If you’re blue and you don’t know where to go to, why don’t you go where comedy sits? Puttin’ on Young Frankenstein is a guaranteed cure to your mid-semester despair. Combining the immense talents of Mel Brooks, Gene Wilder, Madeline Kahn, Marty Feldman, Teri Garr, Cloris Leachman, and Peter Boyle, the film really aims at the laugh-a-minute target and it hits most of the time. Gene Wilder’s over-the-top brilliance is on full display throughout as his Frederick Frankenstein (but, you know, pronounced all funny) redoes his ancestor’s reanimation experiment to similarly disastrous results. Brooks goes out of his way to recreate the look and feel of the classic Universal version of the tale, shooting in black and white and with spectacular sets and fog effects. When doing a genre satire such as this, ensuring that the movie works like the sources is key to making the most out of the situation. Though there aren’t any scares in this spoof of old-school horror films, it at least apes the aesthetic enough to feel spooky in some scenes.
Two scenes stand out as perfectly recreating older films while giving them a comedic twist. The first is the Casablanca-esque train departure scene early in the film which has Wilder’s Frankenstein trying to express his love to his fiancé (Kahn). Each attempt is met with a new reason from Kahn to decrease their intimacy even as the camera cuts closer and closer to them, juxtaposing the increasing distance between them with their inability to really connect. The actual reanimation scene almost a direct rip from the Universal film version amped up to the max. Sparks fly and Wilder yells and then nothing happens. The build-up without the payoff – a change from the original scene which has the Monster come to life immediately – is a funny joke in its own right, but to follow it with a dinner table scene in which Wilder mistakes the Monster’s groans for Garr’s “yummy sounds” is a true stroke of genius. That’s how you do a genre parody.
Unlike Modern Times, which is full of really great teachable scenes and ideas, Young Frankenstein is a much harder film to integrate into a classroom. It might be useful as a way of talking about adaptation, either from book to screen or from original into parody, but Laura Kremmel described one class’s indifference to the comedy when she showed them a series of versions of the “It’s alive!” scene. It might need the full context of the film to be as funny as it can be. Kyle Brett and I talked about the possibility of teaching it alongside something like Ex Machina as two stranger versions of the standard Frankenstein story. Putting the film in dialogue with either other depictions of the same story or as a wild example of adaptation seems the easiest way to go, but I wonder if you, dear reader, have any thoughts on the subject? How would you teach Young Frankenstein?
As always, if watching movies like this seems fun to you, join our Facebook group and be notified of when and what the next film will be. We’ve got an Akira Kurosawa movie coming next week, so come and watch with us and check back here in two weeks to see what we make of whatever it is we end up watching.