Movies To See Before You Die: “Young Frankenstein”
There are few films that make me smile as often as Young Frankenstein does, and I’m always a bit thrilled when I find someone else who loves it too. Those of us “in the know” could potentially spend hours quoting the film back and forth – I’m terribly partial to the “Werewolf?” scene – and there are few truer facts to me than the fact that more people need to love Young Frankenstein.
A loving spoof (more on that later) of the Frankenstein legend, Mel Brooks‘ 1974 comedy – made on the heels of his commercial success with Blazing Saddles – tells the story of Dr. Fredrick Frankenstein (“It’s pronounced FRONK-en-steen!”). Fredrick (Gene Wilder) inherits his infamous grandfather Victor’s estate, and heads off to Transylvania, leaving his fiancée (Madeleine Kahn) behind, When he arrives he meets hunchback assistant Igor (“It’s pronounced EYE-gor!”; played by Marty Feldman), chambermaid Frau Blucher (Cloris Leachman), and non-hunchback assistant Inga (a fetching young Teri Garr). Once he arrives, he finds his Grandfather’s diary (appropriately titled How I Did It), and begins his own experiment – which plays out with more laughs than Mary Shelley ever intended.
Young Frankenstein vs. Mel Brooks
Few fans of cinema will tell you that their favorite Mel Brooks comedy doesn’t come from the group of Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein, and Spaceballs. The Producers certainly has its supporters – its screenplay won Brooks his only Oscar, and it produced an award winning Broadway sensation – but it still remains unseen by a large amount of viewers. Silent Movie is a personal favorite of mine, but its reliance on slapstick comedy from an era long gone by doesn’t endear it to many modern viewers. Robin Hood: Men In Tights and History of the World – Part I are also fine spoofs in some regards, and High Anxiety wins over Hitchcock fans by spoofing the Master of Suspense, too.
Though those movies have their merits, it’s completely fair to place the trio I first mentioned ahead of the rest of Brooks’ directorial efforts. Spaceballs fans will no doubt point to its spot on look at the Star Wars saga – made long before George Lucas’ prequels spoofed the same films – as a reason why it’s their favorite Brooks film. Blazing Saddles‘ supporters can make a point that Brooks introduced one of the raciest (no pun intended) films of all-time and helped bury the traditional western film in one fell swoop. I won’t argue with them – both films are among the great spoofs of all-time – but the horror fanatic part of my mind certainly pushes me toward Young Frankenstein. And when I consider the fact that Young Frankenstein manages to provide a ton of laughs while offering a whimsical charm that few films this side of 1940 boast, it quickly jumps to the top of Brooks’ filmography.
Young Frankenstein vs. 1974
As I take a look at 1974, I must admit that it’s hard to formulate any argument that puts Young Frankenstein ahead of some of the years’ films from a critical mindset. Looking across the year’s cinematic landscape, I see two masterpieces from Francis Ford Coppola – The Godfather Part II and The Conversation. I see Jack Nicholson in the subversive classic Chinatown, and I see Robert Redford and Paul Newman in Best Picture winner The Sting. There are long titled favorites like The Taking of Pelham One Two Three and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia among the group of films, and there are genre classics like The Texas Chain Saw Massacre and Death Wish out there too.
On the comedic side of things, the case for Young Frankenstein is a little easier to make. I’ll always be a vocal fan of Burt Reynolds and The Longest Yard, but after it and Blazing Saddles I can’t find a comedy from the year (unless we’re counting John Carpenter‘s Dark Star) that I really love. So if I can’t say for sure that Young Frankenstein is the best example of cinema from 1974, I can at least say with certainty that it’s a great film that is definitely the best comedy from its year of release.
Young Frankenstein vs. The Parody/Spoof
If you had told me that I’d click on the Flickchart for all Parody/Spoof films and find Airplane! ranked sixth, I’d have said your brain was “abby something”. Monty Python holds down the top two spots with Monty Python and the Holy Grail and The Life of Brian, but those are followed by Young Frankenstein in the #3 spot.
A lot of younger film fans will point toward the likes of Airplane!, Hot Shots!, and Austin Powers when discussing spoofs, and I agree with them to an extent. But when I shake down the great spoofs – I’d have Airplane! just behind Grail in the number three spot – I once again can’t overlook my love for Young Frankenstein. While the other films seem to harbor a bit of disdain toward the material they’re spoofing, I’ve always felt Young Frankenstein shows a lot of respect for the films its working from. Being a big fan of the Frankenstein myth, I’m always pleased to find that I’m not offended by the jabs offered by Young Frankenstein. This spoof really seems to love the films it is dealing with.
Young Frankenstein vs. Frankensteins in Cinema
Speaking of the Frankenstein myth, any discussion of the monster as shown on film will generally result in me speaking my mind about how no one has ever done the source novel justice. Now, don’t get me wrong – I adore the 1931 version of Frankenstein and Boris Karloff. But the movie, which is easily in the Top 100 of my Flickchart, never comes close to hitting on the tortured side of the creation that is my favorite aspect of the novel. The beloved sequel, Bride of Frankenstein, does touch upon the topic – though it doesn’t go far enough and spends a little too much time on slapstick comedy to make me truly love it.
Later adaptations – ranging from Hammer Films’ The Curse of Frankenstein to Kenneth Branagh‘s attempt to adapt the novel – do their best to overcome the odds, but still don’t reach my standards. Surprisingly, I did kind of like what Van Helsing did with the monster’s emotions – but the rest of the story was too far gone to keep up with one solid idea.
On the other hand, Young Frankenstein gives me the chance to not take the material seriously, and in doing so reminds us exactly why we love a good spoof. Sometimes we need to look a little more closely at the things we’re passionate about, and remember that a lighter approach can help us clear our minds and can make us smile. In this case, the lighter approach makes me smile quite a lot.
When you put all of the above together with one of the funniest casts ever assembled – I haven’t even mentioned Gene Hackman showing up in the greatest cameo role EVER! – and gorgeous black-and-white cinematography, there’s little that can be said to convince me Young Frankenstein isn’t the greatest comedy ever made. I may be biased by my love of all things FRONK-en-steen, and I may need a “sedagive” or two to calm me down when the flick comes on, but I care not for what others think. Even if you aren’t a fan of Frankenstein or classic horror films, I don’t believe there’s a soul out there who can’t find some great laughs in Young Frankenstein.