October: Young Frankenstein

In 1974 Mel Brooks released two great movies in the same year, Blazing Saddles and this month's movie, Young Frankenstein. It's pretty rare for a director to put out two movies in the same year and rarer still for both movies to be greats. Hitchcock did it in 1954 with Dial M for Murder and Rear Window, Spielberg in '93 with Jurassic Park and Schindler's List, and Soderbergh in 2000 with Erin Brockovich and Traffic. Young Frankenstein is a great work from Brooks and co-writer Gene Wilder but it can't be discussed without also digging into the original movie Frankenstein, Bride of Frankenstein and the book by Mary Shelley.

I remember a little area of my elementary school library, a small square of books in the middle of the far wall of the library that had books of a historical nature. There was a World War II book with a little story about commandos, the subject had been shot in the ear midway through the war. There was an illustrated novel about an artist for Disney in the 60’s and 70’s and his less than wholesome upbringing that he survived in the south. But the one book that really captured my imagination was a book of movie history that would give summaries of important movies with accompanying pictures.

I wasn’t the strongest reader in the early grades but I did understand the how scared I was by the stark black and white pictures of Frankenstein, including one with he and a little girl. I didn’t really understand that picture, it seemed like an odd juxtaposition to my tiny brain, until a friend explained what was written in the little text next to it. The monster had fled the castle where he was created and stumbled across a house in the woods. A small girl is desperate for a playmate and her parents have just gone away. The monster plays with girl before throwing her into a lake. My next to the black and white pictures of World War II, these pictures of a movie from the ‘30’s sure seemed real to me. Frankenstein’s monster was lurking out in my eight year old world.

I never got around to seeing Frankenstein or Bride of Frankenstein until this month. I had gone about a decade longer before seeing Young Frankenstein than other Mel Brooks movies. I just didn’t think I would be all that in to old Neck Bolt. I had even seen Victor Frankenstein a few years before the originals. I did have the gist of the original story from Young Frankenstein and various children’s cartoons so I wasn’t completely oblivious of the reveal that Victor Frankenstein was a prequel to the movies from the ‘30’s. Oddly the doctor from the ‘30’s is movies is named Henry, not Victor from the book. Shelley claimed the name “Frankenstein” came to her in a “vision dream” which is like a dream but for crazy people. The story of the monster made of graveyard parts is so ingrained that I thought I knew the story beats before ever seeing the original movie.

It turns out that a lot of what I knew of the Frankenstein story was a mixture of the Bride of Frankenstein and the first movie. I was also led to believe that the story was more focused on the isolation of Henry Frankenstein and his odd assistant Fritz. I was certain the hunchback would be named Igor as he is in Young Frankenstein. Why didn’t anyone ever tell me there was a Fritz? Apparently this is the “dumb guy” review of classic films based on classic literature. Pinky and the Brain failed me. It doesn’t matter, Marty Feldman and his lazy eye are the definitive Dr. Frankenstein sidekick.

I didn’t realize that the monster OG Frankenstein is created pretty much in the midst of a dinner party with his fiance, his brother and concerned bystanders coming in and out of the castle… which is really a watchtower. It does make a lot more sense for it to take place in a watchtower than a castle in the countryside. These characters come right from the book, I was classy and listened through the audiobook this month. It’s read by Dan Stevens who does a great job giving different voices to the different characters. That guy is a bit of a chameleon in everything that I have seen him in as he’s unrecognizable between the roles of a Downton, a mutant and a Beast in his filmography.

Hold on a second. There was a 1910 silent film of Frankenstein from Thomas Edison's studio and it looks like they just threw a guy in a burlap sack.

There is a bit more weight in the book that Frankenstein’s brother is killed by the monster. The book is allowed a lot more depth of characters not just from the length but from the format that allows several different perspectives. The monster even gets a perspective, and a voice, as he gradually gains vocabulary in the book to voice his loneliness and desire for a female companion. Bride of Frankenstein seems as though it would be the telling of that story but it is really more of the story of another mad scientist who lusts to replicate the experiment of the first monster. OG Frankenstein Monster feels a pain not of loneliness (as the blind old man has) but of not being in his place. He is made of death and hates his experiences of being brought back to life. The land of the living is not his place, his place is to be dead.

Mary Shelley’s book does not make the monster a lover of death or a figure with tragic end, but the movie version is one that seems to die at the end of both installments. Some of this is because of the Hays Code. While the 1931 movie came out after the code was enforced, it did comply with the spirit of it. Under the Hays Code, not only were certain things not allowed to be seen on screen, there was a moral code of consequences for bad acts. If a character stole money, they either had to get caught or not be able to enjoy their riches. The original Ocean’s Eleven movie has the rat pack lose their loot in an incinerator although they do not end up arrested. In The Killing, the suitcase of money is knocked open and all of the money is blown across the tarmac as the main character watches from his airplane seat in his getaway. If a character murdered during the Hays Production Code Era of 1930 (enforced in 1934) to 1968, that character would be required to be arrested or killed before the end of the movie.

