[Originally published in Movietone News 39, February 1975]
If I suggest that Mel Brooks’s Young Frankenstein is more fond than funny, I don’t mean at all to imply that it isn’t funny. It is. But the first response of any devotee of classic horror films, especially the cycle out of Universal Studios in the Thirties and early Forties, must have to do with Brooks’s—and Wilder’s, but especially director Brooks’s—conspicuous scrupulousness about and passionate love for the old films he’s remembering and celebrating. No opportunistic schmuck out to poke facile fun at antique movies is going to bother setting up his camera in such a way that it will observe Frederick (Froedrich?) von Frankenstein carefully framed at his breakfast table by two gracefully curving chairbacks; in such niceties of style even more than the restoration of the “original” laboratory equipment does Brooks reveal himself a true obsédé and an honorable heir to the eerily delicate comic-horror tradition of James Whale.
The opening movement makes the point very nicely, with the camera closing in on a lightning-flashed mockup of Frankenstein’s hilltop castle that is nonetheless precious—indeed, is precious precisely—because it’s a two-dimensional miniature: we cut to a more authentic (i.e., three-dimensional) set and the camera curves away from the gnarled black tree in the stormy courtyard, and through a window, and elegantly, exhaustively over and around a dark coffin laid out in a baronial hall, the monochrome photography so lustrous that one can almost stroke the patina hovering over the wood. Later Brooks observes from the bottom of a richly shadowed cobblestone street as young Frankenstein and the Igor of his generation wheel the carcass of the Creature-to-be toward us on a cart; and of course the cart gets away from them, picks up speed, rolls down the hill with them in pursuit, to spill its provisionally coffined load onto the thoroughfare: it’s a comic moment, quite a good one, and all the better for proceeding out of the classical unity of the composition and its multileveled, organic splendor.
Brooks and Wilder (for Gene Wilder collaborated on the story and screenplay) do equally well and shrewdly by the internal logic of the mad/inspired-scientist school, extending the perversely sexless or virginal femme sub-leads just far enough that their formulaic roles achieve insane/inane apotheosis: The sour-faced housekeeper of the Baron von Frankenstein confesses triumphantly in best now-it-can-be-told fashion, “Yesss! He vas my BOYFRIEND!” The buxom but honorably ignored laboratory assistant inadvertently puts her message across at last when she cries to the tortured genius, “If only I could give you a little peace!” The manically pure fiancée is mysteriously transformed into a true Bride of Frankenstein by means of seven or eight doses of earthy lightning. Brooks even manages to bring off a few sight gags in long- or medium-shot with much greater subtlety than he evidenced in earlier films, but he can’t let it alone and so closes in as if to say “See?! See?!” until the thickest lunkhead in the theater has spotted the gag—by which time those who glimpsed it in the first place have grown sick of it. But even here Brooks compels our affection and tolerance: he does want to make contact with everybody out there, as fervently as he wants to express and have us share his love for some of the most wondrously mythic films in the American cinema.
Direction: Mel Brooks. Screenplay: Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks, using characters created in the novel Frankenstein by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. Cinematography: Gerald Hirschfeld. Art direction: Dale Hennesy. Music: John Morris. Production: Michael Gruskoff.
The Players: Gene Wilder, Peter Boyle, Marty Feldman, Teri Garr, Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman, Kenneth Mars, Richard Haydn, Gene Hackman.
Copyright © 1975 by Richard T. Jameson