Young Frankenstein (1974)

*. There’s a point I’ll start with that comes near the middle of Young Frankenstein, just after “young” Frederick Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) has failed to give life to a corpse. His assistants Inga (Teri Garr) and Igor (Marty Feldman) try to console him but he declares that “If science teaches us anything, it teaches us to accept our failures as well as our successes with quiet dignity and grace.” I think even if you haven’t already seen the movie a dozen times you realize right away that this is a set-up, and sure enough Wilder will turn around and begin furiously choking the monster, calling him names (“Son of a bitch bastard!”), and then finally breaking into sobs and wishing himself dead. That’s the joke. But then, as Inga and Igor lead him away, Feldman turns to the camera, rolls his eyes, and says “Quiet dignity and grace.”
*. That’s basically how Young Frankenstein works. It’s obvious, overplayed, and makes up for this by doubling down on both these qualities. It is madcap, slapstick farce dialed up to nine, aimed at the second-lowest common denominator. There’s no way Mel Brooks is going to let you miss a joke, no matter how obvious or old it is (though he thought the “Walk this way” gag was almost too old, even for him). This doubling down is, in turn, part of the joke.

*. I say it’s only dialed up to nine because this is correctly regarded as one of Brooks’ more restrained efforts (“more confident and less breathless” in Roger Ebert’s phrase, calling it his “most disciplined” work). He wanted something that was not quite the Three Stooges, so he walks up to that line and dances on it. To be sure there’s lots of coarseness and crudity, but at least he isn’t making ethnic or gay jokes, which were so much of his stock in trade in other films. You can laugh at the lines about the pair of knockers or the monster’s “enormous schwanzstucker,” but by Mel’s standards this ribaldry is pretty tame.
*. I think this is for the best, as send-ups usually work best when they tweak material gently instead of just beating it unconscious. The production here is true to a lot of the spirit of the original Universal Frankensteins, with beautiful black-and-white photography and equipment for the lab that included some of Ken Strickfaden’s original set dressing. The cast is also terrific, in fact so good it gets hard to tell who is stealing the most scenes. Which is what you want to do in a Brooks movie, since you can’t overplay it. So Feldman? Cloris Leachman? Madeline Kahn? Kenneth Mars? Gene Hackman? They’re all in top form.
*. A movie that absolutely belies its age. 1974! I had thought it was from the mid-’80s. But this kind of humour, which either works or it doesn’t, can’t go out of style. If you giggle at Frankenstein having a big dick then . . .
*. Well, it’s a near perfect example of its type of comedy. I still find it kind of charming, but I don’t laugh at it like I did as a kid. I know people though who think it’s the funniest movie ever made. Which I guess it is, if you’re in the mood.

14 thoughts on “Young Frankenstein (1974)

  1. Bookstooge

    when I watched this I didn’t realize it was a Mel Brooks movie and when I found out after the fact, I was kind of surprised because, as you say, it was so “restrained”.
    Personally, I’ll take Space Balls or Blazing Saddles over this…

    Reply
    1. Alex Good Post author

      The last time I cycled through his oeuvre I came away thinking Blazing Saddles was the best thing he did. And there was a lot in that movie that didn’t work.

      Reply
  2. film-authority.com

    It’s hit and miss with Mel, but this is one of his best because of the restraint you describe. Gags, he’s got, but quality control, not so much. Saddles is overrated, Spaceballs too silly, and most of his films are a bit too pleased with themselves.

    Reply
  3. Alex's Review Corner

    Yeah this has always been up there for me, among Brooks’ stuff that I’ve seen. “Abbey-Normal” and “what are you doing in the bathroom day and night” stick with me even though I haven’t seen it in a long time.

    Reply
    1. Alex Good

      It’s funny what works for some people and what doesn’t. I know people who can’t get enough of the “Werewolf? There-wolf” line but it does nothing for me. But there are some moments for everyone.

      Reply
    1. Alex Good

      Yes, it really works better if you’re immersed in all of the Universal horror tradition. Like Blazing Saddles works better if you know the Westerns he was sending up, or High Anxiety (less so) for Hitchcock.

      Reply
  4. Wakizashi33

    1974? Wow. The black & white photography can make this feel almost timeless, but I thought it was an eighties movie, too. I found this line interesting: “I don’t laugh at it like I did as a kid.” I wonder if Brooks’ slapstick humour works better when we are kids? Saying that though, I recently rewatched Spaceballs and I was literally crying with laughter at one point. I hadn’t seen it in years.

    If you had to choose a favourite film by Mel Brooks, what would it be? I’m caught between Spaceballs and Blazing Saddles.

    Reply
    1. Alex Good Post author

      I’m pretty sure Brooks works better for young people. Things that seemed so outrageous when these movies came out now seem kind of stupid to me. Something like History of the World just gets by on its mad energy. My favourite is probably Blazing Saddles. Though in a way they are all so full of hit and miss stuff it’s almost like you have to take them together as a single body of work. I think Blazing Saddles may be the one that stands on its own the best, but they all have their moments and dry patches.

      Reply

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