Thursday, January 7, 2016

CANON OF FILM: "YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN"

YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (1974)

Director: Mel Brooks
Screenplay: Gene Wilder and Mel Brooks from their screen story based on the novel “Frankenstein,” by Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley



You know, every once in a while, there's a discussion, especially nowadays involving certain television shows about, the differences between comedy and drama. Whether something that seems dramatic can actually be a comedy, and probably the more interesting thought, is whether a comedy can be so dark that it actually becomes dramatic. I don't like this argument, 'cause I honestly don't see much difference. I've written both comedy and drama, and let me tell you something, you write them both the same way, the only real difference is, the infliction. Literally, any story can be a comedy or a drama; it basically just depends on how you decide you want to look at it. 

As an interesting exhibit into this debate, let's look at "Young Frankenstein", which along with “The Producers,” and “Blazing Saddles,” is regarded among his very best films. All his other work, some of it very good and very funny, has some uneven moments, or over-the-top parts that keep them from being great, but there’s no doubt about these three, not only are they consistently funny, even today, but in fact I think they get funnier the more you watch them. “Young Frankenstein,” is one I’ve seen a lot of lately, is Mel Brooks most carefully directed film, making sure every shot is as exact as he can get them. He's often played with and satire other films and genres, "Blazing Saddles" with westerns, "Spaceballs" with "Star Wars", but this one is clearly different than just him, making jokes about the movies. I bet he loves the old 1930s James Whale Frankenstein films the film is based on, because here, he doesn’t go for the over-the-top joke every time, he tells basically a very faithful retelling of the Frankenstein films, shooting in black and white, even using the actual laboratory set from the original 1931 film, and basically turns the horror film into a comedy by putting a comedic turn on the material whenever possible, rarely going too far for a joke, yet, there’s hundreds of jokes here, and all of them are funny.

We begin by following Dr. Frederick von Fronk-en-steen, (Gene Wilder, also co-writer of Oscar-nominated Screenplay) as he becomes aware of his infamous grandfather’s will and belongings being left to him, and he heads off to Transylvania to look into it. Enter Eye-gor (Marty Feldman) the grandson of Dr. Frankenstein’s assistant, as he and Inga (Teri Garr) go off to the castle where Frau Blucher, (Cloris Leachman) who’s name, whenever spoken makes the horses shriek, is the keeper of the house. Once there, Wilder finds his grandfather’s old library and notes, in a book titled “How I Did It,” by Victor Frankenstein, and he begins recommencing the re-animation of dead tissue. The monster, (Peter Boyle) is naturally accidentally given an Abnormal brain when Igor drops the original brain at the brain lab. (“After 5:00pm, slip brains through doorslot.”) One of my favorite scenes is a play-off from “Bride of Frankenstein,” when loose, the Monster becomes a guest at a Blindman’s house, (An unrecognizable and barely credited Gene Hackman) who tries to befriend the monster, but accidentally keeps hurting him. The most memorable scene involves a well-known unexpected musical number during a performance where the creature is shown to fellow scientists. There isn’t a bad performance in the film; I didn’t even mention Madeline Kahn, actually barking at the Monster when she realizes how, eh, big, he is. Or Kenneth Mars as the town police inspector who has one metal hand he uses to light cigarettes, throw darts, and even as a battering log when one isn’t provided. This bit is played out and stretched so brilliantly, you almost miss how this joke could have been screwed up in the first scene, but it’s played out to the very end. Maybe I like comedy better than horror, but I have a confession, I like this film better than the movies that inspired it. That’s blasphemy to “Frankenstein,” fans, but even they’ll say this film is hilarious. Unlike “Blazing Saddles,” which satires Western movies to the point where it's practically just elongated sketches, (And that's a compliment btw), I have more appreciation for this film, because it’s a truly, thoughtful homage. In fact, this movie adds to the overall enjoyment of monster movies, it also shows that, if Mel Brooks actually wanted to, he could make a serious, more fun for him and for us to use that legendary comedic sensibility of his instead. 

Perhaps comedy is just drama with the jokes put in, or drama is just comedy with the jokes taken out, but I think I prefer to think of Mel Brooks's definitions of tragedy and comedy as the ultimate answer to the argument of what is comedy and what is drama;  to quote the legend himself, "Tragedy, is when I cut my finger, comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die." Like I said, it's all in not the subject, it's how it's presented.  
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