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Young Frankenstein (1974)::rating::4::rating::4

Elegant and refined aren’t words you’d normally bandy about Mel Brooks’ filmography, but with Young Frankenstein, they just seem to fit.  This horror homage is really a delicate soufflé, crafted with care and dedicated to the Universal horror flicks of the 1930s.  Brooks seems to genuinely love the James Whale/Boris Karloff adaptation of Mary Shelley’s book, and he’s very careful to steer his humor away from even a hint of ridicule.  No, this is a gentle poke at one of the most iconic monster movies ever made, and its meticulous sense of nostalgia only adds an extra teaspoon of sugar to mix.  This is a beautiful confection–intelligent, loving, and I’ll even dare to say it again:  Refined.

Brooks (who co-writes with Gene Wilder) builds his story as a modern echo of Shelley’s work. Frederick Frankenstein (Wilder) is the grandson of the infamous scientist.  He teaches a fringe class on anatomy and physiology, which only invites curious questions from nosy students.  Frederick is touchy on the subject, and he erupts at any comparison to his grandfather–even their names are pronounced differently.  (“It’s FRONKEN-STEEEN!!!”)  Soon, Frederick receives word that he’s inherited the Transylvanian estate of his great-grandfather.  He heads off to Eastern Europe, where both his heritage and destiny await.

Of course, this is Mel Brooks, so Frederick’s foray into his family history will take the form of unadulterated wackiness.  First, we meet Igor (Marty Feldman), whose grandfather was once a blathering sycophant to Frederick’s grandfather.  Once Feldman totters into the story, Young Frankenstein‘s silliness cranks up to eleven.  Feldman, who looks like a Picasso version of Peter Lorre, just about picks up the movie and walks off with it.  (No small feat with this cast!) He mugs for the camera, breaks the forth wall, and helps Brooks guide this Frankenstein right off the rails.

On that subject, another key player in this mad little tale is Cloris Leachman.  She plays Frau Blucher (“Neighhhhh!”), the caretaker of Frankenstein’s estate.  Like Feldman, Leachman realizes that in a Mel Brooks movie, there’s no such thing as too goofy.  Her severe housekeeper storms through the mansion, delivering stern proclamations and playing the violin like a wild-eyed loon.  Poor Teri Garr gets stuck playing it straight in this sea of spoofs.

And this being a spoof of Mary Shelley’s masterwork, you know we’ll have to eventually get around to the titular monster.  Eventually, Frederick–or, you know, FRO-drick–decides to reverse course and embrace his family’s necromantic legacy.  That means we’ve got to have another lumbering golem, and this time he’s played by Peter Boyle.  Boyle has impeccable comic timing, and his rendition of “Puttin’ on the Ritz” simply must be seen.

Brooks’ film even pulls off the little throwaway moments, like the scientist’s office door that has an after-hours dropbox for donated brains.  That also extends to Gene Hackman’s cameo, which ranks as one of my favorite in all of movie history.  Sandwiched between Oscar-worthy turns in The French Connection and The Conversation, Hackman pops up in Brooks’ magnum opus for some good old-fashioned gibberish as a blind hermit.  His closing line is my most quoted moment in the entire film.

But then, Young Frankenstein packs in so much goodness, it’s hard to cram it all into one review.  I haven’t even touched on Kenneth Mars’ unhinged portrayal of the local police inspector, or the redoubtable Madeline Kahn, as Frederick’s overly vain squeeze.  As a cherry on top, Brooks even reached out to Kenneth Strickfaden, the propmaster of Whale’s original film. Many of the pieces in the younger Frankenstein’s lab were taken directly from the cinematic source.

Put all that together, and you’ve got a unique entry in Brooks’ off-the-wall oeuvre.  It’s not his funniest work, that honor belongs to Blazing Saddles.  Nor is it his cleverest, we’ll give that trophy to The Producers.  That said, this is probably Brooks’ most complete film.  It’s loaded with knuckleheaded gags, and most of them land perfectly.  Young Frankenstein is like a raunchy joke, served up on the fanciest silver platter.

105 min.  PG.  DVD and Blu-Ray Only.

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