The grandson of Dr. Victor Von Frankenstein fulfills his family’s destiny by bringing life into a dead monster.
Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder were nominated for an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay in 1975. Gene S. Cantamessa and Richard Portman were also nominated for Best Sound.
“I cut my finger. That’s tragedy. A man walks into an open sewer and dies. That’s comedy.” – Mel Brooks.
And what better way to exemplify Mr. Brooks’ trademark ability to make grand comedy out of the hopelessly tragic? While “Young Frankenstein” is less a satire of Mary Shelley’s desperately morbid novel and more a parody of James Whale’s 1931 horror epic, Mr. Brooks and Mr. Wilder take elaborate pleasure in ridiculing the psychological traumas inflicting the young scientist and his monstrous creation.
Brooks and Wilder both had an impressive year back in 1974. After the phenomenal success of “Blazing Saddles” in February, the director and actor closed the year out with “Young Frankenstein”, which Wilder had co-written. In fact, the reason for this proximity is that Brooks respected Wilder’s request to do this film once they were done with “Saddles”.
Even though most of today’s younger audiences are repelled by black and white cinematography, “Young Frankenstein” has survived as a popular and beloved model of quotable comedies for over three decades. Compared to the previous works of Mel Brooks, it is somewhat tamer but not less hysterical. For that reason, it exists as a family friendly adventure suitable for young children.
For anyone who has not seen it: Wilder plays Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (“That’s Frankenschteen”), grandson of the notorious Dr. Victor Von Frankenstein. Teri Garr plays his beautiful assistant Inga with such a convincing German accent that Brooks practically hired her on the spot once he heard her delivery. Passing on the role of Inga so she could instead play the part of Elizabeth, Freddie’s fiancČe, is the Late Great Madeline Kahn.
Like all of her collaborations with Brooks, Miss Kahn plunges the picture to an even deeper level of absurdist comedy. Notice that while all of the other actors stay rooted in their historic personas, Kahn arrives in Transylvania with a contemporary, almost anachronistic appearance. While Wilder’s mad doctor speaks with stentorian command and Garr holds onto her German dialect like a pair of tight-fitting lederhosen, Kahn’s Elizabeth can be heard from the bedroom belting out “When the Saints Go Marching In” as she brushes her hair with glorious abandon.
While all of these performers gain the audience’s attention as comic marvels in this respective places, it would be a crime to forget two more Late and Greats: Marty Feldman as the Humpback Igor, and Peter Boyle as the Monster. Though the story centers on the resurrection of Boyle’s monosyllabic creature, it is Feldman who typically wins the most laughs from the viewer. For virtually every spoken line in the movie, Feldman’s Igor is there to volley a comedic quip with unstoppable timing.
Igor: “You know, I’ll never forget my old dad. When these things would happen to him . . . the things he’d say to me.”
Igor: “What the hell are you doing in the bathroom day and night? Why don’t you get out of there and give someone else a chance?”
This is one of those movies where every performer is at the best of their abilities. Before she was dancing with the stars, Cloris Leachman was scaring the horses as Frau Blucher, Victor’s former girlfriend. By the way, that’s a myth that her name is a type of German glue. I looked it up.
But everyone who loves this movie seems to forget one actor who deserves honorable recognition. No, I’m not talking about Gene Hackman. Hackman’s portrayal of the Blind Man, formerly uncredited when the picture was originally released, is hilarious, no mistake. But nearly every fan of the movie knows that is Lex Luthor pouring soup onto Boyle’s lap. And if you didn’t, well, now you know.
I am talking about Kenneth Mars and his role of Inspector Kemp, arriving on the scene with a mechanical arm and incoherent dialect. It is hard to watch Mars deliver his indiscernible brogue without remembering his Franz Liebkind in Brooks’ first feature, “The Producers”. The scene where he and the young doctor converse in a game of competitive darts makes me laugh out loud every time. Brooks himself makes the off-camera noise of a cat being struck by a misfired dart.
My favorite appearance of Brooks in this movie, however, is the gargoyle, which bears his resemblance in the castle basement. Additionally, the director provides the nostalgic voice of the original mad scientist when Frederick discovers the laboratory for the first time.
Speaking of which, most of the lab equipment used for the set design was the same machinery from the original film. During preproduction, Brooks contacted special effects legend Ken Strickfaden, who just happened to be storing the equipment in his garage in Los Angeles. Honoring a commitment that Universal had denied him back in 1931, Brooks gave Strickfaden screen credit for letting him rent the historic lab gear.
Even though the studios fought hard for color, Brooks threatened to walk off the picture unless it was filmed in black and white to preserve the feel of Universal horror classics. Therefore, green make-up was applied to Boyle’s complexion to enhance his visceral features. The same tactic was used on Boris Karloff in the original feature.