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Cult films to see before you die: Young Frankenstein

BY James Oliver

1st Jan 2015 Film & TV

Cult films to see before you die: Young Frankenstein

Gene Wilder, one of the funniest of the funny men, died on August 29th, 2016 aged 83. James Oliver explains why his star turn in the Mel Brooks horror parody, Young Frankenstein, will never grow old.

What is Young Frankenstein about?

If sarcasm is the lowest form of wit then the movie parody is the lowest form of film comedy.

As anyone who’s suffered through a single entry of the Scary Movie franchise or one of the later films of Leslie Nielson will attest, there is a peculiar artlessness about films that lampoon other films, a 'will-this-do?' quality that suggests even the filmmakers want the whole thing to be over as quickly as possible.

Young Frankenstein is the glorious exception to all this, a film that spoofs its subject in such style that it actually escapes the shadow of its inspiration to stand as a brilliant comedy in its own right.

It is the work of Mel Brooks, although quite why he decided that the world of 1974 needed a parody of the then-four-decade-old Boris Karloff Frankenstein movies is anyone’s guess. Then again, he and his co-writer Gene Wilder (who also starred) were hardly being obscure.



"Let’s be clear: Young Frankenstein is damn near perfect"



The Karloff Frankenstein pictures (that’s Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein and Son of Frankenstein) had permeated the cultural bloodstream to such an extent that their principal features were instantly recognisable even to those who hadn’t seen the films, gothic architecture, hunchbacked assistants, angry peasants and all. But because the imagery and archetypes are so familiar, casual viewers might not realise just how closely Brooks had studied the films he was ribbing.

Young Frankenstein is the story of dedicated medical researcher Frederick Frankenstein (pronounced ‘Fronk-en-steen’, obviously), grandson of a notorious scientist who tried creating life. Frederick has turned his back on such ghoulishness but when he discovers he has been left the ancestral castle—well, he has to at least take a look at the place doesn’t he?

Naturally enough, he discovers his grandfather’s laboratory and, encouraged by his grandfather’s faithful hunchback servant Igor (pronounced ‘eye-gore’, obviously) and sinister housekeeper Frau Blucher, he resumes the old man’s experiments with predictable, and very funny, results.



What makes it such a good parody?

young frankenstein

All this will be very familiar to anyone who’s seen Son of Frankenstein. There, as you might guess from the title, it’s Frankenstein’s son, who inherits the family home but it was the hunchbacked assistant (called Ygor) and subsequent shenanigans with a monster that evidently inspired Brooks.

If you’ve not seen Son of Frankenstein, it’s definitely worth checking out, but try to do so before watching Young Frankenstein again.

That’s because Son of Frankenstein includes a character called Inspector Krogh, played by Lionel Atwill. He met the monster as a boy and it ripped out his arm. He now has a prosthetic replacement which requires constant adjustment.



 "A unique instance of a parody better than the films it lampoons"



Atwill tries his best but the whole set-up is so ripe for parody that Brooks could hardly demur: here it’s Kenneth Mars (as ‘Inspector Kemp’) with a false arm and it will prove impossible once you’ve seen him to watch poor Lionel Atwill as Krogh without at least a modest chuckle.

Elsewhere, though, Brooks is more indulgent. One of the great features that distinguishes Young Frankenstein from other movie parodies is that evident affection its director has for his subject. You get the sense there are gags here that the young Brooks cracked after he saw the films first time out.

His care extends to the very look of the film, far superior to most comedies thanks to Gerald Hirschfeld’s crisp black and white photography. Brooks even tracked down the laboratory equipment props from the original films and used them once again.



Why it will stand the test of time

Best of all, though, is the cast. The late Gene Wilder was never better than he was here, switching effortlessly between sober researcher and mad scientist. He’s ably assisted in every sense by goggly-eyed British writer-performer Marty Feldman as Igor, visibly trying to make everyone else crack up. Let us not forget Cloris Leachman as Frau Blucher, nor Teri Garr as comely serving wench Inga nor Peter Boyle as the monster either; all are outstanding.

Brooks world make further parodies, some good (like High Anxiety, a spoof of Hitchcock), most so bad that they’ve sullied his reputation (Robin Hood: Men in Tights? Dracula: Dead and Loving It? For shame, Mel!) But let’s be clear: Young Frankenstein is damn near perfect, a unique instance of a parody better than the films it lampoons.

Above is one of the most shared clips from the film: Gene Wilder Puttin’ on the Ritz with his monstrous creation, played by Peter Boyle.


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