Less than 20 years ago, the filmmakers (and using that term lightly) Aaron Seltzer and Jason Friedberg were making movies like Date Movie, Epic Movie and Disaster Movie. There were disgusting and not in the funny way. There’s a difference between a fart joke that is funny and someone just pissing all over the place to be pissing. They mocked pop culture items that many people probably have already long forgotten.
Anyway, the duo was trying to be the next Mel Brooks or Zucker-Abrahams-Zucker. The filmmakers had gotten a writing credit for the surprise hit parody Scary Movie, but it was later revealed by Marlon Wayans that his brother, Kenan Ivory, who directed the movie, didn’t use one joke Seltzer and Friedberg wrote. My guess it was due to avoid any legal matters since they had a similar parody movie in circulation. Give them writing credit, the minimum paycheck allowed and whatever royalties Hollywood accounting will allow becauser a lawsuit could creat problems.
By this time, Brooks was changing his style to Broadway with The Producers after the last of his movies, Dracula: Dead and Loving It and Robin Hood: Men in Tights hadn’t been so well received. It’s hard to believe because in the 1970s, Brooks had been on top of his game. It’s one thing to have a hit movie but to have two within the same year is a feat many filmmakers aspire to.
Blazing Saddles opened in February of 1974 and became the highest grossing comedy of all time for a while. Brooks had intended to make the movie with Richard Pryor and Gig Young. However, Warner Brothers refused to allow Brooks to allow Pryor, who also co-wrote the script, in the role of Sheriff Bart. Young had been brought on but was struggling with health problems as well as alcohol abuse.
So, Brooks turned to Gene Wilder to play The Waco Kid, otherwise known as Jim. But Wilder would only accept the role on one condition – that Brooks helped him make Young Frankenstein. As Brooks would later say, Wilder had an idea of himself playing the grandson of the famous mad scientist who doesn’t want to be associated with him. Brooks and Wilder worked on the script while filming Saddles and then went to make it.
Filmed in black and white, Brooks manages to direct the movie in a way that invokes the old Universal Pictures monster movies of the 1930s and 1940s. The production even used the original lab equipment that had been designed by Kenneth Strickfaden. Brooks uses the same style of screen wipes and irises for screen transitions. Also Brooks and cinematographer Gerald Hirschfield decided to avoid many of the close-up shots that had become more common in recent movie making.
Brooks has said you make fun of movies you love. That’s why the movie has the look and feel of the old monster movies. It would be one thing for someone who didn’t like the old movies to make a bunch of tasteless, dumb jokes about Frankenstein and his monster. Yet, Brooks and Wilder grew up on these movies. They love them.
The movie takes place during the same era in which these movies were popular as Wilder plays Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, a lecturing physician at an American medical school. However, he refuses for his surname to pronounce the same. He’s often correcting people saying, it’s “Fronk-een-steen.” He also refuses to acknowledge the work of his late grandfather, Victor Frankenstein, who he calls a sick man and even says, “My grandfather’s work was doo-doo.”
When his late great-grandfather Beaufort von Frankenstein passes away, Frederick learns he’s inherited the estate in Transylvania. Engaged to be married to the lovely but critical Elizabeth (Madelin Kahn), he travels to Transylvania where he is met by his assistant Igor (Marty Feldman), who says his name is pronounced “Eye-gor” and is unaware of his hunchback hump that seems to travel from side to side. There’s also the young, voluptuous and simple-minded Inga (Teri Garr) who will also be an assistant.
At the castle, he is met by Frau Blucher (Cloris Leachman), a housekeeper, who’s mere mention of her name makes the horses become restless. When Frederick asks her about his grandfather’s private library, she pretends she doesn’t know, but Frederick notices something is wrong. Later that night, he and Inga hear some violin playing and discover a secret passage into Victor’s private lab where he discovers a book detailing how Victor was able to resurrect a dead body.
