Mel Brooks has had something of a patchwork career in the film industry. While the likes of Blazing Saddles, The Producers and (for me at least) Robin Hood: Men In Tights are downright classics, Spaceballs and Dracula: Dead and Loving It are somewhat less so.
Something of a forerunner to the atrocious Dracula spoof is Brook’s 1974 movie Young Frankenstein, its fair to say that coming to it so late means there’s a lot of baggage but thankfully it far outshines that later film and lands much closer to the classics.
From the off the atmosphere to be spoofed is spot on as Brook’s apes the classic Universal horrors of the 1930s with upfront, illuminated text, credits over an ominous model shot of a castle atop a hill, all in black and white.
As one of my favourite films is James Whales’ Bride of Frankenstein from 1935 this was great to see as was the use of some of the original props and certainly original design from 1930s in Frankenstein’s laboratory.
The rest of the story follows the ancestor of Victor Von Frankenstein, Gene Wilder’s Dr Frederick Frankenstein, as he returns to the ancestral castle in Transylvania (where else? the Universal horror series always played fast and loose with traditional continuity) and his return to the experiments carried out by his great-great-grandfather.
Of course the plot isn’t really the main impetus of the film here as it’s all about the comedy so, while the direct filmic spoofing is all pretty on, it’s Wilder’s performance that is the anchor here and a great job he does.
As witnessed in many of his films he can switch from placidity to manic in a moment and its used to great effect here as he descends into a kind of madness akin to that of Frankenstein’s forebear.
As one of the writers of the film, along with Brooks, its clear the whole thing was constructed as a vehicle for Wilder who was hitting his peak at this time as, while they are now much revered parts, his appearances in The Producers and as Willy Wonka had not yet achieved the status they now have.
This doesn’t mean other performers don’t get a look in though. As with most of Brook’s films there is a sense of a company of performers and many get some great moments but it is Peter Boyle as The Creature and Marty Feldman as Igor (Eye-gor?) who get the lions share.
From his first appearance Feldman is astonishing both at the physical and verbal humour of Brooks and Wilder’s script and his being part of the 1960s wave of British comedy gives his whole performance a certain feel to it that stands out from the pack.
Boyle on the other hand, for the most part, is working with the physical. Channelling Boris Karloff but playing it for laughs his stand out moment (and arguably the film’s) comes with Puttin’ On The Ritz.
This does everything Brooks does best in one place; an out-of-place musical number, delivered with a straight face and something indefinably odd that just seems to work, probably to do with the charisma and dedication of the performers.
After Puttin’ On The Ritz things a bit all over the place, something I’ve found happens in many of Brooks’ films, but thankfully enough good stuff has been going on that it holds it all together.
Certainly the idea that if something is worth doing its worth doing twice (or three times or more) seems to be how Brooks approaches his jokes but they are funny enough here to work.
In all then I have a feeling the ‘hype’ and baggage may have spoiled this one for me somewhat but I can see why it’s so well-regarded as, despite a few moments of questionable taste always present in Brooks’ work, this contains a lot of good stuff all circling the linchpin of Wilder’s performance that has to be considered one of the best all-in comedy lead roles in film history.