One of the all-time great comedies and one of Mel Brooks's two masterpieces, the other being Blazing Saddles. I like Spaceballs, but it's not in the same league. It was Oscar-nominated, you know, both for Sound and more importantly for Best Adapted Screenplay. This was one of Gene Wilder's two Oscar nominations and it wasn't as an actor, but a writer. I've also seen claims that Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks have both called it their favourite of their respective films.
In 1976 it even won the Golden Scroll Award for Best Horror Film. I like the film, but that's insane. It also inspired a low-budget Turkish remake in 1975 and a relatively short-lived stage musical, adapted by Brooks himself after the fashion of The Producers.
In other words, it's funny. That doesn't even need saying, does it? You've got the brilliant Marty Feldman, who can make me laugh just by standing there. He can set me off with a simple "yes, Master." You've got a wonderful spread of gags, with loving homages to the Universal classics alongside goofy nonsense. The revolving wall scene is daft, for instance, but it's funny. Apparently there was a much longer early cut which everyone agreed was terrible, so the theatrical cut is basically the best bits of that early version. Apparently they'd had such fun shooting that Mel Brooks had been writing extra scenes just to let them continue. I can hardly imagine what that longer cut would have been like, since at 106 minutes this is already even longer than Son of Frankenstein.
Anyway, I could talk about this film's jokes all day. You've got the Monster's scenes with the little girl and then with Gene Hackman's blind man. Yes, that's Hackman under the fake beard. He went uncredited when the movie was originally released. You've got "Hans Delbruck: Scientist and Saint" alongside "Do Not Use This Brain: Abnormal", which deliciously is barely even an exaggeration of the original scene from Dwight Frye and James Whale.
However even more importantly, the film stands up as a story in its own right. Blazing Saddles does as well, right up until they go crashing off their own set. Spaceballs has that half-arsed central romance, even if Mel Brooks does finally make his fourth wall gags work. Young Frankenstein though keeps going right to the end. Marty Feldman delivers an aside to camera, but apart from that moment it's a proper Frankenstein movie that also happens to be funny.
This is where I geek out, I'm afraid. I do at least have the excuse that Mel Brooks got there first, because I can hardly imagine a better love letter to those old Universal classics.
It looks perfect. I speak here as someone who watched it back-to-back with a run of the first five original Frankensteins, from the 1931 original up to Frankenstein meets the Wolf Man. The black-and-white cinematography, the aspect ratio... it's seamless. I was wondering if they'd even filmed on the same sets, albeit with touches of the castle in Lugosi's Dracula. The electrical equipment in the lab scenes though is the actual original props. While preparing for the film, Brooks learned that Ken Strickfaden, the designer of those props for the originals, was still alive and had kept them all in his garage. Brooks rented them and even gave Strickfaden his first screen credit for having designed them in the first place.
Even in acting and directing they're oddly faithful. Mel Brooks isn't generally regarded as a Hitchcock wannabe, but there are some shots and set designs here that reminded me of James Whale. Look at how the camera wobbles during that opening shot of the coffin, for instance. Then there's the acting, which is as broad as you'd expect from a Mel Brooks film, but also taking pains to maintain the right level of intensity in its melodrama. They're really following in the footsteps of Colin Clive, Bela Lugosi, Dwight Frye and Boris Karloff. The best example is Cloris Leachman in the minor role of Frau Blucher, who nonetheless is working so hard to be the spectre at the feast that she got nominated for a Golden Globe as Best Actress. In comparison Madeline Kahn got nominated for a Golden Globe as Best Supporting Actress, despite getting more screen time than Leachman.
Oddly, my least favourite cast member is Gene Wilder. Obviously I still love him, of course. That goes without saying. You can't not adore Gene Wilder. However he's been given an awful lot of florid dialogue, including a good few speeches, and when it comes to those his method of attack is full-frontal. You can't fault his energy, but he does seem to rant more than I remember from Clive, Rathbone et al. Nevertheless Wilder's performance here has been ranked #9 on Premiere Magazine's 100 Greatest Performances of All Time, so what do I know?
On the other hand, I'm a fan of Peter Boyle's Creature. He's acting, which is more than you can say for half his predecessors in the role. He doesn't have Karloff's physicality, but who does? Instead he's doing almost everything with his eyes, resulting in the most human Creature to date. Mind you, he's in a comedy rather than a tragedy.
Marty Feldman is awesome. Enough said.
The big departure is with the women. There are three key female roles, which is almost as many as you'll get in the rest of the entire series. Madeline Kahn's the only one with an obvious analogue from the original films, with Teri Garr playing the sexy German girl and Leachman playing a homage to the entire Universal canon rather than anything specifically from Frankenstein.
Brooks does that more than you'd think, actually. There's a shot of Boyle carrying Kahn through the woods which is a nod to Creature from the Black Lagoon. Then there's the "Putting on the Ritz" scene, which is basically King Kong. Surprisingly it works. Brooks was nervous about including it, but it works. Finally there's the concluding twist, which feels almost as if it follows the logic of 1950s SF B-movies and more importantly is perfect.
There's a question mark over the dating. Gene Wilder's Frankenstein is the grandson of the original, yet the era would seem to be the 1930s or possibly 1940s, looking a little like early Hitchcock in his early goodbye scene with Madeline Kahn. In other words, it's set in the era in which the old Universal films were made. However if he really was the grandson we see in Son of Frankenstein, for instance, then this should be the 1970s.
There's also little consistency in the accents. The natives of Transylvania (not Goldstadt or Vasaria) variously speak with Germanic, English and even American accents, although that last one's forgivable since she's only a little girl. Besides, children are always American-accented in the original films too.
The only thing I can think of that's not faithful is the details of the monster design, with a zip in his neck instead of bolts. Maybe Universal wouldn't let them do a classic Karloff. However there are elements lifted from each of the first three films, including a version of the one-armed Lionel Atwill police inspector in Son who for some reason I was expecting to be annoying. Young Frankenstein doesn't have the same density of laughs as Blazing Saddles, but it's got a richer story and much more style in its genre parody. It's good enough to be important. It's also a more faithful and funnier continuation of the original films than Abbott and Costello meet Frankenstein, although that's good too.