Fascinated by the book, Frederick, who earlier dismissed the work, now thinks he could make it possbile. He along with Igor steal the body of an executed criminal. However, Igor screws up when he’s told to steal the brain of Hans Delbruck, a recently deceased scientest, and drops it on the ground. He then steals another brain labeled “Abnormal” thinking it meant “Abby Normal.” With the creature (Peter Boyle) resurrected, it’s quick to anger and easily startled by fire, escaping the castle with help by Frau Blucher who admits she was Victor’s girlfriend and pointed Frederick toward the private library.
At the same time, the villagers have voiced concerns over a Frankenstein being back in the castle, so they ask Inspector Kemp (Kenneth Mars), who has his own mechanical fake arm, to question Frederick. Kemp is skeptical but Frederick plays it off that he isn’t making monsters in his lab.
The Monster approaches a young girl throwing flower petals in a lake. He and the Monster bond but when she ask what they throw in the water next, he looks sheepish and toward the camera. This is a reference to the original 1931 movie in which the Monster threw a young girl in water and inadvertently killed her by drowning thinking they were playing. The scene has become notorious and controversial because some versions have cut this part.
Another classic scene involves the Monster coming upon a lonely Blind Man (Gene Hackman) who litterally almost kills him with kindness by pouring hot soup on the Monsters lap and setting his thumb on fire. Hackman had been friends with Wilder since their days during the production of Bonnie & Clyde. He had previously won an Oscar for The French Connection, the same year Leachman won a Best Supporting Oscar for The Last Picture Show.
Hackman’s cameo is one of the movie’s best scenes because it parodies the scene in Bride of Frankenstein where a blind man is the kindest one to the Monster. It should be noted that Brooks and Wilder had a little quid-pro-quo issue about Young Frankenstein. Wilder thought it would be best if Brooks didn’t appear as it would be too foolish to see him on screen. Brooks reluctantly agreed. However, he still appers during this scene. Or at least his arm does. During the shots of the Blind Man pouring the soup on the Monster, it’s Brooks’ arm holding the ladel. Brooks would also provide some off-camera noises such as a howl from a werewolf as well as that of a cat.
Eventually, Frederick, Inga and Igor are able to capture the Monster where Frederick works to tame him. Later, he presents the Monster during a performance at a theater where they do “Putting on the Ritz.” This was another disagreement Brooks and Wilder had where Wilder really wanted the song and dance number. However, Brooks, no stranger to musical performances, was at first skeptical. However, since, Wilder was so adamant and passionate about adding it, Brooks decided to keep it in.
What makes Young Frankenstein work as one of the best comedies ever is how Brooks is able to assemble a cast that works off each other. It’s easy to throw a bunch of funny people into a scene and have them just spew out jokes. But that’s the current problem with comedies where every actor has the have the last joke. Hackman, Leachman and Boyle up until this time were mostly doing more serious movies. Wilder and Feldman are a great comedic duo. Brooks commented during the scene where Igor is telling Frederick about the “Abby Normal” brain, the entire crew was cracking up. And Kahn and Garr bring more to the roles than being just eye candy. Garr’s obviously bad German accent works when she says things like “Put ze candle back!” or “Would you like to have a roll in ze hay?”
While the movie does have some of the raunchy humor that Brooks has brought in Blazing Saddles, he keeps it more clean. One of the funniest jokes is one of the simplest when the Monster is groaning coming alive as Frederick, Inga and Igor are in another room eating. When Igor asks what they’re eating, Frederick responds and then the Monster lets out a load groan that Frederick mistakes for a “yummy sound.” It’s silly but it works.
And the movie has had some popular fans. Aerosmith named their hit song “Walk This Way” after the “walk this way” gag that Igor tells Frederick. Brooks originally wanted to cut this joke but the test audiences liked it and it was left in. And the rest is history.
As the movie almost reaches its 50th year anniversary, most of the people who made it are gone. Brooks is still alive as is Hackman who has retired. Garr had to retire from acting as she is suffering from multiple sclerosis. Boyle, Kahn, Mars, Feldman and Wilder have all since passed away. But seeing they all came together to make this great comedy classic is a great legacy to leave.
What do you think? Please comment.