“My grandfather’s work was doodoo! I am not interested in death! The only thing that concerns me is the preservation of life!”
Lots of directors have favorite actors, and it’s just as common for audiences to prefer movies that pair a certain director with a certain actor. For Mel Brooks, his most significant actor appears to be Gene Wilder. While everyone has their own favorite Mel Brooks film, few would argue that the three best are The Producers, Blazing Saddles, and Young Frankenstein — and all three star Gene Wilder. But it was nearly just the first film that would feature the wild-haired Wilder. Gig Young, the original choice to play the Waco Kid in Blazing Saddles showed up to work drunk. Wilder was hastily flown in to replace him, but had a request: If he did this film, then Brooks would film one of his ideas. On the set, Brooks asked what Wilder wanted to do, and Wilder replied he wanted to do a Frankenstein picture.
“These are very serious charges you’re making. All the more painful to us, your elders, because we still have nightmares from five times before.”
Brooks was dismissive of the idea, feeling that Frankenstein was played out after the original film, Bride of Frankenstein, Son of Frankenstein and all the other sequels, spin-offs, and remakes. (The above line is, according to Mel Brooks, in reference to the first five Universal Frankenstein films). But Wilder had a different take on the idea: what if the grandson of Frankenstein wanted nothing to do with the rest of the family? Brooks agreed that this was an idea with comic potential, and the two began work on the script. In fact, it began so quickly that the film ended up being released the same year as Blazing Saddles, a mere ten months later.
“It… could… WORK!!!”
Finding a studio to produce the picture was the next hurdle. Brooks initially went to Columbia Pictures, but there were two significant points of contention. Columbia wanted a tighter budget than Brooks was looking for. But more importantly, Columbia wanted the picture to be filmed in color, as black and white was more than a little passé in the early 1970s. Brooks refused to compromise; he and Wilder both wanted the film to be in black and white, in homage to the original films (in fact, the opening title sequence is also done in the style of 1930s Universal films). Brooks took the film to 20th Century Fox, where they agreed to his terms (note: I have no idea whether he tried at Universal themselves.) Landing at Fox proved to be fortuitous for casting, as Gene Wilder’s agent had a deal with Fox, and also represented a few other actors who would prove instrumental to the production: Peter Boyle, who played the monster, and Marty Feldman, perhaps the most Igorish actor in all of Hollywood. Feldman suffered from Graves Disease, and a botched eye operation related to the condition left him with his trademark googly eyes. Feldman was Wilder and Brooks’ first and only choice for the role of Igor.
“You know, I’m a rather brilliant surgeon. Perhaps I can help you with that hump.” “What hump?”
There were a few more roles to fill, of course. Brooks and Wilder gave Frederick Frankenstein a love triangle in the form of his fiancee and his voluptuous assistant. Teri Garr auditioned for the role of the fiancee, Elizabeth, and Madeleine Kahn auditioned for the role of assistant Inga. However, after reading the script, Kahn decided she preferred the role of Elizabeth. Brooks told Garr that if she could come back the next day having practiced a German accent, she could have the role of Inga. Garr responded “Vell, yes, I could do ze Zherman aksent tomorrow” and got the part.
“Excuse me darling, what is it exactly that you do do?”
Wilder insisted that Brooks refrain from his usual tendency of casting himself in the film; he felt that Brooks’ very presence broke the fourth wall for the audience, and he didn’t want the film to “wink at the audience”. Brooks went along with it, but his presence is still heard in the film, as the voice of Victor Frankenstein when Frederick first discovers the lab, and supplying a few animal noises such as the werewolf.
“Werewolf?” “There.” “What?” “There wolf. There castle.”
Cloris Leachman was brought in to play the part of Frau Blücher, the assistant and lover of Frederick’s grandfather. Every time the character’s name is mentioned on screen, horses are heard whinnying in the background. Popular rumor is that this is because her name means “glue” or “glue factory” in German, and Leachman has even said this is what Brooks told her, however the translation is not correct. Brooks has since said that it is merely a funny gag; she’s so terrifying that the horses are afraid of her.
“I thought I told you never to interrupt me while I’m working!”
The story plays off the classic tale of Frankenstein but adds its own spin to it — not merely in the comic tones, but also in having a plot of its own that complements the prior stories without following them directly. Frederick Frankenstein is a “white sheep” in the Frankenstein family, uninterested and in fact repulsed by his family’s heritage. He considers his grandfather a kook. He won’t even respond to the normal pronunciation, insisting that his name is pronounced Fronk-un-steen. But when he inherits the ancestral castle, he can’t help but be curious about his ancestors’ work. And when he finds his grandfather’s journal, and discovers the principles of creating life are sound, he is driven to recreate the experiment. Of course, not all goes as planned.
“Would you mind telling me whose brain I did put in?” … “Abby someone.” “Abby someone. Abby who?” “Abby… normal.”
