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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.


Friday Film Review: Blazing Saddles

Friday Film Review: Blazing Saddles

Blazing Saddles (1974)
Genre: Comedy/Spoof
Grade: A-

“He rode a blazing saddle, he wore a shining star.
His job to offer battle to bad men near and far.
He conquered fear and he conquered hate.
He turned dark night into day.
He made his blazing saddle a torch to light the way.”

It’s been a while since I’ve reviewed a bromance so here goes with one of the funniest movies from Mel Brooks. Not only is it an homage/spoof of the great Western classics but it’s also a social commentary on race relations of the time. A comedy with layers. The first time I saw it was in its 1975 summer re release in theaters and, to be honest, most of it went right over my head. I still thought it was funny then but with age and movie watching experience, I can understand a bit better what Mel Brooks was trying to do with it.

Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman), the crooked Assistant to the crooked Territorial Governor William Lepetomane (Mel Brooks), wants some land to sell to the railroad. The only problem is it’s currently owned by the citizens of the peaceful town of Rock Ridge (all with the last name of Johnson). He schemes to send his hired thug Taggert (Slim Pickens) and his band on a No 6 – where they go tearing into town awhooping and ahollering and ashooting everything. When this fails to send the townsfolk fleeing, he maneuvers the Gov into appointing a black sheriff, Bart (Cleavon Little), to replace the one Taggert and the boys shot. But along with his deputy, Jim the Waco Kid (Gene Wilder), Bart settles into town and begins to slowly win the town over. Undeterred, Lamarr then sends Mongo – who is more of a what rather than a who – against the town but Bart soon tames Mongo thus earning his devotion. Well if the Beast didn’t work, maybe Beauty in the form of Lili Von Shtupp (Madeline Kahn) will be able to bring Bart to his knees. Bart, however, turns the tables on Lili after a night of hot lovin’. But Hedley is supremely greedy and keeps trying. Can the townspeople pull together, overcome their prejudices, give Bart the 24 hours he asks for to devise a brilliant plan to save the town – after all, they’d give it to Randolph Scott – and prevail?

The poster for the movie has the line “Never give a saga an even break” and this one doesn’t. Is it vulgar? Does it offend most ethnic/social/whatever groups? “You bet your ass!” The film gleefully skewers a lot about the Western genre – the cavalry escapes but little else. The references to bits and pieces of famous westerns come thick and fast but the film is still funny even if you don’t catch all this. It’s also chock full of anachronisms including Cole Porter songs, Count Basie and his Orchestra, Boris the medieval executioner, Hedy Lamarr jokes, mentions of Academy Award nominations, German storm troopers and a tollbooth with flashing electrical lights. It was un PC before PC even existed. It goes for shameless laughs and usually succeeds including more than once when the actors break the “fourth wall” to address the audience directly plus the ending which shows that the whole thing is just a movie. The not-to-be-missed campfire scene is movie making history.

Blazing Saddles is also a powerful commentary on race. Sort of like the original Star Trek of a few years prior, it uses a different setting – in this case the historic west of a hundred years ago instead of the far distant SF future – to shine a spotlight on current social situations. I think most people will already know that there are offensive racial slurs used in the film but they are words which would have been commonly used in the historic time period and I think Brooks deliberately employs them to make a point. Plus, it’s the white characters – the common clay of the new west, you know … morons – who are portrayed as racist while every other POC – including the Indians/NA – isn’t. Could the film be remade today? I have my doubts.

But beyond all this, the film is LOL funny. Bart is the dazzling urbanite in the sophisticated Gucci ensemble. Jim has “probably killed more men than Cecille B DeMille.” Hedley Lamarr uses his tongue “prettier than a $20 whore.” Mongo is “only pawn in game of life.” Lili the “Teutonic Titwillow” flatly announces that “everything below the waist is kaput.” Honestly I’ve never gotten tired of rewatching the entire film and probably never will. It’s that great. Sure the plot is off the rails – so to speak – from almost the beginning and the ending certainly takes it beyond even that. But the writing is brilliant, the casting is fabulous and it’s totally quotable. And those elements are what helps make a movie for me.