There’s a moment early on in Mel Brooks’s 1974 parody of the classic Boris Karloff Frankenstein films that encapsulates Gene Wilder’s inspired performance as Frederick “Frahnk-en-steen.” He’s teaching neurology, a respectable scientist running from his family legacy of not-so-respectable scientists—a sore spot one student presses him on until Wilder, emphatically denouncing his ancestry, unwittingly plunges a scalpel into his own thigh.
Watch Wilder’s expression as he realizes what he’s just done. He can’t scream or panic; that would only prove the student’s point. So he tries to play it off—a potentially life-threatening injury! You can see the calculation in Wilder’s eyes, the way he casually crosses his leg in front of the protruding blade handle, the forced restraint in his voice as he dismisses the class.
It’s a small moment in the scheme of the film, quickly forgotten, but it’s masterfully done, a standout in a career full of such moments for Wilder. And it’s a perfect example of what makes Young Frankenstein hold up while so many other comedies just no longer seem as funny as time passes and senses of humor change.
Small moments—they’re the secret sauce to making a comedy stand the test of time.
Of course, the movie has its share of iconic set pieces: the “Puttin’ on the Ritz” scene is rightfully the most referenced. But once your initial glee at the unexpected turn has subsided, it’s how Brooks, Wilder and Monster Peter Boyle commit to the gag that makes it worth revisiting: the practiced way Wilder slips the Monster a treat for a trick well performed, like a SeaWorld trainer coaxing a dolphin. Then there’s the Monster’s eagerness to please as he concentrates on remembering his steps and strains his vocal cords to bellow the refrain.
Even within the big moments, it’s the little moments that count.
Long after you’ve memorized all the one-liners, the finer touches keep you coming back. They’re the sign of an actor not only inhabiting their part but being in sync with the director and the material, so that they can take what’s on the page and elevate it: a sly reaction or bit of business, an inflection that adds a dash of spice to a throwaway line. And when a whole cast is firing on all cylinders and pulling together, it can be magic.
Ovaltine has never sounded so disconcertingly suggestive as it does from Cloris Leachman’s Mrs. Danvers character, Frau Blücher. No 1930s coquette has ever been as cloying or sadistic as Madeline Kahn’s Elizabeth dangling sex over Wilder. No cat-and-mouse detective interview was ever so loaded as Kenneth Mars’s mechanical-armed Inspector Kemp cheating at darts.
And what about Marty Feldman’s hunchback assistant, Igor? He’s constantly mugging for the camera with his trademark bulging eyes, has a hump that seems to spontaneously switch sides on his back, and cheekily insists “Frahnk-en-steen” call him “Eye-gor.” He exists, like a Shakespearean fool, outside the action, commenting on it, almost as if the whole film is from his point of view and the parody is his. Payback for generations of servitude, bowing and scraping for these mad scientists. Now, like Poe’s vengeful dwarf, Hop-Frog, he’s trolling them all. It’s an unusual choice, and probably made instinctually. That’s how it is when the creative mojo is flowing.
Also unusual for the time (and to not enough of a degree, today), the female cast gets many shining moments. But, admittedly, their roles mostly revolve around sex. Is this a comment on the source material? Maybe, in part. Though if there is one aspect of the film that perhaps hasn’t aged as well, it’s this.
Elizabeth’s coupling with the Monster could be viewed as problematic, perpetuating a kind of “‘no’ really means ‘yes’” fallacy. But an argument could also be made that the film is quite sex-positive. Both Frankenstein and Elizabeth are trapped in a loveless engagement—it’s sex with other, better matched partners that frees them both.
Teri Garr’s Inga, at first glance a European sexpot a la The Producers’s Ulla, is genuinely caring and game for anything, at one point even helping to physically subdue the escaped Monster. The movie doesn’t judge her for her affair with Frankenstein, which by the film’s end has blossomed into a loving marriage. Likewise, Elizabeth, hemmed in by the expectations of her station, has never been able to cut loose until she at last finds the “Sweet Mystery of Life.” She too winds up in a fulfilling relationship, which is revealed in a hilariously domestic scene with the Monster.
Their final moment, the Monster reading the newspaper in bed after a tedious night with the in-laws, is just one of many that are so inspired you almost wish Brooks had milked them a little longer. But there’s no time to waste—the movie is so packed, you can just feel Brooks and Wilder’s glee as they tossed around ideas. Their love for the sandbox they’re playing in is palpable.
Do you need to see the original films to appreciate the parody? Not really. Just as “Frankenstein” popularly came to refer to the Monster, the Universal films and iconography have taken on a life of their own, far outside Mary Shelley’s original vision, in the collective imagination. But if you do check out the Karloff versions (the first two are great), you’ll take extra delight in the pastiches, from Gerald Hirschfeld’s beautiful cinematography to little touches like Brooks tracking down the original film’s lab equipment.
More of the little things, all working together. It’s a rare film where the whole is greater than the sum of the parts.
And we continue to see its influence. The sign at the “brain depository” instructing to slip brains through the slot after-hours is a sight-gag that no doubt has an entry in the Simpsons playbook, while Gene Hackman’s cameo as a hapless blindman playing host to the Monster is a direct model for Will Ferrell’s sightless turn in Anchorman 2.
We’re still going back to the well. Maybe that’s the second mark of a classic.
With the one-two punch of Blazing Saddles, Brooks practically invented the modern spoof and cemented his place as the king of parody for decades. But he’d never quite capture the inspired magic of Young Frankenstein again.
Young Frankenstein will be screening outdoors at Friendship Park in Mendocino Village on Sept. 24 at 7:30 PM.
Buy Tickets here.
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