Lunatics and Laughter Day 3: Young Frankenstein (1974)
Writers: Gene Wilder & Mel Brooks
Cast: Gene Wilder, Peter Boyle, Marty Feldman, Cloris Leachman, Teri Garr, Kenneth Mars, Madeline Khan, Richard Haydn, Gene Hackman, Anne Beesley
Plot: Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced “Fronkensteen,” Gene Wilder), grandson of the infamous Victor Frankenstein, leaves his inconsistently affectionate fiancé Elizabeth (Madeline Khan), for Transylvania. He is met by Igor (“I-gor,” Marty Feldman), grandson of his grandfather’s assistant, and Inga (Teri Garr), his temporary lab assistant, who quickly displays more affection than the fiancé he left behind. Frankenstein’s castle is kept by Frau Blucher (Cloris Leachman), who Frederick questions about his grandfather’s “private” library. That night, Frederick is awakened from a nightmare by Inga, and, after a classic spinning bookcase gag, the two of them locate a secret passageway. At the bottom of a cobweb-covered staircase, they find Igor and the elder Frankenstein’s lab. Frederick reads his grandfather’s notes and finds the secret of animating lifeless matter, something he always believed impossible.
Igor and Frederick steal the corpse of an enormous, freshly-executed man to repeat Victor’s experiment. Igor goes on his own to steal a suitable brain for the beast, but as happened to his grandfather, fumbles with it and is forced to take an abnormal brain instead. In town, the people fear Frankenstein’s grandson, certain he is repeating his grandfather’s crimes (which, of course, he is). They recruit Inspector Kemp (Kenneth Mars) to discover what Frederick is doing.
That night the Monster (Peter Boyle) comes to life. Although he seems gentle at first, when Igor strikes a match, he goes berserk and nearly kills Frederick. Igor confesses that he took a brain from “Abby Normal” just as Kemp arrives. Frederick sends him off, but while he’s preoccupied Frau Blucher finds the monster and releases it. The creature breaks free from the castle, and Frederick vows to find it before it can hurt anyone. They set a trap for it the next evening, luring it with a violin and sedating it. Frederick insists upon trying to convince the creature it is loved. As he speaks to the beast, he not only takes it under his wing, but accepts his own destiny, declaring, “MY NAME IS FRANKENSTEIN!”
He presents the creature to the town, charming them with a song and dance routine before a light blows and it turns on the crowd and the police haul it away. As Frederick and Inga find comfort in each other’s arms, they receive a telegram that Elizabeth will be coming to the castle that night. After Elizabeth again rebuffs Frederick’s advances for the night, the creature – having escaped — returns to the castle. She passes out and he takes her with him to a hiding place in the woods, where she soon succumbs to its own animal desires. After a mere six times, though, the violin from the castle summons him back. Frederick decides the only way to protect the creature is to use his own brain to stabilize it. Kemp leads an angry mob, complete with torches and pitchforks, into the castle, and are about to make off with Frederick’s body, when the stable creature commands them to put him down. He gives a stirring speech and Kemp realizes the error of his ways. In the end, Frederick and Inga are married, whilst Elizabeth and the creature go off to enjoy domestic bliss of their own.
Thoughts: Coming off the magnificent western/comedy Blazing Saddles, it’s not surprising that Mel Brooks would turn his attention to the horror/comedy genre. (He’d later tackle the epic in History of the World Part I, science fiction in Spaceballs and high adventure with Robin Hood: Men in Tights. He’d return to horror with Dracula: Dead and Loving it, but the less said about that one, the better.) Working off an idea by Gene Wilder, these two took one of the most enduring classics of horror and turned it into one of the best horror/comedies ever.
Young Frankenstein works as a kinda-sequel to the original Frankenstein, building on the mythology of the original Universal films even though there was no official connection. (Young Frankenstein was produced by 20th Century Fox.) It doesn’t really contradict any of the older films, at least no more than some of the official sequels did, but it takes the franchise into an entirely different direction. This is the first film in my little experiment that I’d classify as a “Type B” horror/comedy – more comedy, but using the tropes of horror and spoofing them. The difference is in the plot, really – what puts this in the second category is that the story couldn’t exist without the comedy tropes. Even Abbott and Costello’s antics with the monsters followed a fairly straightforward scary movie plot for the 1940s, whereas certain elements of this film could not be removed or altered without drastic changes being made to the story structure. You could maybe replace the musical number towards the end with something more King Kong-eque, but that would simply feel derivative. And it’d be a lot harder to play up the creature’s abduction and romancing of Elizabeth without the comedy elements in any way that doesn’t make it tread uncomfortably close to plain rape.
