Astonishingly, comedy giant Mel Brooks managed to crank out his masterpiece, Young Frankenstein, less than a year after completing another outrageously funny spoof, Blazing Saddles. Yet while Blazing Saddles is an anything-goes romp that throws out narrative continuity whenever the opportunity for a gag arises, Young Frankenstein trumps its predecessor because in addition to featuring some of the funniest moments in cinema history, the picture also works as the bittersweet tale of a man, a monster, and the women who love them.
Conceived by leading man Gene Wilder, who eventually had a falling-out with Brooks after he perceived Brooks as taking too much credit for this project, Young Frankenstein is a pseudo-continuation of the classic Universal Studios Frankenstein series that begin in the early ’30s. The picture is shot in glorious black-and-white to evoke a studio-era vibe, and the filmmakers even tracked down the original Kenneth Strickfaden-created props that appeared in Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory during the earlier films.
The screenplay, by Wilder and Brooks, picks up a generation after the events of the older pictures, when Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (Wilder) inherits the castle where his crazed grandfather, Victor, once conducted unholy experiments. Discovering his ancestor’s records, Frederick casts aside his nature as a rational modern scientist in order to stitch together body parts and make a monster all his own. Aided by a trusty hunchbacked accomplice, Igor (Marty Feldman), and a fetching local girl, Inga (Teri Garr), Frederick creates a lumbering Monster (Peter Boyle).
Wilder and Brooks borrow and spoof famous bits from the Universal Pictures, leading to uproarious scenes like the Monster’s encounter with a blind man (Gene Hackman) whose desire to share a cigar turns disastrous, and Frederick’s hilarious run-ins with an officious policeman (Kenneth Mars), who lost a limb to the monster that Victor Frankenstein created long ago. There’s also room for Frederick’s uptight fiancée, Elizabeth (Madeline Kahn), and the mysterious Frau Blücher (Cloris Leachman), who knew Victor better than anyone suspects.
Virtually every scene in Young Frankenstein is a comedy classic, from the opening bit of Fredrick experimenting on an elderly patient during a medical class to the climactic musical number, “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” which Wilder actually had to fight to keep in the movie because Brooks didn’t originally see the value of the scene. In addition to being riotously funny, Young Frankenstein is virtually note-perfect from beginning to end in terms of character and storyline. The acting is also consistently wonderful, with Boyle delivering a heartbreaker of a performance as the monster; his scene with Hackman is a perfect blend of pathos and whimsy.
A career high point for everyone involved, Young Frankenstein showcases everything Brooks does well and features none of his often tiresome excesses, and it’s a triumph for Wilder as an actor and as a writer.
Young Frankenstein: OUTTA SIGHT