The Last Hurrah #4: Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein (1974)

“My grandfather’s work was doo-doo! I am not interested in death! The only thing that concerns me is the preservation of life!”

Mel Brooks’ 2021 autobiography All About Me! is an irritating, surprisingly poor read. It’s lame, politically correct, bland and devoid of interesting anecdotes. I don’t think there’s one word of criticism aimed at anyone or anything in the entire 450 pages. I mean, isn’t the entire point of writing an autobiography to set the record straight by spewing bile on all those who’ve wronged you? The man’s a classic luvvie in that all his ‘dear friends’ are ‘amazingly talented’ and ‘absolutely hilarious’. Brooks also comes across as unbearably up himself, typified by his recollection of a conversation in which a bunch of friends insist he star in Silent Movie because it was about time he used his ‘god-given gifts as a born comedian’.

The book’s worst failing, though, is his lack of acknowledgement of (let alone insight into why) he got stuck in spoofing hell. I mean, let’s be clear: Brooks’ post-Frankenstein directorial output varies from patchy to awful. From the aforementioned Silent Movie to 1995’s Dracula: Dead and Loving It, there’s barely ten minutes worth catching. However, Brooks trills just as enthusiastically about this collection of lamentable mediocrity and outright shit in the same way as the staggeringly brilliant three movies (Producers, Saddles & Frankenstein) he helmed between 68 and 74.

Oh well, I guess we’ll always have Paris.

The laughs in so many comedies tend to evaporate because plot machinations get in the way, but Frankenstein is that rarest of beasts in that it’s funny all the way through. In fact, it even picks up toward the end with the brilliant contribution of Madeline ‘no tongues!’ Kahn as the repressed, hyper-delicate fiancee of Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (Wilder). She travels to Transylvania to see him at his work in his forbidding, mountaintop castle only to be abducted by the randy, seven and a half foot tall monster. It’s marvelous how her eyes widen upon her first sight of the monster’s impressive schwanzstucker, quickly followed by the involuntary: “Oh, my God! Woof!” She then bursts into ecstatic song during her sexual submission before getting cranky when the monster is lured away. “Oh, you men are all alike!” she cries, her voice thick with resentment. “Seven or eight quick ones and you’re off with the boys to boast and brag. You better keep your mouth shut!” Pause. “Oh, I think I love him!”

Frankenstein works partly because it’s not a slapdash homage. There’s love and respect for the classic horror movies that inspired it, as well as excellent production values and an attention to detail that includes filming in black and white. Brooks avoids the corniness, lazy routines and limp writing which plagued his later efforts to arguably produce his most consistent movie. He mixes deliberately lame gags (e.g. the name of Frederick’s notorious grandfather’s book is How I Did It), bawdiness (“What knockers!”), slapstick (a child catapulted through the air by a seesaw into her bed), visual humor (a marvelously askew game of darts), word play (“That’s Fronkensteen“) and one liners (“What hump?”) with a pronounced love of language, a smattering of fourth wall breaking and an acute sense of film history.

Indeed, Brooks takes pains to include scenes that wouldn’t be out of place in James Whale’s 1931 original. Just listen to an impassioned Frederick in his lab as he attempts to bring the monster to life on a lightning-lashed night: “From that fateful day when stinking bits of slime crawled from the sea and shouted to the cold stars I am man! our greatest dread has always been the knowledge of our own mortality, but tonight we shall hurl the gauntlet of science into the frightful face of death itself. Tonight we shall ascend into the heavens! We shall mock the earthquake! We shall command the thunders and penetrate into the very womb of impervious nature herself!”

Authentic stuff, yeah?

Best of all, though, is the fantastic cast. Here we get Igor, an incompetent, mischievous and plain cowardly assistant with a constantly shifting hump; the horse-frightening Frau Blucher; the warm but none too bright Inga; a Strangelove-inflected police officer with an uncooperative false arm; an effective, soup-pouring cameo from a barely recognisable Gene Hackman; and a mute, zipper-necked monster with an abnormal brain that only manages to grunt and roar except, of course, when the script calls for a strangulated cry of Puttin’ On The Ritz.

Then there’s my all-time favorite comic actor, a never better Wilder. He’s the master of the delayed reaction and sustained look of contempt, having no rival when it comes to communicating with his eyes. His mad scientist is a joy to behold, the man’s grandeur constantly undermined by capriciousness and bouts of childishness. Look at him failing to find a heartbeat in the immediate aftermath of his attempt to give life to his creation. “Be of good cheer,” he tells his disappointed colleagues with tremendous weariness. “If science teaches us anything, it teaches us to accept our failures, as well as our successes, with quiet dignity and grace.” He then turns to leave before spinning on his heel, grabbing the monster’s neck and shaking him. “Son of a bitch!” he screams. “Bastard! I’ll get you for this!

Young Frankenstein remains the perfect example of a PG-rated comedy being funny as fuck.

Cast: Gene Wilder, Peter Boyle, Terri Garr, Cloris Leachman, Marty Feldman, Kenneth Mars, Madeline Kahn

Dave Franklin’s movie book Go Fuck an Iceberg! is available from Amazon and other outlets.

About Dave Franklin

Dismayed by the state of post-2000 cinema, Dave Franklin hasn't visited a movie house in more than a decade. He can usually be found in a dingy room dressed up as Marilyn Monroe, pining for the lost days of 70's cinema. Saying that, he will visit you for an appropriate fee to read excruciating excerpts from his novels.