October Appreciation: Young Frankenstein

I doubt I’m saying anything my readers haven’t already thought when I mention that 2016 has been an especially sad year for celebrity deaths. Not long ago we lost Gene Wilder, a much-loved comedian and frequent collaborator of director/screenwriter/performer Mel Brooks. Most of us have a favorite Wilder performance, be it Willy Wonka, Leo Bloom, Sherlock Holmes’ smarter brother, the Waco Kid, or the Frisco Kid. But as far as I’m concerned, if he’d done nothing else, he would be worth remembering for his wildly rangy portrayal of the title role in Brooks’ sublime 1974 parody masterpiece Young Frankenstein. Wilder not only starred but also co-wrote the screenplay, making him even more essential to the success of the film.

Wilder’s performance, which takes his character from mild-mannered brainy milksop to brazen scientific revolutionary (and sometimes back again) is but one thing I love about this movie. A huge part of what makes it work for this fan of classic cinema is that here Brooks and Wilder clearly understand the first rule of parody, as laid down by another comic genius, Chuck Jones, in his autobiography Chuck Amuck: “You must love what you parody.” Young Frankenstein is very funny if you haven’t watched the trilogy of classic horror films from which it draws inspiration, Frankenstein (1931), The Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and Son of Frankenstein (1939). But it’s even funnier if you have seen those films, as you can see the way Brooks/Wilder’s film riffs on Una O’Connor’s screeching housekeeper in Bride (she becomes Frau Blucher, whose name makes horses screech) and the one-armed police inspector in Son (and I freely admit that the last time I watched this one, at a point where Lionel Atwill’s wooden arm was torn off, my mind shouted “To the lumberyard!” in Kenneth Mars’ voice). Moreover, Young Frankenstein can actually enhance enjoyment of the originals. When you’ve seen Gene Hackman as the blind hermit, whose gestures of friendship cause the Monster bodily harm and drive the creature to flee before the hermit has a chance to make espresso, the note-perfect sincerity of O.P. Heggie’s performance as the hermit in Bride becomes all the more impressive.

Interestingly, it is from Son, the weakest of the originals, that Young Frankenstein derives its basic plot: a descendant of the first monster-maker returns to his ancestral castle and becomes embroiled in the monster business himself. In Son, the new-generation Frankenstein is intrigued by his predecessor’s work from the outset, but Wilder’s Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced “Fronk-en-steen” at his insistence) has only contempt for his famous ancestor’s forays into the unknown, dismissing them as “doo-doo” — which makes it all the more hilarious when he’s seduced into repeating the forbidden experiments by his grandfather’s memoir, How I Did It, and soon there’s a brand-new Monster roaming the castle and the countryside. It’s with the arrival of the Monster that Young Frankenstein leaves familiar, though funny, territory and starts to surprise us.

We all know the story of Frankenstein and his Monster. We know the scientist endows his creation with life but can’t bring himself to take responsibility for it. We know the abandoned Monster makes a few fruitless attempts to belong, but since his very existence runs counter to the laws of nature, he’s doomed to spread chaos and dread wherever he goes. We know the creator and the creature become bitter enemies, though we wonder what might have happened had the creator met his obligation to the creature instead of running away from him. And we know the Monster has to die, however much sympathy we might have for him. Such an abomination should never have existed in the first place and cannot be allowed to continue. So Mary Shelley’s novel and its umpteen adaptations tell us; as Boris Karloff’s Monster declares to his equally unnaturally-created mate in Bride, “We belong dead.”

Young Frankenstein gives this story the outcome we wish it could have.

Frederick does not run away from the Monster, even though he’s initially terrified of him. He understands, as other Frankensteins haven’t, what the Monster really wants and needs, stating, “Love is the only thing that can save this poor creature.” In the pivotal scene, he orders his assistants to lock him in a room with the Monster and not to open the door, no matter what they hear. Of course, when the Monster comes at him, fear overwhelms him and he screams to be let out, but the assistants are true to their promise. So Frederick seizes the chance to show us what he’s really made of, by turning a smile on the Monster and saying, “Hello there, handsome.” By the end of the scene, his loving affirmations have calmed the creature. His curvaceous assistant Inga asks Dr. “Fronk-en-steen” if he is all right. Frederick shouts, “My name is Frankenstein!” Lightning strikes — the traditional signal for terror in traditional horror films, but here, the capper of a funny and surprisingly heartwarming feel-good moment.

