Young Frankenstein

Young Frankenstein ★★★★★

Part of Hoop-Tober

“Stay close to the candles. The stairway can be...treacherous.”

Picture it: A dark and shadowy castle, Gothic and candlelit. Cobwebs and cobblestones. The sky is heavy with clouds, yet the moon glows ominously. Perhaps it is raining—at the very least, it is damp and dank. The castle contains multitudinous passageways—staircases, hidden hallways, secret lairs. Every room is cavernous, yet the shadows press down, suffocating the space. Large, ominous portraits hang on the walls, their eyes seeming to follow the inhabitants.

You can see it in your mind, can’t you? Your image and mine are essentially the same. It wouldn’t always have been that way. A given set of words can conjure only so many images, to be sure, but for centuries there was no universal reference point for a certain place or thing. And then Universal happened. And UFA. And MGM, and Paramount, and Warner Bros., and the rest. Photographs had been around for decades, but they tended to be of real people and places and were, naturally, motionless. They showed the real world with unparalleled accuracy, but not the inner life. Movies offered something altogether different. Suddenly, the world had a shared visual reference point for its ideas—suddenly there could exist a truly collective imagination. I could describe something from my mind’s eye, and you could formulate it in yours, and we could both be envisioning the same shared image. When you think about it, it’s rather incredible.

This is the genius of Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein. Brooks knows his inspirations—the classic monster movies produced by Universal in the 1930s (especially James Whale’s Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein) and the German expressionist films that influenced them—so well that his parody is not just of the subject of horror movies, but of an entire style of filmmaking. It is a satire of our collective memories.

It's a mode that suits Brooks well. Unlike most of Brooks’ efforts, which often strain under the weight of their creator’s manic tendencies, Young Frankenstein employs the deliberateness and restraint of classical Hollywood cinema. As a result, rather than drowning in flopsweat, the humor has room to breathe. (No small share of the credit for this must go to co-writer/star Gene Wilder, who insisted that he would only do the picture with Brooks if Brooks agreed not to appear in the film. Brooks’ comic persona is so at odds with the period setting and elegant throwback tone that it would have been fatally disruptive.)

Brooks’ and Wilder’s love for the old Universal horror films shines through every frame, from the usage of classic techniques (irises in and out, wipes, matte work), to the vivid, shadowy black-and-white cinematography of Gerald Hirschfeld, to the repurposing of Ken Strickfaden’s laboratory sets from the original 1931 Frankenstein. Brooks pays attention to the smallest details—the way Igor (Marty Feldman) nuzzles Dr. Frederick Frankenstein’s (Wilder) shoulder when they discover the lab; the way Igor throws the dirt over his shoulder when they dig up the corpse; the dart in the side of Inspector Kemp’s (Kenneth Mars) driver’s cap, calling back to Frankenstein’s errant, nervous throws; the zipper in the side of the Monster’s (Peter Boyle) neck. This evident care deepens the humor immensely by adding a welcome dose of love—we’re not laughing at those well-worn classics, we’re smiling fondly at our recollection of them.

Of course, this is not just a stately homage to a bygone cinematic era. It is a Mel Brooks comedy, with all the quips and sight gags and off-color one-liners that implies. And as a comedy it succeeds beautifully, starting with the impeccable performances. Wilder has never been better as the put-upon Dr. Frankenstein (that’s Fronk-en-steen), struggling to deny the fate of his lineage before finally succumbing to his grandfather's calling. Wilder’s dry, deadpan tone lends much-needed gravity to the proceedings, giving his supporting players a still center around which to bounce. And bounce they do. Feldman’s Igor (that’s Eye-gor) shifts between vaudeville comic and lecherous uncle and clueless sidekick as fluidly as the hump on his back changes sides. Inga (Teri Garr, never more radiant), Frankenstein’s buxom young assistant, projects just the right note of innocent-but-not-too-innocent wholesomeness (“Hallo. Vould you like to have a roll in ze hay?”). Elizabeth (Madeline Kahn), Frankenstein’s high-strung fiancée, is hilariously self-absorbed and tightly wound (“Taffeta, darling.”) in that way that only Kahn could be. Frau Blücher (Cloris Leachman) is menacing in the way all housekeepers of Gothic homesteads are menacing (cue horses whinnying in fright), but with a warm, romantic undercurrent (“He vas my BOYFRIEND!”). And Boyle is perfect as the Monster, with just the right notes of hulking terror and wistful longing for humanity.

Setpiece after setpiece and line after line burn themselves into the memory, each a primer in perfect comic timing: Frau Blücher offering Frankenstein some varm milk or Ovaltine; the torment of playing charades with terrible teammates (a particularly painful moment for a board game enthusiast such as myself); Elizabeth breaking into “Sweet Mystery of Life” upon her acquaintanceship with the Monster’s schwanzstucker; the delightful high-and-low contrast of Frankenstein and the Monster’s performance of “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” It’s a testament to the immense skill of all involved, and to the power of cinema. Now when we think of Frankenstein, we think not only of Boris Karloff’s neck-bolted monster, but also of Peter Boyle and Gene Wilder tap-dancing in top hats and tails. The movies construct a bond that ties us all together as a community. Let’s awkwardly rub elbows to consummate.

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