Mel Brook’s Comic Masterpiece: Young Frankenstein
The clock chimes 13 times at the beginning of the film. To all of us who love Mel Brooks’ brilliant and immortal horror film parody Young Frankenstein, this beginning can only mean one thing. Yes, it means you’re going to have a great time, but it also means something a bit more ominous: the next 106 minutes of your life are going to be extremely painful. Because after you hear the 13 chimes, you are going to undergo a gut-wrenching, side-splitting, sore stomach-creating and painfully funny comedy experience.
Director Mel Brooks called Young Frankenstein his favorite of all the movies he directed. Star Gene Wilder called it his favorite of all the films he has appeared in.
The genesis of Young Frankenstein actually occurred during the filming of Brooks’ other comic parody masterpiece, 1973′s Blazing Saddles, a year earlier. Brooks and Wilder were sitting around drinking some coffee, when Wilder simply said, “I have an idea to do a new version of Frankenstein.” Brooks countered that the idea had been done to death and everyone was tired of it. When Wilder elaborated that his idea was to have a descendant of the original Dr. Frankenstein as the lead and that his character was ashamed of the family and its name, Brooks became intrigued and agreed that the idea was funny.
Brooks and Wilder proceeded to come up with the movie’s original screenplay. Interestingly, unlike Blazing Saddles, Brooks does not appear onscreen in the film in any role. He does, however, supply the baying howl of the werewolf in the ride to the castle scene. In another scene, Brooks also makes the screeching sound of a cat, as Wilder throws a dart offscreen and hits one.
Madeline Kahn was originally slated to play Wilder’s sexy assistant, Inga, until she decided she’d rather play his spoiled fiance Elizabeth. This left actress Terri Garr to take over the Inga role. She claimed she based Inga’s broad accent on Cher’s wigmaker from The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour, a TV show she regularly appeared on.
Strangely, Kahn was nominated for a Golden Globe Award as “Best Supporting Actress in a Comedy/Musical” for the film, while Garr received a “Best Lead Actress” nomination, even though Kahn actually had more screen time in the movie.
Peter Boyle took on the role of the monster, complete with green makeup, just like Boris Karloff in the original. Filming was a happy experience for Boyle, who met his future wife, Lorraine, during the shoot. Boyle asked her out on their first date in full green makeup and Frankenstein’s monster costume.
Marty Feldman took on his signature movie role as Igor, Dr. Frankenstein’s loyal hunchbacked assistant. Feldman’s gag in the movie about the hump on his back changing sides was completely improvised. During filming, he just kept switching the hump from his left side to his right side until finally the other cast members caught on. His famous line, “What hump?” was also an ad-lib. Feldman, Wilder, and Boyle were actually signed in a “package deal” as they all shared the same agent.
Possibly the funniest scene in the movie is Boyle’s encounter with the old blind man, played perfectly by Gene Hackman. In this legendary scene, Hackman (the blind man) pours hot soup on Boyle’s monster and lights his thumb on fire, believing it to be a cigar. During the filming, Brooks kept breaking up and ruining the takes. Finally, he literally had to leave the sound stage and “direct” the scene on another set.
Right before the scene was shot, Brooks phoned in from the other set and said, “Are you ready?” and was told yes. He then said “Action!” over the phone and the scene was filmed. Brooks asked if it was over, and was told yes and he said “Cut!” over the phone and came back to the set.
Boyle’s thumb in the scene was actually a fake thumb that had been doused in alcohol to keep the flame going. Gene Hackman was not credited for his role as the blind man in the film’s original release.
As a sidebar, while watching this scene with my friend Freddy, he made the interesting observation that “I think this was the first scene in movie history that ridiculed a handicapped person.” This is possibly true, as I couldn’t think of a predecessor in movie comedies. Whatever, I defy any human being to watch this scene and not break up laughing. I must have seen it a dozen times over the years, and each new viewing causes me to double over in hysterical laughter.
Cloris Leachman, who played the ominous Frau Blucher, once asked Brooks why the horses in the film kept getting stirred up and upset when her name was mentioned. Brooks explained that “Blucher” meant “glue” in German and this caused the horses to buck when the word was mentioned. Leachman later learned that this was a fabrication by Brooks and the horses bucking up when “Blucher” was uttered was simply a gag used for comic effect.
The biggest disagreement during filming was the “Puttin’ on the Ritz” dance scene between Wilder and Boyle. Brooks vehemently objected to the scene, believing it was “out of place” and spoiled the film’s continuity. It was only after Brooks watched the scene at a preview screening with a howling crowd that he admitted he was wrong and agreed to keep the scene in the picture.
A sincere and earnest homage to Boris Karloff’s classic original Frankenstein movie of 1931, Young Frankenstein actually uses many of the same props and pieces of laboratory equipment used in Karloff’s original. To keep the flavor of the original, Brooks insisted the film be shot in black and white. He also had the film’s opening credits shown in old-fashioned 1930s-film-type lettering.
Sometimes great movies come from non-harmonious casts and crews. And sometimes the reverse occurs: happy casts and crews turn out really bad movies. Apparently Young Frankenstein was neither. When principle photography for the film was winding down, the cast and crew were having so much fun, director Brooks actually wrote some extra scenes, just so filming wouldn’t have to come to an end. Unfortunately, the film’s original finished version was twice as long as the movie we are all familiar with. It was declared an abysmal disaster. To save the film’s bacon, Brooks and Wilder did some marathon film-cutting and trimmed off every joke that wasn’t optimum. This brutal editing gave us the comic masterpiece we all now know as Young Frankenstein.
Released on December 15, 1974, Young Frankenstein became the highest-grossing comedy (up to that time) in motion picture history. Interestingly, it broke the old record held for one year by Brook’s previous comedy Blazing Saddles.
The American Film Institute named the film as #13 on its list of the funniest movies of all time. In 2003, Young Frankenstein was declared “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” by the U.S. National Film Preservation Board and was entered into the Library of Congress film registry. Young Frankenstein remains a “must see” for any student of film comedy, as well as anyone who enjoys a great movie and a good laugh.