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Release Year: 1974
Director: Mel Brooks
Writer: Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder
This is the exact Frankenstein you remember from British literature: the classic tale of man meets corpse, man revives corpse, man puts corpse in a tuxedo and top hat and teaches him to sing and dance.
Okay, so maybe it's not the exact story you remember.
Mel Brooks' Young Frankenstein is both a hilarious parody of and affectionate homage to the classic Frankenstein flicks of the '30s that starred Boris Karloff types as the bolt-necked creature. Which were, of course, inspired by Shelley's wildly popular 19th-century novel. Which in turn was inspired by a "waking dream" she had, possibly aided by a long night of drinking absinthe with her literary buddies Lord Byron and Percy Shelley.
Brooks said he wanted to capture the "haunting" quality of the novel and the original films while totally sending up the whole monster-movie tradition.
We think he pulled it off.
Young Frankenstein was produced by 20th Century Fox in 1974, the same year as Mel Brooks' other classic comedy, Blazing Saddles. Both films star Gene Wilder and Madeline Kahn, but Young Frankenstein increases the zaniness factor by adding Peter Boyle as the monster, Teri Garr as the sultry Inga, Cloris Leachman as Frau Blucher (whinny), and Gene Hackman as the lonely priest who invites the monster in for an espresso. The cast knocks it out of the park. The movie was so funny—with its sight gags, one-liners, double entendres and spot-on parody—that the cast and crew barely made it through filming without totally cracking up.
Young Frankenstein was monstrously popular when it was released, hitting the third spot on the top grossing films of the year, raking in $86 million against its $2.8 million budget (source).
It was a critical hit, too, earning an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay (adapted from what? Mary Shelley's unpublished sequel?) and Golden Globe nods for funny ladies Leachman and Kahn (source).
People still love Young Frankenstein. It's Brooks' highest rated film on Rotten Tomatoes, and, in the director's opinion, his best work. The film turned 40 in 2014, and this monumental birthday was celebrated with a Blu-Ray release and more nostalgic listicles than you can shake an Igor's hump at. Fans sold out the theater in Los Angeles at the anniversary screening. In 2007, the film even spawned a musical featuring Megan Mullally, officially titled The New Mel Brooks Musical Young Frankenstein, which wasn't nearly as fondly reviewed as the movie.
But that failed experiment can't drain the electricity from this classic comedy. Mary Shelley's novel may have explored what it means to live, but Young Frankenstein shows us what it means to laugh.
We live in an age of parody.
Unfortunately, we live in an age of really bad parody. For every Scary Movie there's a Disaster Movie or a Scary Movie 2, 3, 4, and why oh why is there a 5?!
Mel Brooks is the undisputed king of parody. His films predate other classic absurdist spoofs like Naked Gun and Airplane!, and Brooks has done it all. He's spoofed Hitchcock (High Anxiety), historical epics (History of the World Part I), sci-fi (Spaceballs), medieval tales (Robin Hood: Men in Tights), vampire flicks (Dracula… Dead and Loving It), James Bond movies (Get Smart), and Broadway (The Producers). So how did he capture lightning in a bottle with Young Frankenstein? Why does it survive the test of time whereas Epic Movie was obsolete about four seconds after its release?
It could be the unique black-and-white style that makes it look both distinctive and familiar to the original Frankenstein films. Or a rigorous editing process, which ensured that only the best of the best jokes stayed on-screen. Or maybe it's the source material; a classic novel so ubiquitous you know the plot even if you've never read it. Or the incredible assembled cast of the most hilarious comic actors of our time. Most likely, it's all of the above, plus a few other things we haven't even thought of. A classic comedy, like the monster in this one, is stitched together from many quality parts, the most important being a slightly "Abby Normal" mind.
Bottom line: the demented genius of Mel Brooks is the best reason to study the film.
And maybe you'll get to reflect on a few things like what it means to be human, how we fear the unfamiliar, how to embrace our true identities, and the hubris of scientists attempting to play God.
