“Ah, sweet mystery of life, at last I’ve found you!”
When Mel Brooks is on, he’s fabulous and this is one of his directorial efforts which holds up for me just as well today as it did then. Over the years, I’ve discovered that not all of his movies work for me (History of the World, Part I) and some that did then (Spaceballs and Robin Hood, Men in Tights) don’t now. But this film has a great cast, doing fabulous work on wonderful sets that ends with not just one but two romances.
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) – and that’s pronounced Fronkensteen – initially has little interest when told of his inheritance from his greatgrandfather in Transylvania. He’s a world renowned brain expert who pooh poohs the work of his famous cookoo grandfather and is due to be married to his fiancee Elizabeth (Madeline Kahn) in two weeks. But he’s persuaded to at least visit the old home castle and is supplied with laboratory assistant Inga (Terri Garr), general dogsbody Igor (Marty Feldman) and a housekeeper named Frau Blucher – whinnying! – (Cloris Leachman).
On his first night there, mysterious violin music leads him to the private library of his grandfather where Frederick discovers a neatly bound account – “How I Did It” – of the Baron’s work. After an all night cram session, Frederick decides that It. Just. Might. Work – if he can find the right body (it needs to be big) and the right brain. Fired with enthusiasm, he and Igor dig up a freshly hung corpse – filthy work only made worse when it starts raining – after which he sends Igor to the brain depositary to snatch the brain a brilliant scientist – oopsie when Igor drops it. Can Frederick correct where his grandfather went wrong and get the angry villagers to give him and the Creature (Peter Boyle) a chance?
After thinking about it and listening to the commentary by Mel Brooks, I’ve decided that Young Frankenstein works because they’re actually playing it fairly straight – which makes it all the more funny. And because the movie has emotion as well as comedy. Brooks says it can’t just be funny and nothing else – and this is why some of his later films fall flat for me. Actually the best relationship here is that between Frederick and the Creature.
Wilder, with his wild Einstein hair, is the one who initially gets you interested in the film and who carries that interest along. He can play “on the edge of insanity” better than a lot of actors as seen when he questions Igor about exactly whose brain is now in the Creature’s body. Terri Garr looks sweet and innocent, yet sexy, so Brooks can get away with all the double entendre jokes (“What knockers!”). Marty Feldman is the only one who could play Igor and he elevates the role beyond a mere gopher. I love watching to see which side his hump will be on in any one scene.
Peter Boyle does an amazing job getting me to love the Creature even though his lines are limited for most of the movie to whimpers, Hmmmmmms and Mmmmmmms. But when, after the brain transference, he does finally speak he makes an eloquent plea for those judged as “different” by society. Madeline Kahn chose the smaller role of Elizabeth but it’s only smaller in terms of the number of lines she has. When she’s onscreen, she’s dazzling. Leachman is a delight as the woman whose name makes horses whinny in fright.
And lets not forget the angry villagers with pitchforks and torches. Never underestimate villagers with pitchforks and torches. Kenneth Mars is the Inspector whose thick accent even the other villagers can’t always understand (“Footschtops!”) but who knows how to win a dart game. However I think one of the loveliest scenes in the film is that between the Creature and a blind hermit. I don’t know how many times I saw the movie before realizing who plays the hermit.
The film isn’t above silly sight gags – such as the “walk this way” arrival in Transylvania and “extra hand” after digging up the body scenes – but since they’re funny too, I agree with Brooks and Wilder in including them. But in the screenplay and choice of B&W photography, Brooks and Wilder reveal a comfortable knowledge about and genuine love of the films they’re spoofing. Honestly I’ve never watched the originals, but after seeing Young Frankenstein I feel that not only have I seen them but that someone’s gone them one better.