Young Frankenstein is Mel Brooks’s most accessible movie and his most sophisticated. Plus, it’s hilarious parody because it follows its source material (the Universal horror canon) so closely. Brooks took the care to use some of the same sets as James Whale and set the gorgeous black & white photography to just the right tone. The music and setting complete the authentication and the result is a superb light-spirited homage.
Both Entertainment Weekly and Premiere list Gene Wilder’s performance as the grandson of Dr. Frankenstein as one of the best ever, lamenting that he wasn’t nominated for an Oscar. Unfortunately, the Academy rarely honors comedic performances, but if there was one time that an exception was warranted, it’s hard to think of a better rule breaker than Wilder’s hysterical quack doctor.
The subtlety of Young Frankenstein is that it doesn’t look like a comedy and some of the same ghoulish props used by Whale and Browning help create a mock spook atmosphere. Of course, being a Mel Brooks movie, the jokes don’t take long to start and, after the classic ‘Frankenstein/Fraunksteen’ exchange, we learn the Dr. Frederick Frankenstein’s disownment of his infamous grandfather is soon to change. As much as he disavows his ancestor’s work, he is just as mad a scientist. The thing is, we know his type, the arrogant and not very approachable professor who thinks himself a better scientist than he actually is. That, as you may recall, was grandpa Frankenstein’s big mistake. Well, when Frederick inherits his family’s castle in Transylvania, history is bound to repeat itself…somewhat.
James Whale’s two Frankenstein movies (the original and The Bride of Frankenstein) are the main targets of Brooks’s loving spoofy hug, but there are other marvelous references as well. As the staple hunchback assistant Igor, the great Marty Feldman provides some verbal throwbacks to the Marx Brothers, most notable in the ‘Frederick/Frodrick’ exchange. The “walk this way” is as old as vaudeville and the “Puttin’ on the Ritz” number, a sequence that works as well as it does because it understates its own silliness, is presented in the way the giant ape was presented in King Kong.
But the golden key to the success of Young Frankenstein is that Mel Brooks understands the horror genre well, at least before it became an excuse to randomly throw blood and limbs on the screen and call it an expression. This is important because you have to like the source material for a parody to work. As such, Young Frankenstein is not just a lampoon but an homage.
What’s amazing is how Gene Wilder and the rest of the cast keep a straight face throughout. As the blind hermit Harold, Gene Hackman creates a delightful one-screen wonder playing the role as seriously as if he were in a straightforward adaptation. There were, however, inevitable laughter outbreaks so intense they halted shooting. But the obvious fun the cast and crew had during production shines through to the finished product.
It’s all the more astonishing then how meticulously crafted the entire thing is, including details that a more careless director would miss. Take Brooks’s use of the old gag in which Frederick must hide a corpse he has stolen for his work from a patrolling constable and, not having been quick enough to hide it, uses the corpse’s head as his own. The physical aspects of the scene are obvious, but it’s the subtle “hand” jokes that make the moment.
We smile in Young Frankenstein not only because we are amused but also because we recognize exactly what aspect of old horror movies are being spoofed. They just had to throw in the “It’s Alive!” line when the monster (played wonderfully by Peter Boyle) rises from the operating table, but best of all is the revolving bookshelf sequence. These are all musts in haunted houses, but Young Frankenstein not only matches the look but the characterizations of old horror movies. Inga (Teri Garr) is the woman who must be protected from everything, modernized in that she’s the one sexually pursuing Frederick; Frederick s brilliant arrogant scientist, Igor is the kind of creepy comic relief Dwight Frye might have found funny, and as the neurotic castle keeper with a secret Cloris Leachman would have made Una O’Connor proud.
But Peter Boyle takes home the trophy as the grunting monster. Even in the context of humor he makes us feel sorry for the creature, but at least here he finds his own bride, thanks to some tweaking by the comic ingenuity of Mel Brooks.