I like Mel Brooks, in theory. He seems like a nice bloke, his wife was the incomparable Anne Bancroft, and what’s not to love about a guy who taunted the Nazis in WWII? I mean, from close range.
But facts is facts, and the fact is, he’s never made me laugh much. The “Get Smart” TV show made me laugh, but after creating it, he had little to do with it. I listed the movies of his I had seen to my Twitter pal (and perhaps only compare to Bancroft) @Juleslaland—Twelve Chairs, High Anxiety, Silent Movie, History of the World, Robin Hood: Men In Tights—and she attributed my lack of laughs to my unfortunate selection.
I’m not so sure about that, but upon taking the kids to see Young Frankenstein (as part of the theater’s remembrance of the late Gene Wilder), I did, in fact, laugh. Mel Brooks, of course, makes no appearance in the film. But even when Young Frankenstein doesn’t make me laugh, I have loved its devotion to the original five movies (Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, Son of Frankenstein, Ghost of Frankenstein and Frankenstein Meets The Wolf Man).
The incredibly broad humor—which is what I associated with Brooks—still doesn’t make me laugh, and I almost can’t comprehend how it was a hit in 1974, but it at least now has a kind of charming quaintness to it. The movie, for me, seems to peak in the build-up to the iconic “Putting on the Ritz” scene which is, perhaps, somewhat dampened by its own iconic-ness. The kids are well familiar with the scene from its “Family Guy” riff. (“Family Guy” motto: “Why write an original joke when you can
stealreference someone else’s?”) The Flower was elated to discover this was the movie it came from. (She hadn’t realized until that moment.) For me, I think I have some reservations about it because it stops being Frankenstein and starts being King Kong. (Hey, my taste doesn’t have to make any more sense than anyone else’s.)
There are a lot of good bits here, and the movie is pleasing over all, though what stands out most prominently are the performances. Feldman (whom I didn’t much like as a kid) is amazing. Even when the jokes he’s telling are older than the 2,000 year old man. Wilder is the perfect combination of charming and goofball. Teri Garr is adorable and also funny—not just a generic cutie. Nothing need be said about Madeline Khan, I trust, except that her role as the uptight fiancee is too small. Peter Boyle channels just enough Karloff to give his monster sympathy along with laughs. And Cloris Leachman was already hilariously playing mean old ladies over 40 years ago.
That’s a lot of big names in one movie—Gene Hackman! Prime Gene Hackman!—and it’s become easy to forget (until you rewatch) the great performance of the late Ken Mars as Inspector Kemp. Mars worked for another 30+ years after this role as voice actor for decades as well as tons of character roles. (You may recall him as “Malcolm in the Middle”‘s Otto, on the ranch Francis inexplicably finds himself in latter seasons.) In a town full of mostly English accented people, he’s inexplicably German accented.
Or was it the other way around? It was seemingly random who would speak how at any time. But that is probably my favorite aspect of this film. The little unexplained touches like Frankenstein taking a train to New York City, and staying on the train to Transylvania. (Frankenstein was no more in Transylvania than his assistant was named “Igor”, but that’s missing the forest for the underwater trees.) The fact that as he moves east, he moves back in time.
It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t try. But it hangs together as a story, and this leads to the other thing I like most about it: Wilder has said that he loved “Frankenstein” but he wanted a happy ending, and so he wrote this. And above all, there’s a good-natured feeling throughout. Like Blazing Saddles, Brooks’ other big 1974 hit (though not as obviously), it’s nigh impossible to conceive of this movie being made today. And yet, it’s so benign: There’s not a mean bone in this monster’s body.
It’s not surprising that, when asked, Wilder said he didn’t act in movies for the last decades of his life because nothing good came along. (Well, that and he really enjoyed writing his novels.) But outside of kid’s movies—something that must be considered a missed opportunity for Disney/Dreamworks/Pixar, never having enticed him into a role—and not always even in kid’s movies, you seldom see a comedy that isn’t at someone’s expense.
But I like to think that will one day change, and then?