But you will learn how to send up those heavy philosophical issues by watching a master at work.
Hans Delbruck, the former owner of the brain Igor's supposed to retrieve, was a real person, a professor at the University of Berlin who died in 1929. His son Max went on to win the Nobel Prize for Medicine or Physiology. (Source.)
There's a gag early in the movie that you might not catch if you don't speak German. On the train, Frederick listens in as an old couple has an argument. On the train to Transylvania, the same couple has the exact same argument, but in German. (Source.)
Cloris Leachman claimed that Brooks told her that the word "blücher" means "glue" in German, which explains why the horses whinny in fear at the mention of her name. Not true; Blucher's just a common German surname. She's just meant to be a scary lady. (Source.)
Gene Hackman's line when he runs after the monster—"I was gonna make espresso!"—was totally ad-libbed. The reason the screen fades to black immediately after the line is that the camera grew was laughing hysterically and had to cut right there. (Source.)
In honor of the 40th anniversary of Young Frankenstein, Mel got a boulevard named after him in Hollywood. His comment? "People are going to walk all over me!" (Source.)
If you hadn't heard of Mel Brooks before, you probably know his son Max's stuff. Max apparently inherited some of Dad and Mom's (Anne Bancroft) talents. He wrote The Zombie Survival Guide and World War Z. Inspired by Young Frankenstein, maybe? (Source.)
All About Mel
Here's Mel's own website. As you can see, at almost 90, he hasn't slowed down.
The Prototypical Prometheus
You may have heard of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. We can refresh your memory, no brain transplant needed.
The Five-Minute Frankenstein
The Cliff-Notes version of the movie.
Fun Fortieth Facts
Fun things to know on the film's 40th birthday.
Love in the Times of Frankenstein
Not everyone thought this movie was an instant classic.
A Moving Picture is Worth a Thousand Words
See through the eyes of Young Frankenstein's cinematographer—without needing an eye transplant—in this excerpt of his book.
No Laughing Aloud Allowed
This isn't a sitcom, and Mel Brooks didn't want a laugh track, so he had the crew stuff their mouths with a hanky if they felt like laughing on the set of his "finest" film.
Cuttin' Out the Ritz
Brooks didn't want the dance segment in the movie, but he now believes it to be the film's best scene.
Reanimated Life Begins at Forty
They were lined up around the block in L.A. for the film's 40th birthday.
Brooks on Conan
Mel dishes on a bunch of subjects, including our film's 40th anniversary.
Seven Decades of Genius
The "Comedy God" reminisces about Young Frankenstein.
The legendary, hard-to-impress New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael was pretty impressed with Gene Wilder's "controlled maniacal" performance as Frederick in her 1974 review of the movie.
Winnie The Pooh?
New York Times reviewer Vincent Canby loved the film, and described Frederick Frankenstein as a combination of Thomas Edison and Winnie-the-Pooh, with your average Playboy appreciator of bosoms thrown in for good measure.
The Face of Comedy
Cinemassacre has nothing to be angry about here. They love Young Frankenstein, especially Gene Wilder's wild performance.
A very serious interview with a very serious Mel Brooks.
Wilder on the Mad Scientist
Gene Wilder comes out of his own secret lab to look back on his career, including his iconic Young Frankenstein role.
Still Crushing It at 88
Brooks puts the "Mel" in Jimmy Kimmel to talk about the 40th anniversary of Young Frankenstein.
From Transylvania to Broadway
Brooks talks about adapting Young Frankenstein to the stage.
Singin' and Dancin'
Not everyone found the Young Frankenstein stage musical electrifying.
The original poster emphasizes both class (top hat!) and craziness (Gene Wilder's wacky face).
Behind the Lab
In this neat behind-the-scenes shot, we see that even though the film was shot in black & white, the monster was still green.
CPR – Comedic Pulmonary Resuscitation
In another fun behind-the-scenes peek, Brooks looks on and laughs as Wilder takes his frustration out on the monster. You could tell the entire story from this one shot.