Thursday, October 11, 2012
As I promised, my blog scribblings for the month of October will focus on the spooky and fun film classics I have enjoyed since child hood. Today, I bring to you that hilarious Halloween classic parody, Mel Brooks' YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974). I grew up being entertained by the people who made and starred in this film. Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder were, and continue to be, comedic gods to me. And the entire cast is nothing short of brilliancy in farce genius.
By the time this movie was filmed, Mel Brooks was already a seasoned comedy writer and director. His writing portfolio highlights by 1974 included "Your Show of Shows" (1950-1954), "Caesar's Hour" (1954-1957), "Get Smart" (1970-1979) on TV and screenplay writing/directing for THE PRODUCERS (1968), THE TWELVE CHAIRS (1970), BLAZING SADDLES (1974). And this was still early in his continually successful career! Brooks is one of only a handful of few to win an Oscar, an Emmy, a Grammy and a Tony. He won an Oscar for the screenplay of THE PRODUCERS (1968); 3 Emmys for his guest appearance as Uncle Phil in "Mad About You" (1992); 3 Tonys for the Broadway version of "The Producers" and 3 Grammys- for Best Spoken Comedy Album along with Carl Reiner, "The 2000 Year Old Man In The Year 2000" (1998) and two for The Producers (2001). Impressive for a guy known best for his low-brow gags and indelicate taste, all with memorable Yiddish vernacular. As he said, "my movies rise below vulgarity."
Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks met back in 1963 when Wilder was performing a bit part in a play "Mother Courage" with co-star Anne Bancroft, who was dating Brooks at that time. Brooks invited Wilder to read pages from a screenplay he was working on, "Springtime For Hitler" and offered to give him a part upon completion. A few years pass by with no contact from Mel Brooks. In the meantime, Gene Wilder landed his debut film role in BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967) as the neurotic undertaker Eugene. Then out of the blue, Mel Brooks shows up backstage as Wilder was performing in a play and said they were ready to start "Springtime For Hitler" but he needed to audition against Zero Mostel. Zero greeted him with a bold kiss right on the mouth, eschewing any nervous energy Wilder had and after the reading; and the part was his.
Thus began the ongoing collaberation between Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder, who both wrote YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974). Mel Brooks has referred to Gene Wilder as “God’s perfect prey, the victim in all of us.” Wilder echoed Brooks' character assessment of himself, “When I first met Mel Brooks, he told me that, in his eyes, I was like a sheep surrounded by wolves.”
YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974) is a loving spoof and hilarious tribute to Universal Studios' movies of the 1930's films based on Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. To capture this properly, Brooks insisted it be filmed in black and white- highly uncommon in 1974. When Columbia Pictures discovered this, they were emphatically opposed to the idea which caused Mel Brooks to take the project immediately over to 20th Century Fox Studios where Alan Ladd Jr's recent command was much more accommodating to the black and white experience. Interestingly, all of the lab and electrical equipment used in the film was from the original James Whale's FRANKENSTEIN (1931). Brooks was thrilled to discover that the original designer of this equipment, Kenneth Strickfaden, had kept all of it in his garage after so many years. It was used in the film and you can see Strickfaden's name credited for both films- same contribution, 43 years apart.
Gene Wilder plays the lead as the descendent of his infamous grandfather/mad scientist Dr. Victor Frankenstein. He inherits his grandfather's castle where we are introduced to the supporting cast of hilarious talents like Madeline Kahn, Marty Feldman, Teri Garr, Cloris Leachman, Peter Boyle, Kenneth Mars, Richard Haydn and Gene Hackman. This film is brimming with the funniest gags and dialogue that remain just as entertainingly hilarious to this day.
Some of my favorite bits include Marty Feldman as Igor (pronounced "eye-gore") who acts oblivious to his ever-shifting hump- this idea was added by Feldman himself. Or the corny yet still laughable, "walk this way...this way" bit which was influenced by William Powell as THE THIN MAN and later inspired Aerosmith's "Walk This Way" famous rock song. And let's not forget Cloris Leachman's Frau Blucher whose very namesake brings whinnying terror to the horses, every single time.
There are some true gems in dialogue throughout, as well. And who doesn't know verbatim the line, "nice knockers" delivered by Wilder's Dr. Frankenstein (pronounced "fronk-en-stein") referencing the large door handles yet Teri Garr's Inga assumes it's a compliment to her own assets. Another unforgettable quote is when Igor reveals he took the wrong brain and when asked the name on the substitute jar he admits, "Abby something... Abby Normal." And I would be remiss if I did not mention the quote my husband and I love to lob to each other all the time. While digging in the graveyard, a filthy job as Wilder's Dr. Frankenstein bemoans; Feldman's Igor cheerfully responds, "Could be worse... could be raining." And immediately it downpours. To this day, whenever my husband or myself complains in a grumpy tone, the other chirps in with "Could be worse" and it's immediately retorted with, "it could be raining." It always brightens our mood and brings a smile.
This is a film I own on DVD and watch several times throughout the year but always during October as Halloween approaches. I love the way this film always makes me laugh, no matter how many times I've watched it. I adore the cast. Every actor is uniquely talented in their character portrayal. I'm biased because I find Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn and Marty Feldman especially hilarious in all their roles. For me, it's a "no-brainer" that this should always be seen as part of your October cinematic traditions, as it is in mine. Happy October!