Young Frankenstein is Mel Brooks' funniest movie, which means it’s pretty much the funniest movie ever made. Being Mel Brooks’ funniest movie means it’s funnier than Blazing Saddles, funnier than The Producers (the original, not the musical), funnier than Dracula: Dead and Loving It. Okay, with a fifty-year career, they can’t all be winners. But what makes Young Frankenstein so funny?
Obviously having Gene Wilder in the lead doesn’t hurt. As Dr. Frederick von Frankenstein (pronounced “Fronk-en-shteen”), the grandson of the famous Dr. Victor Frankenstein who arrives in Transylvania to settle his famous ancestor’s affairs only to fall back into the family business, Wilder keeps a lid on his trademark manic intensity just long enough to make it even funnier when he tips over the edge. Around him Brooks brings together an all-star supporting cast, including Marty Feldman, Cloris Leachman, Madeline Kahn and Peter Boyle as the Monster, all of whom give performances perfectly in tune with his brand of silliness: this is the kind of movie where a joke like “Wolf!” “Werewolf?” “There wolf!” actually works.
It works because Brooks’ silliness here is grounded in a deep love for the original Universal monster movies (though he can’t take all the credit: Wilder co-wrote the script, and the cast improvised many of the jokes). That love goes well beyond filming in black and white: most of the equipment in Dr Frankenstein’s lab came from the original 1931 Frankenstein, while many of the film’s classic scenes and characters are direct parodies. Gene Hackman’s hilarious turn as an old blind man who tries to feed the Monster only to constantly injure him is a direct reference to a similar scene in The Bride of Frankenstein – only, in the original, the blind man didn’t spill hot soup into the Monster’s lap.
"Wilder keeps a lid on his trademark manic intensity just long enough to make it even funnier when he tips over the edge."
It’s a massive understatement to call Brooks a funny guy. He’s been writing jokes professionally since 1949, working on Sid Caeser’s revolutionary Your Show of Shows before finding individual success (with Carl Reiner) as The 2000 Year-Old Man. But his biggest hits were parodies: together with Buck Henry, he created the spy spoof Get Smart, and then with The Producers and Blazing Saddles he sent up broadway musicals and westerns. All three work in part thanks to the tension between the form and the content: they’re all serious genres that Brooks fills up with silly jokes, and by being set in a form that audiences expect to take seriously, the gags seem even sillier.
If this kind of comedy seems obvious now, that’s because people like Mel Brooks made it so. Back in the '60s and '70s, America was just waking up to the idea of parody. Since World War II, there’d been a wave of mass entertainment the likes of which the world had never seen, mass-produced movies and television that boiled storytelling down to a collection of formulas. A generation had grown up with pop culture and they knew it inside and out – and importantly, they knew enough about it to laugh at the clichés when they were pointed out. And Brooks, a funny guy who’d been working in television for decades, knew all the clichés.
Brooks was largely in it for laughs, but there was a political element to it too. The Vietnam War and the upheaval of the '60s created a generation that felt like the America they saw around them was a sham, and this kind of comedy fed into that as it poked holes in the conventions they’d been fed all their lives. It was the kind of humour that made humour magazine Mad such a hit – pointing out that in the real world the lies pop culture fed them just looked silly.
So the time was right for his kind of comedy and Brooks was at the peak of his skills with a crack team of collaborators. But what puts Young Frankenstein over the top is the story: where Brooks’ earlier films were often a bit scattershot plot-wise (Blazing Saddles doesn’t so much finish as drive away), Young Frankenstein combines Brooks’ earlier spot-on parody with a story that holds together all the way through.
That’s just the icing on the cake though, because make no mistake: this film is hilarious. There’s a scene around the middle, where Dr Frankenstein has taken over a local theatre (Loew’s Transylvania Heights – no-one ever said Brooks was subtle) to present his creation to the world. He comes out on stage and gives his spiel: “And now, ladies and gentlemen, from what was only an inarticulate mass of lifeless tissue, I give you a cultured, sophisticated man about town.” Out comes the monster – dressed, like Dr Frankenstein, in white tie and tails – and they proceed to sing Irving Berlin’s 'Puttin' on the Ritz'.
The joke, once it happens, is obvious. The genius is in the set-up. Because before it happens, it could go either way and work (and supposedly they didn’t know which way to go until Peter Boyle improvised his part): either the Monster is going to give us a note-perfect version of the song – which would be funny because even in white tie and tails he’s still a monster – or he’s not. That’s how good this film is: it presents you time and again with jokes that could go in more than one direction and still get laughs. It’s not a matter of getting a laugh, it’s how big a laugh it wants. And when it comes to laughs, Young Frankenstein always goes big.
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Watch 'Young Frankenstein'
Saturday 31 October, 6:30pm on SBS World Movies
Sunday 1 November, 10:10am on SBS World Movies
Monday 2 November, 3:40pm on SBS World Movies
NOTE: No catchup at SBS On Demand
Genre: Comedy, Science Fiction
Language: English, German
Director: Mel Brooks
Starring: Gene Wilder, Peter Boyle, Madeline Kahn, Cloris Leachman, Marty Feldman, Teri Garr