Filmsite Movie Review
Young Frankenstein (1974)
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Young Frankenstein (1974) is one of writer-producer-director Mel Brooks' best films - a nostalgic, hilarious spoof-tribute to classic horror films (with its authentic black and white cinematography and production design/set decoration), and in particular, of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's classic novel about corpse revival by a God-aspiring mad scientist. This film had everything - slapstick, farce, dirty (or ribald), bawdy humor and irreverent satire. Many of Brooks' films were filled with physical gags, terrible puns, one-liners, and shattered taboos. Old-style wipes, fades to black and iris shots were numerous throughout.

It was one of a number of Brooks' spoof-parody films beginning in the late 1960s that lampooned various genre films, tropes, formats and conventions. This one came way before absurdist spoofs like Airplane! (1980) and The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! (1988). All of Brooks' best films were anarchic comedies that skewered their source material while still maintaining a basic reverence:

  • The Producers (1967) - Brooks' first hit and cinematic debut - about show business, musicals, and Broadway culture, including an incisive critique of Hitler and the Nazis
  • Blazing Saddles (1974) - released just before YF, a westerns spoof with stereotypical characters: a saloon seductress, a washed-up gunslinger, corrupt government land speculators, and a black sheriff - and much more
  • Silent Movie (1976) - a spoof of Hollywood and silent films, with Brooks portraying Mel Funn - a down and out film director who attempted to pitch his new script and recruit celebrity stars to participate
  • High Anxiety (1977) - a parody of Hitchcock's suspense-thrillers (e.g., Spellbound (1945), Vertigo (1958), and The Birds (1963)), with a subplot involving an innocent, wrongfully-accused man
  • History Of The World: Part I (1981) - an anthology film composed of a series of historical vignettes or set-pieces spanning from the Stone Age, through the Old Testament Biblical period, to the Roman Empire and Spanish Inquisition to the French Revolution; it included sub-genre spoofs of "sword and sandal" epics and "costume dramas"
  • Spaceballs (1987) - a parody of sci-fi films, in particular the Star Wars franchise (trilogy), and other sci-fi classics such as Star Trek, Alien, and Planet of the Apes
  • Robin Hood: Men In Tights (1993) - a spoof of traditional Robin Hood medieval tales, specifically Kevin Costner’s awful Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves (1991)
  • Dracula: Dead And Loving It (1995) - an attempt to parody Dracula horror films (especially Dracula (1931)) and Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula (and Coppola's film Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992)), starring Leslie Nielsen as the Count

Later, co-writer and actor Gene Wilder attempted his own Old Dark House genre spoof, Haunted Honeymoon (1986).

Brooks' horror spoof mostly parodied the 'original trilogy' of Frankenstein films from 1931 to 1939, although there six Universal films that prominently featured the Monster:

  • Frankenstein (1931), starring Colin Clive as mad scientist Dr. Henry Frankenstein, Boris Karloff as the Monster, and Dwight Frye as the sadistic hunchback Fritz (the Igor character)
  • Bride of Frankenstein (1935), a sequel reprising Colin Clive as mad scientist Dr. Henry Frankenstein, Ernst Thesiger as crazed Dr. Pretorius, Karloff again as the Monster, Dwight Frye as Pretorius' assistant Karl, and Elsa Lanchester as the Monster's 'Bride'
  • Son of Frankenstein (1939), a second sequel starring Basil Rathbone as Dr. Henry Frankenstein's orphaned scientist son Baron Wolf von Frankenstein, Karloff as the Monster, Bela Lugosi as bearded and hunchbacked Ygor - the ex-assistant of Henry, and Lionel Atwill as Inspector Krogh, the village’s chief of police
  • The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), starring Sir Cedric Hardwicke as Dr. Ludwig Frankenstein (the second son of Henry and brother of the Baron Wolf von Frankenstein), Lionel Atwill as Ludwig's mad scientist colleague Dr. Theodore Bohmer (Henry Frankenstein's mentor), and Lon Chaney Jr. replacing Karloff as The Monster, and Bela Lugosi reprising his role as the crazed Ygor
  • Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman (1943), starring Patric Knowles as mad scientist Dr. Frank Mannering, Ilona Massey as Baroness Elsa Frankenstein, and Bela Lugosi in his first appearance as the Monster, while this time, Lon Chaney Jr. portrayed The Wolf Man (Lawrence Talbot)
  • House of Frankenstein (1944), starring Boris Karloff as mad scientist Dr. Gustav Niemann, J. Carrol Naish as his hunchbacked companion Daniel (a version of Fritz, Karl, and Ygor), and stunt man Glenn Strange debuting as the Monster

