Young Frankenstein remains the most consistently self-assured film of Mel Brooks‘ career. Not as audaciously funny as Blazing Saddles or The Producers, it is still a pitch-perfect send up of the Universal monster movies of the 1930s. Filmed entirely in glorious black-and-white, the cinematography sets the perfect mood for lovingly satirizing those classics.
Frederick Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) is a teacher at an American medical school who steadfastly refuses to acknowledge any merit to his notorious ancestor’s dubious scientific achievement (“My grandfather’s work was doo-doo!”) until he learns that he is the sole heir to his family’s estate in Transylvania. Leaving behind Elizabeth (Madeline Kahn), his vain society fiancée, he travels back to claim his inheritance. There, he meets Igor (pronounced “Eye-gor” and played by Marty Feldman), his goggle-eyed assistant with a nomadic hunchback. Igor introduces him to Inga (Teri Garr), his comely laboratory assistant, and Frau Blücher (Cloris Leachman), whose name inspires panic in the local equine population.
His opinion of his infamous grandfather starts to change when mysterious violin music leads him to discover the previous Dr. Frankenstein’s notes (helpfully compiled in a book entitled “How I Did It”). These convince him that his grandfather’s work was not, in fact, doo-doo (“It…. Could…. WORK!”).
In no time, he and Igor are raiding the local graveyard for fresh corpses and Igor is burglarizing the nearby “Brain Depository”. Unfortunately, he drops the brain Dr. Frankenstein wants and instead steals one belonging to someone named “Abby Normal.” In the meantime, local villagers with long memories are a bit skittish that a Frankenstein is once again living in the old castle.
When the good doctor is finally able to duplicate his grandfather’s “achievement”, the results are somewhat less than he hoped for. He tries to help the creature (Peter Boyle) by civilizing it, which apparently involves teaching it tap dancing and Irving Berlin songs. Unfortunately, the creature breaks free and starts terrorizing the countryside. Dr. Frankenstein races to recapture it, preparing to use himself as a guinea pig in one last desperate attempt to stabilize the creature’s abnormal brain functions.
Gene Wilder’s performance as young Dr. Frankenstein is key to the success of this film. The character goes from tender and low-key to maniacal, sometimes in the same scene. The re-animation scene plays at such a high pitch that it would be easy for the actor to go too far over the top. The scene needs “over the top” but Wilder is able to modulate it perfectly. Marty Feldman is also perfectly suited to the joke-a-minute role of Igor. Kenneth Mars is hilarious as the local Police inspector with an impenetrable accent who obviously came out of his encounter with the last creature a bit the worse for wear. His artificial arm is vaguely reminiscent of Dr. Strangelove’s rebellious limb.
One thing I noted when watching the extras on the DVD. The deleted scenes reminded me a great deal of some of Brooks’ recent films, which haven’t been nearly as accomplished as this early work. That leads me to believe that Brooks needs better editing to get back to the top of his game.