to the mad scientist horror and sci-fi films of the Golden Age of Cinema.
Gene Wilder plays Frederick Frankenstein, a university science professor, and grandson to the Shelley character Victor Frankenstein, who, by now, has become famous for his mad experiments. Frederick, who despises the family reputation chooses to pronounce his name Fronk-en-steen. One day Frederick is given a letter by a creepy lawyer who informs him he has inherited the family estate. In order to claim his entitlement he must travel to his grandfather’s spooky Transylvanian castle.
Once at the castle Frederick is assigned a lovely German assistant Inga (Teri Garr) and a loyal hunchback servant Igor (pronounced – Eye-Gor) to be his guides. As Frederick discovers the scientific secrets of his family legacy he becomes possessed with finishing his grandfather’s experiments. And so, Frederick goes about his own method of graverobbing to produce his constructed body through which he’ll produce artificial life. His ‘monster’ comes in the form of a growling Peter Boyle, who, like in the Shelley version, escapes and reeks havoc on the community and then is brought back to his home by the soothing sounds of music.
This is just the skeleton of the story, which Brooks' embellishes a number of wild subplots and graceful comic detours. One of cinema's great cameos is Gene Hackman’s unlikely comic turn as a blind man who puts up the monster for a night. It’s only one scene but it is marvelous interaction of a blind Hackman and an unemotive, mute Boyle.
While the gags don’t quite ‘zing’ as fast as they did back in 1974, “Young Frankenstein” had transcended its jokes to become fully entrenched in pop culture. The famous “Putting on the Ritz” musical sequence with Wilder and Boyle, which itself is a parody of Fred Astaire’s version in “Blue Skies”, was parodied by “The Family Guy”. Peter Boyle’s version of Frankenstein became the basis for Phil Hartman’s SNL version of the monster, and like "The Producers", it's now a musical adaptation on Broadway.
As a piece of technical celluloid it’s also a masterful achievement. Gerald Hirchfeld’s gorgeous black and white photography is still a stunner (and even more on Blu-Ray), as well as Dale Hennesey’s retro production design. His recreation of the 1930’s style mad scientist lab is so wonderfully cool, and this in a time long before retro became hip. Brook's inspirations start with the classic James Whale 1931 'Frankenstein", but he also sneaks in homages to the comedy of the Marx Brothers, and the production design and lighting style of German expressionism films like "Metropolis".
“Frankenstein” is a film made by and for film lovers. Nowaways pulp Hollywood is often sources of inspiration, and so for Mel Brooks to catch (or start) this trend early makes him a couple of decades ahead of his time. Enjoy.
“Young Frankenstein” is available on Blu-Ray from 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment