#1 in my ranking of Mel Brooks’ filmography.
Gene Wilder shared the idea for this film with Mel Brooks while they were making Blazing Saddles together. Brooks loved the idea of the grandson of the famous Victor Frankenstein wanting nothing to do with the family of kooks he came from finding his way into the family business, and a comedy classic was born. A film that feels visually like it could fit in with the classic Universal monster movies (though made by Fox a few decades after the height of that era), Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein is his most complete film and the most assured visually he ever made.
Frederick Frankenstein (Wilder) is a professor of neurology at a university, doing his best to distance himself from the reputation of his grandfather, the famed Victor Frankenstein who tried to reanimate dead tissue in Transylvania. He has gone so far as to change the pronunciation of his name, becoming animated when his student uses the popular pronunciation. His past comes to haunt him when his grandfather dies and leaves the castle in the old country to him. Frederick goes to collect his inheritance, meeting the grandson of Igor, also named Igor (Marty Feldman), and his lab assistant Inga (Teri Garr). At the castle is Frau Blucher (neigh…Cloris Leachman), the caretaker of the castle, and the pieces are set for Frederick to discover his place as a Frankenstein.
In terms of the comedy, Wilder plays the straight man for the first bulk of the film. The comedy comes from those reacting to things he’s doing, like the test subject in his class who reacts amusingly to the experiment Frederick puts him through with funny faces, or the identical arguments Frederick overhears on the trains in English and German. The center of the comedy of the film is Marty Feldman, though. He gets the best lines, the best bits, and the funniest moments. His insistence of mispronouncing Frederick’s first name comes in at perfect moments. His unique look (brought upon by a botched surgery in his youth that bulged out his eyes) is used perfectly along with his knowing sense of self-awareness, especially around his hump. There’s a deleted bit from later in the movie where Igor does not have a hump at all, and when he’s asked about it, he replies with indignation, “Never with tails.” Most of the film’s purely comedic bits come from him, and he feels like an endless fount of laughs. The other main source of hilarity is Kenneth Mars as Inspector Kemp, a policeman in full military dress, a wooden arm that he knocks around with his real arm, an eyepatch, and a monocle over the eyepatch, playing Kemp in the most absurdly restrained manner possible, well as restrained as a man can be with a wooden arm that needs to be knocked around.
Everyone else are pretty much just heightened versions of what you might find in a Universal horror picture from the 30s, with Wilder becoming crazed as he gets further into his experiments. Garr plays Inga as an innocent, and a lot of the humor around her comes from the sexualized contrast of what people may want from her and how she sees the world (like the roll in the hay comment). Cloris Leachman does not get enough screentime, but her moments are great as well, like carrying the candles without lighting them, her asking Frederick if he wants Ovaltine, or her cries that Victor was her boyfriend. I should also note Madeleine Kahn as Elizabeth, Frederick’s fiancée. She disappears for most of the movie, showing up late to get kidnapped with a great twist that takes the situation to a place the originals could never get close to.
Anyway, Frederick finds his grandfather’s secret notes and decides to recreate the experiment. Claiming a recently deceased body of unusual size, and sending Igor to get the brain of a great man (accidentally breaking it and claiming an abnormal brain instead), they animate the dead thing, but, of course, it does not go right for the abnormal brain. The rest of the movie is trying to restrain and rehabilitate the monster, culminating in the fantastic “Puttin’ on the Ritz” number. Facing down a mob during a procedure that gives the monster some speech while taking something from Frederick at the same time, all ends well.
Leaning much more in the storytelling trend of The Producers rather than fully embracing the anarchy of the ending of Blazing Saddles, Brooks and Wilder found a way to tell what is essentially a parody of Universal horror films and they follow through on that. In a similar way that Blazing Saddles was just a western in silly dress (very silly as its ending shows), that’s what Young Frankenstein is for Universal monster movies (without going into pure anarchy). The biggest thing, for me, though is that I just find Young Frankenstein more uniformly funny, and that has a whole lot to do with Marty Feldman. He really is the comedic center of the film, and so many laughs are for him.
There’s really not a whole lot else to say other than to point to individual moments that make me laugh. It’s not a deep film by any means, but the cinematography by Gerald Hirschfield evokes the era its parodying rather perfectly and the music by John Morris does similar things as well. It’s a rather perfect little comedy that understands the genre its parodying rather perfectly, so it can lean into conventions knowingly and able to undermine them for comedic purposes intelligently and effectively.