The monster kills a few people around the castle in the first movie before committing one of the worst acts that has been on screen, the killing of a child. I had a professor in college that noted that the killing of children in movies was so rare that the throwing of a kid down a well in the western The Tall T is so subtle that most of the class did not notice it. The act of throwing the girl in to pond by the monster is almost comical as it doesn’t seem all that deep, but the editing that cuts away gives a darker sense of what happened. Young Frankenstein really plays this well in contest of the 1931 movie by launching the girl on a teeter totter all the way to her upstairs room at such force that she is knocked out and appears to be asleep.

The dramatic effect of the girl thrown into the pond is realized completely when the distraught father carries her lifeless and dripping body into the village to rally the mob to go after Frankenstein and his monster. The mob chases them to a windmill, setting it on fire and presumably killing the monster. Hell, the place is surrounded, the fire is all consuming. It would be hard to believe that monster’s nearly rotted flesh wouldn’t be a little extra flammable. After all, fire bad.

The 1931 movie opens with a warning from the production that this movie is shit-your-pants scary and that you should grab your popcorn and strap on a diaper in preparation for it. The second movie gives a little “previously on Frankenstein” introduction showing the goings on of the first movie before showing the parlor of Mary Shelley’s first telling of the story to Lord Byron and her husband where she informs them that the story wasn’t quite over yet, that the monster slipped out of the conflagration.

Unfortunately, out of the four versions of Frankenstein and various TV adaptations that I have seen, none of them even touch on the setting of the opening scene of the Shelley book. It opens on an arctic expedition that finds a large man on a sledge on the ice flow. They later find the frozen body of Dr. Frankenstein who had been in pursuit of the giant figure with the sledge who starts the story of the monster. I love this image that the these main characters have lit out to the ends of the world, whether it’s to escape or to pursue in a deadly adventure.

While the monster is primitive in his speech by Bride of Frankenstein. In the book, he always has the power of language, his motor skills to speak come along gradually. While the book ends back on the ice with the death of the doctor and the monster drifting away into darkness, Bride of Frankenstein gives an equally interesting end to the monster’s story as he chooses death for himself, The Monster’s Bride and the weird Doctor Pretorious. The monster overloads the scientific equipment to blow up the watchtower laboratory.

This Doctor Pretorious nearly sinks the Bride of Frankenstein when he is introduced. He shares the scientific madness of creating life of Doctor Frankenstein except he’s a bit more bizarre. He shows off his scientific achievements that he has pursued in secret for years. Why in secret? Because the world couldn’t handle the plot twist of tiny people living in jars, dressed like dolls. They hardly have any space to move, are limited to sitting and standing and are trained to act like larger versions of themselves, a king, a queen, a ballerina etc. It’s not so much that his experiments are abominations of nature, it’s that they don’t make any sense about HOW he could have created them in the same world where Dr. Frankenstein was scouring graves for the largest cadavers that he could find to ease the complication to make a living being.

The watchtower is a massive set with large shadows and strange angles, much like the extreme angles of The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari. For Young Frankenstein, Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder reused or reproduced the original set and props from the original movies. Peter Boyle is the comedic monster, using lifts to give himself the size that Boris Karloff appeared to have in the originals. Both monsters give a classic and otherworldly presence with their neck bolts, stitched together parts and heavy brows. Peter Boyle at least gets his name in the credits, OG Frankenstein is listed as “?” instead of Boris Karloff. The monster’s wife in the sequel is “?” instead of Elsa Lanchester, although she is barely in the movie. She is always described for her hissing and that’s pretty much all there is to her in the brief moments she is actually on screen at the end.

Peter Boyle’s monster is more lucky with the ladies. Teri Garr’s character says that he’ll be very popular based on his all-over proportions and Madeline Kahn’s incredible character ultimately locks the monster down to domesticity. Kahn adopts the hairstyle and come hither hissing of the Bride of Frankenstein. Cloris Leachman’s Frau Blucher (horse noise) doesn’t seem quite as enraptured, but perhaps her interests are elsewhere.

The ‘70’s are considered perhaps the greatest decade for cinema. It was a post-Hays Code period of anti heroes, liberation of language and sexuality and loosening of morals in American cinema. While Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg and Lumet were among the most repeated directors of their era, Mel Brooks made some of the most timeless comedies of the 20th century. Hell, he made two of them in the same year. It was the end of the Hays Code that ushered in this age of great film in the '70's and it was Frankenstein and Young Frankenstein that somewhat book-ended artistic freedom in film.

Letterboxd Reviews of Young Frankenstein, Frankenstein and Bride of Old Frankenstein.

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Next Month: How about a big splash of color and optimism with Big Hero 6?

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