WFTB Score: 13/20
The plot: Summoned to Transylvania by the lure of a will, Frederick Frankenstein becomes increasingly interested in the work undertaken by his notorious grandfather Victor at the family castle. Aided by disfigured servant Igor and shapely assistant Inga, Frederick successfully reanimates a dead body – but has no better luck controlling the monster he creates.
Dr Frederick Frankenstein (Gene Wilder) is so embarrassed by the stigma attached to his name that he insists it’s pronounced ‘Fronkensteen’, though Froderick is optional. Nevertheless, the arrival of news from Transylvania sends Frankenstein away from his hands-off lover Elizabeth (Madeline Kahn) and into to the old country, where he is met by Castle Frankenstein’s misshapen lackey Igor (Marty Feldman) and pretty Inga (Teri Garr), who just wants to help in any way she can. When Frederick hears music in the middle of the night, he and the servants find their way into Victor von Frankenstein’s private study, where Frederick discovers that his grandfather’s experiments into reanimation of corpses and brains were both real and repeatable.
Instantly, Fred sets about getting a body, but Igor messes up on delivery of the brain – not that it seems to matter in the first instance. However, the monster (Peter Boyle) finally awakes, only to escape at a public outing and re-awaken panic and fear in the locals. As the mob, headed by metal-armed Inspector Kemp (Kenneth Mars), prepare to storm the castle, Frankenstein tries to retrieve and redeem his creation – and just when Fred and Inga are getting acquainted, Elizabeth arrives to add an awkward complication to affairs.
Co-written (after a fashion) by director Mel Brooks, Wilder and Mary Shelley, Young Frankenstein sticks fairly closely to the basics of the novel and even more closely, in both plot and look, to James Whale’s Frankenstein films, which Brooks obviously knows well and regards highly (while, incidentally, showing up The Man With Two Brains as – well, not a remake exactly, but in places a pretty faithful homage). As you might expect from Brooks the jokes come along at a good lick, and while not all them zing off the screen, the hit rate is decent and the actors put their all into the parts: Cloris Leachman’s housemaid Frau Blucher (neigh!) is a stern-faced delight (‘Ovaltine?’), while Wilder runs the gamut from nervous to amorous to semi-lunatic and has a whale of a time.
However, for all the gags and the efforts of the others, Young Frankenstein is mainly memorable mainly for Feldman and – let’s be honest – his wall-eyed appearance, though his physical and vocal delivery are top-notch too. Marty’s energy is infectious – when Igor bites into the animal draped around Kahn’s neck, you can see Wilder about to corpse, no pun intended.
Igor’s quirky humour and movable hump help to keep things moving during a film which never drags, but doesn’t regularly deliver huge belly laughs and occasionally veers off in slightly strange directions, for example Gene Hackman’s ‘blind’ hermit – who spends most of his time looking directly at Boyle – and the decidedly un-PC encounter between the monster and Elizabeth, though the episode does showcase Kahn’s fine singing voice. The problem is, much of it feels like rehashes of bits of The Producers: Teri Garr is lovely and fun but her Inga is a variation of Lee Meredith’s Ulla, just as Kenneth Mars’ outlandish Kemp is a spin on his own Liebkind. Even the Frankenstein/monster number ‘Puttin’ On the Ritz’ is a throwback to the stage, but it is one of the film’s laugh-out-loud moments and its inclusion is more than justified (apparently Brooks wasn’t sure, Wilder was). Peter Boyle makes for a fine, funny monster, though Brooks and Wilder are careful not to make him ridiculous or give him too many pratfalls.
If I sound down on Young Frankenstein, I don’t intend to; it’s a funny film with a host of decent performances and a career-defining turn from Marty Feldman, shot with care and love for its source material. Ultimately, perhaps, a bit too much care; for while the movie has plenty of cheeky, naughty lines, its reverence for James Whale’s pictures – right down to using the same electrical apparatus – detracts from Brooks’ usually unfettered ideas. A pleasure to watch, but not (as I’d hoped) a privilege.