Sunday, October 31, 2010

Young Frankenstein

Directed by Mel Brooks.
1974. Rated PG, 106 minutes.
Gene Wilder
Peter Boyle
Terri Garr
Marty Feldman
Madeline Kahn
Cloris Leachman
Kenneth Mars
Gene Hackman

The tale of Frankenstein is one of the most famous and enduring in literary or cinematic history. Of course, that means we all know it well enough to laugh along when it gets made fun of. This is where Mel Brooks comes in. He gives a movie that works the way spoofs are supposed to. It makes fun of its source material, yet simultaneously stands on its own as a good story.

That story follows one of Dr. Victor Frankenstein’s descendants, Frederick (Wilder). Frederick considers Victor little more than “a famous cuckoo.” So ashamed of the family name is he, Frederick pronounces it “Fronk-en-steen.” However, when he inherits it, he has to venture back to the fateful castle where life was once breathed into a corpse.

From there we get an endless stream of jokes, and in-jokes that work marvelously. Scene after scene gives us something to at least snicker about, if not break out into uncontrollable laughter. It has plenty of fun at the expense of the original movie but unlike many current day spoofs, it’s never mean spirited. It treats its inspiration lovingly without alienating its fans.

Having watched it for the first time in a few years, I was pleasantly surprised by how risqué some of the jokes are. There’s plenty double entendres and a few flat-out penis jokes. To help out in this regard, the two main women in the film, Terri Garr and Madeline Kahn, play their roles perfectly. Their timing is impeccable. They give that sly knowing look at just the right time, or remain perfectly oblivious. Either way they play it is often an effective punchline with nothing else needing to be said.

All the while, the story that’s developing is fascinating. It moves along at a brisk pace. Chronologically, it positions itself well after Bride of Frankenstein but ignores that it exists, sort of. I say sort of because by the end, the bride is incorporated and becomes another in a long line of great gags.

Speaking of gags, anyone who has seen this movie has a few favorites. There’s Igor’s (Feldman) moving hump and the way the horses react whenever someone mentions Madame Frau Blücher (Leachman). There’s also the underrated see-saw scene. I’m a simple man. My favorite is probably the silliest: “Put ze candle back!”

None of this would work, if it our leads don’t. For my money, this is Gene Wilder’s finest performance. He plays it absolutely straight. It’s like he has no idea he’s in a comedy for about 99% of the movie. That other 1%, he breaks the fourth wall and gives us a look that just has us in stitches. It’s truly one of the great comedic performances of all time. And he does it without incessantly mugging for the camera and/or hogging the spotlight from the rest of the ensemble.

The other “lead”, if you will is Peter Boyle as the monster. The great part of his performance comes when he’s trying to communicate with someone but lacks the words to do so. He clearly knows more than he would appear to and that just adds to the humor.

Director Mel Brooks has given us a number of classics. This has always been my favorite of his. It does everything that a spoof should do, without a misstep. When it comes to the genre of spoofs, there is little doubting that Brooks is indeed royalty. He gave us Blazing Saddles, The Producers and Spaceballs among others. It says a lot, maybe about me, that I’m confident in saying this is his best and arguably the best of all time.

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