#29 — Young Frankenstein (Mel Brooks, 1974)
Like a lot of people who devote way too much mental energy to considering the best and worst of cinema, I have a distinct and enduring admiration for those filmmakers who artfully explore the intricacies of the human condition at 24 frames per second. I want movies to challenge me, startle me, upend my world view. I want to discover reservoirs of deeper understanding–of people, of places, of eras, of the world itself–that I didn’t imagine possible before the projector, literal or metaphorical, flickered to life. I want the resounding intellect of Kubrick, Malick, Bergman and the gutty fearlessness of Scorsese, Cassavetes, Altman. On the other hand, it’s hard to deny the pleasure of spectacular silliness.
Young Frankenstein was the fourth feature film directed by Mel Brooks and the second to be released in 1974, following the smash success Blazing Saddles at the beginning of the year. The earlier film, which was promoted with the unofficial alternate title Never Give a Saga an Even Break, established Brooks’s gift for parody, which was really only hinted at in his first two features. While that took on the Hollywood western broadly as a genre, Young Frankenstein was far more precise in its target, and that specificity helped in the inspired creation of what is far and way the best film that Brooks ever signed his name to.
Affectionately mocking the various Frankenstein films in Hollywood history, particularly 1931’s Frankenstein and 1935’s Bride of Frankenstein, the comedy casts Gene Wilder (also credited with co-writing the screenplay) as Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, the grandson of the wild scientific genius introduced in the novel by Mary Shelley. He prefers a slightly different pronunciation, an attempt to distance himself from the family legacy, although that proves fruitless as he’s soon conducting strikingly similar experiments. Brooks inverts the fraught drama of the original story, knowing that only the slightest twist can make grave intensity into giddy splendor. Wilder, in a masterful performance, never betrays amusement at the goings on, which is of course what makes it all wildly funny.
Above all else, Brooks loves gags, of the sort that once bounded from the stages of vaudeville or the musty rooms of the fabled Borscht Belt, the latter of which was in its sunset. Bathed in the sort of affection that Brooks has for them, the jokes don’t need to be fresh or even all that original. Instead, it’s the conviction of the telling that sells them, in the same way that the Marx Brothers could make even the clumsiest, goofiest material into beams of comic genius through their unabashed energy and pinpoint timing. Young Frankenstein bubbles with the headlong spirit of a bright band of gifted performers–besides Wilder, the dream cast includes Madeline Kahn, Peter Boyle, Cloris Leachman, Marty Feldman, Kenneth Mars and, blessedly, Gene Hackman–who fully buy into the anarchic absurdity of it all.
Given all this, it would be easy for the film to become woefully sloppy. Certainly just about any modern equivalent falls into this trap. Brooks commits himself to finer mechanics of film construction just as assuredly as he does to the art of the joke. Crisply, smartly edited by John C. Howard and boasting beautiful black and white cinematography by Gerald Hirschfeld, the film is not carelessly cobbled together to serve the humor, but is instead a fine piece of cinematic storytelling all on its own. The fact that it’s funny as can be almost comes across as a bonus. Young Frankenstein is one of those rare movies that seems to have taken delight itself and condensed it down to a delectable single-film serving.