Sunday, June 1, 2008

"Alive! It's alive! It's alive!"

Young Frankenstein | dir. Mel Brooks | 1974

Ever since I was very young, I had very little interest in Frankenstein. To me, the monster was simply a rectangular-faced man who walked around, grunted, and occasionally strangled people who were in his way. I guess I just thought that since he was made up of bunch of different body parts from other bodies, he was just sort of weird. Because of my lack of fascination in the creature, I never read the Mary Shelley novel or watched any of the Frankenstein movies that Hollywood seems to have been making since the beginning of time. I was so ignorant from the world of Frankenstein that it was just recently that I learned that Frankenstein was the name of the creator of the monster, not the monster itself.

Watching Young Frankenstein, Mel Brooks' original and inspired parody of the old tale that everyone seems to know with a childhood glee, is like watching an inside joke that I cannot quite comprehend. But I am more than willing to learn and understand. There are several references to the origin of things here and there, and Brooks tries to make everything as accessible for as possible. For the most part, I enjoyed it. Brooks' is able to maintain a certain mysterious, frightening suspense in the midst of comedy, which can some time fail in a universe of predictable eccentricities and chaos.

The premise itself is interesting: Why not tell a story about the grandson of Victor Frankenstein, who thinks his grandfather is a complete lunatic, and make him follow his his grandfather's footsteps?

The film centers around the grandson, Frederick Frankenstein, a flamboyant professor at a medical school who denies his grandfather's work so much that he demands his students pronounce his famous surname as "Fronkensteen." When bestowed with his grandfather's will to take over his grandfather's old estate, he reluctantly agrees and travels to Transylvania (isn't that Dracula's home, not Frankenstein's?) on a train, leaving his ridiculous but distant fiancée, Elizabeth (Madeline Kahn) behind.

At the eerie Transylvania train station, Frederick meets his servant, Igor (Marty Feldman), a hunchback dressed in a black robe with freakishly bulging eyes, whose hump occasionally switches from left to right. But like a true eccentric, Igor seems to deny that he is a hunchback when Frederick offers to fix his back for him. When Frederick arrives at Igor's carriage, he finds the beautiful but rather clueless Inga (Teri Garr) rolling sensually in the hay with her shimmering blond hair; she will be Frederick's assistant, although the audience doubts that she will be able to do anything much other than be a possible object for desire. Behold, another eccentric character!

Victor Frankenstein's estate is a castle-like mansion, which silently sits on top of a hill and looks hauntingly frightening whenever lightning strikes on a dark and stormy night. Inside, Frederick meets the stern maid with a despicably threatening mole, Frau Blücher (Cloris Leachman), who once knew Frederick's grandfather and may still be very much in love with him.

As reluctant as Frederick might be, nothing can stand in the way of destiny. In the middle of the night, he hears violin music that leads to his grandfather's laboratory. Frederick's journey to his grandfather's laboratory is genuinely creepy and one of the most suspenseful moments of this wild parody. There is a menacing glee is Brooks' direction as he tries to blend the seriously thrilling moments of the Frankenstein genre with some of his own lighthearted comedy.

When he finds and reads a book in the laboratory that was written by his late grandfather, Frederick becomes inspired to carry out his grandfather's experiments. I would have liked a better explanation for how Frederick is so quickly interested in something he spent most of his life trying to push away, but it is much better to go with the flow sometimes. Corpse, brain, and lab ready, Frederick embarks upon a journey that has haunted him for much too long. This is destiny's calling and there is no other choice but for him to succeed. And he has to succeed because if he does not, there would be no movie.

Due to an unfortunate accident by Igor, the Monster (Peter Boyle) is inserted with an abnormal brain rather than the brain of the scientist-saint Frederick wanted to put in the seven-feet corpse. The Monster turns out to be the stereotypical Monster that the world acknowledges--rectangular-faced, grunting, and occasionally strangles people who are in his way. Transylvania is on the edge as they become suspicious of this new Frankenstein's activities and their thoughts are often represented by an eccentric (again) police officer with a weird arm (Kenneth Mars).

So chaos ensues. Lives are threatened. Some funny lines are delivered. I think you can imagine the rest.

But there are several amusing things in-between, including an adorable tap dancing and singing performance--accompanied by "Putting on the Ritz"--is a joy to watch, mainly because of Wilder's enthusiastic presence. There is also a funny scene in the Monster's temporary escape where he stumbles upon a blind man (Gene Hackman) who lives in a small cottage and just wants a friend.

