Everything is abby normal: Young Frankenstein (1974)
Frederick Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) is haunted by his family's past. His grandfather, Victor, was the infamous madman who brought a man back to life, only to have it terrorize a village. Because of this, Frederick wants nothing to do with the Frankenstein name, changing the pronunciation of it to further himself from that horrific event. News of his inheritance of the Frankenstein castle lures Frederick to Transylvania, though, where he realizes that he can't escape his destiny. Aided by the hunchbacked Igor (Marty Feldman) and his gorgeous lab assistant Inga (Teri Garr), and secretly egged on by the terrifying Frau Blücher (Cloris Leachman in a role based on Rebecca's Mrs. Danvers), Frederick succeeds in recreating his grandfather's experiment and brings to life his own monster (Peter Boyle). The townspeople are outraged that the scientist is trudging up the past, so they have Inspector Kemp (Kenneth Mars) investigate the matter. Just when things couldn't get more complicated, Frederick's uptight fiancee Elizabeth (Madeline Kahn) appears. Will the Monster make it to the end of the film alive? Will Frederick and Elizabeth ever get married, or will his dalliance with Inga get in the way? Just what is Frau Blücher's deal? Can anyone understand Inspector Kemp's thick accent?
Mel Brooks is a polarizing director. Actually, I'm coming to realize that a lot of comedy directors are either loved or hated, something I think comes from the subjectivity of comedy as a whole. If you watch something painfully unfunny, you're liable to dislike the guy who oversaw the thing, but if you enjoy a laugh-out-loud piece, you're inclined to think the director was pretty great. Another thing that can be a strike against someone like Mel Brooks is that their fingerprints can be found all over their works, so if you dislike one gag, you'll probably hate the next one, and the one that's on top of that, and the hundreds of others that follow. Jerry Lewis is the same way. I get it. I don't agree with the hate, but I get it.
That being said, I have found very, very few people who don't enjoy Young Frankenstein, and for that, I'm grateful. If this film had become underrated like so many true classics have, it would probably make my head explode. Because Young Frankenstein is good. Like really, really, fantastically good. Like "go see it if you haven't, you fool" good. The film is so great, in fact, that many people posit it as Mel Brooks's crowning achievement, and I think they're right. I haven't completed the director's filmography, but it's clear that Young Frankenstein stands out as a beacon of triumphant filmmaking, a jewel that any director would be proud to claim as their own. So, what makes this film so different from the rest of Brooks's oeuvre? Why is it so accessible to Brooks enthusiasts and haters alike? Why aren't you watching it right now? I can't answer that last question, but I do have a simple answer for the other two: Gene Wilder.
Gene Wilder has to be one of the weirdest, funniest actors my eyes have ever seen. And I've only watched four of his films, five if you count his bit part in Bonnie and Clyde. The man just absolutely fascinates me, and come to find out, he's a brilliant writer. I haven't gotten the chance to read his romantic fiction yet, but his 2005 autobiography Kiss Me Like a Stranger is a mesmerizing read that you'll wish was much longer. (And you'll definitely cry when you get to his relationship with Gilda Radner. The two were married when Radner passed away at the age of 42 from ovarian cancer.) It can't be ignored that Brooks's three best films are the three starring Wilder, and as far as I can tell, neither man wrote a finer script than the one they wrote together for Young Frankenstein. YF was their last film as a team. Brooks's 1968 directorial debut, The Producers, co-starred Gene and Zero Mostel, and while it didn't do well commercially at first, the Academy recognized it with a Supporting Actor nomination for Gene and a Best Original Screenplay statuette for Brooks. The actor and the director would work together again for 1974's Blazing Saddles after Gig Young's alcoholism and subsequent ill health caused Brooks to replace him with Wilder. It was during production of Blazing Saddles that Young Frankenstein came to fruition.
Watching TV one night, Wilder decided to write his own Frankenstein story, except this time he wanted it to have a happy ending. He got as far as a two-page treatment when his agent Mike Medavoy suggested Gene do something with fellow actors Peter Boyle and Marty Feldman. Why those two? They were Medavoy's new clients, naturellement. Gene told his agent he was working on something that might work and sent Medavoy four pages. Those pages were the scene at the Transylvanian train station, almost verbatim what appeared on screen and inspired by a TV comedy special he just watched Feldman star in. Medavoy told Gene that Brooks would be a great choice for the director, but Gene didn't think it would work. After all, Mel always did his own stuff, not someone else's. Wilder seemed to be correct when Brooks expressed little interest in the idea... until one day on the set of Saddles:
"Gene Wilder and I were having a cup of coffee and he said, 'I have this idea that there could be another Frankenstein.' I said 'not another — we've had the son of, the cousin of, the brother-in-law, we don't need another Frankenstein.' His idea was very simple: What if the grandson of Dr. Frankenstein wanted nothing to do with the family whatsoever? He was ashamed of those wackos. I said, 'That's funny.'"