The other thing, and the more all-encompassing thing, that makes this a Type B is the characterization. In a Type A universe, we’ve got a frightening situation populated by some funny characters. Bela Lugosi wasn’t a quippy Dracula, and Bob Hope’s cracks about the ghosts were only funny in the context of a world where nobody would take such a thing seriously. Not so for Type B, where all characters – and everything else – can become fodder for humor. In Young Frankenstein, as in most Mel Brooks comedies, anybody can play straight man to anybody else at any moment. Everyone can crack a joke or make a comment that’s hysterical – to the audience. In-universe, however, nobody recognizes the humor.
The only exception would be Marty Feldman’s Igor, who leans heavily on the fourth wall, winking at the audience, and throwing out some meta-puns that make him seem both wackier than and more savvy than the rest of the characters. His comedy is easily the broadest of the troupe Brooks and Wilder assembled, and he’s probably the funniest as well. His timing is flawless, his sense of propriety non-existent, and his ability to key into other comedy from other eras makes his performance as funny now as 40 years ago.
What elevates this above most other Type B horror/comedies (coughScaryMoviecough) is the way Brooks and Wilder are still capable of crafting real characters instead of caricatures, telling a real story instead of just creating their own Frankenstein-patchwork of other movies. Even this film, which literally could not exist without Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as its inspiration, feels fresh and original.
Just as important, Brooks and Wilder don’t simply repeat moments, but build upon them. The crummy spoofs of the 21st century are frequently completely devoid of actual jokes, instead just referencing a better movie under the assumption that the audience will understand the reference and laugh at the recognition. This is a stupid, asinine way to make a movie that far too many of my 11th grade students mistake for humor. In a Brooks comedy, though, we touch on the familiar moments and make them new. Igor stealing the brain, for example, begins with a glance at the camera, because he knows that we know what’s coming. Then, when the brain of a “scientist and saint” is accidentally destroyed, he goes for the abnormal brain immediately, despite the fact that the next brain over is clearly labeled “visionary.” The camera just pans past the other label, though, and a viewer may watch the movie two or three times before they even notice it. Modern films are incapable of this sort of subtle, Easter Egg humor – a film by Jason Freidberg and Aaron Seltzer (perpetrators of such crimes against comedy as Meet the Spartans and Vampires Suck) would be sure to hover over that label, make sure everybody sees it, and drain every iota of comedic potential from it before moving on to what everybody knows they’re going to do anyway.
Modern spoof movies suck, is the point I’m trying to make.
Anyway, the film is built on small moments. Kenneth Mars’s assorted shtick with his artificial arm, the disastrous game of darts, and the bit where a choking Frederick has to play charades to make his incompetent accomplices understand he wants them to sedate the monster that is actively murdering him are the sorts of thing that make for a great spoof. None of these are repeat jokes, they’re built on the characters and story as presented instead of spending all their time making allusions to everything else. In fact, except for the full-film allusion to the original, the only references to anything else are when the town elders imply they’ve dealt with monsters five times in the past (referring, of course, to the line of Frankenstein pictures made by Universal) and Madeline Kahn’s hairstyle after she becomes the creature’s “bride.” And as those are both clearly references to the Frankenstein lore as a whole, if not the first movie specifically, we accept them.
When the movie references the original directly, it often does so in order to subvert it. When the creature encounters a little girl playing with flowers, we’re prepared for the worst, based on what happened to the little girl in the Boris Karloff original. Instead, we get a hysterical seesaw gag which completely takes us by surprise and is more than funny enough for us to forgive the fact that it really doesn’t have anything to do with the rest of the story. Gene Hackman’s cameo as the blind man serves a similar purpose – not actually progressing the plot, but showing us the character of the beast as it attempts to make friends and is thwarted, not because he’s a monster, but because his potential companions aren’t entirely capable.
When I asked for help assembling the movies for Lunatics and Laughter, one of the first suggestions I got was Scary Movie. And while I considered it, I decided not to do it, at least for the first phase. It may make the expanded edition, but only because of its influence on movie as a whole, not because of the quality. As you’ll see as we continue our march to Halloween, the vast majority of the movies I’ve chosen for this project are A-Type horror comedies, because most of the B-Types, frankly, are terrible. This is hands-down the best, the finest, the funniest horror spoof I’ve ever seen, and it’s frankly ruined me for most of the other ones. And for that, Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder most assuredly have earned my thanks.