That moment is the difference-maker, and I think a key reason why even those who don’t care much for Brooks’ other work love this movie. Instead of Frankenstein racing to erase his mistake from existence, here it’s Frankenstein and his Monster against the world, charming us all with their soft-shoe duet of “Puttin’ on the Ritz” (which Brooks wanted to cut but Wilder, God bless him, insisted be included). We like them. Brooks likes them, too, and they’re both eventually rewarded with the happy ending that wasn’t possible in Shelley’s novel or any of the ’30s adaptations. At the risk of his own health, Frederick endows the Monster (winningly played by Peter Boyle) with intellect, and both creator and creature win brides. (For me, a big bonus is seeing Inga all set to live happily ever after with Frederick, since she’s played by Teri Garr. I adore the 1982 comedy Tootsie, but I’ve never been happy with the shabby treatment of the Garr character in that film, so it’s good to see Garr smiling at the end of this one.)

In the end, I love the movie for its heart as much as for its humor.

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Interview: Retta Bodhaine

Today’s interview guest is a newcomer to the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company, Retta Bodhaine. She is a fantasy fiction writer from Metro-Atlanta and founder of Write Brain Artistry, LLC. Relatively new to publishing, she can recently be seen in the web based literary magazine Violet Windows, for her short story There Will Come Soft Ringtones, and on ShortFictionBreak.com for her short story, White Chips. Her most recent project, Dani’s Inferno, focuses on an all-female adventure through Hell in a comedic script produced for the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company. A preview of the work is set to show in ARTC’s Halloween Production, ARTC’s Inferno on October 29th and 30th at the Hapeville Performing Arts Center.

Retta is a Renaissance woman and has many various hobbies. She enjoys the great outdoors, photography, crafting, homesteading and above all else exploring and adventuring. She spends her life collecting experiences and getting to know as many of the individuals who cross her path as possible. She always talks to strangers and people watches often. These traits combined with her imaginative nature, nurtured her soul into that of a story teller. She enjoys stories in all their forms, but her preferred media is the written word.

Q: Describe the work you’re doing with the Atlanta Radio Theatre Company.

Right now I’m helping to produce, direct, write and market our October show called ARTC’s Inferno. It’s a production of Lovecraft and Halloween themed short scripts and episodes. It’s my first time producing or directing and the more experienced members of ARTC are showing me the ropes. I’ve really enjoyed learning all the new aspects. As a producer or director, you get to talk to everyone about their concerns and what things they feel are important to being able to do their jobs well. It’s a good way to learn about all of the moving parts in detail.

Q: What drew you to ARTC? What’s your favorite part of working with the company?

Wonder and love of the spoken word was cultivated in me as an infant. My mother is an avid reader, and she knew that she wanted to pass this attribute onto her children. Her first step in accomplishing this goal was to read out loud to us every night at bed time. Fascination with her cadence and tones metamorphosed into shared mental adventures. My mind has always been a curious and creative one, and it began to create its own epics. I’ve been putting them into writing ever since.

After my mother came my elementary school librarian, who introduced my favorite book to me by reading it aloud to my class. Her skills with dialect were beyond anything I had experienced before. It added something fantastic to the story and, without consciously being aware of it, I learned about voice acting. Then in fifth grade the traveling story teller Carmen Deedy visited our school. She was talented and energetic but she was also Hispanic and female like me. It was when I first learned that an adult could be a story teller as a profession, and because she was one, I dared to hope that one day I could be one too.

I found The Atlanta Radio Theatre Company at DragonCon. It was all the things I loved in one place. They were local and they wanted and encouraged people to get involved! I started going to the meetings and I found that it feels like going to a mini-con every Wednesday. The people are all fantastic, talented, unique and willing to share their lives and their love of radio drama. They’re willing to share all of the expertise and train me on their equipment. They help me make my work better and give me the opportunity to see it brought to life! Every Wednesday I leave the meeting feeling blessed and energized.

If I had to name my favorite thing about working with ARTC, I’d have to say it’s the feeling of belonging and community, but if you’re asking about my favorite aspect of creating Radio Dramas (aside from writing them) I’d have to say (so far) it’s been Foley. I like getting to play around designing the sound effects and then seeing how those touches compliment the voice actor’s abilities.