Wilder's autobiography tells a slightly different story. Brooks was reticent, but within a day Medavoy convinced him to sign on. The director and Wilder did talk about the film over coffee, but it was at Wilder's house after Brooks was already a done deal. Regardless, the two got to writing right away. Work on Gene's next film, The Little Prince, was delayed so Wilder could get the screenplay done and Brooks found himself editing Saddles by day and writing YF by night. "Step by step, ever so cautiously, we proceeded on a dark, narrow, twisting path to the eventual screenplay in which good sense and caution are thrown out the window and madness ensues," Brooks said. The guys were giddy with the possibilities of the story, but they were anchored by one thing: showing respect to Frankenstein author Mary Shelley and director James Whale, who made the original Frankenstein and its sequel Bride of Frankenstein, his images becoming so iconic that they informed the story's legacy arguably more than Shelley herself did.
Wilder did have one stipulation about the script. "I wasn't allowed to be in it," Brooks recounted. "That was the deal... He [said], 'If you're not in it, I'll do it... You have a way of breaking the fourth wall, whether you want to or not. I just want to keep it. I don't want too much to be, you know, a wink at the audience.' ... So I wasn't in it, and he did it." That was pretty gutsy of Wilder to say, if you ask me. As much as I enjoy Brooks's unhinged acting, they made the right call here. YF is such a lovely, reverential film that its spell could easily be broken by the appearance of Brooks. The director kept his promise for the most part. He voiced the off-screen sounds of a howling wolf and a screaming cat that is hit by a dart, the latter one ad-libbed on the set.
One of YF's most famous moments is when Frederick and the Monster perform "Puttin' on the Ritz" to show the villagers and other scientists that the experiment was harmless -- if anything, Frederick is a genius, not a crazed lunatic. Surprisingly, if Brooks had had his way, audiences would never have seen this charming scene. According to the director, Wilder "wanted to do 'Puttin' on the Ritz' to show the prowess of the talent of the monster. I said no, no, no, we can't do that. It will make it silly." But Wilder persisted until finally, Brooks simply said "Okay." Stunned, Wilder asked him "'Why did you put me through this?' 'I wasn't sure if it was right, right and brilliant, or terribly wrong. I didn't know, and I wanted to see how hard you'd fight for it.'" The scene is slightly silly, yes, but it's also a delightful way to deepen the relationship between Frederick and his creation. You can see how proud the scientist is of the Monster, as well as how hard the Monster has worked. They're both just asking for approval from the crowd, and when a stage light causes a fire and freaks out the Monster, the rejection from the people who were just adoring them is doubly devastating. The ease with which that audience turns its back on them always breaks my heart just a little bit. You can watch the scene here.
YF took its characteristics from Son of Frankenstein (1939) and The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942) in addition to the aforementioned Whale films. At the outset, YF was to be made at Columbia, but the studio refused to let Brooks film it in black and white, a condition that was non-negotiable for the director. "It would be a sin to make a Frankenstein film in color," he later remarked. Fortunately, Brooks found an ally in Alan Ladd, Jr., son to actor Alan Ladd but more importantly, an executive at Twentieth Century Fox. "Laddy," as he was affectionately nicknamed, had no problem with Brooks and Wilder's vision and they struck a deal. Authenticity was essential to Brooks:
"I had a real problem. I didn't want it to be just funny or silly. I wanted Mary Shelley's basic feelings captured and the...haunting beautiful quality that James Whale got with Boris Karloff. My movies are not about jokes. They are about behavior, and behavior can be very funny."
Not only was the film in black and white, it used the old 1:85 aspect ratio and almost the same film stock as the original movies. This dedication to the right look and feel extended to the sets, some of which were the originals. Brooks found Kenneth Strickfaden, the man who created the iconic electrical equipment for the initial movies, and employed the same props. Scene transitions were straight from the 1930's (wipes, fades to black, iris outs), as were the opening credits. At the beginning of production, Brooks gauged the funniness of the comedy uniquely by buying everyone in the crew a white handkerchief and telling them that if they felt like laughing, they should put the cloth in their mouth to stifle it so it wouldn't ruin a take. "Every once in a while," he remembered, "I'd turn around and see a sea of white handkerchiefs, and I said, 'I got a hit.'"
If you ever watched YF and thought, "Man, they look like they're having a great time," you'd be right. The cast loved each other, and their director adored them all. Watching interviews with the actors and Brooks, they practically glow as they recall filming. Since so many of the cast members were experienced comedic performers, plenty of ad-libbing went on, with a lot of it making it into the final cut. Cloris Leachman improvised in the scene where Frau Blücher is telling Frederick goodnight and then continually offers him different beverages, such as brandy, "varm milk," and Ovaltine. Citing the moment as her favorite from the picture, Leachman said "It was Gene who gave me my performance, every time, because he could have said 'No thank you' and he said 'No!'" which allowed her to keep listing more drinks. The exchange can be found here.
