“Oh. Where you going?… Oh, you men are all alike. Seven or eight quick ones and then you’re out with the boys to boast and brag. YOU BETTER KEEP YOUR MOUTH SHUT. Oh… I think I love him.” – Elizabeth (Madeline Kahn)
Young Frankenstein (1974)
Director: Mel Brooks
Language: English and the gleeful raise of Marty Feldman’s eyebrows
Jerome Silberman (known to us as Gene Wilder) died not so long ago, at the age of 83. This is an incredibly sad fact. He was, truly, one of the first people that I understood to be a comic genius. The circumstances of this realisation are as follows. One year in the misty haze of time gone by, my Father was given, by my Mother, a VHS copy of Young Frankenstein for his birthday. He unwrapped the boxy shape before us all after dinner and gave my Mother an enormous smile. My Father has a way of saying ‘Oooh’ that covers such occasions. It is a kind of reverent sigh infused with thrumming anticipation of what is to come. If it’s a really good thing, a chuckle bubbles at the end of the exhale, the glee contained within him threatening to break the barrier of his teeth. Such a sound was brought forth at the presentation of Young Frankenstein.
We watched it that evening and a deep fierce love was born in my chest.
Young Frankenstein is, at base level, a horror/ monster movie pastiche. Much like the Scary Movie franchise, it draws on the tropes and conventions of horror movies. However, in the case of Young Frankenstein, the movies it riffs off are not those of its own era. Not that there wasn’t ample material there. The 70’s, let’s remind ourselves, had already produced some of the biggest names in Horror – The Exorcist (1973), The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974), Don’t Look Now (1973), The Wicker Man (1973)- and would go on to produce even more – Alien (1979), Suspiria (1977), Halloween (1978), The Omen (1976), Carrie (1976). Nevertheless, Brookes’ film looks back to the cinematic style of ‘classic’ horror.
The plot is a definite homage to the Universal Studio’s Frankenstein series (with Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi). Frederick Frankenstein (Gene Wilder – pronounced, originally, Fronkenshteiiin) is a medical lecturer in America, desperate to distance himself from his grandfather Victor and his work. He, instead, works on the brain stem. Upon the receipt of his great-great-grandfather’s will, however, he must travel to Transylvania leaving behind his fiancé Elizabeth (Madeline Kahn). There he meets Igor (Marty Feldman), Inga (Terri Garr), and Frau Blücher (Cloris Leachman). After finding his grandfather’s diary, Frederick decides to replicate the experiment and creates The Monster (Peter Boyle). Throw in a suspicious police inspector (Kenneth Mars), a town wary of the name Frankenstein, Gene Hackman as a hermit, a musical number, and the appearance of Elizabeth in Transylvania and you have a spectacular and sparkling film.
It is, then, the monster movies of the 1930’s, particularly (obviously) versions of Frankenstein, that inspire and infuse Young Frankenstein. Tesla coils and suspicious switches abound while the howling of wolves punctuates at appropriate moments. It’s gorgeous in black and white, full of lush shadow and dramatic light spilling over inky cobblestones. Even the screen transitions and credit sequence are homages to an older era of horror. The score, by Brookes’ longtime collaborator John Morris, is swollen and grandiose and perfectly pitched. It blossoms and blooms across the audio track like a sinister and beautiful rose. All this is utterly joyous.
It would, however, be a shadow of itself without the cast. I don’t mean, for a moment, to detract from the screenplay, written by Brookes and Wilder, which undoubtedly has moments of pure genius. It’s more just that can’t believe that the anybody else could correct the pronunciation of Frankenstein to Fronkenshteiiin with the same cold intensity and make it funny. It isn’t a very funny joke on paper, but in Wilder’s hands it becomes quietly brilliant. This is because Gene Wilder is wonderful. He is perfectly aware of his every movement, able to move between casual grace and slapstick gawk with perfect ease. His command of his face is masterful, creating character with every eyebrow movement. He never misses a beat in delivery, never fluffs a line. He’s too good.
Wilder is in good company. Boyle’s monster, for example, is a masterclass in using physicality. Kenneth Mars manages to make what is essentially a series of ‘funny Transylvanian accent/wooden hand’ jokes very very funny. Truly, though, my heart belongs with Kahn and Feldman as supporting actors. Feldmen’s Igor is perfectly glorious. He uses his face with magical elasticity, bringing a mischievous glee to every scene he is in. Madeline Kahn is a delight. Her vain fiancé, Elizabeth, is pitch perfect. The scene where she bursts into spontaneous song while having sex in the woods with Boyle’s monster is utterly hilarious and made so solely by the way she uses her voice. Furthermore, I don’t believe anybody has ever looked that good with ‘Bride of Frankenstein’ hair. Her delivery is never less than razor sharp, her look always perfect, and her grace ever undeniable. The chemistry between her and the other cast members is brilliant and her cold smoulder is a perfect antidote to the buxom whimsy of Terri Garr’s Inga. More than any individual, it’s this inescapable sense of chemistry that binds the film. Throughout the whole mad ride, you can’t help but revel in the fun they are all clearly having.
Given all of this, it is perhaps not so surprising that I chose to spend one of my last evenings at home with my parents watching it. We were all howling with laughter, each of us seeming to find high joy in different places. We had each, for example, largely forgotten in the years since we last saw it, just how funny Mars’ policeman was. For my Mum, the loudest laugh was the moment when Cloris Leachman’s stern and forbidding Frau Blücher cried “He … vas … my … BOYFRIEND”. My Dad, although he never fails to derive huge joy from Feldman and Wilder’s ‘walk this way’ skit, erupted with violent chuckles at this:
Dr. Frankenstein: Werewolf?
Dr. Frankenstein: What?
Igor: There, wolf. There, castle.
Dr. Frankenstein: Why are you talking that way?
Igor: I thought you wanted to.
Dr. Frankenstein: No, I don’t want to.
Igor: [shrugs] Suit yourself. I’m easy.
Both are good examples of what I said earlier. On paper, they are jokes that might raise a tiny smile. On screen, they are wickedly funny.
Many of these incredible talents are sadly no longer alive. Madeline Kahn died in 1999 at the age of 57 of Ovarian cancer, the same illness that claimed Wilder’s first wife, the comedian Gilda Radner, ten years earlier. Marty Feldman died of a heart attack in 1982, aged only 48. Kenneth Mars passed away in 2011, again from cancer, this time pancreatic. Wilder himself left us in 2016 at 85 years old, after complications caused by Alzheimer’s. Together, they helped create one of my most vivid early encounters with brilliant comedy. For this service, for Young Frankenstein, I will be forever grateful.