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Young Frankenstein (1974)

by on 2011/04/16

I have a memory which may or may not be accurate. We’re visiting family friends, and the Betamax diversion they offer as entertainment is director Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein. That context would set me a generation back, perhaps even thirty years.

The memory is a fond one. I remember liking the video but — let’s face it — I was younger and unwiser than I can claim to be today.

Plus, Brooks doesn’t have the greatest track record for my tastes. Nothing about Spaceballs’ promotion compelled this Star Wars fan to see it. Blazing Saddles didn’t hold up with repeat viewings. And I never liked Robin Hood: Men in Tights from the start . . . its final scene aside.

So I settled down, braced myself, and hoped for something fun. Fortunately, that’s exactly what I got.

Gene Wilder plays Frederick Frankenstein, grandson of the notorious doctor, and an academic professor of medicine. He inherits his grandfather’s estate and, in exploring it, discovers a hidden lab, equipment, and reanimation notes. With the help of various hangers-on (Marty Feldman, Teri Garr, and Cloris Leachman) he embarks on quest to complete Victor’s dream.

I’d forgotten many things about the movie. These omissions could be the result of distant memories, or they could just as well be a result of a Beta tape’s one hour time limit. Subplots new to me included those scenes involving Inspector Kemp (Kenneth Mars) and a blind old man (Gene Hackman).

On a theoretical level, I understand the narrative function of Kemp but, in practice, I found him unfunny. His mechanical arm schtick was tiresome long before he did it time and again. Conversely, Hackman was amazing. Quite different from most of his roles, his parody of Bride of Frankenstein’s (1935) hermit was spot on entertaining.

Likewise, overall, the standard Brooks humour ranges from meh to misfire. Fortunately the attempts are rarely as clumsy as he’d later become, and intermittent enough to ignore or dismiss without derailing the fun.

Remaining fun is essential because — and this realization came as a bit of a surprise to me — the humour became my secondary concern in watching. Although I did expect a parody of Frankenstein (1931), I didn’t fully grasp the extent to which the old Universal Horrors would be recaptured.

On a story level, Young Frankenstein combines elements of Dracula (1931), Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein, and King Kong (1933). Stylistically, the production employs black and white stock, convincingly grainy, with severe lighting, shadows, and angles, even vintage transitions and wipes. Anyone with an appreciation for Universal’s golden age will revel in this four-decades-on recreation.

Then there’s the music. John Morris’ score is appropriate, and recurring string motifs figure into the narrative itself. The filmmakers also fit in a Vaudevillian rendition of “Puttin’ on the Ritz” and a groan-worthy Glenn Miller nod. The visual success is ably supported by an equally excellent sound, pitched somewhere near Gershwin’s tipping point, between classical and jazz.

Ultimately, Young Frankenstein is well worth the time, especially for its retro-theatrics. More fun than funny, it’s a masterful recreation of a bygone style. By the end it had me wishing for Mel Brooks to turn his hand to more distinctive old genres. I’ve definitely laughed much harder at other comedies, and yet I’ve rarely found myself in such great awe.

* * * *

Rated PG

105 minutes

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