There’s an extended scene early on in Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein, where we see the titular Dr. Frankenstein being awoken in the night, and then following this strange music coming from beneath his grandfather’s castle. I can remember one Autumn night, at the tender age of 11, where I made a similar descent into my parents’ basement due to some strange noise that kept me from falling asleep that night. Only it wasn’t the sound of Cloris Leachman’s violin, but instead the sound of my dad’s laughter in response to this black and white comedy that was playing on cable. I can’t remember what exactly drew me in (it was probably Marty Feldman’s real-life googley eyes), but I instantly made it my prerogative to stay up watching this movie as long as my dad would let me. But more than anything, I remember I laughed a lot.
If you’re a fan of comedy, or just a fan of movies in general, you probably had some similar childhood experience with a comedy that opened up this portal to a new world of things that “adults found funny”. As far as I can recall, Young Frankenstein was this movie for me, since it was filled with plenty of risque references, while also being steeped in this kind of classic movie style which all seemed very sophisticated, and yet was also irreverent and joke-filled enough to appeal to an 11-year-old. And though I’m not sure this was my first exposure to Mel Brooks (since I’d probably seen Spaceballs by this point), it was definitely the movie that made me a fan, and in the process taught me a lot more Jewish slang than a pre-teen living in suburban Seattle could possibly have any use for.
However, being that I became more or less obsessed with Young Frankenstein for a short period of my life, I ended up watching it a lot more than I probably should have. Nearly every one of the movie’s jokes eventually became engrained in my mind, and because of that I went many years without watching it for fear of it feeling stale. Fortunately, during those years I became significantly more interested in older movies, and thus ended up seeing a number of the Universal horror films that Young Frankenstein serves as an homage to. Which for those who don’t know, the film centers on Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (he’d prefer it be pronounced Fron-ken-steen), the supposed grandson of Victor Frankenstein, the character from Mary Shelley’s novel as well as the 1931 film it’s based on. After Victor’s death, Frederick inherits the elder Frankenstein’s estate, and after spending time at his castle, his desire to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps (Vootsteps! Vootsteps!) by bringing back the dead ensues, as well as a good dose of hilarity.
More than anything, this film is a masterclass in homage, as it sticks pretty faithfully to the style and tone of those old Universal movies, while also poking fun at them with the utmost reverence. John Morris’s score does a great job of conveying the lurching, Victorian feel of those early monster movies, while also pointing towards this unexpected innocence that undercuts Peter Boyle’s misunderstood monster. Also, director of photography Gerald Hirschfeld deserves credit for, again, completely replicating the look and feel of those old Universal movies with his black-and-white cinematography. In fact, because the film was shot in that crisp ‘70s B&W style, this might be the most visually arresting film ever made that also happens to be really funny.
And how funny do I mean by “really funny”? Well, like any comedy made over thirty years ago, there’s certainly gonna be some stuff that doesn’t completely hold up. The jokes in reference the monster’s uh, manhood, in particular seem kind of immature rather than edgy when viewed now. But that’s probably because about 80% of jokes now are about dicks, and perhaps it speaks to the film’s boldness that it came out only six years after the advent of the MPAA, and therefore was doing dick jokes when dick jokes in movies were barely even a thing. But really, there is just a plethora of hilarious lines and exchanges in this movie, many of which I’ve tried to keep myself from quoting throughout this review. And that’s on top of the fact there’s also a bunch of great physical comedy as well, which culminates in the film’s iconic rendition of “Puttin’ On The Ritz”.
Upon revisiting this film, I was also reminded of my one quibble with it when I was younger, and that’s that it was too long. Seeing as though Young Frankenstein runs at a mere 106 minutes, it’s hard for me to make this case anymore. Though I think this came less from the movie’s actual running time than the fact that the second half felt like it dragged a bit, since there weren’t as many jokes towards the end of the film. But looking at Young Frankenstein now, I like a lot of the quieter, less comedic moments that we get between the monster and Dr. Frahnkensteen towards the movie’s back half. Also, it doesn’t hurt that as the film progresses, we get one great comedic performance after another, as Kenneth Mars, Madeline Kahn, and Gene Hackman (!) all have brief, but very memorable turns in this movie.
But for all Young Frankenstein has going for it productionwise, gagwise and castwise, this is undeniably Gene Wilder’s movie. It was Wilder who originally came up with the idea for the movie, as well as co-wrote the script with Brooks, and Young Frankenstein always has this sense of Wilder just putting everything into this performance in every way possible. There are scenes where Wilder goes so big that it seems that he’s trying to tap into his character’s repressed madness rather than merely trying to get a laugh. And yet, there are also scenes that Wilder has with either Teri Garr or Marty Feldman where he does so much with just a subtle look or a grunt. Also, I’m pretty sure I will always find it funny when Gene Wilder gets so mad at one of his students that he stabs himself in the leg with a scalpel. It’s just one of those things where even when I know it’s coming, like much of this film, it still never ceases to make me laugh.