Though I would never be confused with an aficionado, someone who had consumed every film or book helmed by Gene Wilder, I felt the cinematic magnitude of his death on August 29. Much like virtually everyone who’d seen Wilder in films like Blazing Saddles, The Producers, Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Stir Crazy, I was a fan.
Few had ever been as calm and gentle or as warm and funny as Wilder, so thoughts of his collaborations with Mel Brooks and Richard Pryor began dancing through my head along with the desire to revisit some of those phenomenal works of comedic genius.
That’s when my mind turned to a friend who was constantly quoting Space Balls and History of the World: Part I, and urging me to sample more Brooks fare.
With that in mind, I instantly ran out to pick up a copy of Young Frankenstein, another flick said friend chuckled about often, and was not disappointed.
The film’s premise was that Wilder was a brilliant scientist doing all he could to make the world forget the madman antics of his grandfather, but once given the opportunity, had the “itch” to determine whether he could see reanimation through without the catastrophic end of his predecessor.
For the life of me, I can’t recall who’d said it on Twitter, but they’d noted that the ultimate compliment they could pay Jaws was that they would gladly watch a feature film centered on any of the main characters from the Steven Spielberg classic. That sentiment holds true for me with Young Frankenstein.
Ensemble casts are almost always a joy, with varied talents on display for our delightful consumption, and Young Frankenstein may be the best of the bunch.
Though Brooks did not appear on screen for this film, his voice could be heard off camera on several occasions, and his decision (along with Wilder’s) to pay homage to the Boris Karloff and Elsa Lanchester-led Frankenstein films while satarizing them was spot on. The call to move forward in black and white with an exaggerated look from the original pictures was one questioned by the studio at the time, but in retrospect, was absolutely spot on.
It gave the film an old time feel, and as with all Brooks projects, it glowed with the atmosphere and charm of a stage production. And the stage is the finest venue to showcase immeasurable talent.
Calm and composed with the occasional moment of lunacy, Wilder was incomprable. From the insistence that his last name be pronounced Fronken-steen so as to distance himself from his “cuckoo” grandfather to “mother-grabbing” knees to the groin of a subdued test subject to “Put the candle back,” Wilder was at his best, which is a profound statement.
Of course, Wilder had written the original screenplay, but once he and Brooks developed the final project, it was a veritable smorgasbord for a cast which proved absolutely ravenous.
The laughs are legion with Marty Feldman, whose eyes alone could have been a character unto themselves, a fact not lost on Wilder or Brooks. Feldman was masterful in countering Wilder’s pronunciation of Frankenstein with Eye-gore, and his own idea to switch his character’s hump from one side to the other throughout was pure genius. In a way, the whole film revolved around Feldman.
However, Feldman was not alone with regard to standout performances, and their praises must be sung.
Teri Garr’s German accent and sexual innuendo never seemed forced, and lingered just long enough for the audience to catch the meaning and laugh as the group moved to the next joke.
Whereas Inspector Kemp was a necessary character which could have been a throwaway, Kenneth Mars gave it the Benicio Del Toro treatment twenty years before we even knew who Fenster was. Mars gave the good inspector a robotic way of moving and almost indecipherable manner of speech that ate up the screen whenever he was appeared in a scene.
Cloris Leachman’s improvisational Ovaltine and the running gag of Frau Blucher never got old, and the intensity with which she straightly played the character was creepy and hysterical at once.
Though Peter Boyle was known best as Ray Romano’s father from “Everybody Loses Raymond,” his portrayal of the monster brought the whole film together. While physically imposing, it was Boyle’s wry smirks and joke set-ups that landed the largest laughs. With top hat and tails and a grunted “Puttin’ on the Ritz,” a brief but unforgettable scene with Gene Hackman and glance at the audience after the little girl by the lake asked what else they could toss into the water, Boyle’s timing was spot on with (almost) nary a word spoken.
I’d be remiss, however, if I didn’t focus attention on Madeline Khan. The woman was an absolute marvel. Who has ever been funnier than Madeline Khan? The perfect combination of beauty, talent and hilarity, Khan absolutely destroyed every moment she was featured, and my biggest laugh came from the schwanzstucker payoff when Khan broke into “Oh, Sweet Mystery.” All of Khan’s innumerable talents were on display in Young Frankenstein, not the least of which was that voice. It cannot be stressed enough — though Madeline Khan may no longer be with us, referring to her skills in the past tense would be an injustice — she is a national treasure.
The brilliance of Wilder and Brooks were on full display with Young Frankenstein, and the ensemble cast offered a humor and charm that cannot be replicated. The theatrical background of Wilder and Brooks was palpable throughout, and the finished product was the better for it.
If you have not seen Young Frankenstein, I implore you to remedy that as quickly as possible, because it opened the door for The Evil Dead franchise, Shaun of the Dead and Zombieland, and is perhaps the finest horror comedy ever produced.
Be sure to check back for next Wednesday’s Late to the Party when Jonathan Correia tackles the first three installments of Paranormal Activity.