1970s, 4/4, Comedy, Mel Brooks, Review

Young Frankenstein

Young Frankenstein (1974) - IMDb

#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.

Rating: 4/4

15 thoughts on “Young Frankenstein”

  1. This is peak Brooks for me. One of my favorite comedies, one of the best comedies. Great cast, and I’m a fan of Wilder in just about anything he did. Does have a few moments of inspired wackiness too (Putting on the Ritz). I won’t say it helps exactly, but no Mel Brooks in the cast is a bonus, he tended to mug and play things too broadly.

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      1. That’s odd, seems like it might cause some hard feelings, depending on the reasons for Wilder making that demand. Do you know why? He didn’t like Brooks’ acting either maybe?

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      2. Yeah, something about how Brooks grabs attention and mugs. It’s turn about is fair play, though.

        Brooks refused to cast Wilder in The Twelve Chairs in the Frank Langella role because the role was described as handsome and Wilder was not…as handsome as Langella.

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  2. It’s a great film. But this one illustrates a persistent flaw in Brooks’ comedy that bothers me: the fear that the audience won’t “get it.”

    Scene in question is after Frankenstein’s first failure, when he says they should remain “calm, cool and collected” and then immediately starts strangling the Monster.

    Marty Feldman turns to the camera and says “Calm, cool and collected” with the sort of “Scientists, huh?” air. It’s like “Did you get the joke? He said one thing and did the opposite!”

    Also, wasn’t Brooks the father of the little girl? It has been a while since I’ve seen it…

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    1. They were willing to do anything for a joke, including fourth wall breaking stuff, a variety that Brooks puts in pretty frequently like cameras hitting things or breaking through literal walls. Not everything is 100% all the time, and I agree that that moment isn’t exactly the film’s strongest.

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  3. I prefer Blazing Saddles just a bit more. But you could call this: Comic Timing – The Movie. Everyone is just hitting their lines and roles and performances just perfectly. (Maybe with the exception of ol’ Zeppelin Lungs Gene Hackman)

    This was one of those movies where the cast just hated having to quit filming, everyone was clearly having a lot of fun and it shows.

    This is another one full of very quotable lines, on the rare occasion we have to use candles, the ‘put the candle back’ line gets used a lot in my circle of friends.

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    1. Comedy is SO subjective and tends to age badly in general that comedies that just end up as a string of jokes are just asking for limited shelf lives and appeal. Comedies that embrace storytelling and cinema while being funny offer a whole lot more.

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