In “Young Frankenstein” Mel Brooks does for the horror movie what he did earlier for the Western in “Blazing Saddles.” By that, I mean he squirts seltzer in its pants, pulls its hat over its ears, hits it over the head with his slapstick and hurls a custard pie right in its kisser. The result is a very, very funny movie — if not quite the piece of inspired looniness that was “Blazing Saddles.”
Because where “Blazing Saddles” from time to time seemed to slip completely out of all control, Brooks keeps a tight directorial reign on “Young Frankenstein,” meticulously recreating the sight, sound and feel of the original ’30s “Frankenstein” while, at the same time, satirizing the hell out of it.
Brooks and one of his stars, Gene Wilder, are credited with the script which, of course, is based very loosely on the 19th century novel by Mary Shelley. In the Brooks-Wilder version, Wilder is the grandson of Baron Victor Frankenstein, the monster maker, and none too happy about it.
When we first meet him, he is a teacher in an American medical school and when one of his students calls him by name he insists that the pronunciation is “Fronk-en-steen,” not “Frank-en-stine.” Of his infamous grandfather he says, “I don’t want to be associated with a coo-coo.” He is, however, lured back to Transylvania as the inheritor of the family estate. (He gets from Philadelphia to Transylvania by train, by the way, setting up a funny shaggy dog joke that will appeal mainly to old Glenn Miller fans.)
Once arrived, he is met by his assistant Igor (hilariously played by the English comedian Marty Feldman) whose humpback keeps shifting sides; Inga (Terri Garr), a shapely lab assistant; and Frau Blucher (Cloris Leachman), the sinister housekeeper the mere mention of whose name causes the horses to whinny with fear.
Creating a new Frankenstein’s monster
Discovering his grandfather’s hidden laboratory, Frankenstein is naturally drawn willy-nilly into the creation of a new monster. Igor is dispatched for a brain and, just like the first time, he gets the wrong one bringing back an abnormal brain rather than that of the genius and saint requested. (“I really didn’t get the name.” Igor confesses to Dr Frankenstein. “It was Abbie something. Abbie Normal, I think.”)
The monster (Peter Boyle) breaks out of the laboratory and goes lurching around the countryside on his built up shoes. In one of the movie’s funniest sequences, he stumbles into the cottage of a blind hermit (played by a well disguised Gene Hackman) who attempts to serve him soup, wine and cigars but ends up scalding, dousing, battering and burning the poor creature who goes howling into the night.
Tempted back to the castle by a haunting melody played on a violin, the monster is tamed and taught by Dr Frankenstein who then introduces his creation to an audience of fellow scientists. In what is surely going to be a milestone in movie musical numbers, Frankenstein and the monster, both dressed in white tie, top hat and tails, do a Fred Astaire-type song and dance routine to “Puttin’ On The Ritz.”
Madeline Kahn plays Wilder’s lacquered fiance and Kenneth Mars is the wooden-armed, monocled police inspector whose dialect is so heavy that the villagers have to ask him occasionally to repeat his maledictions.
In order to remain completely faithful to the original, Brooks has made his movie in black and white using old fashioned iris dissolves and period background music. Boyle’s monster makeup (he has zippers where Karloff had bolts) was created by William Tuttle. Production design, set decoration and costumes all are absolutely perfect. And Kenneth Strickfaden, who was in part responsible for the sparking, bubbling, hissing laboratory apparatus in the 1931 “Frankenstein” recreated some of it for this film.
I enjoyed “Blazing Saddles” so much I was afraid I’d be disappointed by “Young Frankenstein.” I wasn’t. It is a falling down funny movie. I can hardly wait to see what Brooks does next.