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Young Frankenstein (1974)

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The great comedy collaborative act of Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder came together again in 1974’s Young Frankenstein. The two worked together on the screenplay together before Brooks directed Wilder in the lead role. The film is a spoof of the early Universal horror classics Frankenstein (1931), and Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and Brooks considers it his finest work as writer-director. The film tells the story of the great grandson of Dr. Frankenstein and his struggles to shake off the reputation of his ancestor as he tries to make his own way in the world of science. When he receives word he has inherited his family estate in Transylvania, he uncovers the science behind his predecessor’s plans to play god and bring the dead back to life.

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I was inspired to put on Young Frankenstein last night for a couple of reasons. The most obvious was that of the passing of Gene Wilder. I’ll be honest and say that I haven’t seen many of his films at all, but the news of his death did strike a chord as he was one of my favourite characters as a kid, Willy Wonka. One Christmas we got a double VHS box set of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968) and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971). Already a big Roald Dahl fan, this incarnation brought everything to life and then some (I’ve actually gone out of my way to avoid the Johnny Depp version for fear of it tarnishing the original). Umpa Lumpas, golden tickets, Chocolate River, everlasting gobstoppers, and the fizzy lifting drinks room – everything in it looked incredible. It also had a brilliant catalogue of songs, from “The Candy Man Can” to “Pure Imagination” via the really scary boat ride song (inspiration for my favourite ‘How It Should Have Ended’). The story hinges on Willy Wonka though, and Gene Wilder was perfect. Exciting, maniacal, funny, and intriguing, Wilder’s Wonka is a fantastic watch. That VHS got played to death, and I was really sad to hear the news that Gene Wilder had lost a private battle with Alzheimer’s disease. It did leave me wanting to educate myself with his filmography.
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The second reason to pick this particular DVD from the shelf last night was that it had long been on my watch list after a brilliant podcast I had listened to over a few long drives for work some months back. The Secret History of Hollywood’s ‘Universal Horrors’ episode is a brilliantly fascinating insight in to the history of Universal Picture’s pivotal role in the horror genre of film. Its 7 hour run time may seem a little daunting, but I really enjoyed the stories of those behind Hollywood’s golden era, such as Lon Chaney, Lon Chaney Jr, Boris Karloff, Bela Lugosi, James Whale, Jack Pierce, Gloria Stuart, and Evelyn Ankers. It’s examination of the growth and development of horror between 1919 and 1954 really caught my imagination and I strongly recommend you give it a listen (even more relevant now that Universal are working on a revival of the genre and the original classics). My brother, Andy, and I have been big fans of The Invisible Man (1933) ever since we caught it by chance following a stand-off over who was to stand up to find the TV remote to change channels. The 83 year old special effects stand up to this day, and Claude Rains’ campy and psychotic Invisible Man is scary and funny in equal measure. We wouldn’t shut up about it for so long our Dad ended up buying us the DVD which was paired with a copy of The Phantom of the Opera (1925) – also great. The podcast obviously covers the genius of both of these films, but it was the section on Boris Karloff’s Frankenstein franchise that stuck in the mind. Although very much of their time, I enjoyed Frankenstein and Bride of Frankenstein and it’s one of those few instances that the sequel actually surpasses it’s predecessor. I had bought Gene Wilder and Mel Brook’s spoof alongside those two on a bit of a whim as I was aware it was supposed to be a bit of a classic. Last night I finally got round to taking it out of the cellophane and putting it on.
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Young Frankenstein marries a great blend of references and respect for it’s source material with original jokes and great performances. I think it’s fair to say you would get more out of it having seen the first two Frankenstein films, but don’t let it put you off if you haven’t. They get the feel of the originals spot on, most notably with the choice to have it all in black and white (a format they had to fight for), but also with the grand, dingy sets, and heavy use of rain and lightning. The characters and camera purposely linger that bit too long on inanimate objects and over accentuated gestures and actions. The scene transitions are lifted straight from the originals, the score was spot on, and there are multiple familiar characters that make a reappearance (full marks to anyone that spots Gene Hackman’s cameo). Peter Boyle’s monster with the enormous “Schwanstuker” constantly has contrasting childlike mannerisms that work really well, and Marty Feldman’s Igor gets the most laughs from the film. His bulbous eyes, hunch that changes sides throughout the film (“What hunch?”), and quirky line delivery result in a really memorable supporting character to Gene Wilder’s Frankenstein “FRONKENSTEEN!” Wilder brings that bubbling eccentricity I knew from Willy Wonka to this, and when he flies off the chain it’s absolutely hilarious. His delivery of the famous “It’s ALIIIIIVE!!” was bang on too.

Young Frankenstein peaks with the famous rendition of “Puttin’ On the Ritz” and I haven’t been able to stop singing it since (Monster bumbling included…). Apparently Mel Brooks wasn’t sure about the scene at all, but Wilder passionately put forward his case for it to be included. Brooks eventually agreed, admitting that as he wasn’t sure about it he just wanted to see how strong a fight Wilder would put up for it. Thankfully it remained, and the genius of Wilder prevailed. I get the impression that Young Frankenstein is one of those films that will get better and better the more times you watch it and I’m looking forward to putting that to the test. It’s a hilarious homage to the original classics, and done so with a lot of love and respect for it’s source material. Definitely one for love of classic horror, classic comedy, and classic performances by cinema greats.

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