In the spirit of Halloween, tonight’s spooky, hilarious Saturday Night Cinema classic is Mel Brooks’ wonderful, iconic comedy Young Frankenstein. I think it’s Brooks’ masterpiece. It’s the dream team of writer/director Mel Brooks and writer/star Gene Wilder — starring Brooks’ favorite players, Peter Boyle, Marty Feldman, Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman, and Teri Garr.
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In this spoof of Mary Shelley’s gothic tale, the grandson of Victor Frankenstein, a neurosurgeon, has spent his life living down the legend of his grandfather, even changing the pronunciation of his name. When he discovers his grandfather’s diary, he begins to feel differently, and returns to the family castle to satisfy his curiosity by replicating his ancestor’s experiments. In the process, he creates one very unique monster.
“He’s not skewering the conventions of the horror movie — he’s paying tribute to them.”
Interesting factoids you probably don’t know (fully explained here):
- Studio Executives tried Tricking Director Mel Brooks into Shooting the Film in Color
- Star and Co-Writer Gene Wilder Convinced Brooks to Forgo his Usual Cameo Appearance
- Early On, We Hear the Exact Same Conversation Repeated in Both English and German
- One of Igor’s Best Moments Inspired a Hit Aerosmith Song
- Hans Delbrück Was a Real Person
- Several Props Had Previously Appeared in the Masterful 1931 Frankenstein Film
- Teri Garr Based Her Character’s Voice on Cher’s Hairdresser
- Brooks Hired Kenneth Mars After the Actor Signed Off on an Odd Costuming Choice
- Gene Hackman Specifically Asked Wilder for a Part in Young Frankenstein Because he “Wanted to Try Comedy”
- Peter Boyle Had to Wear a Special Pad Over His Crotch to Avoid Getting Scalded During the Famous Blind Man Scene
- A Huge Percentage of the Movie Had to Be Deleted
- Wilder was Constantly Cracking Up During Takes
- Brooks’ Blazing Saddles and Young Frankenstein were the 1st and 3rd highest-grossing films of 1974, respectively
- Cloris Leachman Was Asked to Reprise Her Role for the ‘Young Frankenstein’ Musical
- Throughout the Shoot, Brooks Offered Wilder Directing Advice
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The Current Cinema
December 30, 1974 Issue, The New Yorker
A Magnetic Blur
By Pauline Kael
Gene Wilder stares at the world with nearsighted, pale-blue-eyed wonder; he was born with a comic’s flyblown wig and the look of a reddish creature from outer space. His features aren’t distinct; his personality lacks definition. His whole appearance is so fuzzy and weak he’s like mist on the lens. Yet since his first screen appearance, as the mortician in “Bonnie and Clyde,” he’s made his presence felt each time. He’s a magnetic blur. It’s easy to imagine him as a frizzy-haired fiddler-clown in a college production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” until he slides over into that hysteria which is his dazzling specialty. As a hysteric, he’s funnier even than Peter Sellers. For Sellers, hysteria is just one more weapon in his comic arsenal—his hysteria mocks hysteria—but Wilder’s hysteria seems perfectly natural. You never question what’s driving him to it; his fits are lucid and total. They take him into a different dimension—he delivers what Harpo promised.
Wilder is clearly an actor who can play serious roles as well as comic ones, and he’s a superb technician. Yet he also seems an inspired original, as peculiarly, elusively demented in his own way as the greatest original of them all, Jonathan Winters. You can’t tell what makes clowns like this funny. The sources of their humor are split off from the technical effects they produce. (With Chaplin, there’s a unity between source and technique—which isn’t necessarily preferable.) Like Winters, Wilder taps a private madness. In “Start the Revolution Without Me,” he played a French nobleman who was offering a tidbit to the falcon on his wrist when his wife pointed out that the falcon was dead. With the calm of the utterly insane, he said to her, “Repeat that.” Reality is what Wilder’s weak stare doesn’t take in.
