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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