Greetings, readers! I hope you’re enjoying my month-long spotlight on screwball comedies. Most of my comedies have been from the 30s and 40s so far. This week I leap forward all the way to 1974. Yes, this week’s selection is Young Frankenstein. Director Mel Brooks has brought us some of the most brilliant and outrageous comedies over the years: The Producers, Blazing Saddles, and even the underrated Silent Movie. But of all his films, Young Frankenstein is my favorite. It brilliantly satirizes the Universal monster movies, especially Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein. It’s smart, funny, and is a great love letter to classic monster movies.
The plot is pretty straight forward. Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (Gene Wilder), grandson of Victor Frankenstein from the James Whale film, is desperate to prove he is not a mad scientist like his grandfather. Early in the film he is invited to his late grandfather’s castle in Transylvania. There he discovers the process via books in his grandfather’s library how to reanimate the dead. Eventually he creates his own monster, just like in the original James Whale film. Chaos ensues and so do plenty of laughs.
Where do I begin to narrow down my favorite scenes/gangs in this comic masterpiece? There’s barely a line in the screenplay that isn’t quotable or a moment that isn’t hilarious. But here are a few of my favorOne of the many things that Mel Brooks does so well is use a stock company of brilliant comic actors. In Young Frankenstein one of my favorites in the talented supporting cast is Marty Feldman. He plays Igor, an assistant to Dr. Frankenstein. Feldman has so many hilarious scenes/gags, including the running joke about the hump on his back switching sides. But perhaps my favorite is the scene where he is pressured to reveal to Dr. Frankenstein whose brain the Dr. put in the now reanimated body. Igor was supposed to get the brain of a brilliant man, but sadly dropped it on the floor of the brain depository. He grabs a brain marked,”abnormal.” This leads to this brilliant exchange.
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: [to Igor] Now that brain that you gave me. Was it Hans Delbruck’s?
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: Ah! Very good. Would you mind telling me whose brain I DID put in?
Igor: Then you won’t be angry?
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: I will NOT be angry.
Igor: Abby someone.
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: Abby someone. Abby who?
Igor: Abby… Normal.
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: Abby Normal?
Igor: I’m almost sure that was the name.
Dr. Frederick Frankenstein: Are you saying that I put an abnormal brain into a seven and a half-foot long, fifty-four inch wide GORILLA? Is that what you’re telling me?–IMDB
The Abby Normal line kills me every time.
Another moment of comic gold is the iconic Puttin’ on the Ritz scene. After finally recapturing the escaped monster, Dr. Frankenstein decides to show the monster off in front of the scientific community in the village. He suits himself and the monster up in top hats and tails and the two do a brilliant song and dance number that I bet would have made the likes of Fred Astaire smile. What makes the scene, apart from the concept of a science experiment doing a song and dance routine, is Peter Boyle’s physicality and vocals. Him choking the lyrics of the song out in character as the monster is brilliant. So is how he manages to go through the dance movies looking both lumbering and elegant. It’s an iconic scene for good reason.
Another one of my favorite scenes is the cameo by the wonderful Gene Hackman. He plays a blind man living in the forest. When the monster breaks loose from the castle, he happens upon the blind man’s house. The blind man is lonely, so he is thrilled to have company, if it is a monster. The two sit down to dinner where some great gags ensue. What sells them are Peter Boyle’s priceless facial expressions and Hackman’s scene-stealing performance. He’s on screen for less than five minutes, but boy does he deliver. There’s a moment where the blind man tries to teach the monster how to light a cigar and accidentally sets the monster’s thumb on fire. There’s also the part where they try to have a toast with their wine glasses, but the glasses collide to forcefully and break, leading to a priceless Boyle reaction shot. And there’s also the part where the blind man tries to serve the monster soup, but in the process of pouring it into the bowl ladles it into the poor monster’s lap. But mere words do not do the sequence justice.
Finally, there’s a priceless scene of charades. Dr. Frankenstein thinks his reanimation experiment is a failure. When he finds out a success, he releases the monster from the lab table. The monster proceeds to attack him. This leads to rather hilarious scene of charades where Dr. Frankenstein tries to communicate through pantomime that he needs a sedative. Eventually Igor and Inga (another lab assistant played to comedic brilliance by Teri Garr) work out something close to the word: sedagive.
Side note: look for brilliant supporting performances by Madeline Kahn as Dr. Frankenstein’s fiancée Elizabeth (she does a great send up of an iconic scene from Bride of Frankenstein at the end) and Cloris Leachman as Frau Blücher, who has one of the funniest secret revealing scenes in movie history.
I’ve seen Young Frankenstein I don’t know how many times. I laugh just as hard each viewing. Credit the stellar cast, lead by the brilliant Gene Wilder who also co-wrote the screenplay with Mel Brooks. Once the laughs start coming they don’t stop. Spoofs are hard to do. And they don’t get much better than Young Frankenstein.