Wilder plays the title role in Mel Brooks’ “Young Frankenstein,” and in the first fifteen minutes or so—especially in a medical experiment on skinny, excruciatingly vulnerable Liam Dunn—he hits a new kind of controlled maniacal peak. The movie doesn’t take Wilder beyond that early high, but it doesn’t need to. It’s a silly, zizzy picture—a farce-parody of Hollywood’s mad-scientist-trying-to-be-God pictures, with Wilder as the old Baron Frankenstein’s grandson, an American professor of neurology, who takes a trip to the family castle in Transylvania. Peter Boyle is the Frankenstein monster, and Madeline Kahn is the professor’s plastic-woman fiancée, who becomes the monster’s bride. It isn’t a dialogue comedy; it’s visceral and lower. It’s what used to be called a crazy comedy, and there hasn’t been this kind of craziness on the screen in years. It’s a film to go to when your rhythm is slowed down and you’re too tired to think. You can’t bring anything to it (Brooks’ timing is too obvious for that) ; you have to let it do everything for you, because that’s the only way it works. It has some of the obviousness of “Abbott & Costello Meet Frankenstein,” and if you go expecting too much it could seem like kids’ stuff—which, of course, it is, but it’s very funny kids’ stuff, the kind that made pictures like “Kentucky Moonshine” and “Murder, He Says” into nutbrain classics. You can go to see it when you can barely keep your eyes open, and come out feeling relaxed and recharged.
Wilder wrote the screenplay with Brooks, and he has a healthy respect for his own star abilities. Confidence seems to be making him better-looking with each picture; this time he wears a romantic, droopy mustache, and in full-face, with his eyes outlined and his long chin prominent, he gives a vain, John Barrymore-ish dash to the role. I could have done with less of his pixie hunchback assistant Igor—the English comic, Marty Feldman, who’s done up like Barrymore as Richard III. The camera picks up the glints of Wilder’s madness; Feldman projects to the gallery. He’s too consciously zany; he’s funny at times (and he uses a Groucho turn of phrase like a shiv), but he’s heavy-spirited and cunning, in the Anthony Newley manner. He emphasizes the picture’s worst defect: the director tends to repeat—and exhaust—effects. In the opening sequences, Wilder does a startling spinoff of Sellers’ performance as Dr. Strangelove, but then, later on, Kenneth Mars, the Nazi playwright in “The Producers” and the Transylvania police inspector here—equipped with an artificial arm, like Lionel Atwill in the role in the old days—does a full-dress variation on Strangelove. Like Feldman, Mars seems meant to be funnier than he is; his impenetrable accent is one of those Brooks ideas that don’t pan out. Sometimes Brooks appears to think he can force something to be a scream if he pounds away at it. Cloris Leachman makes a magnificent entrance as the castle housekeeper, but then, having a one-and-a-half-gag role, she has nothing left to do but make faces. However, Peter Boyle underplays smoothly; he suggests a puckish cutup’s spirit inside his monster’s bulk, and he comes through with a great sick-joke strangled voice in a musical number that shows what Brooks can do when his instinct is really working. He can make you laugh helplessly.
The picture was made in black-and-white, which holds it visually close to the pictures it takes off from, and Brooks keeps the setups simple. The details are reassuring: there’s a little more Transylvanian ground fog than you’ve ever seen before, the laboratory machines give off enough sparks to let us know that’s their only function, and the ingénue (Teri Garr, as Frankenstein’s laboratory assistant) is the essence of washed-out B-movie starlet. The style of the picture is controlled excess, and the whole thing is remarkably consistent in tone, considering that it ranges from unfunny hamming (the medical student at the beginning) to a masterly bit contributed by Gene Hackman as a bearded blind man. (Hackman’s inflections are so spectacularly assured I thought there was a famous comic hidden under the beard until I recognized his voice.) The movie works because it has the Mary Shelley story to lean on: we know that the monster will be created and will get loose. And Brooks makes a leap up as a director because, although the comedy doesn’t build, he carries the story through. Some directors don’t need a unifying story, but Brooks has always got lost without one. (He had a story in “The Twelve Chairs,” but he didn’t have the jokes.) Staying with the story, Brooks even has a satisfying windup, which makes this just about the only comedy of recent years that doesn’t collapse. Best of all, “Young Frankenstein” doesn’t try to be boffola, like Brooks’ last picture, “Blazing Saddles,” yet it has that picture’s prime attractions: Wilder and Madeline Kahn. When she parodied Marlene Dietrich in “Blazing Saddles,” it wasn’t the usual Dietrich imitation, because she was also parodying herself. Madeline Kahn has an extra dimension of sexiness; it’s almost like what Mae West had—she’s flirtatious in a self-knowing way. And everything that’s wrong about her is sexy. You look at her and think, What a beautiful translucent skin on such a big jaw; what a statuesque hourglass figure, especially where the sand has slipped. She’s so self-knowingly lascivious that she convinces you she really digs the monster. Madeline Kahn is funny and enticing because she’s soaked in passion; when you look at her, you see a water bed at just the right temperature.
