*** 1\2 (out of ****)
Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks bring the comedy / horror genre back to life in "Young Frankenstein" (1974).
What first and foremost allows "Young Frankenstein" to succeed as a motion picture is the fact both Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks have respect for the source material. Only because they present the Frankenstein story properly and follow it closely does "Young Frankenstein" work as a whole and is a prime example of how to make a comedy / horror movie.
"Young Frankenstein" understands you need to have a balancing act between the comedy and horror. You need to work within the confines of the horror genre and gently poke fun at it. If you don't treat the horror part somewhat seriously and play into the now standard horror cliches then what you have is an entire movie that is a joke and seems silly and childish.
It has been said, by Gene Wilder nonetheless, that going into pre-production for "Young
Frankenstein", Mr. Wilder did not want this movie to be another typical Mel Brooks comedy, meaning vulgar sex jokes and a comedic style which throws 50 jokes at a dart board in the hopes one of them will hit the bullseye. Mr. Wilder even told Mel Brooks he did not want him to appear in the movie. Mr. Brooks, wanting to be like Alfred Hitchcock, used to write small cameos for himself in his previous movies; "The Twelve Chairs" (1970) and "Blazing Saddles" (1974).
"Young Frankenstein" follows the Gene Wilder approach to comedy moreso than the Mel Brooks approach. The "Wilder style" is to take your time to explain the plot and the jokes will come later. Mr. Wilder feels once you get the basic plot points out to the audience then you can tell a joke. Pay attention to the structure of "Young Frankenstein". Events and situations are introduced and then comes the punchline. While the style is not typical for Mr. Brooks "Young Frankenstein" however is able to get many laughs and create several funny sequences.
Mel Brooks often gets a bad rap. When people think of a "Mel Brooks comedy" no one thinks of what goes into it. Very few people give Mr. Brooks credit as a talented filmmaker and an artist. I guess it is difficult to think of someone as an artist when they put fart jokes into their movies but "Young Frankenstein" is a "mature" movie. The movie does display Mr. Brooks' ability as a director. He knows where to put his camera. He understands the fundamentals of filmmaking. If you believe all Mel Brooks can do is make a movie where a guy punches a horse watch "Young Frankenstein" and you will see there is more to the man than that.
The main sources of inspiration for "Young Frankenstein", besides Mary Shelley's novel "Frankenstein", are the Universal Studio 1930s horror movies in particular "Frankenstein" (1931), "Bride of Frankenstein" (1935) and the lesser known "Son of Frankenstein" (1939). It is mainly "Frankenstein" and "Son of Frankenstein" which Mr. Brooks and Mr. Wilder target.
Although it is not required that someone be well acquainted with the earlier "Frankenstein" movies to enjoy "Young Frankenstein" I believe, as is the case with most spoofs and the movies of Mr. Brooks, the more familiar you are with the source material the funnier you will find Mr. Brooks' movies. If only because you will be able to tell how Mr. Brooks is making fun of the original. You will have a reference point. For example, when I first saw "High Anxiety" (1977) I laughed but I wasn't terribly familiar with the work of Alfred Hitchcock, it wasn't until I saw more of Mr. Hitchcock's movies that I was able to see how clever "High Anxiety" is and the many ways the movie incorporates different Hitchcock movies together.
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (Wilder) learns he has inherited the estate of his grandfather Dr. Victor Frankenstein (in the original movie his name is Henry Frankenstein) and must travel to Transylvania to claim it. Frederick though has tried to distance himself from his famous grandfather and his work, going as far as saying his last name is pronounced Fronk-en-steen and dismissing the very notion that it is possible to bring dead tissue back to life.
When arriving in Transylvania Frederick is greeted by Igor (Marty Feldman) and Inga (Terri Garr), both of whom will serve as his assistants, and taken to the Frankenstein Castle where the three of them meet the housekeeper Frau Blucher (Cloris Leachman).
The arrival of Frederick causes suspicion among the townspeople who worry Frederick will follow in his grandfather's footsteps and create another monster. Of course, they are right to be suspicious. After reading his grandfather's manual entitled "How I Did It", Frederick begins to believe his grandfather was right. It is possible to create life. This allows for the introduction of the character Inspector Kemp (Kenneth Mars) whom the townspeople ask to meet with Frederick and inquire about his intentions.
While "Young Frankenstein" may seem to take a slower approach than is usual for Mr. Brooks audiences need to keep their eyes open for all the subtle gags flowing through-out the picture. Pay attention to the moment Frau Blucher greets Frederick, Igor and Inga. She is holding a candelabra and ask the three of them to stay close to her as they walk up a staircase. If you are paying attention you will notice not one of the candles in the candelabra is lit! If you look closely at the Monster (Peter Boyle) you will notice he has a zipper on the side of his neck instead of stitches. When Frederick is attempting to generate life into the Monster he ask Igor to pull three switches. The third switch is labeled "the works". Finally as Frederick arrives in Transylvania he spots a shoeshine boy and says "pardon me boy, is this the Transylvania station?" To which the boy replies "ja, ja, track 29. Oh, can I give you a shine?" These are actually lyrics to a song "Chattanooga Choo Choo" made popular by bandleader Glenn Miller.
Another reason why "Young Frankenstein" works is because the actors are playing it straight. There is very little of performers "winking at the camera". Gene Wilder possesses a cool demeanor as he seems to be channeling Basil Rathbone, who starred in "Son of Frankenstein". Mr. Wilder never goes in for the obvious laugh. Only Marty Feldman I would dare say is visibly having a good time and wants the audience to know he is in on the joke. He may be the character children respond to most. Mr. Feldman and Mr. Wilder do have a good amount of chemistry in their scenes together. The contrast of their styles works to their advantage.
The movie was nominated for two Academy Awards; best sound and best adapted screenplay (Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks) unfortunately though the cinematography was not nominated. "Young Frankenstein" also remains one of Mel Brooks' most popular movies and is routinely listed among the funniest comedies of all-time.
"Young Frankenstein" is a showcase of Mr. Brooks' talents as a filmmaker. The movie shows restraint but is still able to produce big laughs.The jokes generate from the characters and grow from the plot, not bombastic, out of left field, breaking the fourth wall kind of jokes.