It was shot in the same castle and with the same props and lab equipment (created and loaned by property manager Ken Strickfaden) as the original James Whale horror film Frankenstein (1931). Kenneth Mars' character, Police Inspector Hans Wilhelm Friederich Kemp, had mannerisms and a mechanical arm/hand that resembled Peter Sellers' Dr. Strangelove character from Dr. Strangelove, Or... (1964), Lionel Atwill's local police Inspector Krogh character with a mechanical wooden arm in Son of Frankenstein (1939), and Bruce Campbell's chainsaw arm in the Evil Dead franchise.

Although the low-comedy film had two Academy Awards nominations (that didn't win), Best Adapted Screenplay (for Mel Brooks and star Gene Wilder) and Best Sound, two deserving cast members, Gene Wilder and Madeline Kahn, were un-nominated, as was the wonderfully crisp black-and-white cinematography by Gerald Hirschfeld. It was the fourth highest-grossing film of 1974 at $86.3 million (domestic), with a production budget of only $2.8 million. [Note: The top 3 films of 1974 were Brooks' own Blazing Saddles (1974) at $119.5 million, The Towering Inferno (1974) at $115 million, and The Trial of Billy Jack (1974) at $89 million.]

It was released about the same time as the Italian-produced, originally X-rated and 3-D Flesh for Frankenstein (1974) (aka Andy Warhol's Frankenstein), a gory send-up horror film directed by Paul Morrissey. The decadent, campy and grotesque film starred Udo Keir as Baron von Frankenstein.

As happened with Brooks' earlier work The Producers (1968) (on Broadway from 2001-2007), this film was adapted into a Broadway musical in 2007 (through 2009), with a cast including Roger Bart (as Frederick "Frahnkensteen") and TV's Will & Grace's Megan Mullally as his fiancee Elizabeth.

Plot Synopsis

The film's title credits were viewed above a view of an ancient dark castle on a jagged peaked outcropping, with lightning and thunder striking during a rainstorm, as the concrete block letters YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN appeared. The camera slowly panned left across the castle's courtyard, and came to rest outside an ornate window illuminated by an indoor candle.

As a clock gonged twelve o'clock midnight (it actually struck 13 times), the camera moved to a fireplace and before it, a massive wooden coffin set on a table. The top of the casket was inscribed with engraved, raised letters: BARON VON FRANKENSTEIN, with two family insignias on either side. On the last gong, the coffin lid popped open, revealing the skeletal, dressed-up remains of the esteemed baron in rigor mortis: there was a toothy skull, and two gnarly, bony hands clinging to a flat metal box. Two disembodied hands reached in to seize the box, but the baron's grip held tight and the box snapped back to his chest. On the third attempt, the box was released. An iris closed in on the scene.

The next sequence was introduced by a linked opening iris. Young brain neuro-surgeon and frizzy-haired med-school professor Dr. Frederick Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) was lecturing at an American medical school in Baltimore, to an arena-shaped classroom of white-coated young students - it was the first dialogue in the film:

If we look at the base of a brain which has just been removed from a skull, there's very little of the midbrain that we can actually see. Yet, as I demonstrated in my lecture last week, if the under aspects of the temporal lobes are gently pulled apart, the upper portion of the stem of the brain can be seen. This so-called brainstem consists of the midbrain, a rounded protrusion called the pons, and a stalk tapering downwards called the medulla oblongata which passes out of the skull through the foramen magnum and becomes, of course, the spinal cord.

In the back of the room, an unidentified, bespectacled elderly man entered. He was grasping the metal box in front of him - the one wrestled from the Baron, before he went to search for a vacant seat. After drawing a sketch of brain components on the blackboard, Dr. Frankenstein asked for questions from the students, and one persistent student (Danny Goldman) rose and asked:

I have one question, Dr Frankenstein.

The Doctor was in denial about his actual heritage as "the grandson of the famous Dr. Victor Frankenstein who went into graveyards, dug up freshly buried corpses and transformed dead components into..." [Note: In actual fact, Dr. Frederick Frankenstein would have to be, at the least, Victor's great-great-great-great grandson.]

He defiantly corrected the student about the pronunciation of his name (and would continue to do so throughout the film), to disassociate himself from his family name:

"That's Fronk-en-steen...My name, it's pronounced 'Fronk-en-steen'!"

