Looking Back: Young Frankenstein (1974)

Making a good comedy isn’t as easy as it may sound and many a filmmaker has seen his/her comedy film bomb at the box office. Last December, Screen Rant published its list of the 10 biggest comedy box office bombs of the decade, which included:

10. Ghostbusters (2016)
9. How Do You Know (2010)
8. The Guilt Trip (2012)
7. Prince Avalanche (2013)
6. Happytime Murders (2018)
5. The Watch (2012)
4. Hot Tub Time Machine 2 (2013)
3. Fun Size (2012)
2. Drinking Buddies (2013)
1. CHIPS (2017)

I’m happy to say that I missed seeing most of these films but I do think that GHOSTBUSTERS was unfairly criticised by the franchise’s fanboys and fangirls. I actually liked PRINCE AVALANCHE too, although I’ll concede that it’s very slow going.

Mel Brooks has had much better success with his comedy films than most, though even his career in the director’s chair got off to a rocky start. The major Hollywood studios eschewed his first film, THE PRODUCERS (1967), because they felt that a musical-comedy that included a Busby Berkeley-esque production number of dancing Nazi stormtroopers wouldn’t go down well with audiences. Brooks pressed on, though, and the film not only became a cult hit, it also garnered Brooks an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay. Of course, the movie about making the least successful stage play in history has gone on to become a very successful stage play in reality, earning Brooks three Tony awards as well.

Brooks followed that film up with a string of parodies that included BLAZING SADDLES, SILENT MOVIE, HIGH ANXIETY, SPACE BALLS and ROBIN HOOD: MEN IN TIGHTS, though each release proved to be less successful at the box office than its predecessor. It was YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN, though, that may have left its greatest impression on movie culture.

As the title suggests, the film is about Mary Shelley’s classic horror genre icon Dr. Frankenstein and his monster but that’s about where the similarity ends. Here, Frederick Frankenstein (Gene Wilder, THE PRODUCERS; BLAZING SADDLES) is an American doctor and university lecturer who is the grandson of the infamous mad scientist, Victor Frankenstein. After learning that he has inherited his great-grandfather’s estate in Transylvania, he leaves his fiancée, the prissy socialite Elizabeth (Madeline Kahn, WHAT’S UP DOC?; PAPER MOON; BLAZING SADDLES), and heads to Romania where he meets an eccentric bunch of characters that include his servant Igor (Marty Feldman, SILENT MOVIE; THE LAST REMAKE OF BEAU GESTE), his lab assistant Inga (Teri Garr, TOOTSIE; TV’s FRIENDS), and his housekeeper Frau Blucher (Cloris Leachman, HIGH ANXIETY; TV’s THE MARY TYLER MOORE SHOW, PHYLLIS and MALCOLM IN THE MIDDLE), that latter whose name causes horses to rear up and whinny when they hear it. When he finds his grandfather’s private journal, Frankenstein decides to resume the scientist’s experiment in re-animation. He and Igor rob the grave of a man who was recently hanged (played by Peter Boyle, TV’s EVERYBODY LOVES RAYMOND) and insert a new brain into him. Unfortunately, things don’t go quite to plan when the Monster awakens after the operation and breaks free of his chains, causing Inspector Kemp (Kenneth Mars, THE PRODUCERS) to organise a vigilante mob of the town’s villagers who have seen this before. Unlike Shelley’s story though, YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN has a happy ending for everyone when Elizabeth arrives and is smitten by the Monster… and he her.

YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN is pure madcap fun. If you’re wondering how the cast was able to maintain character during the filming, it wasn’t easy as a number of the film’s outtakes (available on YouTube) show. More than the writing (by Brooks and Wilder) though, the acting is superb and it’s a real tragedy that many of the actors in the film left us far too soon. Brooks is still around and making us smile at 93 though. You may have seen him recently in a PSA he and his son did for social distancing.

If you haven’t seen YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN yet, or if you haven’t seen it in a while, definitely check it out. It’s good medicine for this troubled time.

As I was writing this up, I learned that actor Danny Goldman, who plays the persistent med student at the beginning of the film, passed away a few days ago at the age of 80. May his memory be for a blessing.

Watch the review recorded on Facebook Live on Friday, April 17th, 8:30 am HK time!

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