This is my family’s favorite movie. I can’t speak for everyone individually, of course, but in my parents’ household, nothing else tops it for repeat viewings, citations, and intangible factors like frolicsome joy. My parents quote this movie multiple times a week. It’s a little strange. They have little interest in the rest of Mel Brooks’s filmography, and no interest in Mary Shelley. Something about this particular movie — and the simple answer is that it’s hilarious from start to finish — struck a chord that’s still vibrating over forty years later. I can only attest to my own experience, which is that Young Frankenstein is a great “family movie” because it’s a movie about a family. In spoofing Frankenstein, Brooks and co-screenwriter Gene Wilder focused less on the tale’s “playing God” angle and more on the father-son angle (not that the two are unrelated). Generational disconnect is the theme, which, ironically, might explain how I too can love a movie that my parents love so much.
There are real people living in the world named Frankenstein. I imagine it’s the rare day that they aren’t reminded of their fictional namesake. Just think how much worse it would be if Victor Frankenstein were a historical figure. How much worse still for the man’s grandson, Frederick. Granted, this fellow didn’t do himself any favors when he decided to study neuroscience for a living. But his efforts to escape from the shadow of his ancestor are understandable, however cursory (he doesn’t change his name outright). Young Frankenstein is the story of a modern man of science who sneers at the alchemy and necromancy of the past but soon gets swept away by the very forces he disdained.
The “modern sophistication meets ancient magic” premise is common in the horror genre, going back at least as far as Bram Stoker’s Dracula. Thus the film works on a second level. As Frederick trades the antiseptic whiteness of his lecture hall for the perpetually foggy, dark forest of Transylvania, so the film transports its audience back to the era of classic Hollywood. In addition to shooting the film in black-and-white, which Hollywood had mostly abandoned seven or eight years earlier, Brooks reused actual equipment from the 1931 Frankenstein. It’s often said that the film is as much homage as spoof, and the seductive qualities of the past are on display both in form and content. That doesn’t mean the film can’t poke fun at the florid performance styles of the past or the handling of “foreign” communities by simply having everyone speak English with a funny accent. It just means that the humor, despite Brooks’s bawdy tendencies, can’t help but be warm-hearted.
Returning to the past, in the farcical terms of this film, means returning to childhood, foregoing prudence and embracing the id. How else could Frederick become so obsessed with Victor’s accomplishments while the terrifying consequences somehow slip his mind? Even before he visits Transylvania, the very thought of his grandfather does a number on his vocabulary (“My grandfather’s work was doodoo!”). Many punchlines consist of adults speaking like children — “Why are you talking that way?” “I thought you wanted to”; “You just made a yummy sound”; “There. Now I’ve touched [my food]. Happy?!” Fully-formed adults become fragmented as they regress, so the film’s focus on body parts is doubly appropriate. Frederick improvises a new right hand for himself when the coffin holding the cadaver he wants to use breaks open. Later, the camera takes in a close-up view of that cadaver’s feet on the operating table. Igor is startled by his own hand reaching through the brain depositary’s door slot. And of course the brain he picks up turns out to be a major plot point. Then there’s the matter of the monster’s enormous (ahem) size, which comes into play at the film’s most Oedipal moment. Again, that’s just Brooks being proudly tasteless, but it’s shockingly apropos.
About that monster, then. The story of Frankenstein is to some extent the story of a father’s alienation from his child, lacking the physical connection that a mother has. (Or so I speculate, never having been a father myself.) Offspring are the best defense against mortality that we have, but they never turn out to be exact copies of ourselves. From the child’s point of view, the struggle is to form an individual personality while at the same time acknowledging that some of the parents’ traits get passed on. Frankenstein’s monster has a major handicap in this struggle because his father rejects him immediately. The insight of James Whale and Boris Karloff in the 1931 film was to present the monster as not so much hateful and evil as misunderstood and persecuted. Brooks and Wilder’s contribution was to flip the tragedy into comedy. This was the humane masterstroke, and it makes my enjoyment of Young Frankenstein complete.
The film’s humanity begins with its performances. The whole ensemble has an infectious enthusiasm. Cloris Leachman and Kenneth Mars boast the silliest accents, but it’s the physical aspect of their work that stands out — her eyelids, his wooden arm. Marty Feldman and Madeline Kahn are delightfully unhinged, and Teri Garr is charming. The bit parts and cameos are all memorable, as well. But the two most important roles are played with the most successful blend of comedy and drama. Peter Boyle combines Karloffian stiffness and meekness with Brooksian eye-rolling. Then there’s Wilder himself in the title role, “deliver[ing],” as Pauline Kael put it, “what Harpo promised.” It’s a big, loud performance, but his madness manages to be hilarious and sincere at the same time. The operatic emotion he conveys is what makes the film’s conclusion work.
Frederick decides to love his creature. When positive reinforcement and careful attention don’t quite work, he goes further, lending the creature some of his own brain juice (or something) to overcome the flaws in the creature’s brain. This kind of self-sacrifice was sorely lacking in the original tale, but it calls to mind the other great father-son parable of fantasy literature, Pinocchio. Both the puppet in the Disney film and the monster in Brooks’s film take a moment to admire flames burning at the tips of their fingers. They are naïve, inexperienced people in a dangerous world. The creature is a child in an adult’s body. This is difficult enough for the townsfolk to accept just on the face of it; never mind the fact that his body’s recycled. But accept it they will, because it’s the twentieth century. For all the film’s reaching back to the past, enlightenment wins the day. All it took was a little sense of humor to change people’s perception. The creature wasn’t irredeemable hell-spawn after all — just a lonely soul with an abnormal brain, trying mighty hard to look like Gary Cooper.