STARRING: Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman, Cloris Leachman, Teri Garr, Kenneth Mars, Madeline Kahn and Peter Boyle
WRITTEN BY: Mel Brooks & Gene Wilder
DIRECTED BY: Mel Brooks
Spoof comedy films have been in the cinematic consciousness for many years. Arguably Airplane! is the most famous with its parody of disaster films. However, in 1974, Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder set a trailblazing standard. Released the same year as their previous collaboration Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein is the perfect homage to horror.
Young Frankenstein tells the story of Frederick Frankenstein (Gene Wilder), the grandson of the famous mad scientist Victor Frankenstein. Trying so hard to disassociate himself from his family history (even as going as far as pronouncing his name differently), he is invited to Transylvania where he discovers his grandfather’s work. With the help of Igor (Marty Feldman) and Inga (Teri Garr), Frankenstein begins the process of continuing what his grandfather started…with comedic hilarity.
Young Frankenstein is sharply littered with slapstick humour, double entendre meanings and witty dialogue, thanks to the efforts of Wilder and Brooks. But what sells the film is how Young Frankenstein creates its tone and illusion.
In the age of colour, Young Frankenstein was filmed in black and white. This was not done for gimmicks sake but to mirror the original 1930s classic Frankenstein, an aspect which director Mel Brooks had to fight for during production. Whether it is a screen wipe, a fade to black or the make up under the eyes to bring out the dramatic contrast in a performance, stylistically Young Frankenstein is a faithful homage. It taps into all the classic horror tropes, operating as a serious film that is unaware that it is a comedy which is why every performance feels natural and on-point. They never break the illusion with exception of Igor who occasionally breaks the fourth wall to directly speak to the audience.
While most audiences remember Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka as his most famous role, as Frederick Frankenstein he delivers a magical performance. Wilder never considered himself as a comedic actor as his roots into acting stemmed from dramatic theatre productions such as Twelfth Night and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Yet he always had this uncanny ability to hold a scene which unexpectedly becomes funny. It’s a gift that he was blessed with, showcasing comedic timing and expression and knowing exactly where to land a punchline. Young Frankenstein is one of the finest examples of demonstrating Wilder’s ability for measured calmness and eccentricity.
Wilder also utilises the environment to enhance the jokes which are punchy and multi-layered. In one scene, he gets angry and accidentally stabs himself in the leg in a classroom full of students. There is another brilliant scene involving the secret revolving bookcase as he tries to outsmart the mechanics. The “Puttin on the Ritz” scene involving the brilliant Peter Boyle as the monster crosses the horror boundary into a brief musical interlude. The jokes are effectively simple but they all add to the fun and brilliance of the film.
But if there is an underrated performer in Young Frankenstein, then it belongs to Marty Feldman as Igor. He has fun. He takes advantage of the parody to inject the humour when everyone else is serious. His bulging eyes, his mysterious shifting hump and the ‘walk this way’ joke all adds to the on-screen persona. His on-screen partnership with Wilder created an environment where he could improvise on set.
The important thing about Young Frankenstein is despite being a horror parody, it still retains the essence of Mary Shelley’s original classic. It’s still a story about a monster in a world that hates him but it wants to be loved. That’s largely why Young Frankenstein works – it understands the source material with heart. Wilder and Brooks put their own spin on the ending which is more hopeful than the original. This partnership earned them an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, losing out to another incredible film, The Godfather Part II.
It is easy to see why Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks rate this film so highly and favourably. Instead of doing something that was done before with the numerous Frankenstein sequels, they bring a freshness to the monster idea and had a fun time creating it. Just like the original Frankenstein film, Young Frankenstein is simply a classic and a brilliant exercise in humour.
Young Frankenstein is on limited re-release in cinemas now. Are you a fan of the film? Let us know!