Monday, October 8, 2012

Classic Films in Focus: YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974)



Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and parody is, at its best, imitation with a wink and a nudge. That affectionate sense of parody permeates Young Frankenstein (1974), with Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder demonstrating their great appreciation for James Whale's classic movies, Frankenstein (1931) and The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), throughout their brilliantly funny treatment of Mary Shelley's Gothic tale. Often ranked as one of the funniest movies ever made, Young Frankenstein offers plenty of laughs that anyone can enjoy, but the best gags unfold only for those who recognize the playful subversion of the original films.

Gene Wilder stars as Frederick Frankenstein, the reluctant heir to the family estate and the family business of resurrecting the dead. Leaving his intended bride, Elizabeth (Madeline Kahn), behind, Frederick returns to the ancestral home to claim his inheritance, where he finds new companions in bizarre henchman Igor (Marty Feldman), buxom assistant Inga (Teri Garr), and dour housekeeper Frau Blücher (Cloris Leachman). Together they build a new creature (Peter Boyle), which inevitably gets loose to wreak havoc on the countryside, much to the disgruntlement of the villagers, who have suffered harassment of this type all too often before.

Brooks and Wilder wrote the screenplay together, and they were lucky enough to get Whale's original laboratory sets for the film, a detail that shows how much the comedy respects and appreciates its source material. In fact, Whale's Bride of Frankenstein comes shockingly close to being parodic already, so wicked is the sense of humor that pervades the film, and Brooks and Wilder have only to push here and pull there to make the comic possibilities inherent in the Whale films come bounding out. The scene with the monster and the blind man (Gene Hackman) is just whiskers away from the incident seen in Bride, yet it makes the whole exchange hilariously bizarre.

A superbly funny cast helps to keep the jokes moving. Wilder plays Frankenstein like a cross between Colin Clive and William Powell, and Teri Garr is delightfully nubile as Inga. The impossibly bug-eyed Marty Feldman seems born to play Igor, and his constant breaking of the fourth wall makes the audience part of the fun. As the creature, Peter Boyle has a round, baby-faced quality that evokes the idea of a temperamental toddler, which goes a long way toward making him a sympathetic character, even when he starts smashing things. Madeline Kahn has some wonderful scenes, especially when she is busy keeping Wilder's eager hero at arm's length, and Cloris Leachman's stony-faced housekeeper recalls Una O'Connor's screeching Minnie in The Bride of Frankenstein while also evoking all the stereotypes of the Gothic stock character.

Young Frankenstein is much funnier when the film’s rich source material is familiar, but it offers enough sight gags, physical comedy, and sexual humor to keep almost any adult viewer thoroughly entertained. Fans of the original films, however, will particularly appreciate the care and detail in this comic homage. For more of the same, see Blazing Saddles (1974), in which Brooks and company take on the conventions of the classic Western, and High Anxiety (1977), which gives the same treatment to the films of Alfred Hitchcock. If you really enjoy parodies of classic movies and genres, move on to Murder by Death (1976) and Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid (1982). For more of Dr. Frankenstein and his monster, see Son of Frankenstein (1939), The Curse of Frankenstein (1957), and Tim Burton’s new horror comedy, Frankenweenie (2012).

An earlier version of this review originally appeared on Examiner.com. The author retains all rights to this content.