In the world of comedy, there are few people more influential that Mel Brooks. Truly a Force Majeure in his heyday, Brooks consistently changed the game with his comedic films, brushing up against boundaries in his 1967 classic “The Producers” before absolutely shattering them in his 1974 satire “Blazing Saddles.” Upon first seeing Blazing Saddles, I was immediately taken by this man’s brazen and brilliant comedic style. Mel Brooks’ films are always a promise of sophistication while still allowing for simple bliss. Of course in his later years, he strayed away from scintillation and a bit more towards marketability, with the likes of Spaceballs, and while his films were never high-brow, they were without a doubt a mark of genius. There was a gap in my Mel Brooks filmography however, as up until recently, I had not seen Young Frankenstein. Thankfully I rectified this predicament this week. The question is, was it as good as everyone says?
To begin, let’s discuss exactly what Young Frankenstein is. In 1974, Mel Brooks set out with an ambitious idea. Desiring to make an ode to the monster movies of the thirties, specifically Frankenstein of course, Brooks wanted to make a mainstream comedy shot completely in Black and White. This concept was absolutely insane, as Black and White cinematography had been old hat for a long time. But, as with anything he does, Brooks took his outrageous idea and ran with it, gifting to us his film about a descendant of Dr. Frankenstein who gives into his hereditary need to create life. And man, if it was an outrageous idea, it realized into an equally outrageous movie.
Something I realized very quickly was Young Frankenstein never compromises. Every scene is played to maximum hilarity, with each gag playing out to it highest potential. This feat is achieved through both a terrific script written by Brooks himself, and absolutely nonstop performances by the actors. All of the characters are larger than life which helps to elevate the film into the stratosphere. While the minor characters, like Cloris Leachman as Frau Blucher, or Kenneth Mars as Inspector Kemp, each shine in their own right, chewing the scenery and heightening their archetypes to astronomical levels, the real strength of the film lies on the shoulders of two sadly deceased men: Marty Feldman as Igor and Gene Wilder as Dr. Frankenstein.
The genius dynamic between the two is that they are acting in two completely different movies. Wilder, is playing it straight, exhibiting the intensity that you would find in the original monster movies, never delivering a line with the intent to draw a laugh. It is through this bizarrely frenetic straight man routine that Wilder causes us to laugh over and over again, making the mark of a genius actor. The man really understands how comedy works, applying exasperated inflections and deliciously manic expressions to form a persona that is just absolutely hysterical. But the only thing that could make his performance better would be to pair him with someone who can elevate him beyond his own abilities. In the realm of Young Frankenstein, this is only achievable through Marty Feldman, the Igor to his doctor. If Wilder played it straight, Feldman was decidedly to the opposite. An explosion of visual comedy, Feldman just eats the camera alive as his screen presence never fails to capture your attention. Constantly making an inside joke with the audience, Feldman interacts with us in a way that just makes your heart feel good. He embodies funny, appearing and disappearing from scenes with a mirthful mischief that can’t help but make you laugh. But once again, despite how glorious Feldman’s performance is, it is made all the more entertaining when paired with Wilder to equalize it.
Young Frankenstein is the perfect movie to watch during the Halloween season. A relentlessly funny take on a tired tale, it leaves you just immensely satisfied. Every character in the film is brilliant everyone. Frankenstein, portrayed by the late great Peter Boyle, is a sympathetically tried scamp who really just commands a smile. And as with all of Brooks’ films, he allows the women to be just as funny as the men. Cloris Leachman, Madeline Kahn and Terri Garr are powerhouses of comedy in this film, delivering hilarious lines with masterful comedy, in a way that not many comedies of this time allowed. As always, Mel Brooks is an absolute genius, crafting a film that is every bit as clever as it is silly. Upon watching this film I am resolute in my belief that this will be a staple of my Halloween season for many many years to come. Rest in peace, Gene Wilder.
All images are from Young Frankenstein, 1974. A film by 20th century Fox.