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Friday Film Review

Friday Film Review: Young Frankenstein

Friday Film Review: Young Frankenstein

imagesYoung Frankenstein (1974)
Genre: Comedy Spoof
Grade: B+

“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.

~Jayne

Friday Film Review: Victor / Victoria

Friday Film Review: Victor / Victoria

Victor / VictoriaVictor/Victoria (1982)

Genre: Romantic Comedy/Musical

Grade: B+

Victor/Victoria has long been a favorite of mine for many reasons. It’s got a cast crammed with fantastic actors who inhabit their roles like a second skin, it’s funny, it’s poignant and it’s got Julie Andrews’ voice and Henry Mancini’s music all through it. The movie also has a favorite director of mine at the helm in Blake Edwards – who was also Andrews’ husband though he accorded equal care to all the cast and crew. It also features transvestitism and an openly gay character in a lead role in a major Hollywood film in 1982.

Based on the German movie “Viktor und Viktoria,” it’s the early 1930s in Paris and singer Victoria Grant (Julie Andrews) can’t get a job to save her life. Her audition for a nightclub job shows that the owner wants something “different” instead of just a good female singer. Carole “Toddy” Todd (Robert Preston) sees and hears her but soon has his own troubles when a tussle with scorned lover Richard (Malcolm Jamieson) causes a melee that wrecks the nightclub and gets Toddy fired. Victoria and Toddy hilariously cross paths in a shabby restaurant then escape into the rainy night. Victoria’s shrunken clothes and need to borrow some of Richard’s inspire Toddy with the perfect plan to launch her new career and make them both rich.

Toddy transforms Victoria into “Victor,” a gay, Polish Count and then sells the persona and “his” talent to agent/nightclub owner Andre Cassell (John Rhys-Davies). Victor makes a stunning debut to Paris and to Chicago nightclub owner King Marchand (James Garner), his moll Norma (Lesley-Ann Warren) and bodyguard Squash (Alex Karras) who are in the audience. King is slightly skeptical but goes along with things until he begins to have feelings for Victor and decides to uncover the truth.

Ridding himself of Norma – who proves the adage “hell hath no fury” – he and Victoria start a relationship – which in its first misunderstood night causes Squash to believe King is gay and allows the bodyguard to finally come out, himself. But their cross-purpose feelings about women/men and traditional roles plus Norma’s revenge plus the first nightclub owner’s suspicions about the impersonation being perpetrated by Victoria might end up bringing down the curtain on Paris’s hottest act in ages.

The design of the opening credits immediately gets me in an Art Deco mood which is furthered by the wonderful sets and costumes built for the film. It was all filmed on two sound stages which gives the movie a lovely, closed, slightly otherworldly feel. I think this helps keep the illusion of the gender switch going. Edwards was the writer as well as the director and the script is witty and warm. He keeps the action going, easily slipping from a mix of mayhem to quiet moments of thoughtfulness. Edwards also includes some of his trademark scenes in snow, characters hiding in closets, at least one character suffering from damaged fingers as well as a “musical rooms” mix up.

I love the subtle humor of one scene in particular where a starving Victoria watches through a window as a fat man stuffs an eclair into his mouth. The next shot is in reverse, looking out from the restaurant, and it’s not until a crowd begins to gather and someone helps her up that we realize she’s fainted. A later scene wherein Victoria plans to dump an enormous cockroach into her salad and thus avoid paying for two entrees for herself and Toddy, goes horribly awry when the offending insect scampers away while she argues with the manager only to have it crawl up another woman’s leg sending her – and the entire restaurant – into screaming, stampeding fits – all witnessed from outside, across the street, looking in through the plate glass windows. We can see all the mounting, spreading hysteria without Edwards having to cut at all.

That scene also introduces one of my favorite minor characters of the movie – a waiter played by veteran English actor Graham Stark who has a deadpan, satirical delivery of his lines that has me in stitches. His facial expressions are also priceless and get repeated in two more scenes where he crosses paths with Victoria as he attempts to figure out why she looks so familiar and remember how he knows her. One word, yelled during the second mass fight scene of the movie, announces that he’s made the connection.

Karras and Warren are great in their secondary roles. He’s a gentle, teddy bear – much like he was as Mongo – who surprises his boss with the knowledge that gay men don’t all act alike. She’s a tough, hard eyed woman who’s obviously come up from very little and who isn’t about to lose her meal ticket to “some Polish fairy.” Watch for how she eats her bonbons and discards the rejects. She also gets to show off her singing and dancing skills in a sexpot number that would have her “Cinderella” character fainting dead away. John Rhys-Davies looks pretty good and does a workmanlike job but doesn’t have the lines or flashy character that the others do.

Julie Andrews is lovely here and her voice is still in top form. She and Garner still have great chemistry together as well as some dialogue that allows them to discuss the freedoms and limitations that gender demanded and forced on men and women then. Garner really helps sell the premise of the film, that to the general public, Victoria is a man, by his reactions to her. At her initial show, he’s impressed with her singing then stunned at the reveal after which he’s confused at his reaction to “Victor.” Once he knows the truth, we can see his admiration for her performance at Chez Lui. King Marchand truly does get his views on his world turned upside down by the events in Paris. But it’s Robert Preston who truly steals my heart here. One of the highlights of the film for me is the relationship that Toddy and Victoria have. At one point a still masquerading Victoria tells King that she and Toddy love each other and I feel that they do. Not in a stereotypical “Gay Best Friend” way but as two people who deeply care about each other. He also brings down the house with his (one take) version of, and witty comments about, a musical number done earlier by Victoria.

If the film has a weakness, it’s in the last act which drags on a bit with a montage of King and Victor in/at various locals and events. While this does show that manly man King was in love enough with Victoria that he was willing to allow the public to think him gay in order to let Victoria maintain her lucrative job, a few seconds cut here or there would have sped things along. There’s also a reprise of Victoria singing the end of the same number (which was long enough the first time) that we’ve already seen before.

Still it’s a musical for people who don’t like traditional musicals where characters suddenly burst into song while speaking. Here the songs are supposed to be part of stage performances which makes more real life sense. The costumes and sets are top notch, the acting is universally good and the feeling I’m left with is warm and affectionate towards all. B+

~Jayne