At the time of its release Young Frankenstein (1974) scored rave reviews, not to mention bringing in big bucks at the box office, and it’s since been enshrined as one of the greatest comedies of all time. I’m not going to argue with that, and I certainly think it’s one of the best looking comedies ever made, with its black-and-white photography, expressionistic lighting, fabulous sets, and a cast whose faces run the gamut from angelic to grotesque (no offence)… but I’d hesitate before calling it the laugh-out-loud funniest I’ve ever seen. Of course, it probably doesn’t help that I haven’t actually seen the classic Frankenstein flicks that it’s affectionately sending up… but even so, there’s a little too much mucking about, too many fourth-wall-breaking looks-to-camera, and not nearly enough character-based banter for my tastes.
On the plus side, co-writer Gene Wilder gave an incredibly committed and tender performance in the title role of the mad professor burdened by destiny… and as co-writer\director Mel Brooks points out on the commentary track, monochrome really becomes him. Many of Wilder’s best scenes were two-handers with the incomparable Marty Feldman, who played his snarky assistant ‘I-gor’, and elicited the loudest chuckles from me, with his snippy line delivery and irreverent antics. Peter Boyle gave an amazingly heartfelt performance as the (mostly mute) ‘Monster’… I’m not sure how P.C. it is to laugh at his strangled attempts to sing “Putting on the Ritz”, but I couldn’t help myself, dammit! Meanwhile, I didn’t even recognise Gene Hackman as ‘The Blind Man’ first time around, but I think that’s a credit to his acting, and the brilliant hair/make-up/costuming.
In a “making of” featurette, Wilder notes that the film’s three female characters weren’t necessarily that great on the page, but they became far more substantial once his immensely talented co-stars brought them to life on-screen. Teri Garr was still a relative newbie at the time, but she brought a wonderful innocence to the role of lab-assistant ‘Inga’ (even when she was talking dirty!), and her faux-German accent was absolutely adorable. Cloris Leachman played it totally straight as the sinister ‘Frau Blücher’ [Neigh!!!], and milked her scant screentime for all it’s worth. That bit where she tried to seduce Frankenstein with various beverages was a definite highlight for me… as was her violin-punctuated-“Yes!”-ing on the stairs. Something to do with the precise repetition of moves, combined with her character’s crazed zeal… gets me every time. And last, but certainly not least, was the marvellous Madeline Kahn, as the hero’s teasingly-untouchable fiancée, ‘Elizabeth’. Besides her stunning beauty and gorgeous voice, Khan was also an incredible comic who ad-libbed several of her funniest lines here… or rather, she added funny words and exclamations to existing lines of dialogue. Slightly off-topic, I watched Paper Moon (1973) on TV a few months back, and while the ending totally ruined it for me, I thought that Kahn’s scenes as a showy (but heartbreakingly self-aware) gold-digger were pure awesomeness. It’s a crying shame she didn’t score more starring roles back in the day, to showcase her abundant talents (both musical and comedic).
OMG: Apparently Mel Brooks adapted this film into a stage musical in 2007, and there’s a cast album featuring Megan Mullally as ‘Elizabeth’, Andrea Martin as ‘Frau Blücher’, and Sutton Foster as ‘Inga’! How did I not know about this before? How do I not own this already?? Tch!