With the film being an affectionate parody of the Universal Frankenstein movie, it would be logical to expect most of the sets to have been designed to resemble the originals. This is true of the town and the castle, but it is not the case with Frankenstein’s laboratory. The lab equipment is not designed to resemble that of the original film… it is that of the original film. Brooks had been intending to recreate the set when he learned that Ken Strickfaden, the creator of the original set, was still alive. He went to visit Strickfaden to get his input, only to find that Strickfaden had the equipment in his garage. Brooks rented the equipment from him in exchange for giving him screen credit on the film for his work, which he had not initially received for the original film.
“What a filthy mess.” “I don’t know, a little paint, a few flowers, couple of throw pillows…”
With the cast being largely comprised of comedians and writers, improvisation was inevitable. Cloris Leachman ad-libbed Frau Blücher offering Frederick increasingly tamer drinks in increasingly seductive tones. When Wilder threw a dart off camera — thanks to the harassment of Kenneth Mars as Inspector Kemp — Brooks spontaneously decided to imitate a cat shrieking, implying the dart’s destination. Even Gene Hackman, cast as the blind man — one of many scenes lifted from the book or earlier adaptations — got into the act with the “I was gonna make espresso” line. And Marty Feldman quietly kept switching his character’s hump left and right, waiting for his cast mates to notice. When they finally did, it was thrown into the movie.
“Good man. Didn’t you — didn’t you used to have that on the other side?” “What?” “Your uh… oh, never mind.”
The cast and crew enjoyed making the film so much that they were upset when it was nearing time to complete filming. So they kept going. This resulted in a film that was approximately three hours in length, and considerably bloated. Wilder and Brooks felt the film in that form was a failure, and set about cutting out everything that didn’t work. Brooks estimates that they cut three jokes for every one that was kept in. Brooks considered cutting the “walk this way” joke, feeling it was too corny, but kept it in after seeing the audience laugh at a test screening. He was also in favor of cutting the “Putting on the Ritz” sequence — this one he planned to cut from the script before filming — but Wilder begged and pleaded for its inclusion. However, until filming they were unsure what precisely the Monster would do when it was time for him to take a turn on the song. Peter Boyle ad-libbed what may be the film’s most iconic moment.
“If you’re blue, and you don’t know where to go to, why don’t you go where fashion sits…” “PUDNONNA RIIIIIZZ!”
The film was released in December of 1974, and was one of the most successful films of the year, grossing over 80 million dollars. Out of 1974’s films, only The Towering Inferno and Blazing Saddles topped its take at the box office. It won its share of critical acclaim as well. It was nominated for two Academy Awards, in the categories of Best Sound (what would become the Sound Mixing award) and for Best Adapted Screenplay. Cloris Leachman and Madeline Kahn were nominated for Golden Globes for Best Lead Actress in a Comedy and Best Supporting Actress, respectively — even though Kahn actually had more screen time than Leachman. It was popular among the genre awards as well, winning the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation, the Nebula for Best Dramatic Writing, and five separate Golden Scrolls at the Saturns, including Best Horror Film, Best Director, and Best Supporting Actor for Marty Feldman.
“Igor, would you give me a hand with the bags?”
“Certainly, you take the blonde and I’ll take the one with the turban.”
Its appeal has lasted, as well. Its popularity arguably outstrips the films that inspired it, and it has almost certainly been seen by more people of younger generations. A poll by ABC and People magazine, as part of the Best in Film: The Greatest Movies of Our Time special, placed Young Frankenstein as the fourth best comedy of all time. AFI’s 100 Years… 100 Laughs list put it at #13, below both Blazing Saddles and The Producers, but in a lofty position nevertheless. And on their list of the 100 Best Songs in American Films, the AFI put, of all things, the Wilder-Boyle rendition of “Puttin’ on the Ritz” at #89. The film has also made the best all-time comedy lists of Total Film magazine, Premiere magazine, and Bravo TV. And in 2003, it was inducted into the Library of Congress’s National Film Registry for being “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant”.
“A riot is an ugly thing. And I think it is just about time that we had one!”
Young Frankenstein is a classic in many ways. It is an affectionate parody of old horror movies, honoring them at the same time as it pokes fun. It is perhaps one of the most flawless parodies in existence, as it complements the original story while telling one of its own. It doesn’t rely on knowledge of the original films or stories beyond what everybody knows through general pop-culture osmosis, yet those who are more intimately familiar with those works will find even more to appreciate. It has colorful characters who are played by perfectly-cast actors, and a sense of humor that is relentlessly funny. While it’s certainly a debatable question, it is in my opinion the best film Mel Brooks has ever made, and it is one of my favorite films.
“Dr. Fronk-un-steen, are you all right?”
“My name… is FRANKENSTEIN!”