Young Frankenstein (1974) – Directed by Mel Brooks – Starring Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman, Peter Boyle, Teri Garr, Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman, Kenneth Mars, Richard Haydn, and Gene Hackman.
There is a quiet genius to YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, a film that takes its time to tell a story first, and be funny second. The result is a truly remarkable movie that serves as a stunning achievement by Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder, who carry their vision through from the first frame to the last.
I’d never seen all of YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN before last night, though I’d seen most of it here and there over the years. I was still surprised by how slow the movie moved; instead of being a rapid, steady run of outlandish, shocking jokes like Brooks’ brilliant Blazing Saddles, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN offers a much more subtle brand of humor. I found myself laughing less than I did at Blazing Saddle, but enjoying the film to a greater extent.
To be clear, I’m splitting hairs here – both films are brilliantly executed, and it’s to Brooks’ credit that he can make two cinematic masterpieces back-to-back, and display a different brand of humor in each. The restraint he shows here, letting the story play out and using the humor to punctuate the narrative rather than be the reason for the narrative, is as impressive as anything he’s ever done and my appreciation for Brooks as a filmmaker has taken a huge leap.
Gene Wilder is every bit Brooks’ equal. Comedians seem to have a much more temporary shelf life than dramatic actors; major serious actors of the ’70s – guys like Hoffman, DeNiro, Eastwood, Nicholson, Pacino, Hackman – have never faded from the public consciousness, and have never had to move to TV to ply their trade but comedians like Gene Wilder, Dan Ackroyd, and even the great Steve Martin have somehow been lost in the wash. The serious actors continually get to make their kind of movie, but when was the last time Ackroyd and Martin made THEIR kind of movie and had it reach a massive audience? Part of this is the way we, as a cinematic nation, think of comedians, and part of it is due to the nation’s shifting sense of humor. Steve Martin has adapted, carving out a career making horrible movies for people outside his core audience, but comedians simply don’t last the way dramatic actors last, and the result is that it’s extremely hard for comedians to find their rightful place in the public consciousness. Look at Will Ferrell; for a few years there, he was the funniest dude in America. Every film he dropped seemed to be a guaranteed smash, and then before you know it he’s making crap like Semi-Pro and Land of the Lost and like a cup of tea in winter, he’s almost instantly lukewarm instead of red hot.
It happens to all comedians, so it behooves us to not forget when they were great. Gene Wilder made seven or eight great movies during his run, and nowhere is he better than in YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN.
Funnier? Yes. Better? No.
Wilder plays Frederick Frankenstein, the grandson of Victor Frankenstein. Frederick is an American professor of medicine, trying to outrun the impossible: his family legacy. Insisting that his name is Fraunk-en-STEEN, he becomes exasperated by one student’s insistence on bringing up the past. Wilder plays Frankenstein with the kind of controlled professionalism that you know, even before it comes out, that there’s a simmering anger beneath that cool exterior. It’s as if he has to stay in control and emotionless in all aspects of his life, or risk his anger coming out over Victor’s actions. At the end of the lecture, an old man comes to him and informs him that he has inherited the family estate in Transylvania.
Victor heads to Europe, leaving his fiance (Madeline Kahn) behind. At the Transylvania train depot, he’s greeted by the estate’s servant Igor (Marty Feldman). Igor is perplexed by Frederick’s insistence on being called Fraunk-en-STEEN, but then insists his name is Eye-gor, not Ee-gor. It’s a clever bit because you’re unsure whether he’s doing as a reaction or because that’s actually his name. When Frankenstein tries to politely suggest that since he’s a famous surgeon, he might be able to do something about the hump on Igor’s back, Igor asks him, “What hump?” Is he being serious or sarcastic? The joy in both instances is that they work both ways because they do what they need to do by establishing that Igor might be the manservant but he’s not a simple lackey.
Frederick also meets his new female assistant Inga (Teri Garr) and the housekeeper Frau Blücher (Cloris Leachman). Blücher doesn’t have a lot to do in the movie (they use her for a few gags, including one with horses rearing up every time they hear her name), and Inga’s job is primarily to stand around, ask questions, and be gorgeous. Garr handles all three splendidly. (Honestly, between YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN and Star Trek’s “Assignment: Earth,” I think I’ve developed a late-’60s, early-’70s crush on her. She’s not just funny, but gorgeous, too.) Still, both characters help to take a little weight off of Wilder’s shoulders because this movie is placed squarely on his back. If he’s not good, the movie can’t be good.
Wilder’s fantastic, and so is the movie. What I love about his performance is how well he plays off every single other actor in the film. Often, he allows the other actors to get the laugh while he plays the straight man, and because of this he can play certain scenes completely straight and they end up being hilarious.
Take his relationship with Peter Boyle, who plays the Creature. After becoming enthralled with Victor’s work and building his own creature, Frederick is locked in the room with the sleeping Creature. When the Creature awakens, Frederick is desperate to get out, but since he ordered the others to not let him out, no matter what, they refuse to open the door. Desperate, Frederick turns on the confused, angry creature with a loud, “Hello, handsome!” The Creature is taken aback by this and Frankenstein continues to sweet talk him, eventually sitting down with him and caressing his head like he was a small child. “This is a nice boy,” he says, and you can see Frankenstein convincing himself as much as he’s convincing the Creature. “This is a good boy. This is a mother’s angel. And I want the world to know once and for all, and without any shame, that we love him. I’m going to teach you. I’m going to show you how to walk, how to speak, how to move, how to think. Together, you and I are going to make the greatest single contribution to science since the creation of fire.”
Sometimes I like to point to a given year’s Academy Award nominees to point out how stupid awards are, and while I can’t do that this time around (the 1975 noms for Best Actor were Art Carney for Harry and Tonto, Jack Nicholson for Chinatown, Dustin Hoffman for Lenny, Al Pacino for The Godfather, Part II, and Albert Finny for Murder on the Orient Express), I feel very comfortable saying that Wilder’s performance is as good as any of them.
From outside the room, Inga asks, “Fraunk-en-STEEN! Are you all right?” and when Frederick responds, we see he has completely embraced the familial legacy. “My name,” he declares loudly, “is FRANKENSTEIN!”
Infused with a new purpose, Frankenstein proves true to his word and when we next see him and the Creature, they’re performing a theatre show for the local elite. Frankenstein has trained the Creature to do a few tricks for the locals, including a song-and-dance number. The performance of Wilder and Boyle doing “Puttin’ on the Ritz” as Frankenstein and his Creature is one of the funniest scenes in movie history. Frankenstein does most of the singing and most of the dancing, letting the Creature handle the chorus, and when Boyle bellows out, “Puttin’ on the Ritz!” in the Creature’s slurred voice … as the saying goes, if you don’t find that funny, you don’t know funny.
The rest of the movie plays out the familiar plot – the Creature is captured, the Creature escapes, the Creature makes it with Frankenstein’s fiance, Frankenstein lures the Creature back by playing the violin, transfers part of his brain into the Creature, which stabilizes his brain and allows the pitch-wielding townsfolk to accept him as one of their own, and then he marries Madeline Kahn and Frankenstein marries Teri Garr. The film never loses steam and never sacrifices its narrative for a cheap laugh.
YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN is a brilliant, brilliant movie.