Wednesday, March 24, 2010
Movie Time: Rewind: Young Frankenstein
Time to turn back the clocks and look at another old school movie review, looking at great films made before the year 1976. In my Word Balloon column earlier this month I highlighted a comedy book and I thought I would continue the trend in this column and look at another great comedy. While I have highlighted several comedies over the last few years of this column, most have been from the 1930's. This time we are gonna flash forward out of Hollywood's golden years and into the early 1970's. This was a time of upheaval and change for studios, still trying to recover from the loss of the studio systems in the 60's, films, film makers, and audiences tastes were changing, making it a fun and fertile time for new styles and new choices. One writer and director, who had already had some previous success with projects like The Producers and Get Smart, had a banner year for comedies in 1974. The writer and director was Mel Brooks.
Brooks had been in the business for a while, but never before or since, has one person had a bigger impact on a genre of cinema in a single year than Brooks. In the same year he helped to create two of the most well received comedies of all time, the politically un-correct and hilarious Blazing Saddles and our film choice, the sublime comedy homage to the Universal horror pictures of the 30's. Young Frankenstein. Young Frankenstein starred one of the 1970's biggest comedians, Gene Wilder, along with a superb comedic supporting cast of Peter Boyle, Madelin Khan, Marty Feldman, and Teri Garr. I also thought this a fitting tie, as just a few months ago I highlighted the foundation of this movie, 1931's Frankenstein.
The premise of the film is pretty simple and fairly close to the plot of the original Frankenstein. Gene Wilder plays Frederick von Frankenstein, the grandson of the original Victor von Frankenstein, a young neurosurgeon who has spent his life trying to live down his family legacy. When he inherits the family castle, he travels to the old country to review it along with his tightly wound fiancee, Elizabeth (Madelin Khan). At the castle he finds the descendant of his grandfather's lab partner, Igor (Marty Feldman), a comely new lab assistant Inga (Teri Garr) and house mistress Frau Blucher (Cloris Leachman). Believing his grandfathers work to be impossible, he stumbles across a series of old journals and his grandfathers secret lab and comes to believe that it may be possible to re-animate the dead.
Frederick and Igor then steal a body from the grave yard and repeat the re-animation process, despite Igor taking the wrong brain from a local brain repository. They successfully bring the creature back to life (played by Peter Boyle) but he is wild and crazy. They manage to sedate him but the townspeople grow increasingly uncomfortable with the alleged experiments that Frederick is performing. Frau Blucher ends up freeing the creature and its roams the country side, meeting a blind hermit and a young gild before Frederick re-captures him through flattery. he attempts to train and civilize the beast, and even puts on a show for the townspeople to show the creature is harmless, unfortunately he is scared by a light exploding and goes on a rampage. He is captured and tormented but manages to escape, running into Elizabeth along the way. He ravishes her and she is taken back by his endowment and stamina. Frederick, desperate to correct his mistake, lures the creature back to the castle and transfers some of his intellect to the creature to stabilize his mind before the townspeople overrun and kill them both. In the end, the monster and Elizabeth fall in love, and Frederick and Inga find that intellect wasn't the only thing that was transferred between the two, much to Inga's delight.
Originally this film was pitched as a collaborative effort between Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman, and Peter Boyle by their mutual agent. Their agent also brought aboard Mel Brooks, having just finished working with him on the blockbuster hit Blazing Saddles. Brooks came aboard on the pretense that he could help co-write the feature with Wilder and an instant comedy classic was born. Gene Wilder and Mel made the best pictures of their career and while Blazing Saddles may be the higher earner, I think Young Frankenstein had the better staying power and better performances. Wilder himself blends the perfect bit of comedian and manic mad genius, going from a fairly mild mannered scientist to a true mad scientist through the course of the film. He has such a great sense of timing and delivery and the lines are crisp and sharp and still hold up over 35 years later.
Peter Boyle, while not speaking much, brings a real physical style of comedy to the film as the clumsy monster. Up until his turn as Ray Romano's father on Everybody Loves Raymond this was his most merited role. Still he really makes the role his own, having great on screen chemistry with Madelin Khan and Gene Wilder. I think the other stand out in the film is Teri Garr, who really takes what could easily be a stereotypical blond bimbo role and makes it something uniquely funny and sexy. As for Marty Feldman, with his boggled out eyes and leers, it's almost as if he was born to play the role of Igor. Watch throughout the film as the hump on his back changes places during scenes. He did this at first on his own, no one catching until they were well into filming and they thought it was so funny that they worked it into the film itself.
This film is often called Brooks love letter to monster movies, while it teases and pokes fun at the foibles of monster films, it never does so maliciously. It very much tries to capture the flavor that these early films brought to life, even going so far as to track down the original lab equipment from the 1931 version of Frankenstein to equip the lab and give it a greater sense of authenticity. Even Brooks insistence that the film be shot in black and white is part of the charm. He was so set on keeping the authenticity of black and white that they left the original home studio, Columbia, to take the picture to 20th Century Fox who would produce it the way Wilder and Brooks wanted.
Another great element of the film are the great bits of homage that extend beyond the horror vein. I still laugh every time I watch the great Fred Astaire homage off Wilder and Peter Boyle dancing to "Putting on the Ritz" and Boyle warbly cries out the strangled chorus. Classic comedy at its finest. You can also see clear dedications to some of the other great comedians of the 1930's, specifically Marty Feldman as he channels Groucho Marx's delivery and jokes in several scenes. Brooks even got one of the biggest actors of the 1970's, Gene Hackman, to cameo in the role of the Blind Man that the monster stumbles across. Hackman was a huge actor at the time, fresh off a huge Oscar winning turn in The French Connection just a year earlier. It just shows how much fun the cast and crew were having.
Comedy is one of the hardest mediums to do. So much of a comedy can become dated and loose its humor. It's increasingly rare to find a film that can retain the elements that made it funny 35 years after it came out. Young Frankenstein does just that, made my people who loved what they were doing. The core cast and director had so much fun making the picture, the even wrote extra scenes to film at the end of the movie simply to be able to work together a little bit more, for a little bit longer. It's a film that indelibly holds up to the testament of time, working both as an homage to the great horror films of the 30's and as a comedy. So much of Blazing Saddles comedy was about the time the film was made, despite being Brooks' comedic love letter to the western, it relied heavily on humor about things like racism, segregation, and the troubling issues of the early 70's. To me, Young Frankenstein is more a pure comedy. If you have never seen it, check it out, it's easily the best work of Mel Brooks career, and you'll laugh too.
End of Line.