1974. Directed by Mel Brooks.
Achieving perfection in a comedy is arguably one of the hardest goals in cinema. Scripts tend to fall flat at certain points within the narrative and for the most part, the art is confined to the dialogue and physicality of the cast. There a handful of films that break this trend, using extremely articulate production design and masterful camerawork to combine with the talents of the actors to produce a genuine classic. Mel Brooks’ directorial masterpiece Young Frankenstein is a one of kind film and arguably one of the greatest comedies ever made.
Screen legend Gene Wilder gives one of his best performances as Frederick Frankenstein, a New York physician desperate to separate himself from the notorious reputation of his grandfather. Frederick inherits Victor Frankenstein’s castle after a relative passes away and elects to travel to Transylvania where he is soon caught up in rogue science procedures involving the creation of life with abnormally large endowments. Brooks and Wilder collaborated on the script, seeking to both spoof the golden era of horror films while intimately praising their legacy. Despite Brooks’ penchant for over the top, risqué material, Frankenstein stays carefully in bounds, a deliberate departure that only enhances the comedic impact. No joke, no matter how lewd or crude ever feels forced, leaving the viewer with a sore stomach and a headful of quotable lines that remain hysterically potent to this day.
Wilder also stars as Frederick, capitalizing on the fantastical elements of his performance in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory three years early and mixing it with a level of absurd obsession that almost steals the show. He’s supported by the amazing Madeline Kahn as his uptight fiancé, Teri Garr as the tempting lab assistant, Cloris Leachman as the mysterious groundskeeper, and Marty Feldman as the fish-eyed henchman, Igor. Peter Boyle’s turn as the Monster is outright hysterical, taking all of the legendary creature’s most important scenes from Frankenstein and The Bride of Frankenstein and making them not only his own, but crafting each of them so that they blend seamlessly into Brooks’ dark playground of sexual magic and hilarious pronunciations. Gene Hackman has a cameo as a blind monk and while this was Hackman’s first foray into comedy, his scene with Boyle is one of the film’s many, many iconic sequences, outdone only by Wilder and Boyle’s madcap rendition of Putting on the Ritz.
Brooks’ stern dedication to authenticity is one of Young Frankenstein’s most important attributes. The studio attempted to shoot in color multiple times, however Brooks remained firm in ensuring the film was shot in black and white. Gerald Hirschfield’s cinematography is so good; the viewer often forgets they’re watching a film, as the images transport them directly into the insanity. There are numerous visuals that pay tribute to the Universal monster films, however, Hirschfield’s unique command of depth and tight compositions keep the focus on the gags and on the small, but enriched world of Brooks’ design. Brooks used actual set pieces, such as the lab, from James Whale’s Frankenstein films of the early 30’s and took other approaches with production that would go on to cement the film’s well-earned reputation as being not only outright hilarious, but a perfect example of art via comedy.
Available now on Netflix, Young Frankenstein is one of Brooks’ best made movies and an essential piece of viewing for anyone who enjoys comedy. Gene Wilder tragically passed away almost one year ago today and it was in his honor that many theaters chose to show this unabashed classic posthumously. Whether you’re a lifelong fan of Mel Brooks or discovering him for the first time, Young Frankenstein is the pinnacle of American comedy: A brilliantly composed satire, masterfully directed by one of the true rebels of comedic cinema.
Highly. Highly Recommend.