(WARNING: Major spoilers abound!)
I maintain that, next to the original The Producers, Young Frankenstein is Mel Brooks’ most beautifully realized work.
Why? Because it has heart.
That might sound like a radical statement to those who regarded the movie as simply (simply?) a comedy classic. And yes, there is no shortage of literally breathtaking comedy scenes here — all you have to do is mention them. The Frankenstein monster pounding out “Puttin’ on the Ritz.” Coffee and a cigar with a blind man (a superb cameo from Gene Hackman). Horses’ dramatic reaction to the name Frau Blucher (Cloris Leachman). The list goes on and on.
But you know what? For all of its sublime spoofery, what I take away most from the movie is the oddly touching relationship between scientist Frederick Frankenstein (Gene Wilder at his finest) and his zipper-necked creation (try and do more with a nearly dialogue-less role in a sound movie than Peter Boyle did).
The movie opens by demonstrating how dismissive Frederick is of his ancestor’s supposedly insane past. But Wilder brings gravitas to even this opening scene. Is Frederick truly that dismissive of his heritage, or is he afraid he’ll be drawn to it? There’s subtext beneath the satire.
And when Frederick is trapped in a locked room with his raging creation, he has no choice but to play nice with him. And it’s almost as if, despite his John Barrymore-like presence, Frederick owns up to having as much misfittiness as his erstwhile “son.” Is there another Brooks movie that truly cared about the well-being of its characters as much as this one?
Brooks has perfect pitch here, letting the rest of the cast play their shtick to the fullest in counterpart to the dysfunctional-family stuff. Marty Feldman as pixish “Eye-gor,” Teri Garr as Frederick’s fulsome assistant, Madeline Kahn as his stuffy fiancee, Leachman as the castlekeeper with a past, and Kenneth Mars as the spokesman for the town’s lynch mob, all contribute beautiful grace notes of comedy throughout.
But seriously — are comedy viewers not at least subconsciously touched by the connection that Frederick makes with Ol’ Zipper Neck? If you doubt my theory, note how Brooks never quite hit the comedic heights after this one, and how writer-director Wilder tried a similar take on family Freudianism (The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Younger Brother) and never even came close.
A generation of movie makers who were raised on Mel Brooks comedies has long since proven that movie spoofs can concentrate strictly on genre parody and never have to concern themselves with being touching. But Young Frankenstein proved that it certainly doesn’t hurt.