Q: As a writer, what do you hope readers/listeners will get out of your work? What are some elements you like to include?

My core beliefs tend to be the themes of my work. They are things like:

  1. All our actions have consequences.
  2. Each choice we make sets us on a path to make more choices in the same vein.
  • The teachings of twelve step programs are wise.
  1. Both the individual and humanity are more powerful than we realize.
  2. Everyone should endeavor to live a life where they like themselves.
  3. The rules of reality are set around cycles, patterns and balance.

As you can probably tell based on my beliefs, I tend to look at the big picture in my writings. I ask a lot of “what if” questions and play around with mythology and belief systems. I try to be respectful of what I think are the important things while being tongue-in-cheek about nearly everything else. I hope that most people who read my work are imbued with hope and the determination to live life on purpose. My goal is to give them that feeling while entertaining them.

Q: Who are some of your favorite / most influential writers?

John Finnemore, in my opinion, is a comedic and narrative genius. He takes flawed characters who, by all rights, should just be annoying, and makes his audience identify with and care about them. Then he puts them through absurd situations without breaking the audience’s ability to believe what he’s presenting to them, and he connects those absurd situations to form a cohesive and well planned narrative. He does plenty of research and makes sure to be technically correct in his details. He also uses a variety of references and keeps a blog to help people understand his more obscure or personal Easter eggs. That being said, the thing I admire most about him is his ability to end the story when it’s over. He doesn’t drag out a narrative because it’s popular, instead he does what’s best for the quality of the story.

Michelle Magorian’s Goodnight Mr. Tom and Kristen Randal’s The Only Alien On the Planet were very influential to me while growing up. They both tackled the darker aspects of abuse without losing their overall message of hope.

Joss Whedon’s ability to make believable, well-rounded characters and run his audience through the gambit of emotions has always been awe inspiring to me. I also respect that he is not afraid to pull the trigger and make the hard choices, if the story requires him to.

Patricia Briggs’s Mercedes Thompson character is one of the best written modern female characters I’ve come across. Her ability to be both strong and real in a fantasy world is inspiring and refreshing to see. I also like that all of her supporting characters each feel like they lead their own lives outside of what we see on the page. It’s a great series to see how all of our relationships are important and contribute to who we are.

John Irving has a wonderful ability to paint all of his characters as “just people.” There are no good and bad labels, just people trying to live their lives, and dealing with the consequences of their actions as best they can.

Q: What’s your favorite part of being a writer? What aspects do you find a challenge?

I think that humans act like amplifiers for each other’s emotions, and that’s why shared experiences (like conventions or concerts) feel so epic. If I weren’t a writer, I would still come up with stories in my head for me. My favorite part of being a writer is getting to share worlds and ideas I love with others who might love them too, to achieve the shared experience feeling.

I mostly write the way I speak as a first draft and then try to go back and clean it up. As a result, a lot of my character’s express their sentiments in my voice. One of the challenges I’m working on overcoming is giving each of my characters their own individual voice. A second challenge is the showing rather than telling aspect. I have a tendency to front load and to give more information than is required because I think all the nuances really help, but, mostly, it’s overwhelming. Lastly, I find that my stories are very character driven. I prefer this, but I have to work to keep myself focused on my plot and theme to make sure that what I’m writing furthers my end goal.

Q: What would you like to see more of in sci-fi/fantasy?

I’d love to see more collaborative works with authors of different backgrounds who can bring quality and responsible diversity to the table.

I’d also like to see well rounded main characters who have important platonic relationships, and break the mold when it comes to determining their life path and defining individual success.

Q: What would you like to see less of in sci-fi/fantasy?

  1. Formulaic writing.
  2. One dimensional characters, both main and supporting. In life no one is just a plot device for someone else, and good writing should reflect that.
  3. Overly convenient solutions to plot holes. Every time I think about this, it brings to mind a scene from Thank You for Smoking where they want to have movie stars smoking on a space station, and someone points out that fire and oxygen rich environments don’t mix. Then the Hollywood producer answers, “But it’s an easy fix. One line of dialogue. ‘Thank God we invented the… you know, whatever device,” and they move on. I don’t think it’s possible for a single author to catch every single potential plot hole in all of their writing, but this attitude should be the very rare exception that’s applied to only non-essential details.

