Today! Because my grandfather’s work was doo doo!
Young Frankenstein (1974)
Directed by Mel Brooks (x7)
Starring Gene Wilder (x6), Marty Feldman (x3), Peter Boyle (x3), Teri Garr (x3), Cloris Leachman (x5), Madeline Kahn (x8), Kenneth Mars (x2), Gene Hackman (x4), Richard Haydn, Liam Dunn (x2), Oscar Beregi Jr., Danny Goldman
No one can be dead certain about what movie they’ve seen the most times in their life. How could they be? Unless you’ve undertaken some quest to make a film your most watched – like the stories of people watching Pirates of the Caribbean on Netflix every day for a year, or my wife with the first X-Files movie – how could you possibly know? And while I believe I’ve thrown out contenders for this title in this list so far – and am still fairly confident I haven’t seen anything more than the original Star Wars – quite possibly second or third is this, Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder’s crowning achievement. I can’t even say for sure why or how this happened – sure, my parents really liked this movie, that helped to get it on the television a lot growing up, but why did we want to watch this black and white horror film parody, when we couldn’t possibly understand the references, and the jokes were likely over our heads as well?
Well, being a Mel Brooks movie, there is a bunch of kid-appealing stuff in this send-up of the old Universal Frankstein pictures, most directly the often overlooked third movie, Son of Frankenstein. Lots of funny accents, lots of throwaway sight gags and sound cues (The cat getting hit by the dart!), some pretty zany characters who are funny no matter what they say (pretty much everyone in this movie, but especially Marty Feldman’s Igor and Kenneth Mars’ one-armed Inspector Kemp), plus the generally cool design. Even if there’s a fair amount of shtupping going on – even in the edited TV version, apparently! – and some old timey references (“Pardon me, boy – is this the Transylvania station?”), we still liked it well enough. Like Blazing Saddles, this strikes me as something that was kind of forced on us until we grew to enjoy it.
And the nice part of Young Frankenstein is that it also totally holds up as an adult – sure, there are still the wacky elements that were appealing as a kid, but later you can enjoy more the weird little interplay between Frederick and Elizabeth, Frederick and Inga, and the very questionable Elizabeth and the Monster relationship. It’s played for laughs, and pretty wonderfully given Kahn and Boyle’s total commitment to those parts, but nowadays…it’s curious how this would been handled. It has a terrific, moody score, and is punctuated by the most unconventional music hall sequence ever devised – Frederick and the Monster’s bizarro “Puttin’ on the Ritz.”
Mel’s movies, by and large, do not hold up great over time, as they end up too tied to the single project they parody (Spaceballs, Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Dracula: Dead and Loving It) or they’re a bit too crass and inappropriate, due to the time they were made (Blazing Saddles, History of the World), but Young Frankenstein is the rare exception. Maybe because it is set in the past, and in black and white, and was co-written with Wilder, but it still maintains its comic punch with little generational weariness setting in, while also being a really solid Frankenstein movie to boot. Remember, as outlandish as the finale of this movie is, the lead up Monster chase and his speech to the villagers are played fairly straight, and with terrific impact. Wilder’s performance, while at times hilarious, is also terrifyingly over-the-top at stretches. His Frederick is set up as being borderline insane almost from the get go, so his continual decent into histrionic mad scientist-ness through the film is funny, but is also impressively well rounded.
It’s hard to point to an MVP in this fantastic cast, but I’m going to go with Gene’s Bonnie and Clyde co-star, turning up for one marvelous scene as the blind man beset by Boyle’s mute titan – Academy Award winner Gene Hackman!
This is Mel’s seventh and final list film – joining only Spielberg and Allen in this directing group – following #70 Blazing Saddles, #44 The Producers, #157 High Anxiety, #135 History of the World, #395 Robin Hood, and #198 Spaceballs. And while many members of his acting company advance today, including new Six-Timer Wilder, we also have our tenth Eight-Timer and first actress to reach that rung, the great Madeline Kahn! Spotlight!