Marty Feldman contributed quite a few pieces, such as moving Igor's hump from shoulder to shoulder until someone finally noticed it, which is recognized in the film as Frederick asking him "Didn't you used to have that on the other side?" Igor responds with "What?" "Your hump." "What hump?" Another joke from Feldman became part of Brooks's favorite scene. Dismayed over the initial lack of life from the Monster, Frederick barely eats at dinner. Inga notes that he hasn't touched his food and his childish response is to smash his hands in the food, saying "There! I touched it!" Hoping to break the tension, Igor chimes in with less-than-helpful words, an ad-lib from Feldman. To see what that was, click here. It's better you see it than read it. You can see some of the bloopers here and here -- they're fantastic. Jokingly glaring at Mel Brooks, Cloris Leachman once said that "[Gene] killed every take and nothing was done about it," and these videos prove it. I love it when Wilder breaks up Leachman and suddenly her gruff character's voice becomes her real, soft, feminine voice.
What makes YF such a well-done parody is that it does it all with a relatively light touch. It's the perfect blend of contemporary comedy and old-fashioned filmmaking. There are sex jokes, sure, but it's never in-your-face, Judd Apatow-type stuff. All of the characters are interesting and suggest depth. The scenarios taken from the other Frankenstein films are hilariously done, illustrating that real thought went into them. (TCM host Robert Osborne admitted to Drew Barrymore on The Essentials a few years ago that he can no longer take seriously the blind hermit scene in Bride of Frankenstein because YF did such a funny version of it. Indeed, watching the great Gene Hackman take such a minimal part and do such a great job is continually a delight. Reportedly, he even ad-libbed the line "I was gonna make espresso!" as the Monster leaves. I remember the first time I watched YF, by the end I was wondering "Where was Gene Hackman?" He's that unrecognizable. Check it out here.) While the film is undoubtedly side-splitting, it also maintains a sweetness. The Monster is treated as though it were Frederick's child, a child that Frederick actually wants. At the end of the film, Frederick makes a risky sacrifice to help the Monster have a better life, and the touching speech spoken by the creature stuns everyone. Their relationship is definitely not like Colin Clive screaming at Boris Karloff to get away from him. Perhaps it's because Frederick fully knew what he was getting into when he created his monster, in contrast to Victor who tried something and was terrified of the results.
It's obvious that Frederick cares deeply about his creation -- in one of my favorite scenes, he has himself locked in a room with the Monster to try to get through to him after the fiasco of "Puttin' on the Ritz." At first, Frederick starts to panic ("Get me out of here, get me the hell out of here!"). But he told Inga, Igor, and Blücher not to listen to him so he's stuck. Trying a different tactic, he approaches the Monster with a "Hello, handsome!" He lets out a string of compliments until the poor Monster bursts into tears. Holding him, Frederick tells him those mean villagers are just jealous of his beauty and the two of them will prove to those jerks just how wrong they were. I couldn't find the full thing online, but you can watch the beginning here and the middle here, which you should if only for Wilder's impeccable timing and Boyle's facial acting.
YF was successful upon its release. It did well at the box office, however I'm slightly appalled at the lack of awards love it received. At the Golden Globes, it was nominated for Best Actress - Musical or Comedy for Cloris Leachman and Best Supporting Actress - Musical or Comedy for Madeline Kahn. At the Oscars, it was nominated for Best Sound (Richard Portman and Gene Cantamessa) and Best Adapted Screenplay. That's it? Nothing for Wilder's acting? Brooks's magnificent directing? The gorgeous cinematography? The score? Freaking Best Picture? I wouldn't expect Marty Feldman to be recognized by the Academy, but surely the Golden Globes could've thrown a Best Supporting Actor nomination his way. 1974 was filled with tough competition, that's true, but still. It shows the Academy's stupid preference for drama over comedy, for sure. The only thing that somewhat consoles me is that Madeline Kahn was nominated by Oscar for Best Supporting Actress for her other Brooks film that year, Blazing Saddles. Academy Awards, hear me roar!
After the incredible success of Brooks's musical re-working of The Producers, he tried to make lightning strike twice by making Young Frankenstein into a Broadway musical too. It didn't quite have the same effect, but it did enjoy two years on the Great White Way, from 2007 to 2009. If you've never seen the film version and want to know what it's all about, or if you just want to relive some of its greatness, you can watch a compilation of clips here and here. As much as I would love to tell you every joke and show you every shot, it really is something you have to experience for yourself.
"Young Frankenstein is by far the best movie I ever made. Not the funniest — Blazing Saddles was the funniest, and hot on its heels would be The Producers. But as a writer-director, it is by far my finest." -- Mel Brooks
"Making Young Frankenstein was the happiest I'd ever been on a film. Madeline Kahn, Peter Boyle, Marty Feldman, Teri Garr, Cloris Leachman, Kenny Mars...and Mel directing. It was like taking a small breath of Heaven each day." -- Gene Wilder
This is my entry to the Movie Scientist Blogathon. Click here for the full roster!