I’ve been on a major Hammer Films kick, which means I’ve watched a lot of schlocky, exploitation-style horror films and black-and-white psychodramas over the past few weeks. I’ve finally worked my way through every Hammer compilation and a collection of William Castle films, but I’m still in the mood for corny horror movies.
So, as I cast about for some appropriate Sunday evening viewing, I decided to watch one of my comedic favorites, Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein (1974).
When I was a doughy young lad, I loved Mel Brooks movies. I believe the first DVD I ever purchased was Blazing Saddles (1974), and I have to imagine Young Frankenstein was not long after (2000’s O Brother, Where Art Thou may have been my first DVD purchase, but I remember it was very close to around the time I picked up BS). I vividly remember watching High Anxiety (1977) on a college band trip and finding it so-so, but adored History of the World, Part I (1981), which I recall watching in one of my older brother’s various college and/or graduate school flophouses. And what chubby Star Wars fan wouldn’t love Spaceballs (1987)? In short, Mel Brooks flicks were a key part of my comedic education.
So, did the beloved classic of my childhood hold up? Mostly, yes—the comedic timing is impeccable, but the movie also holds up well as a Frankenstein-inspired story of its own. Gene Wilder as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced “Fronk en Steen”) is hilarious and insane, in that unsettling way that only Gene Wilder could produce. The man’s ability to get scarily close to mad rage—and to get there from a perfect calm in an instant—is what makes so much of the film’s comedy work, just as it made Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) such an unsettling children’s picture.
Igor (“Eye-Gor”) is perhaps the comedic heart of the film. Played hilariously by the wildly cock-eyed Marty Feldman, Igor has some of the best lines in Young Frankenstein, including the great “walk this way” bit—which Brooks nearly cut, according to the making-of documentary Making Frankenense of “Young Frankenstein.” Every time I watch this movie, I hope that this time Igor won’t take the brain marked—as he put it—“Abby Normal.” I also crack up every time he plays his little French horn in the scene in which Frankenstein is attempting to lure the monster back to the castle with the Frankenstein family song.
Peter Boyle—who readers my age will most likely remember from his role as Raymond’s surly dad in Everybody Loves Raymond (1996-2005)—plays the monster. A beef I have with Frankenstein movies is that the monster himself is always a bit of a disappointment, but that’s not the case in Young Frankenstein. Wilder writes a much bigger role for the monster in this movie than other iterations, and of course gives him his own song-and-dance routine. The monster has some personality of his own. Granted, it’s a comedic interpretation, but this movie still holds its own as a compelling story, even if it is humorous.
All in all, Young Frankenstein is one of the best Brooks films, and it holds up well even as my own tastes have grown more sophisticated and urbane. I definitely picked up on waaaaay more of the sexual innuendo than I did as a kid (“roll, roll, roll in ze hay!”), but that is mostly played for laughs (although the scene in which the monster—so the film heavily implies—makes it with Madeline Kahn would never fly in the age of #MeToo). It’s also a beat-for-beat retelling of the classic Frankenstein tale, just with more gags and less hand-wringing about the implications of science-gone-mad.
It’s hard to ding the classics. Young Frankenstein definitely deserves to be considered among them.
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