October Appreciation: Vincent Price

October is upon us once more. It’s time for me to indulge my fondness for classic horror films and the actors who appeared in them. Boris Karloff, he of the deep sepulchre British-accented voice who brought such dimension to characters like the three thousand year old resurrected High Priest Imhotep in The Mummy (1932) and the murderous Cabman Gray in The Body Snatcher (1945), will forever be my favorite, but Vincent Price, with his debonair swagger and devilish wink in the eye, runs a very close second. When he’s on screen, he holds our gaze, and when he speaks — his baritone voice being as resonant as Karloff’s — we can’t help but hang on his every word. Like Karloff, he was often much better than the movies he starred/featured in, yet his presence alone could make them watchable. Now to highlight four of my favorite Price performances.

In The House of Seven Gables (1940), made at a time long before he’d achieved horror icon status, when Hollywood wasn’t quite sure what to do with him, he played one of his few unambiguously sympathetic heroes. The movie itself is an enjoyable melodrama, as long as you don’t expect scrupulous fidelity to the Nathaniel Hawthorne novel on which it is only loosely based. As Clifford Pyncheon, in love with his cousin Hepzibah (Margaret Lindsay) and framed for murder by his dastardly younger brother Jaffrey (George Sanders), Price gets a chance to age from a dashing lover full of youthful vigor and humor, so charming that he engages our rooting interest almost immediately, to a weary, disillusioned parolee trying to take hold of what remains of his life. He’s convincing throughout, showing himself to be one of the few young actors who could offer a nuanced portrayal of middle age. This performance alone should have convinced Hollywood it had a star on its hands. Alas, he had to wait a little longer before he won the fame he deserved.

By 1950 he still hadn’t become horror movie royalty, but he’d settled for the most part into villainous roles. He played them with relish, a delicious leer in his wonderful voice. In Champagne for Caesar, a comedy which lampoons the TV quiz show craze, he plays Burnbridge Waters, a soap company magnate conspiring to thwart a genius (Ronald Colman) who keeps winning too much money on the game show the company sponsors. While Colman plays his hero role with a light, deft touch, Price is a succulent honey-baked ham, sailing hilariously over the top whether he’s ascending to a “higher plane” where he supposedly gets his brilliant ideas, or contemplating drowning his troublesome foe in a huge vat of bubbling soapy water. He’s so much fun to watch that I can’t help liking him just a little, nefarious as he is.

NPR’s Glen Weldon calls The Masque of the Red Death (1964) the closest director Roger Corman ever came to making an actual good movie. I get where he’s coming from, but I don’t think his assessment is entirely fair, since by horror movie standards this is a good movie. By this time Price was well established as a horror star, and he had already made several films with Corman based on the work of Edgar Allan Poe. House of Usher, The Pit and The Pendulum, Tales of Terror, and The Raven (a comedy co-starring Karloff and Peter Lorre) are all worth a look, but this one, which talks back to Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal with its hooded, card-playing Red Death, is the best, with superior plotting and art direction and, of course, superior acting by Price, who plays the sadistic Satanist Prince Propsero, a tyrant who pursues pleasure at the expense of both village peasants and his own “friends.” Many of Price’s protagonists in the Poe/Corman films are troubled men, or at least a little bothered by the situations in which they’re caught, but his Prospero enjoys being evil, and the touch of humor he brings to the table makes him all the more frightening.

One of Price’s most appealing traits, as a person and as an actor, was his willingness to take himself less than seriously, and (save perhaps in his narration for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller”) nowhere was this more in evidence than in his guest appearance on The Muppet Show. To be honest, I’m such a classic Muppet fan that any performer who guest-starred on the original show wins Cool Points with me, but what Price fan would not want to see him transform at the stroke of midnight into an orchestra leader (“Too cruel! Too inhuman!”), display shock when Kermit the Frog is able to turn into a vampire without years of training in the actor’s craft, and play the organ and sing a spooky cover of Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend”? A bonus: the episode shows him interacting with Uncle Deadly, who’s pretty much his Muppet doppelganger.

So this month let us distract ourselves from depressing election news and carve out a little space of time to spend with Vincent Price.

