Young Frankenstein

Young Frankenstein

The brilliant director Mel Brooks has said “You have to really know a genre to make fun of it, and to really know it you have to love it.” In such Brooks films as the showbiz satire The Producers (1967), the western Blazing Saddles (1974), the Hitchcockian High Anxiety (1977), the comic space opera Spaceballs (1987), and of course, Brooks’s tribute to classic horror films, Young Frankenstein (1974), his encyclopedic knowledge of and love for old Hollywood is immediately apparent. Brooks was aided in several of these films by the gifted comic actor Gene Wilder. It was Wilder who first conceived of Young Frankenstein, telling Brooks, “I have this idea for a movie about Baron Frankenstein’s grandson. He’s an uptight scientist who doesn’t believe any of that nonsense about bringing the dead back to life. Even though he is clinically a scientist, he is as crazy as any Frankenstein. It’s in his heart. It’s in his blood. It’s in the marrow of his bones. He can’t help it.” Brooks was intrigued and the pair set to work on a screenplay during breaks in the filming of Blazing Saddles. Wilder was also a connoisseur of classic films, and he and Brooks were determined to capture the look and feel of the old Boris Karloff Frankenstein films (helmed by English director James Whale) from the 1930s. As Brooks tells it in his seminal 2016 book Young Frankenstein: The Story of the Making of the Film (a necessity for any fan of this picture), “The thing about satire is the walls, the floors, the costumes, everything surrounding the comedy has to be real. So our movie had to be black and white to work.” Script in hand, with a $2.4 million budget from 20th Century Fox, all Brooks and Wilder needed was a cast. Wilder would, of course, star as the film’s protagonist, the young Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (“It’s pronounced ‘Fronkensteen’”), creating one of his signature roles in the process. The all-star ensemble cast featured Peter Boyle as Frankenstein’s monster, along with Madeleine Kahn, Teri Garr, Cloris Leachman, Marty Feldman, and Gene Hackman. Brooks observed that “there was a certain indefinable chemistry on this set, a magic in the way this ensemble of gifted misfits worked together.” The rest is history: The film was a wild success critically and at the box office and became enshrined as one of the greatest comedic films ever made. Upon the 40th Anniversary Blu-ray release of Young Frankenstein, Mel Brooks noted “…as a writer-director, it is by far my finest."

Steven Ziegler

DID YOU KNOW?: Much of the electrical laboratory equipment seen in Young Frankenstein was actually used in the original 1931 Frankenstein film. Special-effects technician Kenneth Strickfaden had kept it in working condition in his Santa Monica garage for forty-plus years!

(October 2017)