Ashamed of his family history, Fredrick Frankenstein (Gene Wilder, and it’s pronounced Fronk-un-steen) attempts to distance himself from the work of his infamous grandfather, but finds the pull too great when he inherits the family estate in Transylvania and discovers his ancestor might have been onto something. With the help of his sporadically hunchbacked assistant Igor (Marty Feldman), the voluptuous Inga (Teri Garr) and terrifying housekeeper Frau Blücher (Cloris Leachman), young Frankenstein attempts to recreate his grandfather’s work, re-animating a gigantic corpse (Peter Boyle).
As well as being an inclusion on the 1001 List, this review is being written as part of the Mel Brooks blogathon, being celebrated over at The Cinematic Frontier in celebration of Brooks’ 90th birthday two days ago. You can see more links for the blogathon here. This was technically my second viewing of Young Frankenstein, but the first was a long time ago – before I’d seen the 1930s Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein – so I didn’t remember a great deal. In fact, those are probably my two least favourite of the classic Universal Monsters movies, for no reason other than I find them disjointed and boring, so I was looking forward to some ripe spoofing from Brooks.
Sadly I was a little disappointed. It could be a generational thing, with this being made in an era of Hollywood that I’m less familiar with, but the comedy quote seemed very low here. There are often huge sections of the film, minutes long, seemingly devoid of jokes and instead being loving creations of famous scenes. Most notably is the experiment itself, which sees Wilder’s increasingly erratic scientist transforming into an all-out mad doctor, his eyes bugging out so much he makes Feldman look almost normal. If it weren’t for Igor’s deadpan “No, not the third switch!” and Inga misunderstanding the doctor’s request to “Raise him” as being a come-on the scene could be easily switched into a non-comedic film. Elsewhere some of the jokes seem so tired they must surely have felt hokey even back in 1974, and some are spelled out so clearly all trace of humour is dried up. For example, after the aforementioned experiment fails, a dejected Frankenstein states in a prolonged fashion that they must accept the disappointment with quiet dignity and grace. He solemnly turns around and begins to walk away, before turning back and physically attacking the lifeless corpse. The joke has been made, I smiled a little despite the drown out inevitability, right up until Feldman turned to the camera and underlined it all by saying “Quiet dignity and grace?” It’s not necessary, and it made me feel like the film-makers thought I was stupid and wouldn’t get the joke.
That being said, overall I had fun with the film. A lot of the comedy did land, and I’m sure people going in with little knowledge of the film will have a great time, particularly with some of the more unexpected moments, with the song-and-dance number being a particular highlight. Peter Boyle’s portrayal of the Creature, yelling in a guttural fashion but in time to Puttin’ on the Ritz, cannot be viewed without a massive grin sewn onto your face. Similarly the bait-and-switch of the scene in which the Creature encounters a little girl was terrific. There were moments when I thought they might actually make a huge mis-step in brutally murdering the child, but the way it actually plays out was nice. The supporting characters were for the most part used just enough to remain funny despite the relatively one-note nature of their personas. Inga is always horny and desperate to please her master as best she can, whilst making (and receiving) as many innuendos as possible (“What knockers!”), whilst something so simple as the horses whinnying every time someone says Frau Blücher’s name is a stroke of genius, and I cannot explain why it always drew a smile. And Gene Hackman makes a very unexpected cameo as a blind man unexpectedly hosting the Creature for dinner, in a scene that was enjoyable and not unwelcome, whilst not really being all that funny.
The climax comes together very hurriedly, especially with regards to the involvement of Frankenstein’s fiancee Elizabeth (Madeline Kahn), and I was more than a little disappointed that the whole thing ends on a dick joke, but for the most part this was a very enjoyable film. Of the Mel Brooks films that I’ve seen I definitely prefer Spaceballs, Blazing Saddles and The Producers, but that’s possibly more to do with the specific genres being covered or lampooned. If you like classic horror, this is a must-watch for you.
Choose Film 7/10