 

Things I Love about… Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

When I first fell in love with Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, at a morning screening with my husband on Christmas Eve 2015, I wasn’t ready to blog about it. The reason is obvious: everybody else was writing about it. For a while it seemed as if anyone with even a glancing interest in pop or geek culture had something to say about it. Many called it a return to glorious form for the Star Wars franchise; others called it a mediocre rehash of the first film. Many praised the movie for putting a female lead character front and center, while others dismissed the character as a “Mary Sue.” With all the back-and-forthing, I wasn’t sure I could find anything to say that wasn’t already being said.

Well, now the hype has died down, and my husband and I just rewatched the movie on Blu-Ray so it’s fresh in my memory once again. I’m ready to put in my two cents, even if it’s been said before. Just what do I love about Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens?

1. Rey. Big shocker, right?

A subset of Star Wars fans have been suggesting that this heroine could, and even should, venture into the Dark Side in subsequent movies, as if a villainess is somehow more welcome and believable than a magnificent light-saber-wielding female Jedi on the side of the Light. (After all, we’ve already seen so many of the latter. *sarcasm*) If the franchise really wants to lose me forever, this is what will happen with Rey. But I’m assured it’s at least highly unlikely, because the first trait we see her exhibit is one that Anakin Skywalker, the series’ template for Fallen Hero, never really displays in the prequels: kindness. I’ve read that our hearts are measured by how we treat those who can do nothing for us, and Rey’s first noteworthy act is to save the lost droid BB-8 from a vicious trader who wants to sell him for parts. She has no reason to think she’ll profit from this rescue, but she does it because it’s the right thing to do. She may try to dissuade him from following her, but droids in the Star Wars universe are often shrewd judges of character, and BB-8 knows he has found a good-hearted and loyal protector in Rey. Even with all the awesome things she does later in the film, this sign of a big heart impresses me most.

2. Maz Katana.

Since their beginning, the Star Wars films have featured some weird and wonderful nonhumans, from droids to Wookiees to Hutts. But how many of them, until this film, have been female? Luke Skywalker’s Tauntaun? The Twi’lek dancer devoured by Jabba the Hutt’s pet monster? They’re so short-lived they really shouldn’t count. All the rest have been male. But now we have the small, wizened, crafty but wise Maz Katana. Though her screen time is brief, Maz fills the mentor role that female characters in sci-fi and fantasy get to play all too rarely, dispensing sound advice to Rey, Finn, and even Han Solo. Yet despite her size, she comes across as someone who could totally kick the butt of anyone who crossed her. One of my favorite things about her is that she could have been written as male. She just happens to be female. Beautiful.

3. Finn.

Many of the same critics who dubbed Rey a “Mary Sue” also decried Finn for being a “weakling” who gets knocked out at the climax — as if that were all he does. But how weak is he, really, when he chooses to abandon the only life he’s ever known in order to do the right thing, when he has no idea how that choice will turn out? How weak is he, when he knows darn well he’s not powerful enough to defeat Kylo Ren, but he chooses to challenge him anyway? True, he’s tempted to flee to safety at certain points (as well he might be, when he knows better than anyone what the villainous First Order is capable of), but the more frightened he is, the braver he shows himself to be when he stands with his friends. He could run away. But he doesn’t. That’s awesome. (Also, it’s through him we learn there are people under those Stormtrooper helmets. To me that makes them a lot more interesting than a troop of soulless clones could ever be.)

4. Diversity in tertiary characters.

Who we see in the background matters, and in this movie we see plenty of male and female, white and non-white, human and nonhuman, among the Resistance, the First Order, and barkeep Maz’s clientele. We didn’t see anything quite like this in the original trilogy or the prequels. I’m calling it progress.

5. The return of Han Solo.

I’m not sure what more I can say on this point, other than Harrison Ford still has it. He may look older and more weather-beaten, but his tough, roguish voice has hardly changed at all.

6. Leia’s title upgrade.

“Princess” is a title a woman is given rather than one she earns, a title linked to gender, and a title somewhat at odds with our concepts of badassery. But “General” — now that’s a badass word, one that speaks of achievement, one that a man or a woman could earn. Thankfully, we don’t just hear Leia being called “General”; we also see her acting as one, exercising authority with grit and wisdom. Considering all the problematic depictions of women in charge that persistently pop up in all genres of fiction, it’s a pleasure to see a female leader portrayed as competent, respected, and good-natured, even if she would have benefited from just a bit more screen time. Hopefully we’ll see more of her in the sequels.

With The Force Awakens, Star Wars has returned in strength. Now I just have to cross my fingers in hope that they can keep it up.