One-line review: A superlative comedy that gets its laughs by being a sincere ode to the originals.

Young Frankenstein is the touchstone of movie comedies, all muscle and no fat, like a tight five-minute stand-up comedy set. And that is no accident. Director Mel Brooks started a trend by showing the film’s rushes to the common folk rather than film executives to fine-tune the film. As a result, the original cut of over two and a half hours was reduced to around ninety minutes by retaining only the parts that got laughs in the screenings. Like any great comedy, it also has a solid emotional core. The film is essentially a love story between a scientist and his son: the creature he brought to life. The film also shows why the best comedies are those played with utmost seriousness that allow them to transcend to ridiculousness. We laugh lovingly as our dear ones slip on banana peels. Mel Brooks wanted to satirize the horror genre, and YF draws heavily from its predecessors, especially the Bride of Frankenstein. That’s why Brooks also wanted the film to be in black and white so that it would look like the original. But Columbia backed out when they heard that Brooks wanted to shoot the movie in black and white. The film went into production before Mel Brooks became a phenom after the success of Blazing Saddles, so financing was difficult. But luckily a new producer, Michael Druskoff, from Fox, picked it up. 

In his memoir, Mel Brooks recalls how everything fell into place effortlessly for Young Frankenstein. For example, many think the movie has the best comedic cast. But the unusual and perfect casting of Marty Feldman as Igor, and Peter Boyle as the monster was just luck. Gene Wilder’s agent had also recently begun representing Feldman and Boyle and wanted them all to work together. Brooks also thanks his luck that much of the lab equipment from the original Frankenstein film was still available, adding to YF’s authenticity. In addition, cinematographer Gerald Hirshfield sharpened the images so that the actors would appear brighter than their surroundings, a symbolic interpretation that the film is a satire of the originals. Mel Brooks’ brief to the actors was that you are in a comedy, but you don’t know it; only the audience knows. Finally, John Morris’ hauntingly beautiful score provides the melodic counterpoint to the comedic scenes.  

What makes Young Frankenstein the perfect comedy and eminently rewatchable? First is its plotting and writing. Gene Wilder had the idea for the plot while shooting Blazing Saddles and wanted Brooks to direct it. Brooks agreed that he would if they worked on the script together and it turned out to be something worthwhile. And it did. Wilder insisted that Brooks shouldn’t act in it because he wanted nothing to interfere with Brooks’ focus. Wilder says he learned the art of scriptwriting from Brooks: write the first draft and then break it down with a sledgehammer; whatever remains standing goes into the final script. This attention to detail is evident in the film; all the loose ends are carefully and lovingly tied up. For example, Dr. Frankenstein does a poor job throwing darts because all of them fly outdoors instead of hitting the dartboard; but later, we see they had precisely hit an outdoor target (Inspector Kemp’s car tires).   

The film is about Fredrick Frankenstein, the grandson of the infamous Dr. Viktor Frankenstein. He is ashamed of his legacy and calls his grandfather’s a do do.” However, the recovery of his grandfather’s will takes him to his grandfather’s castle in Transylvania. He’s received by his sidekick Igor (Marty Feldman), as assistant Inga (Terri Garr), who takes him to the castle where the formidable housekeeper Flau Bucher (Cloris Leachman) awaits them. Even the horses neigh in fear when anyone mentions her name. Flau Bucher was Viktor Frankenstein’s lover and wants his grandson to follow in his footsteps of reviving dead tissue. But since Fredrick will have none of it, she scatters clues on his path. Slowly but surely, the innate Frankenstein streak is aroused, and Frederick creates his monster (Peter Boyle). Many hardships ensue with the monster, including a brain mix-up and the creature’s violent reaction to fire. But at his core, he is a sweet monster craving love. Frederick recognizes this and begins considering him as a son. However, the locals are terrified of the creature. So, Frederick decides to humanize the monster by transferring some of his intellect to it. Frankenstein ends up with Inga, while his fiancé ends up with the humanized monster. The final hilarious twist reveals that the intellect transfer is a win-win for Dr. Frankenstein.

Everyone who worked on the film fondly remembers the fun-filled sets. Brooks says the biggest challenge during the shooting was preventing the crew from ruining shots by laughing. Brooks bought them white handkerchiefs to stuff in their mouths to avoid laughing, and he says one day he looked out to see a sea of people with white handkerchiefs in their mouths and knew he had a hit in his hands. After shooting wrapped, Gene Wilder asked Brooks if they could write a few more scenes because he didn’t want to go home.  

Eventually, the performances elevate the film from excellent to superlative. Gene Wilder plays Dr. Frankenstein with crazed energy; he is self-absorbed and selfish yet irresistible, such is his charm. Wilder goes emotionally from zero to ten and back in minutes, and you can feel his pain. Richard Feldman as Igor is a freak of nature with some of the film’s most ridiculous lines, including “what hump,” which was ad-libbed. Cloris Leachman’s character was modeled on the Mrs. Danvers character from Rebecca; she pulls off some of the most bizarre scenes (like the yes scene with the violin) in the film with her sheer talent. They could have become caricaturish in the hands of a lesser actress. Madeline Karr plays the selfish socialite girlfriend with the right amount of charm that we overlook her selfishness and warm up to her. This was Terri Garr’s first film, and she plays Inga with charming innocence. Kenneth Mars plays Inspector Kemp cartoonishly, yet we never doubt his competence as a cop. Even characters with minor roles, like Danny Goldman as the skeptic medical student and Liam Dunn as the medical subject, are unforgettable. Gene Hackman appears in an unrecognizable hilarious cameo as a blind man whose prayers for some company are answered when the monster walks into his house.        

Why watch it? You mean, why rewatch it? 

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