My impression of Young Frankenstein is not purely enthusiastic, though. The first thirty minutes of the film does not include many successful attempts at humor. The opening credits have the sparkling brilliance of a possible horror classic, but the opening jokes do not have the sparkling brilliance of a possible comedy classic. There were plenty of moments in the beginning where I realized what was supposed to be funny was not very funny to me.

In this film's universe, recycled body parts can come alive again, but unfortunately, recycled jokes cannot. Pronouncing "Frankenstein" as "Fronkensteen" is amusing the first time Wilder said it, but it is definitely not funny afterwards. There are also several references to a certain male organ of copulation, none of which that are very funny. I understand that silliness is expected, but constant, unfunny repetitions are never welcomed.

Thankfully, the film is saved by a tremendously talented cast who can fill the shoes of these tremendously eccentric characters. Wilder is a likable actor and he brings a strange intelligence and charm to his otherwise up-tight character. Although Boyle is simply playing a monster, he shows the kind of vulnerability that makes him a character that we want to root and care for. Feldman and Garr play delightful comedic sidekicks that are full of enthusiasm and comedic grace. Hackman, in a memorable cameo role, is very funny.

Then there is Kahn, who is in an entirely other league than her co-stars. To reveal too much about her character--other than the fact that she plays Frederick's fiancée and unexpectedly arrives in Transylvania--is to unfairly detract the surprise and glories of how she portrays her character. Kahn has the kind of energy and comedic timing that very few comediennes (and comedians, for that matter) are able to show on screen. She is impeccably fearless in her portrayal of a rather goofy character. Kahn is able to enter a role and completely forget that she is playing an eccentric while the others show a glimmer of self-conscious questioning in their lines and the situations they are in.

Young Frankenstein lives in a gorgeous post-sixties black-and-white universe. But it is often predictable and in the end, it fails to show the winningly suspenseful Gothic glory that dominated the film in earlier scenes. The film traps itself in its own chaotic, comedic confinement that the potential to be horrifying and funny simultaneously has been thrown away. Nevertheless, I like the originality of the premise and I cared about the characters and enjoyed all the performances. The script by Wilder and Brooks is keen enough on character development and includes enough one-liners that more or less works. Young Frankenstein is a moderately entertaining romp, if not perfect or even completely memorable. I enjoyed the ride, although I cannot help but say I was a little disappointed. But this movie has too much heart for me to give it a negative review. I guess I will just remember that lovely tap-dancing scene and hold dear Kahn's remarkable comedic feat.

Rating: 6.5/10

9 comments:

  1. The first thirty minutes of the film does not include many successful attempts at humor

    I think the whole film itself, except Hackman cameo, is a huge, unsuccessful attempt at humor. This was my first meeting with Mel Brooks and if I have to arrive at some early conclusions with this one, I will say I don't find his style of humor funny at all.

    I simply hated it. When comedy is altering an established genre to try to squeeze jokes out of it, I find it cheap.

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  2. I find it very strange that you and the poster above me had such a strong distaste in your mouths after viewing YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. This and BLAZING SADDLES are amazing, genre-defining pieces of filmmaking, and I literally can't think of anyone I know who doesn't like either film. But, to each his own, I suppose.

    What I find particularly interesting about Brooks' work is that it adheres very strictly to genre rules, without bending the structure so much as the content. The entire idea is completely groundbreaking, even to this day, as most of the insipid "comedies" that attempt this humor (SCARY MOVIE, SUPERHERO MOVIE, DATE MOVIE, et al.) are nothing more than quickie pop-culture reference throwaways, with nothing to offer, and little to no laughs in the whole affair.

    And maybe, just maybe, I'm on the very cusp of generational lag myself in what I find to be entertaining or worthwhile (which would explain the disconnect on the Brooks films). And maybe I'm turning into an old fogey, or maybe I'm not. But I will say this about the above poster, just because unlike Brooks this is not really up for debate - really, ask just about anyone...Anyone who lists NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN instead of FARGO or THE BIG LEBOWSKI or MILLER'S CROSSING, or THE DEPARTED instead of RAGING BULL, GOODFELLAS, TAXI DRIVER, THE LAST TEMPTATION OF THE CHRIST, or THE LAST WALTZ in their top 50 or whatever list...well, they lose a lot of credibility.

