My favourite comedy film by quite a way is YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. It’s just such a shame that I’m reviewing it with a heavy heart to mark the passing of Gene Wilder. His sad eyes, unbridled sense of mischief and perfect timing will be missed and it is without hyperbole that I call him the greatest comic actor of his generation. Let’s take another look at his final hour, and hope that we don’t hemorrhage something in the process.
When the grandson of the infamous Baron von Frankenstein is called to Transylvania, this serious scientist (Gene Wilder) finds himself unavoidably drawn to carrying on his ancestor’s blasphemous work. Before long, the secret laboratory is reassembled and with the help and hindrance of some incompetent assistants, another unholy creation is given life…
This Mel Brooks-directed masterful spoof has gags to please all tastes, but it really helps if you know the Universal Horror movies he is so affectionately lampooning. The film looks and sounds as good, sometimes better than the black-and-white expressionist B-movies given such life by James Whale and his imitators in the 1930s and 40s. We travel to a never-Transylvania that appears – thanks to an editing gag – one stop away from New York City. There is graverobbing, an angry mob and the monster encountering a sweet little girl and a sweet old blind man.
The film features yet another conveniently American relative of the original mad scientist Dr Frankenstein (sorry, Fronkensteen), given a charming, manic energy in abundance by Wilder. Support comes in the form of a scene-stealing (and forth wall-breaking) Marty Feldman, a game Teri Garr and Kenneth Mars, both having a lot of fun with (intentionally) mangling European accents. It wasn’t a joke in the 30s films that their vaguely European setting was all and none of that continent’s cultures, every time period and none of them. It was just a shortcut and the exaggerated accents weren’t gags, just window dressing. It works better when the filmmakers are in on, and supporting, the joke.
The film works pretty well as a Frankenstein movie in addition to a parody, featuring no more bizarre plot turns than the later Universal sequels (which featured monster mashups, vampiric blood transfusions and Ygor possessing the Monster and despairing at being blind and blundering as well as inhumanly strong). It’s Wilder’s passion project, and along with Brooks he helps recreate entire sequences from one of the first film franchise pretty meticulously, peppering iconic moments with well placed gags and observations. Said well placed gags range from the silly (“Walk this way…”) to sitcom (“Sedagive?!”) to the visual (a Mel Brooks classic at the Brain Depository: “After hours please put brains through slot”).
This was introduced to me by my dad, and we still enjoy it immensely to this day. Though knowing the Universal Horror films certainly helps, I don’t think I’d seen any of them the first couple of times I saw this. It was just silly fun to me, but I’ve grown to appreciate how much of a pitch-perfect parody it is after seeing the whole Universal Frankenstein series and writing a dissertation on it. After seeing many, many Frankenstein movies it’s as faithful an adaptation of Mary Shelley’s work as any of the straighter films. Brooks and Wilder just dare to wonder what would happen if a scientist uncovered a book setting out just “How I did it” and what damage this could do.
Young Frankenstein will always hold a very special place in my heart, and Gene Wilder’s finest performance is a big part of what makes it last. His love of the source material helped immensely too, his final product turning out at times better than its sideways reference point and it made Young Frankenstein less mocking and more like laughter among old friends. Farewell Gene, you will be missed. SSP