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.