Monday, March 20, 2017

Young Frankenstein (1974)

Before I start this review, I’d like to say that I’m worried. After this title, there are only seven titles left in the 1961-85 volume of this DVD collection, and we’re still on 1974. I’m nearly certain we’ll get Star Wars (Darth Vader’s on the cover), and I’d be pretty shocked if they didn’t include Alien and The Omen (I’m intentionally not finding out what they include for the sake of surprise.) So that just leaves four films covering eleven years! Yeah, I know the early 80s weren’t kind to Fox, but I’m gonna pretty miffed if they don’t have titles like The Verdict, Norma Rae, Romancing the Stone or Cocoon. We’ll see what happens, but I’m sure I’ll be disappointed with some choices of either inclusion or omission, particularly with the third volume. Just how I am, I guess.

And now the movie. I mean, what can be said about Young Frankenstein that hasn’t been already? Almost immediately after release considered a comic masterpiece, written and directed by Mel Brooks, the same year he put out another genre destroyer, Blazing Saddles, firmly establishing the man as the preeminent film spoofer, a title he’d hold onto until Airplane! and its writers, the Zucker Brothers, took the baton. And ever since it’s been enshrined in the pantheon of American comedy, even inspiring a musical some thirty years later. I think the AFI has it pretty close to the top of its Greatest Comedies list, too.

So a description of the plot – the grandson of Victor Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) returns to Transylvania to continue his elder’s work, which happens to be nothing less than the creation of a monster (Peter Boyle) – is really quite beside the point. What has kept up is classic status are the memories of its fans, who can recall individual scenes and lines with an eye-gleaming, film-loving joy. So who am I not to follow suit? Here are some of my faves:

·   The classic rotating bookcase scene, where Victor implores Greta (Teri Garr, fabulously underrated here) to “Put the candle back!” and oush against the case with all of her might to free him. Great cut just before he gets squashed makes this hilarious.

·   The running gag in which any utterance of Frau Blucher’s name elicits the whinnying of offscreen horses. And no, Blucher is not German for glue; it’s just a satire of the way animals in old horror films seemed to have the gift of detecting evil before the humans.

·   When Wilder insists on being shut in a room with the monster, giving direct orders NOT TO LET HIM OUT! Of course, all just as setup for his frantic exhortations to the opposite. And no one plays frantic like Gene Wilder.

·   The classic blind man scene with an unbilled Gene Hackman (a direct parody of the same scene in the original Frankenstein – how can anyone take that scene seriously again?) 

·   The “Did you make a yummy sound?” scene at breakfast.

·   Any scene with Madeleine Kahn, as Wilder’s fiancé. She’s always beautiful, charming and supremely funny. And not just in this film.

So the bottom line: the film has laughs aplenty, and right there it passes the Roger Ebert test of “If I laughed, I have to give it thumbs-up.” While I don’t normally agree with that rule – it always struck me as the equivalent of “If I jumped, I have to like a horror movie; immediate, visceral reactions aren’t all that a successful movie has to elicit – I’ll apply it to Young Frankenstein, for a few reasons. Those laughs are in the context of a fine, beautifully crafted homage to the Universal monster movies of the 30s. The tone is pitch perfect, no matter how crass the humor gets (not very), and the replication is flawless. Thanks to the cinematography, I’ve never since seen a movie look as close to its target, with the possible exception of This Is Spinal Tap. And so, while the jokes generally work, they’re also in the service of cinematic fineness, and not just as empty punchlines without much of a point.

And speaking of the humor, I’d also like to make an observation. Sure, this is a Mel Brooks movie, but it doesn’t really have the broad, bawdy jokes and sight gags of Blazing Saddles or his later High Anxiety and History of the World. That’s because he co-wrote the screenplay and screen story with Gene Wilder, who actually spearheaded the project in the first place, and so there’s a gentler, more understated feel to this effort. Indeed, a good portion of this film doesn’t feel like Brooks at all, more like Wilder’s later film parodies like The World’s Greatest Lover and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother. I think that’s why some Brooks fans eschew Frankenstein, and find it unfunny. It’s funny all right, but for a kinder, gentler audience. And certainly the ones familiar with the old films he’s satirizing.

But like all Brooks’ comedies, there’s a classic-Hollywood-style musical number near the end, and here it takes the form of the classic duo, “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” Gotta love Brooks’ love of movie musicals, and his ability to work them into almost any film he does.

The rest of Brooks films were with Fox, but I don’t think any others will appear in this collection, though I’d love to see Anxiety or History represented. Oh, well. I’ll say goodbye to Mel now, or at least until I do a canon blog and cover his entire oevre. Could happen.

Rating:  ****

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