Incensed and briefly losing his composure, Dr. Frankenstein said he wanted to be remembered by his own "small contributions to science." He referred to his "accidental relationship" to his famous ancestor, and called him "a famous cuckoo." He rang a gong to start a demonstration of the difference between reflexive and voluntary nerve impulses.

A skinny, emaciated, and elderly subject in a white surgical gown, named Mr. Hilltop (Liam Dunn), was wheeled on a gurney through double doors into the classroom by two orderlies (John Dennis). After the man was instructed to "hop" off the table, the subject was instructed to raise and lower his left knee, to provide an example of "voluntary" nerve impulses. In contrast, "reflex" movements were made "independently of the will." Frankenstein suddenly turned on the vulnerable patient and threatened to jab him in the groin with his knee, as he shouted: "You filthy, rotten, yellow son of a bitch." Naturally, Mr. Hilltop reacted - he flinched and doubled forward to protect himself, causing a pleased response on Frankenstein's face.

The manic doctor then proposed: "What if we block the nerve impulse by simply applying local pressure." A metal bicycle clamp was attached to the back of the patient's head "at the swelling on the posterior nerve roots" for five or six seconds. After the pause, Frankenstein again jabbed his knee toward the patient and actually struck the man's groin as he shouted: "Why, you mother-grabbing bastard!" - this time, the patient did not flinch, although he groaned to himself in intense pain. Frankenstein intoned: "All communication is shut off. In spite of our mechanical magnificence, if it were not for this continuous stream of motor impulses, we would collapse like a bunch of broccoli." The removal of the clamp caused the patient to collapse in major pain as predicted, and the class appreciatively applauded. The doctor whispered to one of his orderlies as Hilltop was wheeled away: "Give him an extra dollar."

Frankenstein stated his strong theoretical belief that regeneration or reanimation of dead nerve tissue was impossible:

In conclusion, it should be noted... .that any more than common injury to the nerve root is always serious. Because once a nerve fiber is severed, there is no way, in heaven or on earth, to regenerate life back into it.

A second question from the same student challenged the doctor's theory: "Isn't it true that Darwin preserved a piece of vermicelli in a glass case until, by some extraordinary means, it actually began to move with a voluntary motion?" The admonishing Frankenstein insisted on being precise - and then asserted: "You have to remember that a worm, with very few exceptions, is not a human being." The student pressed Frankenstein about the basis of his grandfather's work - the reanimation of dead tissue (as evidenced by more modern medical advancements with heart and kidney transplants), but the doctor denied being even curious or intrigued about his grandfather's experiments in "bringing back to life what was once dead":

My grandfather was a very sick man...You are talking about the non-sensical ravings of a lunatic mind. Dead is dead!...Hearts and kidneys are Tinkertoys. I'm talking about the central nervous system....I am a scientist, not a philosopher! You have more chance of reanimating this scalpel than you have of mending a broken nervous system....My grandfather's work was doo-doo! I am not interested in death! The only thing that concerns me is the preservation of life!

To emphasize his point, Frankenstein had grabbed a scalpel instrument from his tray and emphatically jabbed it downwards - directly into his right thigh. Wild applause erupted as the class was dismissed and students filed out.

The man with the metal box approached Dr. Frankenstein in the front of the room - and was reprimanded for again mispronouncing his name. He introduced himself as Herr Gerhardt Falkstein (Richard Haydn), a solicitor: "I have travelled 5,000 miles to bring you the will of your great-grandfather. Baron Beaufort von Frankenstein." Frankenstein had inherited the Transylvanian ancestral estate of his grandfather, and was required to travel to Europe to inspect the property.

A slow wipe-right introduced the next scene set on the platform of the Baltimore train station. Dr. Frankenstein was bid goodbye by his spoiled and untouchable socialite fiancee Elizabeth (Madeline Kahn), and was reluctant to have him leave: "Oh, my sweet darling. Oh, my dearest love. I'll count the hours that you're away." But she refused a kiss on the lips: "I'm going to that party at Nana and Nicky's later. I don't wanna smear my lipstick." But she still vowed that she was passionately in love with him: "You've got it, mister...I'm yours, all of me. What else can I say?" When he reached to touch her hair, she again shrieked: "The hair! The hair! Just been set." She also cautioned him about wrinkling her taffeta dress or ruining her nails. She feared that physical contact with the infamous doctor would literally tarnish her appearance. As the train departed, they touched elbows (a substitute for a kiss), and he threw her an invisible kiss. As the train pulled away, Elizabeth was enveloped in an enormous cloud of white steam. Dr. Frankenstein traveled to his first stop of New York City, and had to listen to a couple's argument in the train compartment before he disembarked.

