Thursday, November 1, 2007

Cinematographicus: "Young Frankenstein" (1974)

The only Halloween tradition that I have consistently observed over the last few years is to watch Mel Brook's 1974 film, "Young Frankenstein." I was first exposed to Young Frankenstein during an English class at BYU. We were reading Mary Shelley's novel and Nick Mason was trying to make the point that it is really quite different from the Holloywood version embedded in our cultural memory. Specifically, he wanted us to see that the famed "It is a-live!" scene was not conceived by Shelley. But since he couldn't find a copy of the 1931 Universal Studios picture starring Boris Karloff, Nick had us watch the scene from "Young Frankenstein."

That scene is a great parody of the 1931 Frankenstein picture. But Young Frankenstein is more than parody. It's tribute-parody. Pure farcical parody is characteristic of later Brooks films (such as "Space Balls" and "Robin Hood: Men in Tights"), but this one, co-written with the inimitable Gene Wilder, goes beyond parody in recreating the mood and technical elements of previous Frankenstein films. Prodigious fog and the intermittent thunder clap set the mood. Technically, the film is a bona-fide period piece. It is shot entirely in black and white, it opens with the credits, it has a period score, and it uses elements like the iris fade. The set for the "Give my creation life scene" is actually the same set that was created for the 1931 picture.

In that scene particularly, Wilder captures the archetypal mad scientist like no one else can. With his characteristic frizzed out mane, and moustache, the protruding goggles, the white lab coat, and his maniacal verbal outbursts, he is at once convincing and hilarious.

But Wilder's performance isn't just as good as the mad scientist. He also has some classic slapstick moments. The scalpel in the leg gag is executed perfectly. No matter how many times I watch it, I never tire of the way he deftly maneuvers the tool in his fingers while shouting indignantly that his insane grandfather was not a real scientist. Just before the monster goes berserk onstage, the backstage view of Wilder furiously dancing with his cane and tails and saying to the monster "come on, are you trying to make me to look like a fool?!" is comedic brilliance.

The rest of the cast includes a few notables. Elizabeth, Fredrick Frankenstein's fiancee is flawlessly played by the great Madeline Kahn. An unrecognizably bearded Gene Hackman appears as an old lonely hermit. Marty Feldman's physical and verbal wackiness are indispensable to the film. The monster is Peter Boyle, otherwise known as the Dad from "Everybody Loves Raymond." Of course, Brooks appears in a cameo.

Young Frankenstein is the kind of film that makes slapstick silliness a high art. Wilder makes Fredrick Frankenstein a character that you simultaneously laugh at and identify with. That takes talent. One thing that Young Frankenstein does well is the lost art of the creative insult. Most insults these days are predictable strings of four-letter words. Wilder's exclamation, "Open the door or I'll kick your rotten heads in!" is a much more vivid, striking, effective image than the standard Bruce Willis "I'll kick your @$$." But it isn't so vulgar as to be distasteful, like Stanley Kubrick's Sargeant Hartman for example. Unfortunately, you don't see that kind of writing much anymore.

This is one tradition I'll stick to.

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