Movies We Like
The great horror spoofs are far and few between. For every Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein or Shaun of the Dead (both excellent) there are at least a dozen Scary Movies, Saturday the 14ths or Vampire in Brooklyns, most tend to range from lousy to lame. Young Frankenstein falls in the excellent camp, working as both a laugh out loud comedy and a perfect dissection of the style used by Universal in their famous monster period, directly spoofing both Frankenstein and its sequel, The Bride of Frankenstein. For director Mel Brooks it would mark the apex of his career after The Producers and Blazing Saddles, all three films featuring Gene Wilder who cowrote the Young Frankenstein script with Brooks. Wilder went on to direct his own films and neither Brooks nor Wilder would ever make anything as inspired as the three films they made together. They would even both later direct lousy and lame horror spoofs: Haunted Honeymoon (Wilder... lame) and Dracula: Dead and Loving It (Brooks... lousy). But together, combining both men’s distinct comedy style, they created a film that is easily one of the two or three greatest horror comedies of all time.
American lecturer and doctor, Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (Wilder) can’t live down his famous mad doctor grandfather (Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein) and is truly embarrassed by his roots. When he inherits the family property in Eastern Europe he leaves behind his icy fiancée, Elizabeth, played by Madeline Kahn, on her own roll of big time performances in the period, including Blazing Saddles and Paper Moon. At the castle, he meets his new hunchbacked manservant, Igor (bug-eyed British comedian Marty Feldman), his sexy young laboratory assistant, Inga (Teri Garr) and the creepy maid, Frau Blucher (Cloris Leachman). After reading his grandfather’s journals, Frederick becomes convinced he can reanimate life and sets about recreating his experiments. Like the original Frankenstein story, he brings a patched together man back to life but the man (Peter Boyle, very crafty casting) is accidentally given an abnormal brain and is a relegated to being a monster.
The monster escapes and roams the countryside, causing a panic in the town and bringing the ire of Inspector Kemp (Kenneth Mars, brilliant agin with his eyepatch and monocle on the same eye, after his wonderful role as Nazi Franz Liebkind in The Producers). Spoofing The Bride of Frankenstein, Brooks hilariously recreates the scenes where the Monster meets the young girl and the Blindman (an unrecognizable Gene Hackman). The Monster eventually returns to Frederick where they try to put on a staged song and dance act before getting spooked and reeking havoc on the town. In the craziest twist somehow the Monster ends up hooking up and then marrying Elizabeth. Eureka, Mr Brooks!.
Besides the production design by Dale Hennesy (who was coming off of Woody Allen’s future-com, Sleeper), which was much more ornate and beautifully specific to the material it’s spoofing than one would expect, and the adroit black and white photography shot by Gerald Hirschfeld (who also did impressive period work with My Favorite Year), the script is what makes this more than the usual comic spoof. After cutting his teeth as a writer for Sid Caesar in the '50s (under the tutelage of Carl Reiner) and then creating television’s Get Smart in the '60s (with Buck Henry), Brooks developed a canny flare for for combining the “borscht belt obvious” with an almost high-brow vulgarity. It’s as if he’s taken that '60s style of “sick humor” (Terry Southern, Mad Magazine, etc.) but instead of a druggy coolness Brooks has an affection for his characters and will throw anything out there for a potential laugh. Like so much humor from the period that’s zapped at a mile a minute, some jokes stick and some don’t; luckily, in Young Frankenstein more do stick, then don’t.
After his two roles with Brooks and a handful of masterful comic performances including Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex But Were Afraid To Ask and Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, Wilder was at the top of his craft. Working as a writer for the first time with Brooks on the Young Frankenstein script, Wilder was able to make a showcase for his style of acting, walking a tightrope between hysteria and downplayed mannerism, as well as finding humor in idiotic joke redundancy (repeating bits over and over,), a risky style that paid off in Young Frankenstein but not so much in the films Wilder would go on to write and direct, including The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother (with Kahn and Feldman) and The World’s Greatest Lover, both admiral failures.
Losing Wilder, Brooks would step in as his own leading man, starring in his own next two films, Silent Movie (another with Feldman) and High Anxiety (with Kahn and Leachman), two pretty good comedies, though not on a par with his earlier success. But the final five films he directed sank into juvenile spoofery in the Airplane mode (Spaceballs, Robin Hood: Men in Tights, etc.). He stopped being on the cutting edge of comedy and instead was trying to keep up with some of the crap that was now in vogue.
After Hammer films, Abbot & Costello and even Andy Warhol took their stabs at Frankenstein, you would think there would be nothing much left to add to the cannon. But Brooks and Wilder, while making fun of some of the artifices of the genre, also are paying tribute to even the corniest elements that affected them as kids (apparently even using many of the existing props left over from James Whale’s classics). Like what Spielberg and Lucas did with Raiders of the Lost Ark, Young Frankenstein works as a spoof but it’s even more powerful as a loving tribute that stands on its own merits.
Young Frankenstein was nominated for two Oscars: Best Sound and Best Adapted Screenplay.