LIFE! DO YOU HEAR ME? GIVE MY CREATION… LIIIIIFE!!!!
Mel Brooks is a comedian, actor, writer, director and producer whose career has spanned 50 years. He began his career in comedy as a stand-up and a writer for Sid Ceasar’s “Your Show of Shows”. He formed a comedy duo with one of his co-writers on that show, Carl Reiner, and together they found enormous success performing their famous routine “The 2000 Year Old Man”
But, in my opinion, Brooks’ strong suit was his parodies. He had an incredible ability to point out the ridiculous, and many of his works are spoofs. One of Brooks’ other famous works prior to becoming a director was “Get Smart”, which he co-created with Buck Henry. “Get Smart” parodies the spy genre… which was the rage at the time due to the soaring popularity of the James Bond films. Brooks wasn’t involved beyond the pilot, but the series bears his mark nevertheless.
In the late 1960s, Brooks began his career as a director of feature films with “The Producers”. He was confronted with studios who were reluctant to release the film due to its irreverent material, so he was forced to self distribute. The film wound up to be a financial success, however, and his directorial career was underway.
Within five years, he would have one of the most successful years that any director in history can lay claim to.
In 1974, Brooks released “Blazing Saddles”, which was the second highest grossing film of the year ($119.5 million), AND “Young Frankenstein”, which was the third highest ($86.3 million). (For those of you wondering, the highest grossing film of the year was NOT “The Godfather: Part II” – $57.3 Million, but “The Towering Inferno” – $139.7 Million) Both films would find their way to being considered among the greatest comedies of all time.
“Young Frankenstein” and “Blazing Saddles” share more than just their director, star and year of release. It was during the production of “Blazing Saddles” that “Young Frankenstein” was conceived.
I was in the middle of shooting the last few weeks of Blazing Saddles somewhere in the Antelope Valley, and Gene Wilder and I were having a cup of coffee and he said, I have this idea that there could be another Frankenstein. I said not another – we’ve had the son of, the cousin of, the brother-in-law, we don’t need another Frankenstein. His idea was very simple: What if the grandson of Dr. Frankenstein wanted nothing to do with the family whatsoever. He was ashamed of those wackos. I said, “That’s funny.”
- Mel Brooks, to the LA Times, 2010
And so the two of them began to work on “Young Frankenstein” (the film is co-written by them). It’s a spoof of the many Universal “Frankenstein” films, and others that borrow the characters (IMDb shows 61 movies released prior to ’74 with the “Frankenstein’s Monster” keyword).
Many of the scenes and characters are direct parodies of the ’31 film and its sequels. The grave robbing scene, the brain robbery (right down to the dropped jar), the animation sequence, the dart game, the monster’s encounters with people, the torch waving mob. Scene after scene parody the tropes of the genre.
Filming began in the spring of ’74. Most of the lab equipment used as props in the film were the same props used for the 1931 film. Brooks shot the movie in black-and-white and employed many 1930s-style techniques, such as the opening credits, the score and the scene transitions. As a result, he captures a feel and a style that’s reminiscent of the originators of the genre, giving the comedy within an additional degree of subversion.
And it is subversive.
Brooks and Wilder take a horror story – a story about a man who robs graves, creates composite corpses, and reanimates the dead – and turn it into a comedy featuring an insecure scientist, a libidinous assistant, a bug eyed hunchback, a comically stern, whinny-inducing matriarch, and a Frankenstein’s Monster that’s actually the sanest character of the lot.
The villagers turn on the monster because he freezes up during a song and dance routine. He earns his “Bride” due to his “generous attributes”. Eventually he emerges as a soft spoken, sweet, philosophical man. This is a film that gets enormous mileage out of taking the viewer’s expectations and flipping them on their heads.
The film is loaded with classic gags and moments.
“Walk this way”.
It seemingly has an endless supply of puns, jokes, and quips.
It helps that the cast is a murderers row. Gene Wilder was a remarkable comedian at the height of his powers when “Young Frankenstein” was made. He was able to play off of Teri Garr, who does a fantastic job being both funny and desirable. Bringing in Cloris Leachman and Madeline Kahn off the bench certainly doesn’t hurt, either. Kenneth Mars is notable as the ill-tempered inspector. Even Gene Hackman gets into the act as the lonely blind man.
This may have been Peter Boyle’s signature role, but he has more reasons to remember it than simply the impact it had on his career. It was on the set of the film the he met his future wife, Loraine Alterman. He was still in full makeup when he asked her out for the first time.
But the star of the show may have been Marty Feldman as the hunchbacked Igor. Feldman suffered from Graves’ disease, an autoimmune disease resulting in an overactive thyroid. It was an operation related to that condition which resulted in his memorably odd eyes. Like Brooks, Feldman cut his teeth as a writer… He worked with several of the future members of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. He was featured on numerous tv comedy shows during his career before eventually making his way to film.
Wilder is quoted as saying the part of Igor was written with Feldman in mind.
Over the years, the success of Brooks’ parody films have spawned a host of lesser imitators.
“I’m considered the grandfather of take-off movies, of caricature movies, of movies that make fun of genres. And I want to apologize. I’m sorry I started it, it’s gotten outta hand, that’s all I can tell you”
- Mel Brooks, “Young Frankenstein” Blu Ray special features, 2008
But unlike many of its unworthy progeny, “Young Frankenstein” continues to stand the test of time. It’s achieved a place in pop culture that arguably eclipses the films it parodied. It’s almost 40 years old now, but it’s still as funny as ever. It has a comedic style with its own value… above and beyond whatever pop culture humor it derived via its parody elements.
“Young Frankenstein” was a critical and commercial success at the time it was released, and it’s still held in high esteem today. Brooks and Wilder were nominated for an academy award for Best Adapted Screenplay (but lost to “The Godfather: Part II”). It clocks in at #13 on AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Laughs, and it has been preserved by the Library of Congress in the National Film Registry, for being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant”.
It’s definitely a “Movie That Everyone Should See”.