    But that's neither here nor there. I liked your review, despite your not having liked the movie. At least it was pointed and well-explained.

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  3. Matt, it makes me happy that you took the time to check my 'Top 50 or whatever' list before coming up with generalizations about me. Our difference is, I don't see our conflicting views and/or tastes as a reason to dismiss your opinions and credibility - otherwise I could easily go on and say the same thing about you for loving the pre-dominantly loathed Temple of Doom more than the critic/audience favorite Raiders of the Lost Ark.

    To be honest, I think Taxi Driver belongs in that list but it's not there yet simply because I need to rewatch it and decide where to place it. I really love Raging Bull and Goodfellas but I don't see them as perfect pieces according to my criteria. If that makes me someone not to be taken seriously, so be it. Better than being the lap dog of consensus thought (not that I'm insinuating you are, don't get me wrong)

    On the other hand, the superiority of No Country for Old Men over Fargo (or any other Coens film for that matter) is so profoundly obvious to me that I don't even feel like writing a single sentence to back my opinion.

    Sorry for being slightly off-topic. In order to return to the film under spotlight,

    "as most of the insipid "comedies" that attempt this humor (SCARY MOVIE, SUPERHERO MOVIE, DATE MOVIE, et al.) are nothing more than quickie pop-culture reference throwaways, with nothing to offer, and little to no laughs in the whole affair."

    I just don't see how Young Frankenstein is any different. Yes, it doesn't bend the genres to unrecognizable shapes but is that enough reason to praise a comedy? If a movie has nothing more to offer than laughs and if laughs is the only thing that I fail to get, there is something wrong in that equation.

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  4. Anil, I understand why you hate the film. I don't think the Mel Brooks-type humor (same with Peter Sellers) is really compatible with what I find funny, but I thought Young Frankenstein had a few good moments and some great acting talents evolved (especially Kahn). Those pluses were enough for me to shy away from a completely negative review.

    When comedy is altering an established genre to try to squeeze jokes out of it, I find it cheap.

    But that is the point of a parody! Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Young Frankenstein was not a cheap idea. In fact, I found it quite original. But the way some of the humor was executed was rather cheap.

    Matt, I'm glad you liked my review, despite our differences. Like Anil, Young Frankenstein was also my first meeting with Brooks and I was disappointed. But I will watch Blazing Saddles someday just because of Kahn's Oscar nomination.

    I've never bothered with any of the Scary Movies, Superhero Movies, or Date Movies because they look plain unwatchable. Young Frankenstein has style and originality, but I don't find all the humor funny. I agree with Anil on this: If it is a comedy, then it should be funny. All the jokes should work.

    I think your liking of Young Frakenstein has more to do with your taste rather than your age. I know many teenagers who probably enjoy this movie as much as you do, Matt.

    Regarding Anil's top 50...well, tastes differ, I guess. I would probably pick GoodFellas, Raging Bull, and Taxi Driver over The Departed too. I think we all hold several outrageous opinions about certain films, though...I'd pick Spider-Man 3 over its predecessors any day.

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  5. I was just playing the devil's advocate of sorts. I like both of your pages, actually, and find a lot of what you have to say insightful, so it's not like it's anything personal. And honestly, you may be correct that high schoolers would find it funny, but I think, being that I have two very much younger sisters who are in middle and high school, that the majority of people that age (my sisters included) would find the film (YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN) lacking in any sort of relevance to their particular culture, and that is what I find most odd about the reaction to the films.

    Also, I think it's worth noting that both Mel Brooks and Woody Allen began their careers together, sort of, as staff writers for YOUR SHOW OF SHOWS...on a completely unrelated topic, of course.

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  6. People like pop references they recognize, but there are many comedies that are funny on their own terms. They don't need the references to fuel the humor. Young Frankenstein has a handful of those moments, so I guess that is why there are high schoolers who like the movie.

    Thanks for sharing, Matt. I never knew that Mel Brooks and Woody Allen began their careers together. I think Woody Allen is funny, but like many, he has his share of comedic misses.

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  7. But that is the point of a parody! Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. Young Frankenstein was not a cheap idea.

    On second thought, I agree. After all, I really like Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz and parody seems to be what they are doing, more or less.

    So I take it back, that was rather too bold of a statement on my part.

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