Review: Young Frankenstein
Gene Wilder plays lecturer Dr. Frederick Frankstein (pronounced Frahn-ken-steen), who is embarrassed by his family name and legacy, trying his best to distance himself. However, after inheriting his grandfather’s castle in Transylvania, and coming across his grandfathers’ laboratory equipment and notes, Frederick becomes obsessed with bringing to life dead tissue. Enter dim hunchback assistant Igor (Marty Feldman), who along with Frederick steals a dead body. Igor is also tasked with finding a suitable brain, but when he accidentally breaks it, he’s forced to go with a brain marked ‘Abnormal’. And so it begins. Teri Garr plays Frederick’s other assistant, the beautiful Inga. Cloris Leachman is Frau Blucher, the suspicious-looking housekeeper. Peter Boyle plays the ultimate creation of Frederick’s, whilst Kenneth Mars plays an outrageously Teutonic, mechanically-armed police inspector, Madeline Kahn plays Frederick’s beloved, and Gene Hackman turns up as a lonely blind man craving companionship. Listen out for the unmistakable voice of Brainy Smurf, AKA Danny Goldman playing a particularly smarmy medical student early on.
Personally I’m more partial to the later “History of the World- Part 1” and “Spaceballs”, but there’s no denying that this 1974 affectionate spoof of James Whale’s Mary Shelley adaptations for Universal, is Mel Brooks’ finest effort from a purely cinematic point of view. I think that is partly because Brooks and co-writer Gene Wilder stick reasonably close to the source material (though that source material is more the Universal horror films, rather than Mary Shelley), so there’s a real plot here. For once, Brooks has paid some attention to story and character. This one’s not just a collection of gags, it’s actually been made with love and affection for “Frankenstein” and “Bride of Frankenstein”, with a fair bit of the plot of “Son of Frankenstein” thrown in as well. Brooks even managed to get his hands on the lab equipment props Ken Strickfaden came up with for the originals, and unlike those films Brooks even gave Strickfaden on-screen recognition.
Visually it’s Brooks’ best film, with stunning B&W photography by Gerald Hirschfeld (“The Incident”), with some truly excellent use of shadow throughout. Brooks has also brought together an excellent cast, with the late Gene Wilder leading the way as the rather touchy Frederick Frankenstein. Thankfully not quite as shrill and hysterical as his work in “The Producers”, Wilder gets it right here. His insane performance is perfectly modulated, getting hysterical at all the right moments and allowing for some subtlety. There’s one particularly hilarious bit early on where he works himself up in a rant out of frustration…and accidentally stabs his leg with a scalpel, and tries to act like it’s nothing. I think several of the other cast members are even more impressive, however especially Cloris Leachman, Teri Garr, Gene Hackman, and most of all Peter Boyle. Cloris Leachman seemed to have a knack for physically unflattering characters in Mel Brooks movies (especially Mme. DeFarge in “History of the World Part 1”) and her horse-frightening Frau Blucher is a scream. She’s just so incredibly strange that you can’t help but laugh, especially her proclaiming ‘He vas my boyfriend!’, which never fails to crack me up. She also apparently improvised one of my favourite scenes where she offers Frankenstein some ‘varm milk’ or ‘Ovaltine’. Thankless has never been funnier in my opinion than with Leachman’s hideous Frau Blucher. Teri Garr never topped her work in this as bubble-headed assistant Inga. She and her accent are delightfully ditsy. As for the uncredited Gene Hackman, he has one scene lampooning the blind man sequence from “Bride of Frankenstein”. It’s one of the best and funniest scenes in the film, full of really stupid (and stupidly funny) comic accidents, through which Hackman plays the pitiable blind man as a well-meaning, lonely old man who has finally found a friend. His sweet sincerity is somehow hilarious. I love Boris Karloff as an actor, but Peter Boyle actually manages to do more with the role of the Monster here where he’s both sweetly sincere and pitiable, but also riotously funny. He’s on hand for the film’s three funniest scenes; The aforementioned blind man sequence, the hilarious bit where he see-saws a little girl through the air and back safely into her bed, and most uproariously, the ‘Puttin’ on the Ritz’ number. Even just thinking about the latter has me in stitches, it’s so stupidly, brilliantly funny. If you don’t find it funny, I think you might just be a corpse, as for me it’s one of the cinema’s funniest scenes. The combination of charming delight on the monster’s face and his inability to enunciate properly is just champagne comedy. The climax is pure Brooks, with Boyle going for genuine pathos with a genuine, heartfelt plea, followed by Kenneth Mars (very funny parodying Lionel Atwill in “Son of Frankenstein” as the twitchy-eyed, thick-accented Inspector) losing his mechanical arm. There’s no low point that Mel Brooks won’t rise up to. Of all of his films, this might have the highest amount of terrible (and terribly funny) jokes. It’s very, very low humour in the very, very best way possible, with a shamelessly mugging Marty Feldman probably getting the largest share of the lower hanging comedic fruit. And believe me, it’s a compliment because it’s exactly what Brooks is aiming for.
Although not my favourite Mel Brooks film, this is probably his most well-made film, and has plenty of big laughs throughout. It looks terrific, too.