A spinning transition found him on another train in Europe taking him to Transylvania, where a couple had the exact same argument as before, but now in German. As the train pulled into the station, Frankenstein was perplexed - he threw open his window and asked a shoe-shine boy: "Pardon me, boy. Is this the Transylvania Station?" When told it was - and that he was on Track 29, the boy then reverted to perfect English: "Oh, can I give you a shine?"

Standing alone on the desolate, fog-shrouded platform in the town of Transylvania, the doctor heard ominous footsteps ("Whoooooosh - thump") coming toward him and a voice asking: "Dr. Frankenstein?" Thunder cracked as the face of a short, hunch-backed, black-hooded, cloaked figure with askew bug eyes, named Igor (Marty Feldman), appeared only a few inches away from his own face. They each corrected pronunciations of their names:

Dr. Frankenstein: "It's pronounced 'Fronk-en-steen'."
Igor: "Do you also say Frodorick?"
Dr. Frankenstein: "No. Frederick."
Igor: "Well, why isn't it Frodorick Fronk-en-steen?"
Dr. Frankenstein: 'It isn't. It's Frederick Fronk-en-steen."
Igor: "I see."
Dr. Frankenstein: "You must be lgor."
Igor: "No. It's pronounced I-gor. [Eye-gor]"

Igor had been sent by Herr Falkstein to pick him up and deliver him to the castle. He explained: "My grandfather used to work for your grandfather...Of course, the rates have gone up." After giving Igor a pat on his hunch-back, Dr. Frankenstein suggested a medical solution: "You know, I don't mean to embarrass you, but I'm a rather brilliant surgeon. Perhaps I could help you with that hump." Igor responded: "What hump?" Igor grabbed the doctor's light-weight attache case, leaving Frankenstein to carry his own heavy luggage bag. Using a cane to bend over and descend only five steps, Igor commanded as he limped: "Walk this way" - and offered his short cane to the doctor to navigate the same steps.

A two-horse cart was parked nearby, where Igor climbed into the driver's seat. Dr. Frankenstein discovered a voluptuous, dim-witted peasant female named Inga (Teri Garr) lying on piles of hay inside the cart. She had been assigned as his "laboratory assistant, temporarily." Lying back and literally rolling left and right (as she sang a children's song), she innocently asked, with a heavy Swedish accent: "Would you like to have a roll in ze hay? It's fun."

After a wipe-right and wipe-left, as they proceeded through foggy woods to the Baron's castle high on a jagged mountain peak, Inga cuddled closely to Frankenstein after hearing a clash of lightning and the howls of a creature (uncredited Mel Brooks). She noted: "Werewolf." He asked: "Were-wolf?" - and Igor replied using the same syntax: "There wolf." He also pointed out: "There castle." He also gestured: "There it is - Home!"

Inside the castle's courtyard, Igor stood at heavy wooden doors with two gigantic, circular wrought-iron knockers, flanked by two flaming sconces or torches. He knocked three times with the right knocker, causing three loud echoing booms, at the same time as Inga (with her low bodice revealing the tops of her breasts) was assisted down from the hay cart by Dr. Frankenstein. Holding her waist and looking back at Igor, he exclaimed:

Dr. Frankenstein: "What knockers!"
Inga: (grinning widely) "Ohh, thank you, Doctor."

Inside the creaking doors, a fire was raging in the fireplace as the severe-looking, hag-like, elderly housekeeper Frau Blucher (Cloris Leachman) emerged, sporting a hair-bun and a prominent mole on the right side of her chin. [Note: Her character was a strong parody of housekeeper Mrs. Danvers (Judith Anderson) in Alfred Hitchcock's Rebecca (1940).] The forbidding woman introduced herself:

I am Frau Blucher.

Thunder and lightning crackled, and the terrified horses reared up and loudly neighed and whinnied. Igor steadied the frightened animals. As Dr. Frankenstein introduced Inga to Frau Blucher, the terror-stricken horses once again whinnied. [Note: It was one of the film's running gags that the horses whinnied whenever her name was mentioned.] The group was brought into the cavernous reception hall with an elaborate chandelier. With a three part unlit candelabra held in her outstretched hand, Frau Blucher urged the guests to follow her up a majestic stone staircase against the wall that led to the upstairs. Hunched over and struggling, Igor followed with the luggage. She warned: "Stay close to the candles. The staircase can be treacherous."

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