In the new disaster blockbuster “The Towering Inferno,” each scene of a person horribly in flames is presented as a feat for our delectation. The picture practically stops for us to say, “Yummy, that’s a good one!” These incendiary deaths, plus the falls from high up in the hundred-and-thirty-eight-floor tallest skyscraper in the world, are, in fact, the film’s only feats, the plot and characters being retreads from the producer Irwin Allen’s earlier “Poseidon Adventure.” What was left out this time was the hokey fun. When a picture has any kind of entertainment in it, viewers don’t much care about credibility, but when it isn’t entertaining we do. And when a turkey bores us and insults our intelligence for close to three hours, it shouldn’t preen itself on its own morality. “Inferno” knocks off some two hundred people as realistically as it possibly can and then tells us that we must plan future buildings more carefully, with the fire chief (embodied here by Steve McQueen) working in collaboration with the architect (in this case, Paul Newman, who appears to be also the only engineer—in fact, the only person involved in the building’s construction or operation above the level of janitor).
The film asks us to believe that until the skyscraper’s official opening day the busy Newman never noticed that the contractors and subcontractors had cheated on just about everything. It asks us to believe that this tallest building in the world—a golden glass tower that’s a miracle of flimsiness, as it turns out—would have been set down in San Francisco, of all places. It asks us to accept Richard Chamberlain as a rat-fink electrical contractor (one has visions of him negotiating with the electricians’ local) and as the city’s leading roué (this gives one visions, too). But then this is a movie in which Fred Astaire, as escort to Jennifer Jones, needs a rented tuxedo.
The audience’s groans and giggles at the bonehead lines of the scriptwriter, Stirling Silliphant, aren’t part of a cynically amused response, as they are at “Earthquake;” they’re more like symptoms of distress. There’s a primitive, frightening power in death by fire. How can we look at scenes of death and listen to this stupid chitchat about love and building codes, interlarded with oohs and ahs for rescued little boy and girl darlings and for a pussycat saved by a kindly black man (O. J. Simpson)? What emotion are we meant to feel for Robert Wagner (as some sort of publicist for the building) and his secretary (Susan Flannery), who have a little fling, get out of bed, and die hideously, the camera lingering on their agonies? Maybe Irwin Allen thinks that “Poseidon” was such a big commercial success because of its plain, square realism. But it was clunky-realistic, and the upside-down-ocean-liner situation was so remote that one could sit back and enjoy it. The realism here is very offensive.
The movie doesn’t stick together in one’s head; this thing is like some junky fairground show—a chamber of horrors with skeletons that jump up. It hardly seems fair to pin much responsibility on the nominal director, John Guillermin; I can’t believe he had a lot of choice in such matters as the meant-to-be touching fidelity of the mayor of San Francisco (Jack Collins) and his plump wife in pink (Sheila Matthews, the producer’s fiancée). I’ve seen this loving, long-married couple go down with the Titanic so many times that I was outraged that they survived here. Despite the gruesome goings on inside the world’s tallest funeral pyre, a few performers still manage to be minimally attractive. Paul Newman has the sense to look embarrassed, which, in addition to his looking remarkably pretty and fit, helps things along. His son Scott Newman, who appears as a nervous young fireman, has his father’s handsomeness. William Holden has a thankless role as the builder responsible for most of the chicanery, but he performs with professional force. Best, surprisingly, is Faye Dunaway, as Newman’s girl. It’s not that she acts much but that she looks so goddessy beautiful, wandering through the chaos in puce see-through chiffon—a creamy, slutty Fragonard in motion. When Dunaway has nothing to do, it’s all to the good: she doesn’t pull her face together into that tight, Waspy acting mask that she usually puts on. Without it, her porcelain, world-weary face becomes wounded by the fear of falling apart—and she’s more beautiful than ever. Perfection going slightly to seed is maybe the most alluring face a screen goddess can have.
“Inferno” was financed jointly by Twentieth Century Fox and Warners after the companies discovered that they had both invested in virtually the same novel, and that a rivalry to make the picture could he double suicide; it was not exactly a case of great minds travelling in the same channel. The only disaster picture that has redeemed the genre is Richard Lester’s “Juggernaut,” which kidded the threadbare pants off the same clichés that the other pictures still try to make work. Though “Inferno” spares us a prayer scene, it has the gall to try to get us excited by repeated shots of fire engines arriving at the foot of the skyscraper, their sirens piercing our eardrums. And it actually carries a dedication “to the firefighters of the world.” “The Towering Inferno” has opened just in time to capture the Dumb Whore Award of 1974. ♦
Pauline Kael wrote for The New Yorker from 1967 until her retirement, in 1991.
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