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Young Frankenstein

Review Written by: Bill Slocum
Film: A
Video/Audio/Extras: B/A-/A-

Directed by: Mel Brooks
Written by: Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder
Based on the book by: Mary Shelley
Produced by: Michael Gruskoff
Starring: Gene Wilder, Marty Feldman, Teri Garr, Cloris Leachman, Peter Boyle, Madeline Kahn
Buy it!, Buy it, rent it or skip it: Buy it!

There's a lot of amazing things about Young Frankenstein. To start with, it was made fast on the heels of one of the all-time comedy classics, Blazing Saddles, which director Mel Brooks was still editing while he simultaneously shot Young Frankenstein. The films opened months apart in 1974 and Young Frankenstein, while a very different and less wild comedy than Blazing Saddles, hardly suffered from the juxtaposition. They are still considered by most people Mel Brooks' #1 and #2 comedies, perhaps the #1 and #2 comedies of the 1970s. The only question may be which is which.

I just feel blessed to be in a world with both. Blazing Saddles is funnier, it broke conventions and made anarchy into an art form. It's a greater comedy than Young Frankenstein and a more significant work of art. But Young Frankenstein is the better film. It has a heart. You are encouraged not just to laugh, but to feel, feel for the pathetic, confused monster; for his vainglorious creator; for the sad crone who pines for her long-dead love and winces with real hurt when the horses whinny at the sound of her name. It has a beginning, a middle and an end. And it's so funny, it's deadly.

Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks clearly needed each other more than either cared to admit. They never collaborated after this film and neither had much good to show for their separation (Wilder did have another collaboration or two left with Richard Pryor, so he did a little better, but choosing between Life Stinks and Funny About Love is a dog's breakfast to be sure). Look how mightily Wilder roars. In his DVD commentary, Brooks calls Wilder's performance "more than brilliant, it's Promethean." Wilder's Dr. Fronk-En-Steen is en fuego indeed, screaming with more passion than Wilder bestowed on all his subsequent roles combined. His wild hair, his lustful ravishings of Madeline Kahn and Teri Garr, his jabbing a scalpel in his thigh, is the stuff of inspired genius and shows a comic actor at the top of his game. Brooks, by contrast, plays it relatively straight, letting the script go for the laughs while he concentrates on setting up the actors and establishing the film's brilliant mood, which plays off the original Universal Frankenstein films in a clearly respectful but nevertheless playfully satirical way. As caustic and scatological as he was in Blazing Saddles, Brooks is sweet and disciplined here. The vulgarity is minimal, the sex jokes are less obvious and there's a real story to follow.

The ensemble cast also helps. They play off each other like a polished orchestra, to the point where you can't really pick a favorite character. At least for me, it changes. Marty Feldman is the audience manqué as the charmingly weird EYE-gor, Cloris Leachman (the only member of the cast to ever win an Oscar, but for The Last Picture Show) is goofy and sinister at the same time as Frau Blucher ["He vas my BOYFRIEND!"]. Actresses have never come as simultaneously sexy and hilarious as Teri Garr, who has fun with her accent and her eyes. Peter Boyle projects youthful innocence and fear as the Monster, cashing it all in comedically in his "Putting On The Ritz" performance.

Young Frankenstein was nearly the first movie I ever saw, early in 1975 when I was all of eight and watching it again takes me back to that first feeling of wonder. You get this great classic horror build-up, enough to stir dread in the youngest hearts and then you get bowled over with humour for ninety minutes. But the film never quite lets go of the scary stuff, which is why it endures. Indeed, the best scenes, like the one where the good Doctor has himself locked in a room with a monster, ordering his staff not to let him out, have a healthy dose of both. (`What's the matter with you people, couldn't you tell I was joking! Let me out! Mommy!')

The DVD for this is especially worth having, with Brooks' commentary, a documentary with Wilder but not Brooks (are they never going to collaborate on anything ever again?) and nice little bonus features like commercials with Brooks' clever voice-overs ("Some say this is the best movie ever made and this is Some signing off") and a pair of Spanish-language interviews shot for Mexican television which demonstrate both Young Frankenstein's international appeal and the good-natured, try-anything attitude of the cast as Wilder, Leachman, and Feldman obviously relish being interviewed in two languages at once. (Leachman even kisses the interviewer on the lips at the end of her segment; where can I get a job like his?) Young Frankenstein may be a film set entirely at night, but the sun was really shining on these guys all the same.

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