31 Days of Halloween: “Young Frankenstein” Review – Actually, It’s Pronounced “Fronk-en-steen”
The career of Mel Brooks is tied closely to the art of satire and smart humor. Young Frankenstein is one of the finest examples of this. Released in 1974, Brooks’ finest year as a filmmaker, Young Frankenstein was as artistically interesting as it was side-splittingly hilarious. It continues to have a following amongst millennials and it stands out as one of America’s most timeless comedic films.
While I’ve already praised Brooks, it’s important to know that this is the late Gene Wilder’s passion project. He conceived the idea for the film, wrote it with Brooks’ help and played the lead role. As one of his three most well-known films, Young Frankenstein stands as probably the signature display of Wilder’s creative genius. Wilder and Brooks were nominated for an Academy Award for writing this film, if you’re interested in that kind of thing.
Young Frankenstein follows Dr. Frederick Frankenstein, a descendant of Victor Frankenstein (who, in turn, is the subject of Mary Shelley’s 1818 novel Frankenstein). Frederick struggles with his grandfather’s questionable work with the dead, so much that he pronounces his last name as “Fronkensteen” to distance himself with his grandfather’s work. After a relative of his dies, the young doctor goes to Transylvania to visit the estate that is left behind. It is here that he meets a cast of quirky characters and finds the inspiration to fulfill his family’s destiny.
Supporting Wilder, who flips from straight man to maniac numerous times, are a number of Brooks’ staples. Madeline Kahn and Cloris Leachman play important roles as Elizabeth and Frau Blucher (neeeigh), but the true show stealer is Marty Feldman’s Igor. Totally sarcastic and quick with a punchline, Feldman delivers many of the film’s greatest one-liners. Teri Garr plays the absent-minded love interest, Inga, with enthusiasm. She gets a lot of screen time with Wilder and Feldman, but she never gets lost. Like Feldman, she steals scenes with her thick accent and sexuality. Peter Boyle’s role as the Monster is underrated. When the spotlight hits him and he gets the chance to be a well-spoken man in the final act, he does not disappoint.
One of Young Frankenstein’s biggest gimmicks is its black-and-white pallet. As a callback to early horror movies, this technique gives the film a certain charm. From the opening credits to the set pieces, which were artifacts from the original Frankenstein film, Young Frankenstein is seeping with the essence of classic Hollywood productions. In a time when film was becoming more and more advanced, Young Frankenstein is unique in that it manages to pay homage to the past without losing the edginess of its era.
Of course, how could I not mention the “Puttin’ on the Ritz” scene? Possibly the best moment Mel Brooks ever presented, the scene is the best example of what makes him a genius. Put two physically opposite characters on a stage and have them perform a choreographed song and dance routine. Does it get any more absurd? There’s a certain amount of poetic teamwork between Frederick and the Monster that makes the scene so powerful. To see it all burst into flames is heartbreaking because things appeared to be going so well. It speaks to the talent of those involved with the film that such a comedic scene can make someone feel true empathy for the characters.
Young Frankenstein features a number of talented people at their absolute best. Brooks and Wilder put a twist on a classic haunted tale and made something both nostalgic and fresh. While I’ve recognized the film’s underlying emotional tones, the truth is that this is a movie that will make you laugh out loud. It is parody in the most pure and creative form. It won’t make you think incredibly hard, but it takes barely any wrong steps. Halloween tonally feels like the right time to watch Young Frankenstein, but this one transcends the season.