1974 was a brilliant year for Mel Brooks. His first film to be released that year was Blazing Saddles, a picture I have down as one of the best comedies ever constructed. Then came Young Frankenstein. In the film, Gene Wilder plays Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (emphasis on the first syllable), grandson of the infamous Victor. Frederick is a man of science, determined to escape from his family name and its connotations. After a lecture, he is approached by a lawyer representing his great-grandfather, informing him that he has inherited his family’s estate in Transylvania (which is, of course, a grand gothic castle). He arrives at the estate and upon investigation finds himself drawn to replicate his ancestor’s work.
It shouldn’t be a surprise to read that Young Frankenstein is, for many reasons, a total delight: Firstly, like the best parodies, it loves the material which it sends up. The James Whale Frankenstein films, with Boris Karloff as the monster, are clearly the target in this regard (Brooks even uses the exact prop lab equipment from Whale’s 1931 film). It’s also a pleasure to look at, thanks to the shimmering, silvery monochrome photography concomitant with its stylised edits. The script is clever, silly and raunchy; and the set-pieces it creates are, at moments, snort-out-loud funny. Lastly, the film allows for comic performances of an infectiously joyous nature.
Infectiously joyous is probably the best way to think of Gene Wilder generally, but in Young Frankenstein he fits the description very well indeed. His bright and fantastic eyes, coupled with the knowing curl of his smirk, lead you around scenes with a giddy energy that borders on delirious. But, somehow, the show is stolen from him by Igor, as played by the comedian Marty Feldman. Igor is the hunchbacked servant with a pronounced strabismus and impeccable comic timing. Igor’s response to Victor asking him to move a guest’s bags (“Certainly, you take the blonde and I’ll take the one in the turban”) earned the biggest laugh of the screening. Great support is offered by Madeline Kahn as Victor’s fiancé Elizabeth, Teri Garr as glamorous lab-assistant Inga, Kenneth Mars as the incomprehensibly accented Inspector Kemp, and Peter Boyle as the monster. Frederick and the monster’s rendition of Puttin’ on the Ritz (“Putting on the Reechk”) is still fabulously funny.
I would make an argument for Blazing Saddles being the greater film, as it piles up punchlines and set-pieces in such an all-out onslaught that you can barely recover breath until the next laugh hits. Young Frankenstein is more considerate, its laughs are more demarcated. But it’s still a memorable creation worth treasuring in itself, and as evidence of Gene Wilder at his luminous best.